by Kisti Thomas
Google “how many days does it take to form a habit?”, and it seems that the responses range between twenty and thirty days. So if I were to wake up for thirty days and intentionally act as economic theory suggests – as a completely rational individual who will make all decisions in the best interests of my savings and investment accounts – this way of thinking would become intuitive, it would come naturally to me? What if I worked for ten, twenty, or forty five years in a world that daily practiced particular approaches to problems and solutions? That way of thinking would become normalized, it would only seem natural. Would I still be able to truly think outside of the box? The type of work we do, and the type of thinking we do at work influences us, not only as individuals but as communities and societies. The Bible describes how the lack of meaningful, valuable or useful work can degrade our lives, our communities, and our relationship with God. We become a people estranged from our land and God; we become sufferers of ecological amnesia by the way we have become habituated to living and thinking. These habits or ways of thinking may be interfering with our ability to find reconciliation with other people and the land. The agricultural practices and community centered model of the CMU Farm is one example of how we might find reconciliation with the land and our community, in addition to the gifts of imagination and love, which allow us to empathise with others and prioritize our relationships within our communities. It is therefore important to intentionally cultivate the types of relationships, and the type of thinking and work we are practicing daily. If we are going to make habits, let us be sure that they are the ones we want.
Does the quality and dignity of our work shape who we become, over time, and how does this impact our communities? Is there price paid for increased productivity when efficiency is facilitated through specialization? Wendell Berry, a Kentucky poet and farmer, begins with food and agriculture as an example, but draws parallels in many other industries or areas of the economy. A small scale farm that combines animals and a variety of crops requires much more personal familiarity, skill and knowledge of the diverse crops, animals and ecosystems than a large scale monoculture farm. Berry argues that when we hold productivity, efficiency and specialization as the highest virtues of our work, that workers are “demeaned; they have been denied the economic use of their minds; their work has become thoughtless and skill-less.” Robert Heilbroner, an American economist and historian of economic thought writes that such “division of labor reduces the activity of labour to dismembered gestures.” Eric Gill, a British artist/artisan describes how the industrial dismemberment of labour creates an important distinction between making and doing, and cultivates a “degradation of the mind” as a result of this shift from making to doing.
The degradation of the minds of our community members and our fellow citizens is not without consequences. Firstly, there is a degradation of products and qualitative choice for the consumer. The pairing of specialization and efficiency leads to a degradation of mind, as “when workers’ minds are degraded by loss of responsibility for what is being made, they cannot use judgement; they have no use for their critical faculties; they have no occasions for the exercise of workmanship, of workmanly (sic) pride.”
Secondly, the industrial values of efficiency and specialization have created a depreciation of work, “as the price of work has gone up, the value of it has gone down”, to the point that people just do not want to do it anymore. Berry writes that we can now say that “without exaggeration that the present national ambition of the United States is unemployment.” His explanation follows;
“People live for quitting time, for weekends, for vacations, and for retirement; moreover, this ambition seems to be classless, as true in the executive suites as on the assembly lines. One works not because the work in necessary, valuable, useful to a desirable end, or because one loves to do it, but only to be able to quit – a condition that in a saner time would regard as infernal, a condemnation.”
Berry describes how “the dullness of work, the loss of responsibility for, or credit for, or knowledge of the thing made” is the price of efficiency and specialization. In one collective breath of relief we ritually sigh TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday) on the fifth day of the week.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, in the dismemberment of our work and the degradation of our minds as workers we are denied what Eric Gill calls our highest calling – to give love to the work of our hands, to be an artist. In an agrarian context, the small scale farmer has the pleasures of seeing the work from start to finish, being solely responsible for its making and receiving credit for the making of a quality product. Those of us who live in developed countries for the most part have been able to wash our hands of the jobs we have decided are below us, those that are dirty and involve physical labour. We pay someone else to do them so we can (thankfully) move on to higher pursuits.
It is important to question the costs of specialization if we may be compromising our capacity for mindfulness and creativity in the process. The Bible gives examples of how our communities may be losing out on benefits to ourselves and our communities and our relationship with God for not sharing in good, meaningful work. When we grow estranged from our land do we lose a part of ourselves? In the Bible “land was given for the biblical writers, because they knew that land was an implicit part of their relationship with God.” In Leviticus 18:25, 28, and 20:22 the land is described as a semi-autonomous moral agent, for when it becomes defiled God holds it accountable for its’ state. The land is described as having the agency to act for God, even when humans have left behind the calling to act for God. Leviticus portrays a covenant practiced between God, the land and the people.
Jesus brought people and the land together in his ministry. In the same way that God scooped up some earth to create the first human, Jesus used the land and the earth in his work and ministry. Jesus healed people through the “media of soil, water, saliva, bread, and fish.” His ministry took place in the open air countryside of Galilee. Christian rituals have the earth and land at their core; Christians are baptized in the waters of the earth, and eat the fruits of the land during the Eucharist. Our intimacy with the land is an implicit and explicit part of our relationship with God. When we wash our hands of the dirty work of the land and the physical labour of tending to the gardens of the earth we distance ourselves not just from the land and ourselves but also in our relationship with God.
Our proximity or distance from the land is an understated factor in how we relate value to our surroundings. Norman Wirzba, a philosophy and ecology professor at Duke Divinity School describes how many people suffer in a state of “ecological amnesia” due to the ways that we live in the world. “Its most basic cause is the practical separation of people from the land”, a separation that occurs in two forms: the physical (our physical location and proximity) and the existential (a loss of practical working relationships with others that teach us about our state of interdependency with other beings). These physical and existential forms of ecological amnesia inform our awareness of, care for and the value we assign to the land, places and citizens we do not know. We value, protect and care much more for what we can see and understand. “Authentic reconciliation and community are not possible as long as groups of people view each other from a distance.” In order to find reconciliation we must acknowledge our communities and bring ourselves back together. In this reunion we can hope to rediscover our value.
The connection drawn by Berry, Bahnson and Wirzba between efficiency and specialization and the degradation of mind captivated me. The evidence of their claim seems at once deeply distressing yet ubiquitous. Of course, people may dislike their jobs for many reasons, but it seems that many people today generally experience little satisfaction and happiness from their careers. Yet because we live in a culture obsessed with money, opulence and extravagance many of us work longer and harder than is strictly necessary in pursuit of more.
What concerns me most about this concept of the degradation of the minds of our community members and citizens is how this affects our ability to understand complex system structures, commonly found in social and ecological problems. How might a tendency towards simple or narrow mindedness affect our collective ability to rationally respond to these problems in a timely or faithful manner? Are the solutions we propose to the complex systemic or societal problems of our time symptomatic of the effects of a life of work that requires narrow, simpleminded thinking? Do our careers shape our way of thinking over time in a way that impedes our ability to understand and respond to complex social and ecological problems in a way that is timely and that actually solves our problems? Has the loss of our ability to see and understand the big picture of interconnected parts the reason why we have been so ineffectual at addressing our societal challenges?
While these questions may not have answers at this time, we can intentionally try to choose work that challenges us to be responsible for what we put out into the world, where we are required to use our best judgement and critical faculties, and where we might obtain a sense of workmanship or workwomanship and pride in the fruits of our work. While I may not have been able to so lucidly explain why I wanted to work on a farm when I first joined the CMU farmers collective last winter, it was to this effect. Choosing to work on an urban farm seems to not be a common choice for many young people today. Many young people who grew up on farms are leaving, not staying or returning. Upon hearing about my summer pursuit many of friends intuitively understood my reasons. However in this contemporary time of specialization and efficiency, consumer culture, and cultural addiction to money and power, this can be a confusing choice to some. Farm work is fulfilling in a way that many jobs are not. Farm work is meaningful, its fruits are essential to every person, regardless of their life circumstances. Its humble and unpretentious nature makes it feel honest and real. Our culture and media present so many lies and artifices to young people today, that when I find something that has a texture of caring, truth, and honesty, even love… It is too compelling to turn away. The intimacy between farmers and their land, and the healthy ratio of hands to land that Berry describes is only attainable in small scale agriculture such as that practiced at the CMU Farm. Our collective model of governance allows not only an intimacy with our land but also with all aspects of farm maintenance and work.
Small scale agriculture is one example of a response to the unfulfilling nature of work where we are not required to use our critical faculties or judgment, and the ecological amnesia that work and lifestyle habits cause so many suffer. Reconnecting with the way the Bible describes our connection to and relationship with the land, where our intimacy with the land is an implicit and explicit part of our relationship with God, into our daily lives is another step toward reconciliation with the land and others. I believe there is also hope in human imagination and creativity. J.K. Rowling advocated for the importance of imagination in her Harvard commencement speech, when she said that
“imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
Furthermore, I believe that imagination is a power that will enable us to rebuild our world into one that is not dependent on fossil fuels or other ecologically and socially destructive behaviours.
In addition to imagination I would also like to highlight the importance of love. Davis references the famous injunction to love our neighbours, a passage whose meaning is not entirely evident from its common rendering. She argues that a more accurate translation of Leviticus 19:18 would be that “you shall act lovingly to your neighbor, as [to] yourself.” This interpretation places the emphasis on loving actions and practices rather than on an undemonstrated attitude. Love is a central value to Christianity and Anabaptist Christians. “According to Menno Simons “love is the total content of Scripture”… The “sincere and unfeigned love of one’s neighbour” is the sign by which the church of Christ… is known.” A love ethic “recognized by its fruits in daily practice is central to any Anabaptist ethics.” Jim Rich, a Presbyterian pastor writes that:
“We must fall into the agony of unconditional love as one does for a cherished friend who is dying in the prime of life – a love willing even to give up life if it would save the friend… All of us on earth can live well, though in a radically simplified manner, on the earth’s bounty. Sacrifice is not the issue. The issue is love. This is a spiritual matter.”
Our response ought to be a re-imagination of our work and our world in a way that cultivates not only our minds, bodies and relationships but ignites a love for our human, animal, and plant communities.
 Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food (Berkley, California: Counterpoint Press, 2009), 34-35.
 Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with the Creation (Westmont, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2012), 53.
 Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: Agrarian Readings of the Bible (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 100.
 Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with the Creation (Westmont, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2012), 28.
 Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: Agrarian Readings of the Bible (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 86.
 Calvin Redekop, ed. Creation and the Environment: an Anabaptist Perspective on a Sustainable World (Baltimore, Maryland: Hopkins Fulfillment Service, 2000), 202.