Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

I suppose that it is necessary to sell books to put the word “sex” in the title somewhere. In the case of Wendall Berry’s Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, the title is not just a marketing ploy, for the title essay contains one of the most interesting and enlightening discussions of the place sex plays in a healthy society. [1] Not to disappoint readers, but my interest in Sex, Freedom, and Economy is not in the first word, except for as it impacts the larger argument of the book as a whole. Berry believes that contemporary America is characterized by the deliberate destruction of local communities under the impact of misguided politico-economic forces, and in so doing he makes a wonderful argument for the importance of community.

Underneath the environmental issues we face and the destruction of families and small communities lies the same deep cause: the modern era’s disinterest in the local, the particular, the humble, and the small. Western elites have little familiarity with or interest in agriculture and small local communities. In the creation of the all-powerful nation state and the large private corporation, the modern world has become, in a word, inhuman.

Wendall Berry, for those who do not know the name, is one of the most prominent members of what used to be called, “The New Agrarians” –- a group of writers whose work is critical of both the left and the right of American politics and of both modern capitalism and socialism. I first became interested in Berry after reading his book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, in which Berry unleashed a critique of modern “corporate” agriculture. [2] (In the sense that Berry uses the term, “corporate” includes what we might call “Centralized Management,” whether by a central government or corporate operator or by socializing national policies.

Locality and Community.

Berry’s call is to return to a closer relationship with the earth, small, local communities, wholesome family life, and the particularities of a local culture. For those who love the slogan, “Think Globally and Act Locally,” Berry has some very important advice: You cannot “Think Globally” and “Act Locally” in a rational way. The very attempt to “Think Globally” cuts a thinker off from the reality of a particular place and its climate, geography, fertility, culture and the like. So, Berry concludes, “Global thinkers have been and will be dangerous people” (19).

“A healthy community,” Berry says, “is a form that includes all the local things that are connected to by the larger, ultimately mysterious form of the Creation. In speaking of community, then, we are speaking of a complex connection not only among human beings or between humans and their homeland, but also between the human economy and nature, between forest or prairie and field or orchard, and between troublesome creatures and pleasant one. All neighbors are included” (15). It is in local communities that life becomes worth living.

A community is a society in which friendship, friendly intercourse, having things in common, a particular locality and its geographic peculiarities, form a people who belong to a place and a culture. (48). Obviously, for there to be community there must be personal connection and common interest. While Berry is interested in small, primarily agriculture-based communities, this definition is true of small communities to be found in larger cities and states. “Community” is about communion with a group of other people, and without communion among people, community is not possible. [3] And, without community, meaningful life is not possible.

The destruction of community in the industrial world, East and West, Capitalist and Communist, is a terrible thing. Berry explores over and over again the way in which modern industrial society, capitalist, socialist, and communist, has wreaked havoc on local communities and human scaled economies. The result of this is a society and cities unconnected to their biological and agricultural setting, dependent up huge international supply lines, tied to a fossil fuel based economy, and unsustainable into the distant future. Sustainable, human cities are and will be in balance with its environment and living off of its “net ecological income.” [4] The only way that political and economic groups will do this is if individuals and communities begin to “draw in” their supply lines, purchasing locally produced goods produced by smaller local farms and businesses. We need, Berry thinks, to live more simply and more connected to a local place.

Sex, the Family and Community

This gets us to sex. (Well, in a way.)  One reason why Barry is convinced that we must recover our connections to a local community, including its land, is that the modern world has become inhuman in the way that it has individualized and commodified everything. This “everything” includes sex, family life, and the fundamental building blocks of society. If sex is only about the individual, then the modern Sexual Revolution might possibly be justified. However, until the modern world throughout all human history no one thought that sex was “private”. Sex was part of a complex of relationships. Sex was and is a powerful force—an inducement for marriage, family, children, which also generally involved small family businesses and farms. Sex was not merely a private act between two people, but the private foundation for the community and therefore, extremely public in its importance. Sex is not a solely personal, individual act, it is an act involving an entire community of parents, grandparents, children, friends, neighbors, and members of the community at large.

The modern industrial economy and its child, the service economy, with its commodification of everything and its hostility to the small, local, rural, components of society, has triumphed in the last century—and with that triumph came the alienation, and death of community we have witnessed. “The triumph of the industrial economy is the fall of community. But the fall of community reveals how precious and how necessary community is. For when community fails, so must fall all the things that only community life can engender and protect: the care of the old, the care and education of children, family life, neighborly work, the handing down of memory, the care of the earth, respect for nature, and the lives of wild creatures. All of these things have been damaged by the rule of industrialism, but of all the damaged things probably the most precious and most damaged is sexual love. For sexual love is the heart of community life” (133). [5]

I have often spoken about how my life as a minister was impacted by my first pastorate in a small, rural, poor, agricultural community. In my congregation there were many farming families. In addition, there were many small business owners and employees, and state agricultural employees, as well as employees of larger businesses who served the local farmers. I am thankful for those years. I have many, many stories to tell of those days.

We lived in a small town with all of the weaknesses and limits of a small town, but it was a community. People were much closer than is possible in large cities. I could tell many stories, but will only tell one. In my congregation there was a poorer family with a grown child who had the mind of a child. One day the county sheriff’s office called me and asked if he could drop off this young man at the church to stay until his parents came home. He had wandered off and been found walking on a local highway. The sheriff knew his parents had gone to Memphis for a doctor’s appointment. (How I do not know.)

Everyone knew the young man, the family, and that the family attended our church. The care that sheriff showed that day could not be found in Memphis, just a few miles away. It could only occur in a local community in which people knew, cared for, and were in fellowship with each other.

What I think Berry longs for, and wants us to long for, is that kind of community in which true humanity can grow. I doubt it can or would involve a return to an agrarian way of life, though if it did, it would be a small price to pay. I think that it means working on building a society from the bottom up, as an integrated series of communities that give meaning and purpose to life.

Community and Polity.

This brings me to a distinction that we too often fail to make. There is a difference between belonging to a community and being a part of a political entity. As mentioned before, the idea behind community is a group bound together in a place by culture, family ties, interests, faith, etc. It derives from two Latin words meaning to be bound together with another. Polities are derived from the Greek word, “polis,” which refers to a political entity. The Latin, refers to the external legally imposed government of a place or group. It comes from public center of Greek cities. Political entities are bound together by force of law, police and police and military power. Both communities and polities are important and necessary for human life. [6]

Large political entities, like the United States of America, by their very nature, cannot be communities except in a derivative and metaphorical way. They are not fundamental to human flourishing the way local families, church, social groupings, work groupings, and the like, are. In fact, the health of larger political entities is deeply dependent upon the health of smaller communities of which they are composed. This is something that I am afraid we have forgotten in the late Modern world. The biggest and most important task before contemporary Americans is not which political party should be elected or the details of legislation or administrative decision. It is the rebuilding of community.

COPYRIGHT 2020, G. Christoper Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Wendall Berry, Sex, Economy,  Freedom and Community (New York, NY & San Francisco, CA: Pantheon Books, 1992). Sex Freedom and Community is hereinafter referred to as “Berry” and citations will be in text by page number to this book.

[2] Wendall Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Berkley CA: Counterpoint., 1977).

[3] In my view, Berry’s argument is important in a deep and powerful way. However, his definition of community may be too concrete to fully explore why a more communitarian polity is important. I for example belong to several communities, churches, professional associations, etc. They are not necessarily connected to a particular place, which is one requirement for which Berry argues. Berry’s point is important and should not be lost, but theologically thinking, concrete communities reflect the Divine Community Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bound together in limitless self-giving love. See, John Zizioulas, Being as Communion Studies in Personhood and the Church (Yonkers, NY: SVS Press, 1985).

[4] This is a fairly difficult concept to understand. For Berry, our society does not count the ecological and human cost of its economic organization, and so is constantly “borrowing” from rural areas and future generations. His general policy prescription is to help cities become viable by gradually insisting that cities and society live on the net economic income after all the relevant costs, human and environmental have been factored in.

[5] I had to cut off the quote, but he goes on to say, “For sexual love is the heart of community life. It is the force that in our bodily life connects us most firmly to the Creation, to the fertility of the world, to farming and to the care of animals. It brings us into the dance that holds the community together and joins it to its place.” Berry at 133.

[6] The word “community” is derived from from the Latin, “communitas,” fellowship, which, in turn, is derived from communis, or “common”. The word “polity” comes from a Latin word, that means a particular form or system of government, such as civil polity; ecclesiastical polity. It refers to a state or other organized community or body or to a government or administrative regulation, and in this sense refers to a state or organized political body. See, searching for “Community” or “Polity” (downloaded, April 21, 2020).



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