On his new weblog, Scott Terry brings our attention to this interview of Joel Salatin by Franklin Sanders. It covers mostly familiar ground, although Sanders asks the questions from his own unique perspective, and gets some unusually frank replies from Salatin. I recommend that you read it.
Please keep in mind that any quibbles I have with Joel Salatin are purely theoretical. As a practical matter, he has not only blazed new trails that others can follow to a simpler life, but he has demonstrated that his model works, and works very well. It is one thing to ponder the bad cultural decisions that got us into the present mess, or to speculate about what might lead us out of it; it is something quite different to find a practical way to live healthily and honorably in the midst of the mess. Salatin has done it, and lives it, and my admiration for that is immense.
Still, there were a few bits towards the end of the interview that worried me a bit, not about Salatin’s project in itself but in how he sees the “whole food” movement developing.
The food movement today is exactly where homeschooling was 20 years ago, when parents were being jailed for homeschooling. And that huge industrial academic educational establishment was just as daunting to those early innovators as Big Food appears today.
We need to take a lesson from those early homeschoolers, and communicate and network. We need to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” to be creative and make end runs around the system. We need to understand that we are in it for the long haul. Right now we are in the early stages, but if we continue producing the top quality product as Big Food endorses genetic engineering and irradiation and waxes worse and worse, it will simply create more demand until finally political power shifts to our side, just like the homeschool movement. [Emphasis added]
You can imagine that I am very sympathetic to the idea of making end runs around the system—but as a permanent way of life, not as a strategy to getting the upper hand politically. I agree completely that this is what has happened over the history of the homeschool movement—but I also think that it was a fatal choice, one that completely missed the point of why we should homeschool. Similarly, I can see that a whole food movement could eventually triumph over the current industrial system, but at the same time obliterate any possibility of confronting the wrong thinking that led us into this mess.
(I also think it might be advisable for Joel Salatin to take a closer look at the recent history of the homeschooling movement, considering in particular the different factions that are currently struggling to take command of it. There is a difference between engineering a political power shift, and ensuring that the political power shifts into hands you approve of.)
The next part I almost completely endorse. Almost.
It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. I get so frustrated when I speak at a seminar and the first question is “But is it legal?” Who cares if it’s legal? If it’s right, do it. We’ve raised a culture of people who want to ask permission to scratch their nose. We need to examine what is right, then we do it. If somebody doesn’t like it we change it and refine it, we fight for it, but until we do what’s right, we haven’t created any movement to bring meaning into the culture. Jesus said “Do the truth.” We want to define the truth, systematize the truth, identify the truth, talk about the truth, we want to do everything about the truth except just do it. [Emphasis added]
Those are powerful words for these cowardly times. And I think that Salatin is right on the edge of seconding Jacques Ellul’s claim that justice is not to be found in any system of laws, but only where just men are. I can only cheer to hear someone of Salatin’s stature come right out and say, “Who cares if it’s legal? If it’s right, do it.” Since the time of the judges, our history has been one of putting our faith in (or, more cynically, abdicating our responsibility to) kings and systems of law, and they have uniformly failed us. Let us instead begin to train our eyes to see the world as God sees it, and then do what is right in our own eyes.
Even better, let’s stop talking about our vision for society and begin to live it out instead. And I don’t mean let’s live it out as we continue to talk—I mean let’s stop talking about it, period. Our example speaks more powerfully, and more positively, than anything we can say about how life ought to be lived. Let’s simply do the truth as we individually understand it before a watching world, hoping to edify our neighbors as well as be edified by them.
Yet there are a couple of things about this very bold statement which bother me, and I hope they are just remnants of earlier thinking that will eventually be jettisoned. The catchphrase “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission” was born in corporate America, as a way of goading underlings into taking risks that a superior could take credit for if the risk paid off, or duck responsibility for if it backfired. I don’t think that is how Salatin means it here—it may just be a catchy slogan that he hasn’t thought through—but the important questions are: whose forgiveness? whose permission?
Most of the rest of the paragraph is a very strong exhortation to take personal responsibility, but there is still the nagging suggestion of some sort of external authority when he says “If somebody doesn’t like it we change it and refine it, we fight for it …” This is not individual action, it is democracy, and is exactly counter to the rest of what he is proposing.
The final paragraph is very wise, but still with a troubling trace of bowing to external authority.
Look, the government is out of money and can’t replace these retiring and elderly food inspectors, so if everybody would just go get started, we’d outnumber them. What can they do when you’ve got 100 people doing it and only 2 policemen? When somebody doesn’t like it, you will find out that they never fine you, they don’t throw you in jail they simply say, you can’t do this. When that happens, then you deal with it. And lots of time that doesn’t happen for a two to five years. By that time you have a nice nucleus of comrades who can write letters and go to a hearing and go to bat for you.
This is exactly the point raised by Franklin Sanders in his dystopian novel Heiland, the same point that is missed by George Orwell in 1984: the further the government reaches, the less able it is to grasp. It is one thing to declare that all citizens will be under constant surveillance, it is quite another to create, install, staff, and especially pay for the mechanisms that make such surveillance a reality. As Salatin says, “You will find out that they never fine you, they don’t throw you in jail—they simply say, you can’t do this.”
Which brings us to the key question: when They say “You can’t do this,” how do We respond? The institutional church gives an unvarying answer, but it is also an untrustworthy answer, because to answer otherwise would be to undermine their own authority (at least as they perceive it) over their flock. Joel Salatin is pointing us in another direction, one that I think is consistent with the Bible: external authority is not something to be either obeyed or defied, but simply considered humbly—and then often ignored.
This may lead to the occasional confrontation with external authority, and, as Salatin says, “when that happens, then you deal with it.” Deal with it—peacably, wisely, righteously. I’d be more comfortable if Salatin’s words leaned less towards fixing a broken system and more towards ignoring it altogether. But overall this is a very encouraging clarification of an important theme that has lurked in his writing from the beginning.