“It all begins with the land—I’ve said it before—it all begins with dirt. It begins with air, water, cities, towns, neighborhoods and homes. It begins with… how people choose to live in places.”
Emmitsburg, MD. We have heard it before, that how we will live together is rooted in a shared origin story, and that the story should inspire humility, rooted in the earth. “We are joined at the site of the dirt and the dirt is our undeniable kin. From dust we came and to dust we will return. We are of the dirt.” In sources as old as Genesis and Plato’s Republic, human community emerges from the soil.
Modernity’s alienation from the land, and the distinctively American experience of nativity and destiny, give this story a challenging inflection. The world at large but America in particular finds people “caught up in a deformed building project,” a false attempt at “bringing the world to its full maturity,” a misleading approach not to one or another particular political problem but to “mind and body, land and animal use, landscape and building, family and government.”
The Christian story has proven remarkably enduring, but a corrupting influence has “deformed” and given “tragic shape to Christian faith in the new worlds.” In some way all of our current social problems are a reflection or refraction of Christianity’s “fusion” with an opposed force:
The struggle against aggressive nationalism… The struggle against racism… and some aspects of sexism and patriarchy is the struggle against this fusion. The struggle against the exploitation of the planet is bound up in the struggle against this joining. So many people see these problems, of planetary exploitation, of racism, sexism, of nationalism and so forth, but they do not see the deeper problem of this fusion, which means that they have not yet grasped the energy that drives many of our problems.
What name shall we give the infecting factor, which distorts and deforms the Christian vision? Labeling is a fraught task. “There is a vastness to our lives in faith that we cannot adequately capture in words… so that seeing the fusion and seeing our way beyond the fusion is very difficult work.” What to call the problem is itself part of the problem. That impulse which instrumentalizes and exploits, dehumanizes and oppresses, alienates and effaces. Is it the technocratic mentality? The Enlightenment legacy? Is it rationalism or nominalism or gnosticism? Is it capitalism or liberalism or colonialism? The will to power?
Is it “whiteness”? That’s what Willie Jennings, a Black Baptist theologian at Yale Divinity School, called it in his 2020 book After Whiteness, and in a 2017 lecture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Every quotation above—which in tone and content could almost pass as the voice of Wendell Berry—is from that lecture, entitled “Can ‘White’ People be Saved” (revised and published in 2018 as a chapter in an edited volume of the same name, and also as an essay in the Christian Century). If words matter, a shared understanding of our problem can seem so close, and yet so far.
Wendell Berry’s new book, like Jennings’ After Whiteness, hopes that personal reflection can address national wounds. Berry does not mention Jennings, but he prominently acknowledges a debt to Princeton religion scholar Eddie Glaude Jr., who has also given eloquent voice to the Black experience of Christianity and American identity. Glaude’s 2015 book Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul names the corrupting influence “white supremacy.” Berry received an advance copy of Glaude’s book, with a personal invitation from the author to contribute a blurb. Berry, who read the book slowly and with appreciation and found it not only “useful” but personally “needed,” had planned instead to write Glaude a letter, “fully assenting to his book’s sense of gravity of the effects of race prejudice upon black people and upon our society, but also discussing points of difference and similarity that interested me, and about which I wanted to know his thoughts.”
Berry relates that his list of intended topics grew and the letter was never written, but “my thoughts had begun to move toward this book that was then unforeseen.” It was Berry’s early-career book, The Hidden Wound (1970)—now a modern classic on race and racism in America—that inspired Glaude to reach out. In The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice Berry returns to the themes of that book with even stronger conviction, and renewed concern:
More clearly than ever, I could see that both our people and our country have come close to being ruined by race prejudice, or race prejudices, and the continuing effects. But I was worried also about historical and political generalizations that have become too general and too powerful.
His book becomes an effort to bring the general labels we use to name our cultural dysfunctions back to the presence of particular people, particular histories, and particular places.
Berry doesn’t overtly list his “points of difference”—with Glaude, and by extension, we may assume, with other mainstream discussions of race and racism in America—but from his “Introduction” we can infer that they include:
- That generalizations of white people’s “fears of black men” do not match Berry’s long personal experience.
- That the process of decline in some Black communities has much in common with the decline of many white and rural communities.
- That healthy community “cannot be given to us by any of our great public institutions or agencies of the government.”
- That “in our public discussion of racial issues” there is “too pronounced an assumption that black people and white people are entirely unlike each other in their history and their problems.”
Overall, Berry is keen to insist that race prejudice, while real, is best understood as a manifestation of a more fundamental modern “prejudice against community life itself,” and that while black communities have suffered in particular ways because of racism, “all communities are now failing or failed for reasons that are not racial.”
Accordingly Berry resists labeling the problem facing healthy American community as “whiteness” or “white supremacy”—not because he is protecting his own sense of racial identity, or because he denies the evil of racism, but out of conviction that the problem is ultimately deeper than racism, and that the wrong kind of attention to race may be dividing us and distracting us from addressing this deeper problem.
The Need to Be Whole articulates as fully as any of Berry’s books what I have elsewhere called his “agrarian intersectionality” (a view, as evident from the opening quotations, largely shared by Jennings): a way of seeing our social, economic, political, and cultural ills—including racism—as manifestations of a basic displacement and dispossession from the land and the meaningful communities that work on the land makes possible. Can or will Berry’s book be received as a friendly contribution to and corrective of the current trend to criticize “whiteness”? That is hard to say, but Berry has surely made the effort to try, in part by matching in his own style the eloquent prophetic voices of Glaude and Jennings—with a sense of tragic urgency, as well as of honest vulnerability and hope.
Daunting to summarize, not only is this Berry’s longest work, it seems destined to be regarded as a kind of career capstone and magnum opus. While prompted by the topic of race, like The Hidden Wound this book encompasses all of the themes Berry has explored over decades of writing about place and membership, culture and agriculture, economics and education. He draws on literary analysis and historical scholarship, on personal anecdote and long friendships, and of course on his careful attention to language, his sense for pacing and poetry, his knack for making profound points in plain, direct speech.
The central theoretical theses include a need to clarify different senses of “race prejudice” and to distinguish patriotism from nationalism. Individual passages will draw attention from different kinds of audiences. The book is attuned to current events—BLM, #MeToo, Supreme Court drama, and pandemic response—but eschews polemic. There is a subtle and relevant perspective on the civic significance of Confederate monuments. Examining the cases of William Faulkner and Mark Twain, Berry shows the unavoidable complexity in the taboo of “the n-word” (which Berry himself had employed, in The Hidden Wound, to challenge the way Americans racially trope “menial” work, though he avoids the word here). Even more than in The Hidden Wound, Berry shares autobiographical accounts of his indebtedness to Black neighbors, friends, and colleagues. Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman are targets of criticism; but Berry risks discriminating appreciations of Robert E. Lee and John Calhoun, not far from a fond homage to his late friend Ernest Gaines.
Some of the longer chapters (especially the eighth, on work) could have served as independent monographs, and the shorter ones (for example, distinguishing kinds of prejudice) as separate essays, but the various parts—historical and autobiographical, theological and literary—all contribute to the central thread: that we seek wholeness, and that wholeness depends on better understanding ourselves and our damaged, but not lost, chances for community.
A sure point of agreement with Glaude, at least in principle, is that we need to draw on, even as we might need to purify, Christian language. Cicero wrote that “wisdom without eloquence is of little use to society, while eloquence without wisdom is often very harmful, never of any use”; quoting those words, Augustine immediately pointed to God as wisdom’s source and to Scripture, diligently understood, as its conduit. We can regard Glaude, Jennings, and Berry as Augustinian in the sense of seeking words that will be socially usefully because, and insofar as, they are rooted in the Word.
For that matter The Need to Be Whole may be Berry’s most explicitly Christian book, for it is to the Christian tradition that Berry turns to name the tragic deformity of the human project. One might think it merely a semantic difference, but Berry finds it rhetorically and substantively inadequate to name this deformity any of the secular “-isms” or “-nesses.” It is sin (the title of Chapter 4). And the solution isn’t a policy or a campaign or a program, but forgiveness (the title of Chapter 5).
These chapters draw on Exodus and Plato’s Laws to understand divine legislation as a gift. The commandments given to Moses are not slogans but “instructions for a people who wish to inhabit a land,” “practical instruction for living a shared life.” New readers of Berry have been known to wonder whether he is a Christian, and this book partly explains his reluctance to advertise his faith too conspicuously; but after these pages I could imagine all of Berry’s work as an exposition of the Ten Commandments, especially as they are distilled by Jesus into the two great commandments, embodied in piety and neighborliness.
Forgiveness is liberating—it frees us from anger and resentment and makes possible healing without denying the wounds. It is a work of love, and it “unsticks us from the past.” As Jesus models from the cross, it is possible—and even necessary—to forgive especially while suffering at the hands of those whom one is forgiving.
In other respects the book is not only Christian but specifically Augustinian. Berry speaks in terms of, without naming, Augustine’s psychological trinity of will, understanding, and memory—and the last with a special emphasis on the creative, including imagination. We can only find ourselves desiring a common end out of shared understanding, which requires we be able to envision ourselves as part of a community before it is properly constituted: “[W]e know some things by means of love that we cannot otherwise know, and… we know in the fullest sense only what we love, and… we love and know in the fullest sense only what we have imagined.” Praising Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men as exemplary of the “good faith conversation about our racial history,” Berry says it is “supremely a work of imagination and therefore supremely a work of understanding and therefore of sympathy.”
What we will and what we know are some of Berry’s conscious themes, but the book as a whole, like so much of Berry’s writing, is an exercise of a gifted, and generous, imagination. In this sense too Berry is our American Augustine: in narrating his own life, and indeed narrating the flawed history of the American empire, Berry wants to help reorient us to a vision of restored community.
Summarizing a story from Gaines, Berry describes a character’s “recovered wholeness” in words that could very well describe his own aspiration for the present book, and for his life: “From that wholeness, enabling him to speak for the living and the dead… he recovers the memory of his and his people’s wholeness in their work.”
The stories we tell about our wounds, and about how to heal from them, are themselves part of the process of healing. Americans need a story that offers the possibility of authentic wholeness. For many, that story cannot but be framed in racial categories. But if “whiteness” is just a word for a self-destructive pattern in the modern West, perhaps it isn’t a racial category after all—opposition to it certainly predates our contemporary Ivy League anti-racism and includes such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Simone Weil, and Edward Schillebeeckx O.P. (all appreciated in Jennings’ After Whiteness). For some, it seems, calling the flaw at the heart of Western modernity “whiteness” is a counter-intuitive strategy of inclusion—an awkward, and perhaps deliberately provocative, attempt to integrate new voices into a longer philosophical tradition of self-critique.
Berry seems to acknowledge this possibility with genuine empathy, but he ultimately finds that some labels, despite the intentions motivating their use, only perpetuate the sin they claim to repudiate. So he offers in friendship an alternative: linguistically careful, authentically historical and explicitly theological. Will Berry’s story—his distinctively American version of the Christian story of sin and forgiveness—prove more unifying, rooting us again in a common soil? Can his “recovered memory” be our own? It is hard to say, but it is also hard to imagine what could be more true, or what could have a better chance of answering our need.
Image Credit: Jean-Francois Millet, “The Angelus” (1857-1859).