Greener Than Thou

Ancient Testimony ~ Jeremiah 31:25

April 25, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

 You have surely heard the phrase “Follow the Money” before. It is the route to good journalism and good thinking, personally and politically. The money will lead you to Goldman Sachs’s door—and there you may also find a mirror. In that mirror you may find the self you have been looking for, the one that knows the truth and is made free by it.

When we say “Follow the Money,” we often mean that other people should follow the money, while we look on in an accusing manner, telling them that they were wrong to follow the money. I call this “the moral shelf.” We sit up somewhere, disengaged, accusing others of destroying our planet or our life. From there we get the exquisite joy of being powerless. That position becomes the holier than thou position, the greener than thou position, the one where you are so sure that the money is the leader that you forget you might be its follower. The money seems so big and you seem so small. How could you be a private in this general’s army? You wake up in a moral cul-de-sac, one with a dead end sign at its entrance. You will have arrived at the corner of Victim and Blame, and there you will rent an unhappy apartment.
Instead, if you can follow the money’s lead—the older-timers called it “the flesh”—in your own life, you may find a moral highway, one that goes places and does things. If you can follow the money to your own table, you will find a way to get free and eat well. You will become green, which is ever so much more digestible than being greener than thou. You will rent a happy apartment at the corner of Plain and Simple, which is between Fresh and Direct. And I don’t mean that ubiquitous truck. I mean fresh and direct.
This sermon is a highway, not a shelf. It is a finger pointed in rather than pointed out. It is a guide to what the bible tells us about food as a gateway green issue. Its objective is to get you to either join the CSA or want to, if you can’t. A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is a plain and simple tool whereby you buy food direct from a farmer whom you know. Packaging is all but eliminated. Friendship is established. An economy is developed in a bar where everybody knows your name.

I am going to give four quick pictures of the highway that is green rather than greener than thou. The first will be scriptural. The second will be by way of one of my cultural heroes, Molly Ivins. The third will come from Friday’s Community Ministry table, here at Judson. And the fourth will go, necessarily, to a cultural and political analysis. Call me epicurious, which is to say really interested in green food, from lots of angles.
When we buy our food direct, or as directly as possible, or as locally as possible, or as freshly and directly as possible, we understand that food is an economic or moneyed transaction. We also note that religion is as much a way to follow the money as it is to follow God. Yup. Religious practices are often economic practices. Sabbath, for example, in the first instance, is not about worship. It is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being. It is easy to imagine that in Pharaoh’s system there never was a Sabbath for everyone. Everyone was 24/7! The slaves never got a day off and perhaps had to multitask to meet their quotas. Pharaoh surely never took a day off; he was too busy writing memos and sending out work orders and quotas. As a result, everyone was caught up in an endless process of production and accumulation. Sabbath is an economic event as much as a spiritual event.
If you are the kind of person who never takes a Sabbath, you are probably following the money very well in your life. Somebody somewhere has told you that you can’t stop working. And you have believed them. “Follow the money” is not just advice for mean, greedy capitalists. It applies to many of us and the way we actually use our time and live our lives.
Deuteronomy 24:19-22 echoes this Sabbath understanding. “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore, I am commanding you to do this.” The commandments and religious practices of scripture name the money crops—grain, olives, grapes, wine, bread: the central produce of a market economy—as the primary places of religious observance. Our text for today liberates food from feeding the flesh only, while staying within this market economy: “I will refresh those who are weary and will satisfy with food everyone who is weak from hunger.” You may have been hearing me as a Marxist so far, in that way we imagine that Marxists think everything is about the money and its exchange. Scripture is not Marxist. It actually thinks everything is about refreshment and justice and that the proper use of money and crops is the way to refreshment and justice.
“Refreshments will be served.” Don’t you just love to hear that when you go to a meeting? Refreshment will be served. That is the gist of scripture’s understanding of the money. Its proper use is holy. Its improper use is evil, which evil bites you in the rear as much as it bites the poor. Money gets us to food. We buy and sell food. There are ways to do that which are beautiful and ways to do that which are not.

In our world today, we do not eat beautifully. We are neither close to the source nor refreshed by our food. It has become fuel. Food is different than fuel. People who imagine they don’t have time to cook or buy or sit at table are enslaved. Think Styrofoam gobbled on the subway and you will know what I mean.
Which takes me to Molly Ivins. I could go to any number of other people who are smart enough to challenge their mental, physical, emotional, spiritual slavery—a slavery to which we often consent—but for today let me just talk about her. To be green involves getting spiritual enough and political enough to challenge our slavery to money. Our own slavery to money, not somebody else’s. It is first an act of the mind, the heart, and the will, and then the act of tabling. The spirit either leads the flesh or lets the flesh lead the spirit—and when the flesh leads the spirit, we are enslaved. Yesterday I went with a group of women down to Philadelphia to see Kathleen Turner do a one-woman show on Molly Ivins’s life. Ivins had a joyous irreverence toward the money people, which I would like to recommend as a way out of slavery. Her life-goal was to be a pain in the ass to people with power. She lived to make sure they didn’t sleep well at night. She worried about herself in a beautiful way, wondering if she had ever really touched anyone or let anyone touch her. She died at 62 of breast cancer, after a life she described as “beer and Marlboros.” Speaking of her alcoholism, she said, “Alcohol may lead nowhere, but it sure is the scenic route.” When fired by New York Times publisher Abe Rosenthal for using language unbefitting to the New York Times, in describing a group of people plucking chickens as a “Gang Pluck,” she said, “Oh, Mr. Rosenthal, you are a very astute man. That is indeed the kind of language the Times would not use.” She had also lost a sentence to another editor. That sentence said a man had a beer belly that ought to be entered in the Smithsonian. The Times edited it out and instead of referring to the man’s beer gut said that he had a protuberant abdomen. When interviewing Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, who made some awful excuse for something, she said to him, “I’ll bet that sounded better in the original German.” Ivins disrespected power. Most of us respect money, or at least we respect it enough to be courteous to it. Want to be green? Disrespect power. Don’t hate power. That will give you indigestion and turn you into a self-righteous prig. Make fun of power. It and you will benefit. When I speak of the internalized oppression of ordinary Americans, I mean this indigestion we have about power. We eat the way they tell us to eat. We drink the way they tell us to drink. Instead, green people eat what they want to eat and drink what they want to drink, with each other. Ivins is one great guide to the moral freedom that is prelude to living less money bound.
At the Community Ministry table on Friday, there were about ten of us. We were talking about our dismay at the Arizona law, about hate speech, about how hard it is to just be against something when what we really wanted to do was to be for something. I asked each person around the table to give a picture of what they wanted. Micah said he wanted a world of super heroes, where everyone would be given a cape. C.B. said she wanted a beautiful table with good food on it and friends around it. Most of the images that followed were Eucharistic. I was ever so reminded that feminist theologian Rosemary Reuther has long understood our modern condition as a form of Eucharistic starvation. We don’t know our farmers, we don’t know our butchers or bakers or candlestick makers. We have layers and layers and layers between us and our friends and our food. To be green is to be Eucharistic. It is not that hard! But it does involve us in following the money to justice and not to slavery. It does involve us in giving ourselves the permission to be refreshed at table.

Finally, let me connect the dots. (1) The scripture’s love of just exchange connects with (2) Molly’s love of irreverence for those in power, and each is a basis for our many desires for (3) Eucharistic tables. PopLab did some of this linking by asking people who usually don’t talk to each other to engage in talk. So let’s talk about Facebook and how it connects to these dots. The Facebook phenomenon matters. It is “so sudden and forceful a distortion of social space” [Deresiewicz, below] that it needs little elaboration. If we have 768 friends, in what sense do we have any? If we buy food from agribusiness, what kind of food is it? Who grew it? Who packaged it? Both our patterns of food and friendship follow a similar path, one articulated by William Deresiewicz in a great article in Utne this week. It is called “Faux Friendship.” He argues that we are accelerating the fragmentation of consciousness by Facebook and its so-called friends. That fragmentation is surely a piece of how we eat and how we green or don’t green. I just don’t know how many more faceless conference phone calls I can be on. This week there were dozens. I want to do my politics up front and in person. Many people love MoveOn but it starts to feel more grey than green. Clicking a pre-packaged political message is a lot like those awful carrots in bags. Tasteless. Not much nutrition for the epicurious. People need to touch each other. We need to peel our own carrots. We need to have one or two friends, not hundreds. Those one or two friends need the permission to touch us, love us, challenge us, and amuse us. One soul-mate is worth more than any amount of money could ever give us. High-touch needs to go with high-tech as we eat and friend.

We don’t know the people who make the things we buy. No wonder we don’t give a damn about them. We are connected to everyone, but we don’t really know anyone. Older people get put in institutions where their food utterly disconnects them from their Swedish meatballs. No wonder we can’t mount a political campaign that has joy and just table at its base. We have subcontracted Grandma’s food.

Surely Facebook has its virtues. It helps us feel connected to people we otherwise would have to forget. I am going to my 40th high school reunion in West Virginia this summer. Facebook is helping me but also driving me a bit nuts, especially since one of my classmates really wants to sell me a complete makeover. I can’t wait to see her in person. And I hope we have something to talk about besides her business.

Green people have friends. We eat good food, bought from people who have a Sabbath. We are refreshed. If you think such a thought is utopian, I suggest you follow the money. Ouch. It might hurt. Molly said she had to really confront her feelings when she got breast cancer and that she really didn’t like it: “It was like inviting a lot of former relatives into your home and being afraid they might stay.” The good news is that slavery doesn’t last or stay, especially as it is confronted. Slavery unexamined, or feelings of oppression ignored, do guarantee certain results: bad food, bad company, neither solitude nor friends, increased disengagement. Finally, the fragment of your remaining fragmented self drops off and there is nothing left of you at all. Your salvation is as simple as sitting with a friend at table. There you need only Thou each other—and not compete at it.

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