Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Burdens and Balances

I've just become aware of the Spirit of the Poor synchroblog, a conversation between people trying to live less as citizens of the consumer culture and more as citizens of the Kingdom of God, to do justice and live Jubilee in our economic lives, and I'm taking this opportunity to jump into that conversation. (If you've been reading this blog or St. Francis Farm's newsletter, you've heard about a lot of what's in this post before--sorry.  But do check out the SoP conversation...)

Luke Harms, who started off this month's round of synchroblogging, wrote: We can start by taking ourselves out of the center of our economic decision-making processes and reminding ourselves often that we are a part of a greater, interconnected whole.  We can start by seeking God in our own communities and working to discern what justice and jubilee look like in our particular contexts. 

I've been struggling with these issues for the last twenty years or so, since I started studying economics as a homeschooled adolescent and realized that my daily consumption supported the mistreatment of migrant workers and sweatshop laborers and the degradation of the earth.  I've had Leviticus 19:16b ringing in my mind and heart: Thou shalt not profit from thy neighbor's blood. Also Ephesians 4:25b: We are members one of another. I know that, more certainly than I know anything.  I know that we are bound together invisibly in God, so that our faithfulness helps and our unfaithfulness hinders others in ways that are hidden from us; I also know that we are bound together invisibly in an economic system that provides comforts for some at a terrible cost to others. 

For the last thirteen years I've been living and working at St. Francis Farm, an intentional community in the Catholic Worker tradition whose avowed mission is to live an alternative to the consumer culture.  I am not sure I've found any answers, but I do find some questions becoming clearer.  There are two major ones that I am aware of now:

How can I live in a way that does less harm to other people and the planet?

This question becomes more urgent and more complicated as I live further into it.  Here at the farm we grow a large amount of our own food and some extra to give away, we get heating fuel and building material from out woodlot, we travel by bike not car when it's feasible.  Most of the time I'm able to buy clothes, computers etc. used, which feels a little more like recycling and less like supporting exploitative practices...  But we still buy food and gasoline, and this troubles me more viscerally now that I have shared play, work, meals, stories and prayers with migrant workers injured on commercial  farms and with refugees, some of whom were fleeing from oil-related conflicts. 

This question brings up a host of technical questions: how can we grow more of the fodder our animals need on our own land? what crop varieties will grow well in the increasingly violent weather swings caused by our changing climate? what alternative energy sources can we use?  Then there are the questions of priority. How do we balance the good done by to taking car trips to take part in community meetings or help neighbors with projects and the harm done by buying and burning still more gas? Is it better to put limited time, energy and space into growing more feed for our animals so we're not buying ethically questionable grain, or into growing more vegetables for the soup kitchen? 

This sounds rather negative, but there's also a positive side to it.  I enjoy the sense of competence that comes with being able to do more for myself.  I am glad that we're able to help people figure out how to make and do more for themselves and their neighbors. I'm encouraged when we hear from neighbors who have started raising goats or guests who have gone home to start community gardens.

How can I give and receive help appropriately?

This is the one that still really hooks my emotions.  

Galatians 6:2 says "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."  Galatians 6:5 says "For each one should carry his own load."  Both are valuable and necessary.  Either one, taken alone or wrongly, can lead to distortion. I'm still learning to balance them.

I came to St. Francis Farm because I wanted to stop dumping my economic load on other people, and also because I felt that I had received a lot and wanted to give back.  Sometimes I've been able to do that. I've also become more aware of--though not necessarily more comfortable with--the ways in which I need help.  

At the farm we're fed, housed and transported partly by our own labor, partly by donations and volunteer help.  I'm grateful for those who give. I'm fairly comfortable with this form of burden-sharing in which people give freely to us so that we can give freely to others.  There isn't a hard line between those who give and those who receive.  People in tight economic circumstances make donations to the farm and people who are tired and stretched take time to help us with our work. That can be humbling and uncomfortable. Also, perhaps, helpful--I think that one of the most basic human needs is the need to be a giver, to have something to share, and sometimes we do people whom we see as poor a disservice by wanting to do things for them and not being willing to have that reciprocated.

My dependence on Medicaid is much less comfortable, since it requires people to support me whether they want to or not. I suppose there is educational value in knowing how it feels to be regarded as a taker, a parasite.  I think I would mind it less if I was completely convinced that that judgment was unwarranted.  But I mind that dependence somewhat less than my continuing dependence on fossil fuels and other neighbor-damaging goods, and the unpaid way of life which has brought me to Medicaid has also helped me to reduce that other dependence...

My struggles with anxiety and obsessive/compulsive tendencies have shown up my dependence on the insight and patience of those who live and work with me.  Those struggles have also shown me something about the limits of helping.   In my more difficult times I wanted to be understood, sympathized with, accommodated, not challenged.  (Those were same things I tried, in my better times, to do for people whose lives were harder than my own.)  Sometimes this was really what I needed.  Sometimes instead I needed to be challenged and held accountable.  I needed to stop focusing on myself and be aware of what the stronger-seeming people around me needed.   

It's easier for me to see how this works emotionally.  But I think economically there is a similar hard balance--people have very real needs that are not met, and people from all classes in this ad-crazed culture want things that they don't need and sometimes grab at their wants before their needs, and it's hard to know when and how to help most effectively.

It's true that people who are stronger should help those who are struggling.  But when we only acknowledge that part of the truth we can fall into the distorted belief that need entitles people to help and excuses them from doing what they can.  People get defined as helpers and helped, the helped become weaker and more demanding, and the helpers become exhausted and resentful or self-righteous. 

    People observing this problematic pattern may decide that helping is pathological, that they should hold onto what they have and not take responsibility for their neighbors.  This distortion ignores the ways in which we all depend on other people.  It makes us narrow, selfish and disconnected.

    The way between can be hard to find. I've been grateful for the people who have challenged me to do things that felt difficult, helped me to find resources and guidance, and borne with me when I was really unable to do some of what needed to be done.  I'm trying to learn to do this with other people. 

I don't know the answers.  I am grateful for other people who are willing to share the questions. Their fellowship makes it a little easier to avoid the distorted thinking that reduces all these questions to Am I doing well enough? Am I a good person now?, makes it a little easier to remember that the goal is to live in wholeness and in truth as members of one another and of God.


Newell Hendricks said...

Joanna, Thank you so much for joining our discussion and contributing the story of your farm. You are facing head on the issues that we all face, and doing it with intentionality and faith. I once heard Bill McKibben talk about a formula he had regarding travel in order to give a talk. It inovled how many people he would be influencing and for how long; ballanced against the fuel to get there. The point is that we have to make choices. They may be not the best ones, but the effort to use all the information we have is what we can do. I'm so glad that Judy spread the news of this conversation. Newell

Craig Barnett said...

Thanks for continuing to explore these questions of faith, Joanna, which are so important for us to share and encourage each other to stay focussed on.
Your perspective on Medicaid contrasts strongly with the way that our National Health Service (entirely free health care for everyone funded through taxation) is viewed in the UK. Over here, health care is almost universally seen as a 'public good', and hence a shared responsibility. From a British perspective, a healthy population is something that benefits the whole of society, so it is generally accepted that we all pay towards ensuring equal access to healthcare regardless of income. As you can imagine, people over here find it hard to understand the opposition to socialised medicine in the US...
PS I hope you received my email a little while ago, and thanks again for your ministry. In Friendship,

Juliet said...

Joanna, this is fascinating. So glad I've found your blog through this link-up. I share Craig's perspective on health care - it's in all our interests that people have access to health care and when I've paid taxes I've always been really glad that they contribute to that. But you raise so many good points about balance, I've got lots to take away with me from reading this which is why I'm so enjoying this Spirit of the Poor community.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thank you all!

Newell, thank you for the reminder about the importance of choosing well and the impossibility of being sure we've hosen for the best. Also thank you for your blog, which I have just begun to read--particualrly for writing so clearly and openly about the details of figuring out how to live rightly within strict limitations of space and health and energy.

Craig, I did get your email, greatly enjoyed it, thought about what i wanted to say back and then lost it in the course of a series of disruptions in mid February...sorry! I've just written a belated response and will try to be prompter next time.

Craig and Juliet, thank you for a different perspective on health care. It's good to remember what an outlier this country is... I think I have always been clear about the importance of providing care for people who *can't* pay; I have chosen the things that make me unable to pay. . . but the 'public goods' theory of health care makes a great deal of sense to me and covers both cases. I should know but don't--how long have you folks had the NHS?

Craig Barnett said...

Hi Joanna,
In the UK we've had the NHS since 1948 - created when Britain was bankrupt and deeply in debt to the USA after the second world war. The current neo-liberal government is making great efforts to privatise it by stealth at the moment, but it still has enormous support from the public (especially since many of us are only alive thanks to NHS doctors - including my son who needed brain surgery as a baby). Even the opening ceremony of the London Olympics a couple of years ago included a section celebrating the NHS - which was probably incomprehensible to people watching overseas, but which brought cheers of pride from British audiences... It's 44:00 minutes in at:
(Just for anyone who is interested).

Rev. Emily Heitzman said...

Wow, Joanna. This is an excellent post. I love your final points about doing this in community. It is so important. I too often forget that I cannot do the ministry I am doing or work to "live in a way that does less harm to other people and the planet" by myself, and that I cannot give appropriately when I am not willing and able to also receive. Thank you for this reminder. So glad you joined this conversation!