Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 8:1-21) transports me a spring day at the Shorehan Hotel, Washington DC, 1968, when William Gaud, the US AID Administrator (the head of the State Department’s Agency for International Development) was speaking to a gathering of the Society for International Development. It was in this speech that Gaud coined the phrase green revolution to describe the miraculous technological transformation of agriculture that had emerged to try and feed the billion plus people in the world of 1968 who were living on starvation wages of $1 or less a day. Fast forward forty-five years, and you can hear some sectors celebrating the achievements of Gaud’s Green Revolution, claiming that the technology, rooted in petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, genetically modified seeds, and mechanized farming, has indeed performed miracles, cutting the poverty rate by half, or some say by 80%. What these celebrants don’t take into account are the real, raw numbers behind those percentages. As Gaud’s critics predicted, the food explosion also helped usher in the population explosion, so that despite all those herculean scientific efforts, in real numbers we have more hungry people today than we did when we started pouring oil (not the oil and vinegar variety) on our vegetables. The industrial aggies’ failure to satisfy the hunger pangs of a billion people doesn’t tell the whole story, either, as critics of the green revolution also point to the destructive environmental and social and health impacts (such as high cancer rates) caused by the shift from small and sustainable farm practices to petrochemical pollution of the soil.
Jesus knew something about soil; he sounds something like an evangelical county extension agent as he tells his parable of the sower. The dull disciples don’t get it, and he explains to them that the key to a miracle harvest is in the quality of the soil. Spiritually speaking, the life-giving and grace-filled seed of God’s creative word takes root and produces fruit in those soils/souls well cultivated and composted, without a lot of competing seeds claiming space. Jesus was a soil-sampler, and he reveled in finding that loamy, rich black soil primed for producing fruit. We would do well to pay attention to soil as well, given that we live in a world of such rampant hunger, spiritual as well as physical. People around the world are hungry for a good life, and God is walking through like Johnny Appleseed, broadcasting the seeds of faith and peace and love and joy and hope. Instead of the long and patient work of building the soil’s capacity, much of the work of contemporary religion seems focused on taking short-cuts to faith in the attempt to generate a miraculous yield – tampering with the seed, modifying it to make it more amenable to greedy and gun-crazed hearts, spraying the soil of our souls with petrochemical-like piety and artificial fertilizers of fundamentalist certitude. Jesus’ parable calls us back to trust a more basic, simpler work, patiently cultivating hearts so they might be receptive to the love, peace, joy and hope God is sowing.
Proponents of the Green Revolution argue with their critics, often questioning what would have happened in the world if the technology had not ramped up the food supply. Wouldn’t there have been billions more starving people? If you go to Cuba today, you can get a first hand answer to this question. It never was an either-or proposition: invest in petrochemical technology or sit by and do nothing. Cuba demonstrates a third way, a sustainable way, and if you visit the island there’s a good chance you might run into visitors from all over the world who are traveling there to learn from the Cubans, to see how they have radically and some might say miraculously transformed their agricultural system over the past twenty years. Before the Special Period of the early 90s, when the Soviet Union (their primary economic partner) fell, Cuba had been fully committed to the Green Revolution. The farms were all mechanized, and they relied heavily on petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. Most of their production was on plantation export crops, though, such as sugar and tobacco. When the Special Period came, they lost their access to oil along with 80% of their imported food supply, and the threat of massive starvation was imminent. Necessity mothered the Cuban people’s innate sense of invention, and they quickly started implementing permaculture techniques that were not dependent on a petroleum product no longer in their pipeline. They worked to convert every piece of arable land to sustainable agriculture, replacing combines and tractors with teams of oxen and human labor, discovering ways to live and work with nature instead of against it. Within a few years, through patio gardens and roof-top gardens in every barrio and cooperatives on the outskirts of every city and town, over 50% of the food necessary to feed Havana’s 2.2 million people was grown within the city, and as much as 80% in smaller cities and towns. The key, according to the permaculture experts there in Cuba, was two-fold. One involved recovering the topsoil that had been depleted from decades of abuse, caring for the top three inches of earth as a living being. The second key was recovering the sense of community depleted by decades of Soviet control, caring for each other as neighbors. I imagine Jesus, in his role as county extension agent, would concur, labeling this the authentic green revolution. I think he’d also point to their organic ingenuity as a much better model and metaphor for cultivating the community of faith than the petrochemical short-cut approach, as appealing as that might be to some.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.