Just Semantics

Lately I’ve been thinking about language, and how we human beings use it to shape and interpret our everyday experiences. I’ve long believed that most arguments are more about words and their definitions than actual issues. Its funny how definitions seems to change throughout the course of an argument, until both parties admit to be saying the same thing, only in different words. Or the opposite can happen, when one person’s definition crystalizes into the antithesis of his or her opponent’s.

A few years ago I took a philosophy class. I remember our teacher explaining different ways the word “freedom” can be defined in American politics. The “conservative” (or classical liberal) definition meant “freedom from government interference”. The “liberal” (or contemporary liberal) definition meant “freedom to participate equally in society”. This word that is thrown around so often in any political discussion can mean radically different things depending on who is using it, and also it can be interpreted in radically different ways depending on who hears it. Proponents of the “freedom from” view might naturally seek to limit government to the best of their ability, whereas “freedom to” folks might seek to expand the government so that it can ensure equal opportunity for people of different classes, genders, races, etc.

I have some friends who consider themselves “anti-capitalists”. Their definition of “capitalism” is essentially Marxist. They claim it is a system that creates social classes and exploits those in the lower of these. It is responsible for the corruption of our system of government and for the degradation of the natural environment. The definition becomes a linguistic pit that consumes any and every negative concept. Thus we have created a structural narrative in which one word is understood to represent our ultimate problem and source of all our suffering, and its’ antithesis becomes the path to our liberation. Of course the “pro-capitalist” would never dream of defining “capitalism” in such a way, but would probably opt for something closer to “economic freedom from government interference”. Can either of these definitions be right?  Or are they both gross oversimplifications that pale in comparison to the complexities of our actual situation?

Upon more reflection I started noticing these structural narratives everywhere. For Marxists, there is capitalism. For feminists, patriarchy. For anarchists, government. For primitivists, civilization. For Christians, sin. All are structural narratives built upon the demonization of a word through definition, and the idolization its’ antithesis. It would be possible for us to create some overarching umbrella structure and bring together all of these demonized words into the definition of some greater, and ever more vile word. Womanist critique has offered the term “kyriarchy” as an extension of “patriarchy” that also takes into account issues of racism and economic injustice. Some Christians have combined these injustices together as various symptoms of the larger problem of “sin”.

But should our ultimate goal be to create some monolithic, unquestionable narrative structure? I think rather we should acknowledge that any narrative falls short of grasping the true complexity of the real world. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι’ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον· ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους, τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην.


I can’t tell which is more real…

or


The Wonder of Wilderness.

I was walking home from school earlier today when I noticed a piece of litter laying across my path. It was the small daily devotional “Our Daily Bread“. Now, even though I usually find this kind of devotional literature to be pretty shallow, there is something about it that deeply intrigues me. I’m especially intrigued in circumstances like these, where I find it as garbage along the side of the road. So I picked up the booklet, and flipped through to today’s entry. I had to laugh out loud. The title read: “The Wonder of Wilderness” and was written by Philip Yancey. Here is the text of the entry:

The psalmists had an advantage in praise because of their closer tie to the natural world. David began life outdoors as a shepherd, then spent years hiding in the rocky terrain of Israel. Not surprisingly, a great love, even reverence, for the natural world shines through many of his poems. The psalms present a world that fits together as a whole, with everything upheld by a personal God watching over it.

Wilderness announces to our senses the splendor of an invisible, untamable God. How can we not offer praise to the One who dreamed up porcupines and elk, who splashed bright-green aspen trees across hillsides of gray rock, who transforms the same landscape into a work of art with every blizzard?

The world, in the psalmist’s imagination, cannot contain the delight God inspires. “Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth; break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises” (Ps. 98:4). Nature itself joins in: “Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills be joyful together before the LORD” (v. 8).

The psalms wonderfully solve the problem of a praise-deficient culture by providing the necessary words. We merely need to enter into those words, letting God use the psalms to realign our inner attitudes.

So now I’m wondering, what am I to make of this strange coincidence? What are the odds that something like this would happen? If I had come across the same booklet yesterday, or tomorrow, it would not have had nearly the same impact. Nor would it if I had picked it up on any other day in the three month period this booklet covers. Only today could this Christian environmentalist, who uses the biblical symbol of “the wilderness” to explore his own theology, experience such a strange coincidence.

But is it really as strange and coincidental as I am making it out to be? Has environmentalism entered into the mainstream Christian consciousness so much so that it has become frequent in pulp devotional literature? In flipping through the rest of the booklet I see nothing else that overtly mentions nature, the environment, or the concept of wilderness. Of course, I am aware that ideological green-washing is creeping ever further throughout our culture and also into mainstream Christianity. Yet, there is something about this experience that remains profound.

Recently I was talking to a friend about feminist interpretations of a biblical passage. She told me that, had I not provided her with such a specific lens to read the text, the passage would be ghastly. That got me thinking. We often forget that we are reading through the lens of 21st century Americans living in a culture that is far removed from that of the Bible. Also, we might assume that any feminist, or environmentalist, or anarchist lens is a reinterpretation of a biblical passage, that it is somehow altering it to make it more relevant for our present situation. Until recently, that is how I thought of the relationship between environmentalism and the Bible. Environmentalism, I thought, was a rather recent ideological innovation, and since the Bible is ancient, it should have nothing really to say about the subject. I definitely thought the two views were compatible, and that one could make a case for environmentalism that was biblically sound, but ultimately that it was more or less a biblical addendum. I thought that the words of scripture could be used and applied to the environmentalist cause, but not that these interpretations were necessarily the thoughts or intentions of the biblical writers. The further I delve into this subject though, the more I am convinced that this is not the case.

Lately, it is becoming easier for me to imagine the prophets as environmentalists. After all, they are the voice of a Creator deeply in love with creation and who chooses the wilderness of the deserts, the rivers, and the mountains as places of revelation.


Sobriety.

This year I gave up alcohol for Lent (again) fully anticipating to begin drinking again come Easter. But upon more reflection lately, I’ve been thinking about giving it up for good.

One resource that has been particularly influential for me is Nick Riotfag’s “Towards a Less Fucked Up World: Sobriety and Anarchist Struggle“. Its a straight-edge, self-published zine that was released in 2003. One of the issues Nick explores is the “complex relationship between intoxication, gender, and rape.” He asserts that alcohol is usually involved in male violence against women, domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape. Our “intoxication culture” is dependent on alcohol for finding sexual partners and even for having sex. Nick claims that alcohol negatively impacts conversation and greatly reduces our ability to give and receive meaningful consent. “The intoxication of both or all parties makes it difficult to sort out accountability.” His critique continues on to examine “bar culture” and intoxication from an anti-capitalist perspective: “We bond over buying, consuming, numbing, and things rather than creating, experiencing, feeling, and personalities.”

It seems as if alcohol and violence are closely intertwined in our culture. No wonder some the Suffragettes and First-Wave Feminists were also early advocates of the Temperance Movement!

Of course I have other reasons for not drinking. The absurd capitalist exploitation involved with “the bar” dawned on me a while ago. A bar is a place where people go to buy extremely overpriced alcohol and bartenders and servers are making less than minimum wage. The workers’ wages are supposed to be made up in tips from customers. So in the end, bar customers are paying relatively outrageous amounts of money in comparison to any other establishment, and bar owners are making outrageous profits. What makes things worse is the fact that for some people, alcohol is an addiction, and bars are preying on the weaknesses of those people.

Another reason I feel led to give up alcohol is that my family has a history of trouble with it. My sister can’t stay out of jail because of it. My dad can’t get his driver’s licence because of it. There has been a history of alcoholism and domestic violence in my family. Even if alcohol has never caused me to become violent, or even get into too much trouble, I feel that it is my responsibility to help create alternative activities to drinking in my life, both for my family and for other people that I love. If I participate in drinking, it makes it that much harder for the next person to say “no”. If I choose not the drink, it makes it that much easier.

Part of me fears that choosing not to drink will make me less interesting of a person. Even deeper down though, I think that is not true.

Recently, I listened to an interview with Tom Waits, where he had this to say about giving up alcohol:

“Well, I wanted – I’ve always wanted to be curious and provocative, I guess, and interesting, and interested in this kind of sparkling, you know, sapphire we all call home, you know. I always wanted to be mystified by it all – and rather fascinated with life itself. And I don’t know, when, you know, I think maybe when you drink, you are – you’re probably robbing yourself of that genuine experience, even though it appears what you’re doing is getting more of it. You’re getting less of it. And it takes a while, when you’ve had a rock on the hose like that for so long. It takes a while for the hose to be a hose again, you know, and for things to start flowing.”

I think I’ll take his word for it.


Reflections on Wandering the Eastern Wilderness

This past week my girlfriend and I took a trip east. From Michigan, through Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, we spent a  brief moment in Maryland, and stayed in Virginia and North Carolina. In our adventures, we went for a quick skinny-dip in the Atlantic Ocean, probably under the surveillance of nearby security cameras in the militarized tourist trap of the quasi-police state known as Virginia Beach. We slept on the beach while thunderstorms brewed, went canoeing in an alligator swamp, visited an organic farming community in North Carolina, and spent three days backpacking in Shenandoah National Park.

All in all, it was a refreshing step away from my everyday life in the bustling micro-metropolis that is Grand Rapids, Michigan. I sometimes forget how relatively peaceful the wilderness can be in comparison to the civilized world, and how that peace can affect my mood, thought, and experience. There is a spiritual element to our existence that seems so much easier to grasp within the context of the natural environment than from within the confines of human societal constructs.

It is refreshing also to encounter this same reverence for nature within the biblical tradition. Although the Bible has been used throughout history as a tool to uphold societal norms such as patriarchy, anthropocentrism, and disregard for the natural world, closer examination can reveal sharp critiques of these ideologies and the oppressive and imperial structures that they constitute. For example, the God of the Bible is the God of the Wilderness, which in that specific geographical context often meant the desert. God called many prophets away from civilization, away from the slavery of empire, and into the desert wilderness: Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Israelites, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus of Nazareth. References to the natural world are prevalent in the teaching and parables of Jesus; he called attention to the fig and olive trees, the birds and the lilies (Matthew 6:246-34), and even compared God to a mother hen gathering her chicks (Matthew 23:37)!

Christianity has long been criticized, and rightly so, for its role in colonialism and the oppression of indigenous peoples and their respective cultures. More recently though, some scholars have been working to uncover indigenous voices and traditions within the Bible itself. It is no surprise that often indigenous people and other oppressed minorities have radically different interpretations of the Christian narrative than do their oppressors who introduced the religion. In the essay, “The Bible, Indigenous Spirituality, and the Theology of Babylon,” the author makes the case that the Aboriginal Australians have more in common with the people of the Bible than do white Australians.

Last week, after hiking for several miles, I felt the urge to take off my shoes and rest my feet in a calm, cool stream that was trickling through the mountains. This simple and natural pleasure was indescribably beautiful. It is reminiscent, I think, of God’s call to Moses when he was wandering the wilderness of the mountains in Exodus 3. God called to him from the burning bush, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” This was the point of contact that eventually led the Israelites out of oppression in Egypt and into a forty year period of wandering in the desert wilderness.

Further Reading:

Anarchists Against Civilization: Rewilding, the Roots of the Christian Faith

Ched Myers, “Anarcho-Primitivism and the Bible”

Ched Myers, “The Fall”


Hunting & Gathering

I was recently talking with a friend about whether or not the hunter-gatherer lifestyle has the least environmental impact and is overall the best way for humans to live. I’ve heard a lot of people make that argument, but ultimately I don’t think that it is.

The reason that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle seems to have such a low environmental impact is because it necessitates a low population. Since it is immediately apparent that resources are limited, hunter-gatherers understand that they must keep their populations low. The practice of infanticide is common among hunter-gather tribes. Any large population living this way would deplete an area of its resources.

The view that hunter-gatherers are not responsible for environmental degradation is mistaken. It is widely believed that they were responsible for the extinction of the woolly mammoth, large land tortoises, and possibly even neanderthals (see “Overkill Hypothesis”). It is not necessarily a peaceful way of life, it encourages tribalism and competition over resources with other humans and predatory animals.

It has been argued that hunter-gatherers did not seek to control their environment as the later agriculturalists did. I really don’t see any good reason to believe that. It is a small step from a nomadic lifestyle following wild herds to simple pastoralism. Animal agriculture encourages the restriction of populations of predatory animals that threaten livestock. Hunter-gatherers have also hunted predatory animals, such as wolves, when their numbers became too large and threatened their access to wild herds. This is ultimately a deficiency with both animal agriculture and hunting-based lifestyles.

A more realistic alternative, I think, is plant-based subsistence farming. It is especially true for our current situation, taking into account the present world population. The only way to impose a significant shift to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle would be either through mass murder, forced or voluntary sterilization, voluntary celibacy or the increased use of contraceptives. Whereas the use of contraceptives is steadily increasing worldwide, it is a choice that I think should be left up to individuals, along with celibacy and sterilization. I am not even remotely prepared to advocate any coercive form of population control.


Reflections on 2011 (& before)

To be honest, 2011 didn’t start out the greatest for me. I had just come back from living at Dancing Crane Farm, which is now under new ownership, but was an organic vegan farm and education center nestled in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While there, I participated in an internship/work exchange and lived in a small community based at the farm. I came back to the Grand Rapids area not planning on staying long. I planned on continuing my adventures at the Agape Community in western Massachussetts. Everything was all set up, they were expecting me in early February, when a friend of mine offered me an invitation to help form a communal household in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I remember asking myself why I would travel half way across the country to live in a community temporarily when I could be living in a more permanent community here.

In November of 2010, I took a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, south of Louisville, Kentucky. Just before leaving, I finally broke off what remained of an old romantic relationship I hadn’t been able to shake. While in Kentucky, I spent my time hiking in the woods, studying, fasting, thinking and praying about what I should do next with my life. After a period of anxiety, I realized that I could be happy with whatever option I chose. When I came home from the monastery I was completely broke, and had to sell some of my possessions just to feed myself. I was so desperate that I got a job working in a plastic injection molding factory until I could save up enough money to be more comfortable.

I met with the group of people who were planning on starting the communal house, eventually named the “Garlic House” or the “Vegan House”. None of them had any experience living that way. They all thought it would just be fun and easy. I knew better, but I decided to give it a shot anyway. We signed a lease and moved in on January 1st. In the end, there was really a lot more conflict than I had anticipated, but it wasn’t something that I was unfamiliar with in the communal setting. But overall I think we accomplished a lot of good things with the house. We managed to maintain (somewhat) regular potlucks and communal meals. We shared our resources, our friends, and our company. I was able to build stronger relationships with my friends Heidie and Jes, and had some interesting experiences with a couch surfer named Ben.

Shortly after moving in to the Garlic House I quit my job at the factory. I decided to suck it up and ask for my old job back at the library. That meant a lot less money, but I could walk to work, have more time to pursue other endeavors, and not feel like an ass for spending my days manufacturing plastic. The only problem was that I had quit my job there previously so that I could travel to the UP. I had been promoted before I left, but when I asked for my job back, they offered me the entry level position. I painfully accepted. It seemed like I was going backwards with my life. I had already been there and done that, yet for some reason I persevered. I couldn’t help wondering if I had left something behind that I had to go back for.

Since I was only working 20 hours a week, I started volunteering at the Heartside Gallery & Studio, another thing I had done before I left. I was put into the ceramics studio, something I had relatively no knowledge about except for a few classes I took in high school. But I managed to teach myself a thing or two about clay, and got to spend a lot of time with a woman named Bertha. I consider her to be more of a grandmother than a friend. She has really made me feel like a member of her family. I got to walk her back to her house many times during the summer, where she showed me her breath-taking urban garden. She had cherries, strawberries, peaches, and many tropical plant cuttings all growing from containers in a run down old parking lot. It was one of the most beautiful and inspiring things I have ever witnessed.

In early April I began volunteering at the Blandford Nature Center Farm. I learned a lot more about farming and sustainability, and got to experience the inner workings of community supported agriculture. I was able to meet and get to know the farmer Aaron and his wife Heather, and had a lot of fun with my good friend Korin on the farm. I ate the best cauliflower, sweet corn, and cantaloupe I have ever eaten. Aaron also gave me my choice of all the produce that didn’t sell at the Farmers’ Market.

In 2011, I also renewed my passion for art. This was something that I had left behind years ago. Four years ago to be precise. That was when I dropped out of art school. This year something clicked though. I realized that I had a natural talent for art, and because of that I should develop it. If I don’t, it will be like I’m wasting the gift I was given. I picked up where I left off at art school this past year, and started renting a studio at Dinderbeck, a local artist collective.

Also, I started hanging out with this girl, Mandi. I think she’s rad. I can’t help but think that the reason I stayed in Grand Rapids was because of her.