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Wendell Was Right

I wonder how the Amish are coping with the coronavirus?

Probably they have been far less affected than most of us. The Amish policy of self-sufficiency with large families farming their own land must give them unusual resilience. Most of us are urban, and even if we wanted to (and I really would quite like to!) adopt a more Amish way of life we lack the skills, opportunity and land to do so. But there are surely things we can learn from their model of household resilience.

For decades Wendell Berry, the American essayist, poet, farmer and campaigner, has been warning us of the dangers of selling ourselves to big farming, big business and big politics. In his essays and novels Berry paints a picture of what could be – self-sufficient households living simply, without debt, and in cooperation with their neighbours: communities where there is a real ‘membership’, with every citizen known and looked out for, and a mutual sense of shared responsibility for the health – political, economic and familial – of the whole community. He has also painted the flipside: land degraded by careless agriculture; relentless ‘growth’ fuelled by ever-expanding debt; the weakening of social cohesion; and an enslavement to the consumer society which masquerades as freedom.

As Andrew pointed out the other day, “households are becoming the basic social unit of the church. Social, and often legal, limitations on contact mean that we now think of ourselves fundamentally as members of a household rather than as individuals, for probably the first time in living memory.”

There are plenty of memes flying around about the pressures this is bringing. I especially enjoyed the one of a mother who had gaffer-taped her child to the floor as she tried to get on with some work. But these pressures (and jokes) aside, the recovery of the household presents a real opportunity for society as a whole and the church in particular. Resilience to plague and disaster is greatest in households who are best able to look after themselves, in cooperation with other such households.

I’m trying to work out what this might look like in the urban environments where we live: digging up our lawns and growing vegetables instead might be part of the answer but certainly isn’t sufficient for true resilience. Here are some ideas I’m mulling over.

We need local political resilience. For years, in the free West, we have asked the question, ‘What would it be like to live in a society where the authorities prevent believers from meeting together?’ Now we know. A few weeks back it would have been inconceivable that we would soon be living under martial law, but that is essentially what has happened. I believe the government is acting with the best intentions, with the best knowledge available to it, but the staggering power of the state is still alarming: that schools and businesses can be shut, church services closed, and movement outside the home curtailed is extraordinary. What if a government decided to take such steps for less benign reasons than the current ones? Having discovered its own power, can we really be confident that government might not want to flex the same muscles again?

The best way to protect against the tyranny of an over-powerful central state is by the existence of robust local politics. By ‘politics’ here I mean polities – not just local mayors or councils that have real clout, but communities who are able to organise and stand together. The irony of the Amish is that they stand outside mainstream politics, and yet their polity is strong. The church should not be political but she is a polity. We need to find ways in which churches exercise their political resilience – and that will need to be worked out by resilient households that comprise resilient local churches.

We need local economic resilience. In this time of crisis many of us have suddenly found ourselves dependent on small, local, businesses in a new way. The corner shop has assumed a new importance. The local butcher we haven’t used because he is more expensive than the supermarket has started to attract more custom. In the UK local highstreets have been dying – don’t we feel the need of them now? Perhaps coronavirus is a wakeup call to us that we need to develop resilient local economies rather than relying so heavily on the global one. What part might churches play in encouraging this?

We need technological resilience. Tech is our tool and a very useful one at this time. But as I posted on Monday, there is a real danger that our increasing dependence on tech at this time will lead to our greater enslavement by Big-Tech: something that will weaken rather than strengthen our resilience. Even as we are all using tech more we should be making plans to reduce our dependence upon it. Once this crisis is over what platforms, programs and practices will we ditch? To be truly resilient we might better use our time learning how to service a car ourselves, or keep chickens, or build a wall. Churches have a part to play in this as even while we move so much online we should be pastoring people in how to live without being permanently connected. This is essential for our own health and wellbeing, but it is also a good strategy for developing resilience – what if next time around it is not a virus that gets us but a global internet glitch?

I think Wendell has been right all along. Certainly not on everything, no, but on the big picture, yes. We’re not all going to replicate the Amish but we should all learn some resilience. That will need to begin in households. It should be demonstrated in local churches. It could be what keeps us alive.

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