Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community

by Wendell Berry, Pantheon Books, 1992, 173 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

It has been sheer pleasure to discover Wendell Berry. Although an experienced lecturer, he writes from his small farm in Kentucky about the question of sustainability of creation. As the title implies, he understands that a sustainable lifestyle on planet earth can only be achieved when sex, economy, freedom and community function well together.

According to Berry, sustainability is possible only if we are able to nurture communities that understand their connection to the earth. However, he notes that the forces of the global economy do not act in the interest of such communities. As a matter of fact they destroy communities worldwide. As wealth becomes concentrated in fewer hands it is inevitable that conservation will continue to have a low priority. Berry suggests that individuals can help to recover responsible communities if they “…use local buying power, local gumption, and local affection to see that the best care is taken of the local land” (43).

Berry is also convinced that our modern preoccupation with finding military solutions to world problems is contributing to the destruction of the earth. He is saddened by the notion that Americans now understand that the portion of their constitution that insists that “…all men are created equal and have certain unalienable Rights,” only applies to citizens of the United States. If these rights could be considered to be global rights, argues Berry, we would be much more concerned about making peace around the world, and in the process conserve creation. But peace in communities all over the world will come only if we “…waste less, spend less, use less, want less and need less” (92).

While convinced that the biblical message supports the notion of a sustainable life-style, Berry has some sharp criticism of the Christian establishment. He notes that the average Christian assumes that the present economic order is quite all right. He attributes this to a dualistic understanding, not supported by scripture, which allows Christians to separate their religious aspirations from their secular ones. He suggests that too much of Christianity is “…intent on a dull and superstitious rigmarole by which supposedly we can avoid going to ‘the bad place’ and instead go to ‘the good place,” all the while participating in the raping of God’s creation. He recommends that Christians should understand that “The earth is the Lord’s” and participate actively in conserving it, even if it means being anti-establishement..

Berry reserves most of his discussion of how misguided notions of sex and freedom play a role in the breakdown of sustainable life in communities for the last chapter in the book. Sex is a powerful force, he notes, but when it is removed from the responsible confines of healthy community building, it in fact serves to break down community, which in turn destroys the last hope of healthy conservation. The same can be said for freedom. If “personal freedom” is not tempered by concern for community it also destroys community and in turn creation.

While this book was written shortly after the Gulf War, it is, in my opinion, as relevant today as it was then. By reading this book, I have been moved to reconsider various aspects of my personal lifestyle, especially in the areas of sex, economy, freedom and community. Does my lifestyle offer hope for sustainable life or does it contribute to the destruction of God’s earth? Berry would want each of us to ask ourselves that question in the local context in which we live.