Sex-Economy-Freedom-CommunityWendell Berry is the preeminent thinker and writer of community and ecology in American Christianity. Like Marilynne Robinson, Berry has been embraced by not only by Christians but by conservatives as well. Which is a curiosity, since much of Robinson’s and Berry’s opinions ought to set conservatives’ teeth on edge. Some of those opinions are set out in vivid and stark language in Berry’s book from the early 1990s, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community.

A collection of eight essays looking at American culture and politics from the front porch of Berry’s rural Kentucky farmhouse, each harkens for a simpler time and a return to community and neighborliness.

I share Berry’s overall outlook and longing for more community, but I found some of his proposals naive, especially in regard to politics. In “Peaceableness Toward Enemies,” Berry lays out fifty-three principles of how America could have (should have) responded to the 1991 invasion of Kuwait by then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Employing a plethora of pacifist political and rhetorical tropes, Berry fails to appreciate that the peaceful protests of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. (two anti-war figures used to make his point) were able to succeed in their peaceful protests because they protested in relatively peaceful nations. This doesn’t excuse the abuses of British India or the American South, but both nations were committed to the rule of law, not the rule of the bayonet and bullet as Hussein was. Berry fails to account for the fact that bullies speak only one language: power, not peace.

More heartening were the last two essays, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” and “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.” Both not only tackle larger national concerns than the earlier essays—the Christian community’s general lack of concern for ecology and the sexualization of our culture that is inextricable linked to economic issues—both are more thoughtful and well balanced.

The final essay is clearly the most ambitious and provocative. Decrying the destruction of any private notion of sex—all is public now—Berry warns of an ever growing individualism and an ever shrinking communalism. In what has become the “I” society, the masters of marketing peddle products like pimples peddle flesh, devaluating not just sex as a divine expression of intimate community between bonded individuals but devaluing community standards of morality and decency. Berry also reminds us that the sexualization of our society devalues individuals as well. The publicity of sex and the rise of individualism effects freedom—it turns freedom into an exclusive fight for individual rights. The problem with this now prevailing vision of freedom (even championed by most conservatives) is that individual rights are always in conflict with another’s rights, requiring more legislation and/or regulation to mediate between the two. But since legislation and regulation so rarely strike an equitable balance, other individuals feel set upon, requiring more legislation and regulation . . . in a never-ending loop. And so it goes. What Berry calls for is a return to an older idea—a freedom that values community, the common good, or what the founders called “the general welfare.”

And if we could ever return to that idea America would be closer to paradise, not just on Berry’s Kentucky farm but in every city and hamlet across this great land of ours.

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