Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Setting the Captive Free

Driving around in circles on the bus all afternoon, various bits and pieces of earlier conversations bring themselves together in new ways.

The election brings up topics around race and culture, challenging us each to try to see the lenses through which we are seeing...a truly difficult task, maybe impossible, but a measure of our humanity that we at least attempt it.

Did the Civil War end slavery? That it did is a myth supported by our culture, which is in denial about the many various forms of human slavery being carried out in virtually every country throughout the world. Just google the phrase "human trafficking" if you don't believe me.

As the farm teaches me more about the non-human community of life, I view issues such as slavery from an increasingly multi-species viewpoint.

A slave is one person owned by--subjugated by--another. But if we understand "person" to refer to any living being, what does that say about our relationships with other beings? When we buy a dog, a sheep, a plant--what is our relationship with them? When we buy a piece of land--an entire community of life--what is our relationship with it?

As I learn (little by little) to understand and respect the deep wisdom of the community of life here on the farm, I find I cannot consider the farm a mere possession to be bought and sold. I find that it is not a lifeless thing, but rather it is a powerful multitude amongst which I am only one small and limited part. As a whole, it is my equal at least--actually, easily my superior! I am a bumbling toddler wreaking havoc within an elegantly integrated dance of life, thanks to my possession of the unfortunate combination of anthropocentrism and opposable thumbs. Forgive me, Lord, for I know not what I do!

As I grow to understand my practical relationship with my land as a partnership, it becomes harder to understand my financial relationship to it as one of buyer/owner and purchased object. The more I think about it, I can no longer in good conscience say I am purchasing my land.

I am ransoming it.

I am paying the price demanded by those who have held it in servitude, so that I may set it free. If I were purchasing it, the price would be more or less what the land is "worth". But a human being can truly only be assigned a dollar value in the context of slavery. When a person is held hostage, no one believes that the amount of the ransom is that person's actual cash value, because we can't put a cash value on a human life.

Our Constitution declares that we are created equal. There are so many dearly beloved people in my life, on whose lives I could set no price. Therefore, each human being must be priceless, if I am to claim to be humane and just.

We, as a culture, believe in the inalienable right of other people to be free. On this basis we have liberated many human slaves, we have fought innumerable wars. Many of us campaign for women's rights and lgbt rights. We abolished child labor (for the most part) and try to be vigilant against the abuse of children, elders, differently-abled people, etc. No human being can legally be "owned" as a piece of property by another human being, in our country at least.

There are efforts (sadly, many of them misguided, in my humble opinion) to extend these freedoms and rights to various domesticated animals, even though domesticated animals are theoretically "owned" by someone (though who's the boss may be in question in many particular animal-human relationships). But we still acknowledge the existence of "feral" and "wild" animals that are owned by no one. A dog could be purchased and set free, though the kindness of such an action is dubious. We acknowledge a concept of "captivity" for wild animals held forcibly against their will. In many companion animal/human relationships, there is an element of voluntary service on the part of the animal that is "owned"--they choose to stay in the relationship even if given the opportunity to do otherwise. Ambrosious has always taken leave of the farmstead for weeks at a time, hunting in the wilderness area, and returning to bask in front of the fire when it suits him.

But the land itself does not have such a choice. In the U.S., every bit of land--of the natural environment--of God's creation--is deemed property, deeded to someone. So there is really no avenue of setting it free. In our culture land must be owned by someone. It must be an object, not a being. It must be a slave.

So the best I can do is to purchase this land, according to the customs of "my" culture, and then to strive to treat it as though it is not my slave. To treat it as an equal, as a revered teacher, as a community of which I am a part. But this is not truly setting it free.

It is a hard thing to even see--let alone relinquish--the power which "naturally" accrues to the ownership of some"thing". In housemate relationships, it seems impossible for us to live as equals when I hold the title to the house. I am seen as having power even if I don't think I am exercising it. When I put forth an suggestion that a certain course of action is desirable based on my 15 years' experience with this physical structure, compared to someone who has only lived in it a few months, I am seen as having authority based on my ownership, rather than my experience. When I shrug my shoulders and plead ignorance about some entirely new household situation, and seek suggestions from other household members as a community of equals, they express outrage that I don't have all the answers. Since I am the owner, I am supposed to know everything. I am supposed to be in charge. Even if it is an area in which others have more particular expertise, they tend to defer to my ownership. I recognize this ownership in part from the weight of responsibility that I cannot put down.

So I must question myself whenever I purport to speak on behalf of the farm's non-human community of life. I know I am blind to my biases. And a clear mirror in which to study myself is hard to find. At best, I can only turn to the community of life itself as my mirror, and try to see myself reflected in the community's responses to me.

As flawed a spokesperson as I am, I hope I am better than none. And if I must be the slave-holder of this incredible land, let me be a kind and compassionate master.

And thus I am driven to persevere in the sometimes grueling work of both working to earn the ransom for, and caring for, this community of life. I could not sustain this level of motivation to purchase some mere possession–only to ransom some dearly beloved being(s).

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