October 19, 2017

Wendell Berry on the Commerce of Violence

CF River 4

This week, what we are doing (instead of listening to me) is hearing and discussing quotes from Wendell Berry’s 2015 book, Our Only World: Ten Essays. On these weeks of the U.S. political national conventions, I escape to Berry to find fresh air to breathe. Fitting in neither of the binary categories our system seems to want to impose upon us, Berry offers a refreshing and often convicting prophetic voice. In the context of the globalized information barrage we’re subjected to every day, here is a quiet, insistent voice of wisdom rising up from the land and local experience.

In today’s piece, he writes in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. It could have been written after any of the violent attacks we have witnessed this year.

• • •

The event in Boston is not unique or rare or surprising or in any way new. It is only another transaction in the commerce of violence: the unending, the not foreseeably endable, exchange of an eye for an eye, with customary justifications on every side, in which we fully participate; and beyond that, it is our willingness to destroy anything, any place, or anybody standing between us and whatever we are “manifestly destined” to have.

We congratulate ourselves perpetually upon our Civil War by which the slaves were, in a manner of speaking, “freed.” We forget, if we have ever learned, that the same army that “freed the slaves” established for us the “right” of military violence against a civilian population, and then acted upon that “right” by a war of extermination against the native people of the West. Nobody who knows our history, from the “Indian wars” to our contemporary foreign wars of “homeland defense,” should find anything unusual in the massacre of civilians and their children.

It is not possible for us to reduce the value of life, including human life, to nothing only to suit our own convenience or our own perceived need. By making this reduction for ourselves, we make it for everybody and anybody, even for our enemies, even for the maniacs whose enemies are schoolchildren or spectators at a marathon.

We forget also that violence is so securely founded among us— in war, in forms of land use, in various methods of economic “growth” and “development”— because it is immensely profitable. People do not become wealthy by treating one another or the world kindly and with respect. Do we not need to remember this? Do we have a single eminent leader who would dare to remind us?

From “The Commerce of Violence” (2013)
In Our Only World: Ten Essays

Comments

  1. This dilemma is part of the price to be paid for participating in a fallen world – until all people sincerely desire peace, we must prepare for war or be destroyed ourselves; but in preparing for war, we open ourselves up to becoming the destroyers. And even if we should repudiate war and violence ourselves, we thereby either put ourselves and our neighbors at risk, or live parasitically on the efforts of those who do do violence on our behalf.

    Who can solve this riddle?

    • Robert F says:

      But when Berry says this, It is not possible for us to reduce the value of life, including human life, to nothing only to suit our own convenience or our own perceived need. By making this reduction for ourselves, we make it for everybody and anybody, even for our enemies, even for the maniacs whose enemies are schoolchildren or spectators at a marathon, he is making his central point: our violence against others, including non-combatants, sanctions the violence of others, including our enemies, against us and our own non-combatants. By “making this reduction”, we make it not only for ourselves when it is convenient for ourselves, but for our enemies when it is not. Thus was born the modern form of terrorism, which we gave birth to by practicing and exampling, thinking to make that reduction only for ourselves and when it was convenient.

      • Robert F says:

        If terrorism is the use of, or the threat of the use of, indiscriminate violence to achieve military and political goals, then nuclear deterrence puts us among the foremost practitioners of terrorism in the world. Even if we never launch a nuclear missile, the threat of doing so is itself terrorism.

      • our violence against others, including non-combatants, sanctions the violence of others, including our enemies, against us and our own non-combatants.

        So, nobody would engage in violence against us if we did not first sanction it ourselves? I find that theory very hard to accept.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          It is certainly an untestable hypothesis. And it is entirely theoretical; we already have violence. So it does not matter – true or not.

          Can we agree that diminishing the use of violence [coercive force] is a noble goal, and that doing show does disincentivize – to some extent – the use of violence by others? Just an agreement on that seems to me enough to fill a lifetime.

          • Can we agree that diminishing the use of violence [coercive force] is a noble goal

            Yes. 🙂

            and that doing show does disincentivize – to some extent – the use of violence by others?

            Unfortunately, too many counter-examples in the last 150 years for me to agree to that one. 🙁

      • Mike Jones says:

        Excellent point. Sometimes I feel that am alone in my thinking until I come here.

      • Christiane says:

        ‘reducing the value of life’

        when I was a very small child, I saw my father, of blessed memory, lift a Daddy Long-Legs spider up into his palm and carry it towards the door . . . . . Knowing Mom would have smashed the spider, I said “Pop, aren’t you going to kill it?” and he looked at me and said ‘Why?’

        Pop placed the spider outside the house and told me that spider had much work left to do and it would be wrong to kill it.

        The point? Not sure. But I know there is one.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > live parasitically on the efforts of those who do do violence on our behalf

      For the [honest] joe-six-pack on the street this is the hardest dilemma, IMO. It is easy, and possibly even grimly ‘fun’, to argue about war, decisions of war, and grand policy – decisions from which nearly everyone is far removed.

      It does not take all that much knowledge of the world to see in every day actions – like filling your gas tank for $2/gal or purchasing ridiculously inexpensive fruit at the mega-grocery – how oneself is bit-by-bit reaping the reward of brutality.. My own home is in a rising working-class neighborhood… ‘thanks’ [???] to racist land-use policies that decimated property values – so they are now affordable for developers and small-time entrepreneurs. There is no way to be clean; as a reasonably prosperous white male American, the profits of evil seem to break over me as inevitably as waves at the sea shore.

      “””violence is so securely founded among us”””,. I agree. On the other hand I admit it is a truth I feel I must recognize, and then set aside, as I cannot [yet?] understand how it is instructive. Does anyone know what to do with this truth?

      > Who can solve this riddle?

      Certainly not me.

      • There is no way to be clean; as a reasonably prosperous white male American, the profits of evil seem to break over me as inevitably as waves at the sea shore.

        Even the Amish are no real refuge, and have themselves become symbiotic on the wider culture for continued means of survival. Unless you want to go the Unabomber “cabin in the woods” route, culpability in the sins of the wider culture is something to be struggled against, but never totally expunged in this lifetime.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          It is probably impossible to be disentangled, even in the cabin in the woods.

          I accept this – but recently I’ve been encountering levels of this that are absurd, so it has been bugging me more. For example – being paid to borrow money – while others can’t get financing to buy a house which has been vacant/abandoned for years – but rent has increased ~30% in the last few yeara . And I am f-a-r from being the “1%”. The deck has been so obviously and transparently stacked; it is uncomfortable. If I were on the other side looking at that … I know me… Flipping over some cars and lighting some fires would not seem an irrational response. Why not? You’re screwed anyway.

          But we can pretend we are civilized and moral – sheets of paper and signatures are not “violence”. Right?

          • Christiane says:

            maybe the impossibility of becoming ‘disentangled’ works another way:

            sometimes there are people among us who can bring into the maelstrom that which calms the waters

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            > bring into the maelstrom that which calms the waters

            I hear you. But what does that mean?

            What does “peacemaker” mean in a vast algorithmic system which seems in so ways designed to obfuscate injustice and to atomize responsibility? Everyone is ‘just’ following the rules, so everyone one – and thus nobody – is responsible.

          • Christiane says:

            Hi ADAM

            You wrote
            “> bring into the maelstrom that which calms the waters
            I hear you. But what does that mean?”

            sometimes we have to think it’s ‘possible’, and boy howdy, sometimes, it really is.
            I give you Mother Antonia Brenner:
            http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/mother-antonia-brenner-socialite-turned-nun-who-ended-a-prison-riot-8905000.html

            we forget that the darkness no longer has the power to extinguish the Light

  2. Burro [Mule] says:

    We forget also that violence is so securely founded among us— in war, in forms of land use, in various methods of economic “growth” and “development”— because it is immensely profitable. People do not become wealthy by treating one another or the world kindly and with respect.

    Wendell Berry has always been a go-to guy for common-sense economic thought, and I think he is close to the nail here, but I don’t yet hear that satisfying thunk. It is beyond obvious that we need to rearrange our paradigm from the endless growth strategies of bacteria in a petri dish to one of returning good for good to the various webs in which we find ourselves enmeshed. There wouldn’t be a single profitable entity in our country if all of them had to shoulder the negative externalities of their activities. But how to do this?

    Our ideas of wealth are what are causing violence, and violence to the earth, to that which lies pliant and uncomplaining in your hand, precedes violence to other human agents. We return evil for the good we receive from the web of the biosphere. There was a documentary on 60 Minutes about the monks of Mount Athos. The reporter was surprised to find appears are uncommonly healthy, with no heart disease or cancer occurring among them. Not less, not little, but none. Granted, there are only about 2300 monks there, so the sample population is very small, but they do live very simply, eat a mostly vegetarian diet, and walk everywhere, except for the dentist who has a bicycle.

    Yet at the same time the voice of Dale Carnegie echoes in the chambers of my head that capitalism can’t work unless you at least pretend to care about your customer. American companies excel in this – pretending to care about their customers – whereas their actual behavior is predicated more on the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, but nevertheless I guess that capitalism at least has the germ of a non-coercive, sustainable oikonomos in it, if we could ever find it.

    Socialism does not, until we somehow shed our Pliocene programming.

    • Socialism does not, until we somehow shed our Pliocene programming.

      Apart from a genuine mass conversion to Christian values, theoretical socialism/communism is just another utopian ideal that runs aground against the rocks of our fallen nature.

      • Burro [Mule] says:

        At the same time, I remember a comment here along the lines of “all true/healthy families are communistic in their internal economies, acquiring from each according to their abilities and supplying to each according to their needs”. This is true, and reflects a more archaic web of responsibilities and obligations than that measured by the money economy.

        The problem comes in extending this archaic web. The money economy extends relatively well. You can go to Kuala Lumpur and extract American banknotes from a machine in a hotel lobby, but it is also brittle and unforgiving.

        I used “Pliocene programming” as shorthand for “fallen nature”, of course. I believe both of them explicitly and at the same time :).

  3. My church is going to attempt a teaching series on politics and power at the end of the summer. I’m preaching on violence… and God as non-violent. My church is a historic ‘peace’ church, but most of our congregation would have deviated from that by now, as we’ve become more generically evangelical over the years (I just finished my first year hear).

    This is the sermon I am the most nervous to preach thus far.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      It it means anything – I would be OK with a preacher/pastor who delivers a reasonable attempt at a topic that requires courage to approach. ‘Missing the mark’ is acceptable, when it is so unclear where the mark is. It would at least open the door to discussion – even if nobody chooses to walk through.

  4. It’s a long legacy. Look back thru the terrorism of George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln, back on thru the whole conquest of the so called New World, back on thru European history, Ancient history, the genocide of the Old Testament, until you run into Cain standing over the lifeless body of his little brother. Come back here and look around you at a presidential candidate who, in my view, would be highly likely to push the button marked Armageddon if allowed, and no, I don’t think I’m looking at the person most here would assume.

    Who can solve this riddle?

    I can, or more accurately, I can, with God’s help. The only place I can definitely solve this is inside myself, for myself, and at this point it’s still looking iffy. I’m sorry that I can’t save the world for you, but my hands are full with my own problems right now and I don’t see that ending any time soon. However I have every hope that I may continue to get better at dealing with my natural inclination to off those who oppose me or disagree with me or cut me off in traffic or pee on my carpet or otherwise disrupt my comfort zone. I’m working at it. While I can’t solve the problems of the world, or your own, I believe I can influence them for the good thru prayer and blessing, and that this is more effective in the long run than activism and protesting and rioting and blowing people up. I believe if someone else joins me in a prayer for world and self shalom, that is more than twice as effective, and it becomes exponential the more people drop their drive to change others and focus on changing themselves. Or better, letting God help change themselves.

  5. You can tell this guy isn’t running for President. He wouldn’t come close to fitting in with either party.

    I have my lesser evil choice which I will make in November, but the lies and hypocrisy from both parties is depressing.

  6. All of mankind is fallen and depraved. Thinking that there is ANYTHING that can make it “better” outside of Christ is just wishful thinking. Railing against mankind’s self serving impulses may make us (not ME, at least) “feel” better because we love to agonize while putting ourselves in a “morally superior” position, but it is MUCH better to do good to those around us, to love our proximate neighbors and live our lives in humble simplicity. If that includes voting a particular way, then fine. Do it.

    Quotes like Berry’s do nothing for my peace and add nothing to my faith or life in general.

    Now will come the rejoinders that Oscar is unfeeling and wants us all to abandon any attempt at improving life…

    • Klasie Kraalogies says:

      Actually I largely agree with you. I think we need to take stock of our reality, and do the next good thing that we can. To choose better every time. To work towards peace – between neighbours, classes, races, nations – etc etc. Starry-eyed idealism will not lead us anywhere. But to make every day a bit better will. To refrain from hate will. To educate and emancipate and conciliate will. To clean up, and to make the next time a little less dirty will.

      I haven’t been a fan of Wendellian idealism for a long time. At the very basis it speaks of absolute ignorance of who we are, and what our world is.

      As always, in these matters of empathy etc., I prefer someone like Frans de Waal….

    • Burro [Mule] says:

      Oscar –

      Berry has been living a style of life that I would have rejoiced to live had I been born to it or taken to it very early in my life. I believe he farms a plot of land in N. Kentucky that has been in his family since it was wrested from the Indians. A lot of the light in his books derives from the musclewisdom that comes that arduous labor and earthcraft. Berry is a treasure, but he doesn’t have much to say to the cube dweller looking for a place to set his weary head.

      And there’s a lot more than human fallenness at work this season. There is something very vicious abroad, something that hates men in their groups and generations. My mother says she hasn’t felt like this since she was a girl in 1938. Once again, only the Orthodox or the Pentecostals even have the vocabulary to discuss evil on that level.

      It doesn’t seem to be threatened by Bible study.

      • >> Once again, only the Orthodox or the Pentecostals even have the vocabulary to discuss evil on that level.

        Within a Christian context perhaps. I am increasingly amazed at how much the alternate sources of information and commentary are resonating with much of the story and imagery of John’s Apocalypse. I am a mostly preterist but at the same time I’m allowing that the book is perhaps being opened before us as we speak in a way that Dispensationalists and Hal Lindsey would not recognize, even tho involving a great war raging above us complete with beasts, dragons, warriors for darkness and for light, and mighty forces in desperate conflict. Your mom is a year or less older than me, and I concur. Nothing like this in my lifetime, not even World War Two, which is seeming more like a prelude to what is going on now underneath the distractions. It is like that war was not concluded, but only went underground and is now coming to the final battle. I could be wrong. I hope not. Greatest time to be alive since Jesus walked the planet. Best wishes and blessings for your mom, and for you as well.

        • Burro [Mule] says:

          You should be less coy, Charles. Are you listening to Alex Jones or David Icke?

          That’s a little far out even for me.

          I am surprised at how David Wilkerson’s [may he rest in peace] prophecy from 1974 is being uncannily fulfilled, in every detail.

          • I was thinking more along the lines of John Greer…

          • Way too much mis- and dis-information to wade thru with Alex Jones and David Icke with little reward and much fear mongering. Never heard of John Greer. I do remember David Wilkerson and maybe will revisit, but there are reasonable contemporary sources available with good track records and who appear to be in touch with valid intelligence if you keep your salt shaker handy. Having alternative viewpoints avoids thinking that what you see on your TV is the only reality and makes it easier to identify and resist programming, same as with religion.

    • It’s time to follow Jesus in this dark time. Ask Him for His Spirit to help us. Read and follow the Beatitudes. We need to set politics aside for the sake of Christ. As you said, love our neighbors, live quietly and simply. And love our enemies. God help us. It’s hard not to feel defeated, especially on a personal level. But let us remember to pray each day, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will Be done.” He is on the Throne. For His is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory. Amen.

      • Rick Ro. says:

        I agree. Talk of “noble things” may seem pointless, but it’s better than talk otherwise. Setting your heart, mind and soul on Jesus will help regardless of whether you live here in the US, or in Canada, or Germany, or Syria.

  7. Rick Ro. says:

    The movie “The Battle of Algiers” comes to mind as I read this post and the subsequent comments.

    Great movie. Harrowing and prescient, it shows the cycles of violence of terrorism in a way that’ll make you realized the futility of it all.

    http://nymag.com/nymetro/movies/reviews/n_9697/

  8. Christiane says:

    I have this thought: that,
    IF we ourselves are not totally broken in the ways of so many who dwell in the darkness,
    THEN there is a REASON that we are not ‘like that other sinner’, and we cannot see ourselves as superior to the ones who are in terrible trouble:

    the minute we see ourselves as ‘superior’ to someone who is riddled with all manner of destructive qualities, we have lost perspective ….. if we were spared the other’s brokenness by the grace of God, it may have been to allow us the privilege of serving those worse off than ourselves if God calls us to do so,
    not the privilege of ‘thanking’ God we are not like that broken person.

    We must not lose perspective. The crucifix is a help sometimes.

    We can hate the darkness and all of the evil deeds within it. But even those who dwell within this darkness are not beyond the reach of Our Lord’s mercy

  9. Yes! We are, all of us, broken. He has, by His Grace, given us the privelage of coming alongside others who struggle with brokenness to show them the Kingdom, even in the smallest of ways. Help us Lord to show our broken brothers and sisters your mercy.

    “….there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.

    -Frederick Buechner

  10. This quote brought to mind Berry’s poem “Sabbaths, 2008 VII”, particularly the last few lines of the poem, regarding, for lack of a better term, “theological violence”:

    The depth and volume of the waters of baptism,
    the true taxonomy of sins, the field marks
    of those most surely saved, God’s own only
    interpretation of Scripture: these would be
    causes of eternal amusement, could we forget
    how we have hated one another, bloodying
    the world, by means of such questions, wrongly
    asked, never to be rightly answered, but asked and
    wrongly answered, hour after hour, day after day,
    year after year–such is my belief–in Hell.

    –Wendell Berry