I was once an organic farmer. When my wife and I bought our first farm back in 1986, we had immersed ourselves in the world of the Mother Earth News and had a vision that included farming in a sustainable way, minimizing our footprint on the earth, while raising our family in a holistic, environmentally friendly way. Bill McKibben hadn’t even written his first book yet. Farming organically, living in an environmentally conscious way, was a radical thing to do in rural Ontario at that time. The organic movement was very young and those who gathered in groups like the Ecological Farmers of Ontario (EFAO), where I was a board member, spoke with a religious fervour about their commitment to their cause, radically disapproving of any who would suggest any compromise should be considered.
Our career as organic farmers was short lived.
Our dreams were overwhelmed by economics and marketing difficulties. We bought dairy quota, maintained many of the environmental practices that we had learned to grow our crops, but rationalized the use of herbicides as we balanced the economic costs of fuel, and yield, against the costs to the environment. I was ejected from the EFAO, effectively disciplined, branded a heretic. We had been forced to modify our vision to make at least part of it a reality. Economics and a lack of marketing structure forced us to make some rational choices about how we farmed. The choices weren’t based on greed, they were based in reality. In making the choices we did, while we gained the ability to follow our dream, we did lose the support and camaraderie of a group of individuals who were bent on changing the world.
In his book Deep Economy, Bill McKibben suggests that our lives, and society, has been so driven by an individualistic need for success that we have forgotten what is important in life. He asserts that “the knowledge that you matter to others is a kind of security that no money can purchase,” (pg 156). I don’t think you can argue with that premise, but if maintaining your value to the community and its ideals, means that your own growth is curtailed and possibly lost, is the security of any value? Using our experience with the EFAO is likely not the best example of the sort of thing McKibben is suggesting. Since the organization was quite spread out, it’s ideas relatively new, and outside of the mainstream, it could not provide the sort of security, just because we we mattered, that would actually ensure that there was food on the table, for our children, at the end of the day. It was working toward promoting a deep economy and had those sorts of values as its base, but was so spread out that it was really rather shallow. We had to make choices, and had to choose to move on. An individualistic choice, maybe, as we gave up the ideals of the whole to follow a path that we hoped would lead to our individual success, but a choice that we made, none the less.
And so, we joined the ranks of the industrialized agricultural system McKibben describes in very stilted terms. We brought our environmental bent with us and never really bought into the “more and bigger is better” philosophy that he describes. Maybe if the EFAO had been a more local initiative, like the one described in Burlington Vermont, with help, and support, right there, ready and available, then maybe our experiment at changing the world could have worked somewhat differently.
There is a lesson here for churches though. Churches, like farmers, sometimes have the idea that bigger is better. In the growth, we sometimes lose the idea that security is found in recognizing that individuals matter, belong. The Heidelberg Catechism says that my only comfort in life and death is that I belong to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, but do I feel like I belong to the body of Christ, the church, and does that give me that security that no money can buy McKibben talks about? He says, this understanding of security is the key to radical change in our communities, in the way that we live, in the health of the environment, in our feelings of happiness. If we have this sort of security we can move forward in radical ways.
In a time when church attendance is dwindling everywhere, a time when mega churches seem to be springing up in many places, built often by the media driven influence of a single individual, I wonder if a move back toward personal security within a community is the remedy that could stem the tide? Are folks finding the personal security somewhere else or are they just living lives of lonely despair? There are churches and communities that are supportive, where every member matters, but they are not anywhere near the model that is shown in the book of Acts, where apparently everyone shared everything. Some of Paul’s writings would indicate that this model was short lived and during his ministry, already, there had come to be layers and stratifications within the community. But the utopian model is there. Providing that sort of personal security is difficult. Greed gets in the way. So does understanding that each person has valuable gifts to offer to the community, and as such, provides something that is necessary for the whole to survive making them of as much value as anyone else in the community. Everyone is of equal value. In the end, however, to deal with all of the bad original sin tendencies, structures usually need to be put in place that end up undermining the sense of security that was supposed to be fostered in the first place.
Of course, this is true of much of what McKibben suggests as well. To successfully implement the good ideas that he suggests in his book, takes a level of generosity and trust on the part of all involved. We need to practice a level of self sacrifice much like Paul urges on the Philippian church: put others ahead of yourselves; don’t look to your own wishes, but to those of others. Churches are supposed to work like that. They would be more successful if they did, and it would be amazing to be part of their fellowship. McKibben is really suggesting the same thing for the broader part of our lives, an understanding that people matter, that local business is important, that a local economy can build more happiness and contentment than a national one. Putting others ahead of ourselves; finding personal security in the knowledge that you matter to others.
Many of us matter to others at many different levels and in different compartments of our lives. The security that comes in that is a two way street; if we are going to feel like we matter, we have to let others matter as well. There’s a giving and generosity in that. The folks on the board of the EFAO weren’t about to let me feel like I still mattered once our farming practices went over to the dark side. We went our separate ways, fluidly moving to different circles where we could find security and meaning for our lives, where we mattered.