catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 11 :: 2013.05.24 — 2013.06.06


Imaginations in recovery

Much has been made, at least in the circles I travel in, of Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”  Like a bucket of finished compost, the poem is rich with all manner of ancient leavings.  Those who are agrarian-minded, whether urban or suburban or rural, can’t help but cherish the expansive significance of each treasure for nourishing our imaginations and subversive practices.

In preparing for this particular issue of catapult, which draws its name from Berry’s poem, I noticed for the first time (duh) how the Mad Farmer plays with the word “profit” when he advises his readers to consider the leaf mold and “call that profit / Prophesy such returns.”  This realization sets me off on a rabbit trail of homophone geekery and one prophetic W.B. leads to another — Walter Brueggemann, to whom I often turn for his reflections on the prophetic imagination.  What Brueggemann describes as the problem of a “contemporary church so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or act” might also be called the disease of the “profitic imagination.”  Berry begins his poem with a vision for the life such an anemic imagination engenders:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

My husband and I returned in the wee hours of this morning from a trip that included extensive driving throughout the Los Angeles suburbs.  Now, I don’t believe there’s a single place in this country that is exempt from Berry’s symptoms of social decay, but a sojourn in an unfamiliar corner of the fifty states — and especially the paths that lead through airports and chain supermarkets and baseball stadiums, which tend to feel like foreign countries to me — has a way of bringing a certain America into sharp relief.  I tried to turn off the flat screen television advertising to me in the checkout line in Albertson’s when the clerk wasn’t looking, but the buttons on the monitor were locked.  Even though we didn’t have an Albertson’s card, she gave us the sale prices anyway — kept the mind out of the little drawer for one more day, I suppose.  To save on parking, avoid traffic and perhaps ease our consciences about all of the driving we were doing in L.A., we walked the two-plus miles from our hotel to Angels Stadium for the Sunday afternoon game, which allowed us to observe the effects of southern California’s pervasive car culture on foot and in slow motion.  We talked on the way about how developments like major league sports stadiums tend to be guided by small thinking, rarely taking into account more than just the expanded tax base of the stadium itself, and foregoing neighborhood restaurants, small businesses and parking garages in favor of an asphalt moat.  The hypermodernism of awning supports masked by giant fake baseball bats at the stadium entrance made me laugh with irony, not joy, and Rob may have accused me of being cynical.

These sorts of complaints seemed trivial every time my mind drifted back to the Midwest, where we had left my sister sitting beside a hospital bed, observing her husband’s tenuous recovery from a ruptured aneurysm in his brain.  We are still praying constantly that in the critical struggle between life and death and something in between, he will emerge to a flourishing life once again.  But even this type of drama, which tends to disillusion us of our petty concerns and commands all of the immediate energy we can muster (and more), takes place within the larger setting of the world we’ve made. How do those without health insurance ever recover from an emergency three-week hospital stay with intensive, life-saving treatment?  Would I, as one of the uninsured, have called 911 in time?  Why would a hospital stow anxious family members in a windowless room with overhead fluorescent lights and no bulbs in the table lamps?

My sister’s role in this moment is to care for her husband, but the rest of us have an ongoing job to do: we must name the symptoms of a society suffering from profitic imagination and begin to cultivate alternative practices for healing and wholeness.  Brueggemann writes,

I will urge that the real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right.  Only in the empire are we pressed and urged and invited to pretend that things are all right — either in the dean’s office or in our marriage or in the hospital room.  And as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism.

The empire of our age has a vested financial interest in our complacency, but false hope, pious platitudes, forced optimism — these are nothing less than the marks of insanity if our true calling is to be people of Christ crucified, who believe that resurrection lies on the other side of suffering.

I think it’s possible for those who embrace the Mad Farmer’s vision for a downwardly mobile, resurrection-practicing society to be so puffed up with self-righteousness that we trample those in crisis on our way to the farmer’s market.  I also think it’s easy for those of us more wary of the Mad Farmer to come up with constant excuses about why the present time is not the right time, or the polite time, to criticize the symptoms of profitic imagination in our communities.  In both cases, we miss the slow, persistent, hopeful nature of the real work which we reclaim with the recover of our imaginations: to cultivate flourishing that is based not on the dollars and stuff we can acquire for ourselves, but on the degree to which we share our time, ideas, skills, food, encouragement and other forms of capital toward the flourishing of our neighbor, who is, through the lens of a prophetic imagination, nothing less than a bearer of Christ himself.

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