• Voices for Agrarian Life

Agriculture and Ideological Purity by Pastor Sam Chamelin

I remember my mother had a page from “Our Daily Bread” taped to the inside of one of the cupboards in the kitchen. This particular devotion cast a spotlight on the duality of the chicken farmer.

"A good chicken farmer would never go to bed until the chickens’ every needs were met- safety, food, water, health, a giver and protector of life in every day. Yet, the good chicken farmer would also not hesitate to kill a fox that threatened the life of the flock."

This kind of self-sacrificial care combined with a smoldering wrath against any threat spoke to the love and intensity of God, who loves and cares for humanity, yet rages against injustice and sin.

This story still helps me make sense of my agricultural philosophy. Agriculture is a cycle of life and death – planting and harvesting, irrigating and weeding, fertilizing and the controlling of pests. In this way, agriculture is neither a practice of life OR of death. Agriculture struggles with ideological purity.

Good agriculture demands a nuanced view of life and death, profit and loss, joy and sadness. Good farmers bring life and they preserve that life with death where required. Wendell Berry spoke of this delicate balance, “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration, we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness and others to want.”

These themes of life and death were front and center for me at the Carroll County 4-H & FFA Fair. On the one hand, the animals that arrived at the fair are the most well-kept, dearly loved animals in the county. They’ve been pampered, fed only the best feed, housed in excellent and comfortable settings, and had every need attended to by young men and women who love these animals and invest real time, money, and emotional bandwidth into these creatures. On the other hand is the hard truth that at the conclusion of the fair, many of these animals will be sold and slaughtered. This tension is often difficult for many people to wrap their heads around, equally including exhibitors and visitors, “Why would anyone slaughter an animal they’ve loved so deeply?” Agriculture struggles with ideological purity.

Many of our deepest faith questions are not problems to solve but rather tensions to manage. If human flourishing depends on “shedding the blood of Creation,” it is incumbent upon Christians to do that sacramentally. Fortunately, we have a thoughtful record of such a wrangling in the dietary laws of the Hebrew Scriptures. Certainly one can get lost in the weeds of individual laws, but a wide-angle lens reveals a broad sense that fidelity to God was linked to and expressed by the way one related to the land and to one’s food. The core of agriculture was not the field, but the altar.

The sacrifice of holocausts of first-born quality lambs draws our minds to the spirituality of not only our food but our livelihoods, knowing that it all belongs to God. This forces us to think religiously about our food, a direct challenge to our modern compartmentalized lifestyles that keeps religion in one box, our economics in another.

Perhaps the most prominent and well-known of Hebrew dietary practices was the restrictions around eating certain animals. The first and most important consequence of this restriction is the simple reality that not everything should be killed. Killing should not be indiscriminate and widespread. As a community, they said, “We will eat these things, and only these things, in a way that is faithful to the God who is himself restrained and thoughtful.”

A second consequence is to curb the dual threats of excess and want. When we indiscriminately kill and eat, those with means tend to accumulate food for themselves because they have the ability to find more exotic tastes, and hoard stores of food. Yet when the people of Israel say, “Here is our diet,” it limits the ability of faithful people to hoard and store, and requires a wider distribution for the good of all.

Finally, we should not ignore the provisions of the law that permit celebration. Many times indulging and celebrating are called for, thus allowing food to connect us in the most profound ways and remind us of the goodness of the Creator who has provided for our every need.

Over the past six months, our son Caleb has raised two market hogs. They get the very best of everything, including a lot of backscratching, the occasional apple from my in-laws’ tree and a glorious fan blowing cool air in the middle of the hot summer. Yet when it came time to sell them, Caleb’s face fell. It’s never easy to say goodbye to a friend. So we cried. A lot! It’s hard, and I pray it will always be so. But at the same time, we are grateful to have provided such an excellent life for two pigs, offered a powerful learning opportunity for Caleb that touches his emotions (not just his wallet), and presented an excellent and conscientious product for our community. We are hopeful that laughter, memories, and relationships will emerge as his buyer, along with their friends and families, join together for a meal. All I can do is wonder and celebrate the life we experienced and the joy of a job well done in conjunction with knowing a friendly and rambunctious pig. This tells me that there’s something of God in the midst of it all. In other words, a sacrament.