Bees: Wendell Berry and the Christian Church and the Local Good

“In healing the scattered members come together.”

Healing, Wendell Berry

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Years ago, my family and I visited a bee farmer. A family owned business, they set up bee boxes all around farms in Northern Alberta. We took a tour of their plant, where all of the bee boxes were collected and the honey harvested.

The plant darkened by the swarms and swarms of bees, buzzing around the honey machines and labourers. My wife asked, “Aren’t you afraid of getting stung while you’re working?”

The patriarch of the company nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “But when you get stung about 20-30 times a day, you sometimes forget to worry.”

The fellow then would pick up piles of live bees as if they were grain, let them run through his fingers, and then he popped one in his mouth. He let the bee fly around amongst his jaw before he opened his mouth to let the creature out.

“You can do a lot with bees, as long as you are gentle and not anxious,” he said to my family. The moment you get scared, the bees get scared too and will fight back.   Or if you’re mean, they will push back. But move slowly, with a calm and directed pace, you can work long hours.”

He then talked about all of the farms that had his bee boxes. Bees, he argued, are fantastic for farms. In their building of honey, they carry a set of good things from plant to plant.   Soon, the whole culture of the farming region becomes healthier because of the bees’ network. The bees move from flower to flower, exchanging health. Moving like their farmer, gently and without anxiety, they work for the common health of the land.

There’s been a lot of talk about what is and isn’t Christian.   Maybe I get this most because I am a Christian minister. But I think it is, at the heart, our consideration of the role of religion.

Is the President of the United States Christian or not?   Is the church a Christian organization or just organizes Christian things?   Can someone do Christian things without ever believing in the Christian doctrine?

These are good question for they deal with the key virtue of integration: can faith impact community and can community impact the world?   If not, we shouldn’t bother with our faith for it is just a fairy tale. But if reading our Bible or praying 5 times a day on a mat or not working on the Sabbath leads to a better health care for our country and sets up stronger families, then integration is a much needed tool.

When asked what something will look like that is it’s most Christian, I answer: “It looks like bees.”

 

Gentle, Without Anxiety

Anxiety is contagious. When I have been asked to pastor or lead an anxious congregation, getting from point “A” to “B” is a little more difficult than herding ostriches with their tails afire.

Why? You’d think anxious people would be aware of their problems (and maybe even aware of things that aren’t problems but should be) and would be willing to move to any kind of solution.

It’s not that easy.   Anxiety, in a culture, can become it’s own event, it’s own party. And anxiety begets anxiety, so there can be a state of being where a community can become just anxious, bouncing from reason to reason to reason for that anxiety until you run out of labels.

I used to think the opposite of love was hate, but no longer: I think it is anxiety.

So when our leaders add to our fears (which seems to be the norm in American politics) or seek to teach us to run from our fears (as in the case of many views of Christian discipleships [see https://ericjkregel.wordpress.com/2017/04/28/what-if-the-christian-church-sought-to-reflect-gods-goodness-instead-of-becoming-really-really-big-imago-dei/], then we look like anxious bees swarming and attacking and not pollinating.

What if leadership wasn’t anxious and the people who followed their leaders weren’t anxious?

Then the culture would look different than anxiety, possibly more….loving.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love,” 1 John 4:18 asserts.

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During the transition of moving the Jews from the government run ghettos into concentration camps, the Nazis gathered a large number of elderly Rabbis to be killed in the streets. Dressed in their Hasidic garb and wearing prayer shawls, those in charge wanted to make it perfectly clear who was the target and that anything Jewish-faith, culture, or otherwise- would be stamped out.

The commanding trooper set fire to a stack of Holy books before the old men. “Sing Jews,” he ordered. “Sing a Hasidic Ditty!”   He ordered a nearby Nazi band to play a slow, funeral dirge.   “Attack them,” he ordered his troops. “Force them against the wall!” He pointed to the huddle of old men. “Sing, you dirty Jews, or you will die!”

A sad voice cried out from the group. “Let us be reconciled, Heavenly Father,” the man said. The Nazis looked around, unable to locate the speaker. “Let us be reconciled.”

And then the voice sang. The song was to the tune of the dirge, but it was different. The tempo was faster, the melody different. Later, it would have been concluded that the dirge’s origins were not German, but lifted from a Yiddish folk song with different words.

He sang in Hebrew. “We shall outlive them, Heavenly Father. We shall outlive them.” As the song swelled and he sang loud, he danced. Locking his arms with the men near him, his feet stomped and others joined him in the singing of this familiar song.

As air is to our bodies, dancing was to those Rabbis. Many of the older men, in fact, boasted that as they grew in age, they grew in dancing skills. Lifting their hands to Jehovah, flinging their feet and legs wildly to the left and right, the Nazi officers could not believe their eyes.

The officer gave the orders to fire. A moment followed by a pause, a hesitation. The young men behind their rifles sensed a power in their praise, in their dance that was greater than the Third Reich, their leaders, or the routine of daily firing squads. The officer shouted his orders again and they did not listen, watching the old men dance before them.

Finally, the officer pulled out his revolver and pointed it at the young soldiers, ordering them to carry out his orders. Fearfully, the young men did as they were told and pulled the triggers.

What’s so remarkable about this story?[1] It’s about leadership in the face of anxiety and the result is the beginning of healing of the German land. It began with the dancing Rabbis.

            Gentleness is the other virtue.   When we are obsessed with power and control, gentleness gets wrongfully defined as weakness, timidity, or softness. These are abhorrent definitions.

Gentleness is applying the right amount of pressure or distance in order to invoke positive change.   It’s knowing when speak and when to be silent; when to answer a question or let it linger in the room; and when to take control or to leave well enough alone.   All for the purpose of a common good, a mutual redemption.

When I play basketball with my elementary aged girls, I don’t play to win. As a parent, slam dunks and “dirty play” and using my momentum against them will ruin the game. And it’s all about the game.   I could also leave the court and let them play, insuring that they will always win the game. But that’s absence and abandonment. No, gentleness is to play in a way where everyone enjoys the game.

Bees can make farming better when they move with love and kindness, instead of fear and malice.  Bees, in general, improve the land.

A few weeks ago, someone asked to put a bee box atop my inner-city church. An exciting notion because it could bring back health and vitality to the trees of our neighbourhood, smothered by smog and the shadows of buildings and cement.   If done right, the bees could move through our neighbourhood with love and gentleness that would be best for our land’s culture.

 

Agriculture Culture

 

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         As many of you know, I like quoting Wendell Berry and I think he is very pro-bee.

“The word agriculture,” Wendell Berry writes in The Unsettling of America. “After all, does no mean ‘agriscience,’ much less ‘agribusiness’. It means ‘cultivation of the land.’ And cultivation is at the root of the sense both of culture and cult.   The ideas of tillage and worship are joined in culture. And these words all come from an Indo-European root meaning both ‘to revolve’ and ‘to dwell’.   To live, to survive on the Earth, to care for the soil, and to worship, are all bound at the root to the idea of a cycle.”[2]

Bees network with flowers and with the hive. This network creates better plants, better harvests.   The better plants wither and die, turning into better soil. The soil then houses better plants. The cycle continues.   The bees network seeks to co-operate with the local good and make it better; if the bees were ever to rob, exploit, cut-off, or steal then the honey would be threatened.

“If we corrupt agriculture we corrupt culture,” Wendell Berry adds. “For in nature and within certain invariable social necessities we are one body, and what afflicts the hand will afflict the brain.”[3]

            A network of bees-when doing what is good- will bring good to the neighbourhood, the land.

A friend of mine once borrowed her teenage sons’ car and it smelled like a sick boy’s locker room.   When the boy came home, she insisted on why he never cleaned it. He insisted he did but there was another reason for the smell.   A quiet fellow, he simply apologized and went to his room.

The next day, she saw her son driving out of his school and she unintentionally followed him home (you do this, at times, as a parent of a teenager).   She watched him make several stops, all to people who were digging in trash cans along the way.   Her son would go in the back of his car and offer bags of recycled bottles (Or “empties” as we call them in Alberta) to these folks. He would talk to them, listen, and in one case, he prayed with them.

When they both got at home, she confronted him and he confessed that he was collecting all of the recycles from his church, school, and work for the purpose of getting to know the homeless population of his neighbourhood. “They’re invisible,” he said. “And I think it’s best for everyone if they weren’t.”

Her son was acting like a bee.

 

Home and Farm

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Wendell Berry again:

What we are up against in this country, in any attempt to invoke private responsibility, is that we have nearly destroyed the private life. Our people have given up their independence in return for cheap seductions and the shoddy merchandise of so-called ‘affluence.’ We have delegated all our vital functions and responsibilities to salesmen and agents and bureaus and experts of all sorts. We cannot feed or clothes ourselves, or entertain ourselves, or communicate with each other, or be charitable or neighborly or loving, or even respect ourselves, without recourse to a merchant or a corporation or a public service organization or an agency of the government or a style setter or an expert…We do not understand the earth in terms of what it offers us or of what it requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably destroy what they do not understand.[4]

 

Berry’s proposed solution?   Think little:

While the government is “studying” and funding and organizing its Big Thought, nothing is being done. But the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem. A man who is trying to live as a neighbor to his neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of the work of peace and brotherhood, and let there be no mistake about it- he is doing that work. A couple who makes a good marriage, and raise healthy, morally competent children, are serving the world’s future more directly and surely than any political leader, though they never utter a public word. A good farmer who is dealing with the problem of soil erosion on an acre of ground has a sounder grasp of that problem and cares more about it and is probably doing more to solve it than any bureaucrat who is talking about it in general.[5]

 

A bee seeks one flower at a time, one task per day and then in concert with all of the rest of the bees, local good abounds. The culture and agriculture gets redeemed.   Things grow. The land heals. The network increases.

It all begins with the question: “What is the good I can do right in front of me?”

When asked what is Christian type of thing, I would answer by stating that it seeks to move in networks with the local good for the purpose of bringing a greater good to those within the network.

Or, in short, move like bees.

In Jeremiah 29:4-7, it reads: “ “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon,‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their [a]produce. Take wives and [b]become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. Seek the [c]welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its [d]welfare you will have [e]welfare.’”

Take care of the work in front of you (family, friends, neighbourhood) with the trust that the more you do, the better things get.

Be like bees.

 

 

[1] From the documentary “Genocide”, Koch Entertainment, 1981.

[2] Berry, Wendell. “The Unsettling of America”, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977, pg. 87.  

[3] Berry, Pg. 91.

[4] Berry, Wendell. A Continuous Harmony, Berkeley: Counterpoint, 73-74.

[5] Berry, A Continuous Harmony, 77-78.

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