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An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Destruction of Community

Well, here is another long post, so I expect few will actually read it. But you should, it may perhaps cure your insomnia.

I’ve made no secret of my recently discovered admiration of Wendell Berry, and the most recent essay of his I am reading, entitled “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” is frankly nothing short of brilliant. Unfortunately, the essay is so rich and “meaty” (I’ve read it twice already) that I hesitate to try and say anything about it, let alone try and connect the dots (as he does) between these four concepts – instead I should simply encourage you to read it for yourself. Much of it is looking at the dwindling of community in exchange for something we know today as “public vs. private life”

”Community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature. (Community, of course, is an idea that can extend itself beyond the local, but it only does so metaphorically. The idea of a national or global community is meaningless apart from the realization of local communities.) Lacking the interest of or in such a community, private life becomes merely a sort of reserve in which individuals defend their ‘right’ to act as they please and attempt to limit or destroy the ‘rights’ of other individuals to act as they please.

A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion and forgiveness. Such a community has the power – not invariably but as a rule – to enforce decency without litigation. It has the power, that is, to influence behavior. And it exercises this power not by coercion or violence, but by teaching the young and by preserving stories and songs that tell (among other things) what works and what does not work in a given place.

Allow me to interrupt for a moment…anyone smell the Church in there? Aye, such a community – fictional though it may be today, or maybe ever – would mesh seamlessly with the Church, the ultimate preserver of “stories and songs.”

But the life of a community is more vulnerable than public life. A community cannot be made or preserved apart from the loyalty and affection of its members and the respect and goodwill of the people outside it. And for a long time, these conditions have not been met…the community, wherever you look, is being destroyed by the desires and ambitions of both private and public life, which for want of the intervention of community interests are also destroying one another. Community life is by definition a life of cooperation and responsibility. Private life and public life, without the disciplines of community interest, neccesarily gravitate toward competition and exploitation. As private life casts off all community restraints…public life becomes simply the arena of unrestrained private ambition and greed.”

In Berry’s thinking (as I read it ), what delivered the death blow to community is in essence the expansion of economics far beyond the local community. To places where people have no connection whatsoever with the people to whom they are trying to market their “stuff”, where people cannot see – nor care to see – what ill effects their possible exploitation is having on some “other” community. Such exploitation further challenges the loyalty and affection of a community’s members…think about it, when was the last time you felt loyalty and affection for a community – and by that I mean not just your church family, but your community of proximity?

“If you are dependent on people who do not know you, who control the value of your neccesities, you are not free and you are not safe.”

...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 1:48 PM [+]


So how does one go about recovering that in an age where we now have a choice? Once someone has a choice, they will choose based on their intentions, and you now have an intentional community, which as you stated gives you the heebie jeebies.

The communities of old, that he so appreciates, and even similar communities that still exist today, do so in times and in places where there is no choice. To leave the confines of the community meant most likely death. Today that is no longer the case in much of the world, certainly in America, and most of the West, and much of the East I might add.

So the question still hangs, and I hate to be so blunt...but so what? I believe and agree w/ the ideas Mr. Berry presents, but the communities it seems he posits are no longer tenable. So long as we can choose to be part of a community or not, most people, even those raised by pious and good parents, will leave when it comes time to subjugate oneself to it.

Look at the massive exodus in Greece to the cities, away from the village.

I hate to sound the pessimist, but it seems a case of the clock that can't be turned back.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:56 PM  


they will choose based on their intentions, and you now have an intentional community, which as you stated gives you the heebie jeebies.

Let me be clear...the term "Intentional Community" gives me the heebie jeebies because, for example, the complete nutjobs who tend to have a monopoly on implementing the concept. But more than that, the notions of living together (i.e. a common dining area, common finances, common everything) is not neccesary for my - or Mr. Berry's view of real community. "Intentional" only becomes neccesary today because we have so wrecked our communities.

So, when I laud "Intentional Community" I am not trying to say that we all need to have 10 families move out into the hills together and changes each others' kids' diapers...or for that matter sleep together curled up like little puppydogs.

All of have what we call a community around us right now, but it really isn't a community, is it? Can we work to make it more of one? Maybe, maybe not...as I mentioned to Aaron in the previosu post I believe some regions are more adept at nurturing real community.

To leave the confines of the community meant most likely death.

I would argue it still does...though we don't perhaps physically die. Living without real community leads us into all manner of stupidity and ugliness from rampant lawsuits to the destruction of the environment...read Berry's essay if you can, it is fascinating

I hate to sound the pessimist, but it seems a case of the clock that can't be turned back.

I know what you mean...but I have a bit more hope. And I would emphasize that I am not trying to return to a 19th century Russian or Greek village - blah! Banish the thought!

But, consider theological tradition which, we who have CHOSEN to become Orthodox, have come to learn to appreciate and further recognize that the modern world has largely and wrongly eschewed it. In the same way I think many other traditional things have been abandoned by the world: economics (key to real community) not the least of which.

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from those places where a real living local community still exists...or like our Orthodox theology, are their voices from our rural past that will teach us something about how to relate and interact with people today?

I am going to offer a concrete economic example shortly.

By Blogger JamesoftheNorthwest, at 1:31 PM  



I think you are missing my point though. I'm not at all suggesting you desire to recreate a 19th century village. I'm saying no one even wants to live in a late 20th century village. Who would want to live that live? Poverty, no local priests, no jobs, no health care....NOTHING. Why do you think in the last 25 years, 80-90% (depending on whose estimates you believe) of the village people in Greece, places where real community existed, and had for a long time, LEFT for the urban cities.

Now they call their old homes..which they still own...vacation homes or summer homes. And who's left there...retirees and those others who can't afford to leave.

And yes...we could all leave NOW if we want to, once we've taken advantage of the urban economies. But could you do it starting from scratch...I doubt it. It's all well and good to decry the crap (and it is crap...don't get me wrong) of non local economies.

But I'm still waiting for someone to tell me just ONE example of a long term solution that doesn't take advantage of the very things you are trying to leave behind. Show me how it sustains itself three generations from now.

These really are great ideals, and I've not disagreed w/ a single thing either you or Rade has attributed to Mr. Berry. But how does one have this community he speaks of. Where does it exist? Why doesn't it exist anymore? He's not the first person to describe the problem, and you wouldn't be the first person to try and go against the tide. But where have they been sustained? Where will your intentional community be in 3 generations?

I'm not asking in pessimism...I really want to know. Intentional community is artificial, and thus I don't believe it can sustain itself. Maybe I'm wrong though...I'm CERTAINLY open to being wrong. Even the church, which you seem to allude to, is an intentional community. But you also note what a disservice we do when we divide the church by unnatural means, like driving by 15 other orthodox churches so you can get to your particular 15th generation flavor.

I'm still waiting for someone to show me what it looks like.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:05 PM  


It starts whenever I stop by my local brewery, getting to know (and be known) by the owner, as opposed to going to Safeway and getting whatever happens to be on sale that I like.

I admit, it happens to be a GREAT deal (price and quality)...but HEY...local economies tend to do as much.

Poverty, no local priests, no jobs, no health care....NOTHING.

Woah now...are you still thinking I'm talking about living in the sticks? It isn't neccesary...though it may make it easier for some of the reason I cited (urban sprawl creating unfathomable anonymity)That being said...rural living doesn't have a monopoly on ANY of those things you mention. And besides that...I intend to be rural and yet still work downtown...for the time being.

Yes yes, I've heard the villages of europe are emptying. However, as was noted on Rade's blog, a good deal of this is happening because of inhuman economics and outside forces tearing apart the community - destroying all those things neccesary for real community.

And who's left there...retirees and those others who can't afford to leave.

Unfair...you've not interviewed everyone living in small rural villages. I've long been in contact with the mayor of my ancestral village and he's my age. They seem to be doing just fine there. I mean, c'mon, some people CHOOSE to live in the country because they simply could not stand urban life (count me as one of them),and besides of those in the "mass exopdus" to the city how many came to find you can starve and squalor there as easily as you can in the country - often easier since you can't till asphalt.

And yes...we could all leave NOW if we want to, once we've taken advantage of the urban economies.

So? Much better to take advantage of the mindless urban (global) economy in order to seek greater self-sufficiency and the establishment of a stronger more independent local economy.

But I'm still waiting for someone to tell me just ONE example of a long term solution that doesn't take advantage of the very things you are trying to leave behind.

I will purchase some pigs from a local Kitsap farmer. I will pasture graze that pig on my land. I will breed more pigs, and barter with neighbors for those I cannot raise myself in exchange for other local grown or made items. I will slaughter a portion of those pigs (with Rade's and Plum Brandy's help) and I will feed my family with it. As I see it, the global economy could vanish tomorrow and none of this would be rendered impossible - far from it.

Show me how it sustains itself three generations from now.

Do it well, teach your kids the benefits...then it's up to them.

Where does it exist?

I dunno...does it matter? Where does the utopian Christian ideal of theosis exist? Can you show me someone living it right now?

Why doesn't it exist anymore?

Wendell Berry postulates upon this at length.

He's not the first person to describe the problem, and you wouldn't be the first person to try and go against the tide. But where have they been sustained? Where will your intentional community be in 3 generations?

Again, I must make sure you understand that I am not looking to create a hippie commune...nor do I advocate such a thing. Rather, I am talking about first and foremost a change within ourselves...a change of habits. Like Berry, I believe we should make strides toward developing more humane and local economies. We should strive to make our economies more simple so that we may be more and more assured of the morality of our spending. And in so doing we can also be assured that our actions - however unintended - are not wrecking havoc on someone elses local economy, environment, or community.
Also as a side, we can often VOTE to protect communities too - this is especially true in more rural settings.

Furthermore, we need to STOP thinking globally (because we can't) and START thinking LOCALLY (because we can) and then go on to act locally. BUILD YOUR INTENTIONAL COMMUNITY RIGHT NOW, WHERE YOU ARE.

Intentional community is artificial

As many define it, yes. But as I believe I am defining it, nothing could be more natural. As it is, what we have now that mocks the very notion of community is profoundly artificial and profoundly unnatural. It's inhuman. Abusive. Selfish. Isolating.

So if intentional community is possible anywhere, why am I moving to the country? While I have said that a rural environment is more suited to the nurturing of community...THAT is a different topic of discussion.

Suffice to say...I find myself singing:

Green acres is the place for me.
Farm livin' is the life for me.
Land spreadin' out so far and wide
Keep Seattle, just give me that countryside.

By Blogger JamesoftheNorthwest, at 5:31 PM  


There are tons of side topics I could spin off to from your comments, but I will try and narrow down what is essentially my critique, not of the ideas of yourselves and Mr. Berry, but rather the possibility of implementation. I would love to think otherwise...I really would. I admit I am AT LEAST just as romantically drawn to a rural life as yourselves; you may recall I was raised on a farm in Kentucky.

The problem I see is that what you describe as the implementation isn't sustainable. I don't mean that as an attack, I don't even WANT to attack. But nothing you've said has described in any way how the ideas that we both agree on can be sustained in your proposed implementation.

Even you acknowledge to an extent to problem. You'll still be working in Seattle when you move. If the only way one can implement these ideas is to participate in their undoing...well it's a crap solution don't you think. As I said before, no one (hyperbole, don't press the word, I'm sure maybe in the world SOMEONE has)could start from scratch doing what you're doing. One must, it seems, sell yourself to the devil in order to get a ride to church.

I laud you desiring to raise your children and lead your family with these ideas. I really do. But assuming your children become cemented in those ideas...where will they get their land, how will they pay for it? Perhaps your neighbors will give it to them. But that's the problem, your neighbors have to be invested in your ideas too.

And as you noted, some of those ideas are more easily implemented in rural areas. But not everyone in rural areas shares those same values. Many would just as soon globalize whatever they have if they could. If they are going to sell their land, they will sell the the highest bidder, maybe not all, but I suspect most. Look at how much rural land is being bought to "buy and hold" (or has already been bought and is being held) on speculation that some corporation will eventually find that land very valuable. Look at how many farmers GLADLY sell their land to urban sprawl.

All the dairy farms in Chino/Ontario are selling to homebuilders, and moving north. Looking for the buck. Yes...there are still a couple left, but they are by far the minority. All that to say, who will give or sell under market to your children? And their children? The only other option as I see it, is to go back to the dehumanizing (and it is) global economy, and do what you are doing. Make your money off those who will be pushed down by us, and the retreat when you have enough money to offer market value for that land.

I could say more, but I'm really trying to narrow the scope to what I see as the critical point. Berry does a good job of pointing out the problems, and I agree with him that they are problems. But where is the sustainable solution? What is the solution that doesn't become the snake eating it's tail? How good are the ideas if one has to abandon them in order to live them? Wallace Kaufman is an enjoyable read about some of these realities. I've read:


Sorry, I don't know how to make it a link. The Amazon.com review is terrible, but only because it completely misses the spirit of the book, focusing on what were really trivial details. But the Publishers Weekly review that follows it is better.

Sorry to be so longwinded (longtyped?).



By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:38 AM  


This is an excerpt I read from here (http://journeytoforever.org/farm.html) just today...James maybe has more to say, but I couldn't help but pipe in and add this.

Many people see no choice but to abandon technology and revert to the miserable inadequacies of primitive existence, or face life on a ruined planet. But it's not inevitable that our society should follow Rome, and fall. And anyway it turns out that most people in most so-called primitive societies (actually they were very sophisticated at what they did, and still do in many cases) were neither miserable nor inadequate: they lived long and healthy lives and died at a sprightly old age with perfect teeth and no sign of arthritis. (Read Weston A. Price, if you want to argue about that.)

In fact we don't need to make such miserable either/or choices, we can have it both ways.

On the one hand, there's growing evidence that industry can change its ways and clean up its act, given the mounting public pressure since 1987 when "the environment" suddenly hit the headlines (for no known reason) and failed to go away again.

It seems we're not all just passive consumers after all, semi-animated lumps of sheer appetite living only for pre-packaged gratification. And in the meantime several hundred million of us have hooked ourselves and each other up to the Internet and are becoming ever more assertive and self-reliant. That won't go away either -- it's not a fashion, it's a trend, and the roots of it go back decades. And, most hopeful of all, the children care about the environment.

Another discernible trend, with its roots going even further back, is the back-to-the-land movement. Primarily it's a change in attitude: city dwellers want closer ties with nature, with where their food comes from, with growing things. They're balcony or rooftop gardeners, backyard farmers, community gardeners, high-fliers opting out for Voluntary Simplicity and a more self-reliant life with real quality. And homesteaders, small farmers.

In the US, the number of small farms is growing by 2% a year. In the Third World the focus of rural development is shifting from mechanization and the (false) economies of scale to programs that strengthen small farmers and their indigenous traditional methods.

The landscape of the future is a sustainable one of small farms and self-reliant communities, of homeworking and homeschooling and networking, of well-greened cities that are no longer a cancer upon the land, and of an industry and technology that fits, with the community and with the environment.

By Blogger Susan Sophia, at 11:41 AM  


Chance I still get the impression that you think I am talking about dropping completely out of the world's social and economic structures...for example:

Even you acknowledge to an extent to problem. You'll still be working in Seattle when you move.

Why do you presume that this is a "problem"? To try and grow ANYTHING you must start small, and before you even do that you must admit that it is a worthy endeavor and decide to do something...anything.

Why must "implemenation" mean all or nothing? You sound as cynical as atheists who complain that since you are really no holier than them what is the point?

What in my example of raising pigs is not the literal manifestation of a local economy? What in that plan is not sustainable? If I grow a big portion - or perhaps even all of my own food, how is that a failure of implemenation?

But assuming your children become cemented in those ideas...where will they get their land, how will they pay for it?

Who says my kids will not go to college and will not have a career? When have I implied that we must all become uneducated full-time farmers? The ONLY reason why I might not stay working in Seattle is simply to spend even less time in the city - not so much of a moral choice I think. Why can't people also do these things - a career outside the home farm, and at the same time strive to be more self sufficientat home? Hard work? you bet! We can do it though...by starting to make far more conscious and sacrificial decisions in our pruchasing and even possibly in our choiceto live in environments that will better nurture community. It IS possible, it IS implementable and it IS sustainable...if you choose and work to do it. Living or working in the city is not a "deal with the devil"

Again, I am not advocating the complete elimination of our participation in the "world"...even the Amish and similar communities DEAL with the outside world. They have, however, marvelously managed to put their community FIRST...and they ARE sustaining it. The Amish retain 90% of their kids in their community (far better than most "church communities"), and that neccesarily spells growth and sustainability.

And before anyone gets the wrong idea, I am not advocating or calling for anything like the establishment of an Orthodox Amish-like community. Rather, let us LEARN from their protection of community and implement such things in our own life, in the life of our family, and as best as we can in our own communities.

All of this said, you hit the nail on the head when you wrote this:not everyone in rural areas shares those same values.

No question about it...and in those following two paragraphs you tell it like it is. But Chance...why have you surrended to the inevitability of greed and selfishness? Of inhuman economies? Why do you suppose you are a helpless automaton in a vast orwellian economic machine? You sound like those who would give up on marriage because divorce is so rampant...and "normal" these days. If you believe in a human economy and you believe in community, why would you not fight for it...even if it is in the little things of everyday life amidst the chaos of So. Cal. urban sprawl? Lose the small spread of lawn and plant a small garden...get to know the man who runs the small and virtually unnoticed grocery store on the corner...find out about local farmer's markets...I bet there actually are some. Find a small local brewery, or brew your own. There's a million things you can do to make YOUR LOCAL economy more humane, more self-sufficient.

Don't throw your hands up in the air because the problem seems to big, and the solution too impossible. We may never "solve" it, but that doesn't mean we blindly let ourselves fall into the mechanism of it all.

It is sustainable as long as you are willing to do it...but it will be no more "perfect" or "utopian" than you or the people in your Parish are already deified.

By Blogger JamesoftheNorthwest, at 11:49 AM  


I fear to an extent we are talking past each other, but because it has remained civil on both sides, and we attempting an honest dialogue, I will attempt to clarify further what I am saying.

But first, what I am not saying. I am not saying that what you and your family are going to do is a bad idea. I am not saying that any implementation must be perfect or not be at all; I am not cynical at all about your endeavors. I am not saying that everyone must become uneducated (where did education come into the mix at all?) full time farmers.

I'm in NO WAY trying to criticize you and your family trying to make better choices.

I'm merely trying to ascertain if there is really an implementable and most importantly SUSTAINABLE answer, short of becoming a community like the Amish?

Yes...what you are going to do with your pigs, bartering where possible etc...that is an implementation, a step in the right direction. But what are you stepping towards? What does the end goal look like? I'm not saying don't do it because it's not enough. I'm asking; What short of being like the Amish would be a sustainable implementation beyond say three generations?

If your step in the right direction doesn't have a next step, and a next and a next, then your implementation has no lasting effect on the world, you have no legacy to leave beyond yourself. When you say:

"It is sustainable as long as you are willing to do it...but it will be no more "perfect" or "utopian" than you or the people in your Parish are already deified."

I respond with, I'm not looking for utopia. I'm looking for an example to follow, one that works, one that is proven. In the church we have that, TONS of them, and so I don't dare squash someones attempt to follow it, because I know that if they just keep taking the fairly clear steps, they will get there; they will be deified.

So using your analogy then, what does it look like? Give me a picture, a vision of implementation that doesn't necessitate participation in the "sin" (from the analogy) in order to try and be saved. I really DO want to know, but honestly I'm having a hard time conceiving of one. The only one I can conceive of is again...the Amish, and perhaps, as Rade seemed to indicate, that may be the future of Christianity that attempts to remain Christian....I don't know.

Hence my question.

Any thoughts?


By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:21 PM  


I'm in NO WAY trying to criticize you and your family trying to make better choices.

Right, I didn't think or feel you were.

I'm merely trying to ascertain if there is really an implementable and most importantly SUSTAINABLE answer, short of becoming a community like the Amish?

Well, I would say the Amish are a GREAT example for communities...but clearly the whole world isn't going to latch on to this anymore that the whole world will ever refrain from sin...or for a more concrete example, say littering. Let me elaborate:

I think we all agree the we need to be concerned about the environment. We are charged with being good and responsble stewards of creation.

I think we'd also agree that there are some very serious and legitimate concerns with how we have and are treating our environment. So, we share a mutual concern and a mutual recognition of a serious (or at the very least potentially serious) problem. Either way, we agree it is a moral imperitive to take care of where we live.

So, consider the scope of the problem...it is vast, far bigger than me and far bigger then you. % billion + people and their ascoaiates economies and industries are polluting. PLUS it does and will extend further than generations...indeed environmental issues will plague us until the Second Coming. (it's like housework when you have four kids...there is no end to it!) Hard to imagine what we might do, as individuals to effect any real change...but...

You start with something very simple: you don't litter. And you teach your kids not to litter. More you can do? Sure...remember when there was no such thing as recycling? So we start recycling. And there's more: choose not to use disposable products, select environmentally friendly products from renewable resources. And the list goes on and on...

You might even choose to drive less, walk or bike more. Maybe buy a more economical vehicle for your regular commuting or even take a bus.

Are YOU personally going to change the world by doing such small and simple steps...nah of course not, you'll hardly a dent in it. But YOU become and example, if to no one else then at least to your kids. But perhaps also to neighbors and friends. Of course, many people don't really care about the environment and I STILL see a goodly quantity of litter...just like how few people care much about real community and therfore fully engage themselves in the mindless global economy.

If we agree that the environment is important and we agree that doing small personal things to help are worthy - however seemingly futile in the grand scale of things - then the same may be said of real community.

And like the environmental analogy, there are bigger steps that individuals can take as well to try and foster local economies with real communities.

Here's the goal, for me anyway: become as self-sufficient as I possibly can within a small community and participate as much as I am able in the associated local economy. Will it be prefect? Nope, for the rest of my life I will likely be tied to doing infectious disease research in Seattle...but that's okay. I liken it to the environmentalist who STILL must use some combustion device to get to his job as a washington lobbyist...hypocritical, perhaps - we certainly love to say as much, but that's usually just to make us feel better for not doing ANYTHING about the environment. And besides, I'm lucky to have a job that actually is helping people, albeit with dollars from "da man."

So, I think there are fairly clear steps that can be taken to foster community - will it inevitably lead to a perfect community as envisioned by Wendell Berry? Probably not, but I'm guessing we will never see our individual Parishes actually become virtual breeding grounds of living Saints - no we'll keep plodding along with the goal in mind.

And I believe PART of that goal, part of that Christian life ought to include the love that seeks community and spills over into DESIRING to be as morally in touch with our economics as we possibly can today in this crazy world.

By Blogger JamesoftheNorthwest, at 8:35 AM  


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