Manna in the age of Monsanto

Parable of the Sower and the Seeds

April 29, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

You probably don’t know Len. Len used to come to our place in Amherst and sing to our chickens. He was Jamaican, he worked for Monsanto, he sang to chickens. He left his job at Monsanto when he was sixty because he couldn’t learn the computer. Actually, they fired him and humiliated him on his way out. His early retirement let him expand his gardens to many unused plots around town – and he fed a lot of people with that food. His daughter, whom I confirmed, came out when she was 16. And Len threw her out of his home. She never returned. He still came over to sing to the chickens and we often talked about his daughter. He just kept telling me that she wasn’t right. She wasn’t natural. She wasn’t pure. I love Len. And I loved his daughter. And they are the parable that brought me into this sermon about Manna in the Age of Monsanto, set in our series on parables.

Manna in the age of Monsanto will not be what you think it will be. Manna never was what we thought it would be and it will continue true to form in not being what you think it is. Monsanto is in fact what we think it is: A large multinational corporation that is changing the way you eat by genetically modifying seeds. Monsanto’s power, which could feed the world, won’t. Why? It is too big. Why won’t Len’s expanded gardens and scared ideas feed the world either? Because they are too small. Somewhere between too big and too small, God’s promise of food for all, which has never yet been realized in human history, will be realized.

First to Manna. Manna doesn't seem to be bread in the sense of a grain-based product.  Verses 13,14, and 31 of Exodus 16 toss us a few intriguing details: In the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.  When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor ... It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.

"Like frost ... like coriander seed ... like wafers." Is the text playing with us?  The ambiguity is sufficient to spark continuing debate, from the rabbis of antiquity to the scholars of today:  was it some kind of resin from the tamarisk plant, a desert lichen, an insect secretion, maybe even some exotic mushroom? The Israelites themselves were not certain what this substance was.  Manna is an unidentifiable food from an unnamable God. And manna is not the first cryptic word in Torah. What we know about Jesus and what we know about God is that there is no concept of food for some but not food for all. The manna fell out of the sky and everybody could get some.

NOW let’s hear the parable. Like many of the parables we will attend through the summer, this parable is not about agriculture. It is about perception. It is about hearing and seeing. It is about getting ready to see and to hear and to get ready to see and to hear we have to clear our perceptions. Many of us are scared stupid by what Monsanto is doing to seeds. We are totally right in being scared. Franken food is a scary thing. Instead of doing what it says it will do, which is to feed more people, it will do precisely the opposite. Like NYU’s plan to become too big not to fail, Monsanto’s seed modification and hybridization risks the destruction of corn and beans. At the same time, the highly local and very pure alternatives to Monsanto are equally oblivious to manna. Manna is food for all. Local seed saving, without a program for hybridization, will do the same thing. If Monsanto is scary, so is hyper localism. If Monsanto is too big, pure, stuck in time, gentrification of food is too small. Both ignore what manna does, which is to become available, simply at the right time.

Some of you know that I spent last week in New Mexico at a food blogger’s conference. I went there to learn about blogging, a new relatively ugly word that some say actually has something to do with writing. One of our day trips was to a Tewa Indian reservation where we enjoyed a six hour cooking demonstration. We also got a localistic sermon on how the native Americans there were saving seed. Norma, our cook and a tribal leader, taught us how to make tortillas from Chico corn, saved on a screen in her back yard. Norma is a purist, and as long as her objective is how to make a delicious tortilla outside in an ORNO, an adobe oven with a Spanish name, yes the same Spanish who conquered the natives, actually shot 153 of them in their ritual temple, and to show it off to modern tourists, as long as her objective is the taste of that tortilla, I get it. The second she acts as though saving that Chico corn or its companion, the Chimayo Chile, also home grown, is a solution to the world’s agricultural needs I have a problem. It is the same problem those of us face today on many fronts. We want Arizona’s brutal immigration law struck down by a government that tells states they have limited rights. And we also want to assure NYU, as many of us did this week, that there is no local community or institution around it that wants it to grow so much. On the one hand, we want the local. On the other hand, we want the trans-local. Imagine if Monsanto could constantly hybridize seeds that would be good seeds, the same way Norma’s people constantly hybridized the Chimayo and the Chico. Norma’s argument bothered me. She kept referring to her sacred pure seeds. I couldn’t help but also hear Alabamans saying we couldn’t mix races, thus they had to kill people for miscegenation. I couldn’t help hearing Len sing to the chickens about a lost purity, a lost ethnicity, a lost way of life. Even something as simple as a seed can be made pure and static. What do I mean by pure and static? That my people’s traditions need to be protected at the expense of other people’s traditions. That my race is the right color, as the Australians not only told the Maori but also enforced. That my orientation is the right orientation, and that others are somehow dirty or impure.

Sacred pure seeds are anti hybrid and anti contamination. When I put on my seeing eyes, and my hearing ears, I wonder deeply about that argument and how it will prevent all the people of the world from getting food. Chico corn, blue corn, Chimayo Chile, home grown roasted in adobe ovens – it all sounds great, until you hear the argument for preserving each. That argument is individualistic and doesn’t take into account the need people have for food, after they have lost their oven or lost their knowledge of growing or cooking. I remain astonished at the number of people who don’t know how to cook. Or grow. When I talk about giving up any hope for a different past, I mean giving up hope that we can teach people how to cook and grow in one generation, especially since the rocky soil and the thorny soil is everywhere.

Let me not just pick on Norma. Ethne Clark, Editor in Chief of Organic Gardening (yes I am a charter subscriber) writes in a similar vein in her editorial in this month’s magazine. “Our endless meddling in natural systems has gone too far.” I wonder what she thinks gardening is, if not meddling in natural systems. I wonder what she thinks would emerge from the soil if we didn’t meddle with it. Gardening and farming is always a meddle, we take out what we can’t eat and try to grow what we can eat. Indeed our endless meddling in natural systems has gone in a wrong direction – if our objective is food for all – but it hasn’t gone as Ethne claims, “too far.” The truth is it hasn’t gone far enough. Taking over Monsanto’s engine and research and knowledge would be much better than preserving Chico corn and Chimayo Chiles. In fact what we need are international systems which join local desires for good food that can be widely distributed and deeply nourishing. Let me give you a picture of that. It is not that irrelevant tomato that you get on every sandwich you order. It is instead a really good tomato on a really good sandwich – and that sandwich is available to all, not just ot the gentrifiers of food.

Aldo Leopold, whose observation of natural life on a Wisconsin Farm, also is quoted by Ethne Clark. “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” What we need is intelligent tinkering. What we need is heirloom seeds and modified seeds, native plants and knowledge of how to eat them. Monsanto wouldn’t know what to do with a ramp. And most contemporary ramp eaters don’t know what to do with Monsanto.

The parable of the sower is not about agriculture. It is about seeing and hearing. I hope we will learn to see and to hear globally and locally, both at the same time. I hope we will pay attention to the power of the farmers and not slump into an uncontaminated, pure way of thinking, which will only make us too interested in our own tomatoes on our own sandwiches. Purity of any kind is dangerous, and that applies to seeds as well. Purity thinking is just a hop, skip and a jump to genocide, either the active kind where we eliminate people who aren’t quite right, or the passive kind where we forget the objective of Manna, which is food for all.

Manna, the notion of food for all, was always different than what people thought it was or should be. Parables are pathways to understanding. They are platforms from which we can understand that God is trying to tell us something we don’t quite get yet. Do you have ears? Then listen. Do you have eyes? Then see. I just heard the Symphony to Queens, 1001 voices singing a song about a place that used to have Archie Bunker as its heroe. There are 167 different languages spoken in Queens. There is great potential for hybridization in Queens. I just reviewed my last few weddings. One to a practicing Hindu and an Ecuadorian, second an African American man and a Chinese woman, third to a Mexican woman and a woman born in Wisconsin. I can’t wait to see what their seed will be. I believe there is more hope that all people will be fed the more we intermarry. Why? There will be fewer chances for people to think there is an other. That is what is good about Monsanto. It hybridizes. It does so at too large and dangerous a level. I also loved Norma’s green chili stew and her memory of how to cook and grow. We need not demonize either purists or the impure or post-pure, nor do we need to overly praise them. We need to see and hear and know that we are a little confused about the way we meddle and tinker with nature. We need to both save everything and then we need to get the size right.

Which leads me to my final point. We don’t only have conflicting ideas about NYU and Arizona, Monsanto and Manna, about local and global. We are also way too attached to what we think we think, what we think we see. If anything, many of us are addicted to our ideas. What is addiction? Take a look at your modern testimony, laid next to this great story of the seeds. In addictive thinking, we discover that we are thinking the same thought over and over or doing the same thing, over and over. We can’t seem to stop. Monsanto bad, local good. Or some version of that. Parables prompt us to do something a little different. They say let’s examine what we think and do regarding Monsanto and other large systems who could easily work for good as hard as they now work for bad. Let’s examine our romanticism about food, especially its gentrification. that what we think about how food should go back to what it used to be, whatever that was. Food was never widely distributed. If we listen to Jesus long enough, we will hear him say that bread and wine is meant to be widely and beautifully distributed. I know you are thinking now that I am starting to should you. I am not. I just want a little Pinocchio added to my parables. A little liberation from being puppets, of either our own set or the Monsanto set. I want relief from everybody who thinks they know what is right, on the right and the left and in the muddled middle. I want manna and I believe it is going to come by surprise, in a way none of us yet know. But if we don’t head for it, we’ll never even see it as it falls. That matters to my next meal and the next meal of people I don’t even know and who certainly don’t look like me.

Note what he says in the Country of Hungry Ghosts. I wish he hadn’t used that word hungry. Addictive behavior and addictive thinking pays way too much attention to externals, like who will think we are soft on Monsanto or hard on native Americans. It exists to avoid the void of not knowing. It refuses to understand that what we really want is connection or Eucharist or the spread and availability of bread and wine. He advocates the development of strong executive function to get over addiction. Jesus calls that seeing and hearing. We don’t know how to feed the world. Manna in the age of Monsanto will be different than what we think it will be. Let us enter the void of not knowing – and drop our old ways of thinking and seeing at the door of a new world. There we will sing to chickens, never use the word pure again, and find our way to each other first and to food for all second.


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