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Can a godless farmer be a good steward of the soil?

There is a growing realization in organized religion that something is awry in our industrial food delivery system. Churches are actively urging their members to become more involved directly in local and family gardening and farming. This is great news for those of us who have been fighting this battle for a long time. Organized religion can be a very powerful force in getting society’s feet back on the ground (literally) and we welcome all the help we can get.

But I am not sure how this is going to turn out. Hardly a week goes by now that someone doesn’t send me a book about church involvement in food production or I am not invited by a member of the clergy or a professor at a Christian college to give a talk, which pleases me deeply. But it also causes me a problem. I hardly qualify as a Christian anymore. I don’t know what I am. Sometimes I lean toward Buddhism but then I read a little more in that direction and don’t much agree with that either. I sort of envy Christians and Muslims because they believe in something so fantastically wonderful as an eternal life of utter bliss. I’ve tried to believe. Just can’t. Sorry. So anyway when I am asked to give a talk about farming at a private religious college or, horrors, in a church, I get nervous. If the inviters knew that I was a godless contrarian, would they really want me to speak? America is a place where “godless” suggests “sinner” or certainly not saint. So I retreat into hypocrisy, giving my talk while cagily hedging my words so that I do not sound too heretical or hypocritical.

Last week when a professor of religion at a private college wanted me to give a talk, I decided it was time to be honest. I told him he might not like what I would say especially about how religious institutions so often glorify rich industrial farmers who practice destructive farming but who give generously to the churches. I told him I was sort of a godless heathen. Did that bother him?

Here was his reply, verbatim: “I am not offended one bit by the approach you are outlining in your email. I am more offended by the vast majority of religious folk who are gleefully ignorant of how their behavior affects the environment and the others around them, especially the poor who generally suffer ecological problems disproportionately. Even worse are those who don’t have the excuse of ignorance to hide behind.”

Now that’s the spirit. But I still sometimes have doubts about ecclesiastical intent. The books coming out now state the problems and offer solutions that I think are excellent and courageous. But then some of them alienate us godless folk by retreating back into theological safety with declarations about how it is all in the hands of their particular notion of God. A new edition of “The Church and the Land” is a good example. The author, Fr. Vincent McNabb, writing in the early 1900s, says all the right things about farm economics and social reform, very applicable today, but then seems to be more interested in promoting Catholic orthodoxy than in improving farming. He brands those of us who think that population control must be part of any effective attempt at ecological sustainability, as “satanic”!!! Good grief. Because he was writing before 1925, I suppose I should give him a little leeway there, but why re-issue books with that kind of prehistoric attitude? In the Introduction, which was written in 2003, William Fahey also alienates godless farmers, probably unwittingly. He makes really great observations about economics and social justice but then unaccountably concludes with this rather off the wall statement: “In worship and not in any economic or social scheme, lies man’s end and thus his fulfillment and joy. Worship, particularly the sacramental life of the Catholic Church, once evoked a whole way of life….” Etc. etc. All well and good, perhaps, but we godless farmers are not into worshipping deities. We are interested in sustainable farming and good food. Why turn us away, including many church members who have not yet publicly declared their godlessness? You need us, William Fahey, and we need you.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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