Franklin Sanders interviews Joel Salatin

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.

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “Franklin Sanders interviews Joel Salatin

  1. Hi Rick,

    I found this so interesting, in relation to the food movement, homeschooling movement (the movement with which I am most familiar) and the church, that I outlined it and want to consider it further. But I would like to ask some questions to make sure I understand you:

    1) In your commentary on Salatin’s first point, who would you say is currently struggling to take command of the homeschooling movement? Here I have to plead ignorance, as I’m not much in touch with what’s going on except in my own tiny portion of the homeschooling world. As far as I can see, the movement is not being struggled over by distinct factions so much as it is the victim of its own success. Ever year we look more and more like regular school students who simply have more custom options than most. Perhaps that’s even what you meant.

    My question about your/Salatin’s second point is ill-defined for now, so I’ll wait.

    2) On the third point, what do you see as the institutional church’s unvarying answer to the question of how we respond to “You can’t do this.”? And how do you consider the Bible to be giving a different answer? This might be too big, and too controversial a question, so I wouldn’t blame you for not answering it. I am guessing that you to be saying any church would tell us to trust their authority, but the Bible says we should trust our own, as guided by the Word of God. Do I interpret that correctly?

    A couple of quick thoughts: One is that I certainly see the truth of the statement that the broader a government’s reach, the less it is able to grasp. I have found this to be the experience in my own dealings with the NYC Department of Education. They’re quite powerful in theory, and NY has one of the most restrictive sets of regulations in the country. But the reality is that they are understaffed and weighed down by their own procedures, and now and then when I do get a threatening letter, it’s usually not much trouble to rebuff. The most concrete annoyance they’ve been able to enforce is to refuse me the option of e-mailing in my paperwork, so that I have to stand in line to use certified mail instead. But that’s fairly minor!

    The other is, is it true that we should entirely stop listening to institutions or talking about a vision of society? I can see this with farming, for sure. But I’ve been aided many times in homeschooling by familiarity both which different philosophies of homeschooling and with the Great Conversation generally. At any rate, here I am, talking about my vision again! But I also do. Or don’t do, which is sometimes even more important.

    Anyway, thought provoking post, as usual!

  2. I have a question for you, relating to this discussion of doing what’s right as opposed to bowing to the authorities. In our church, we have age segregated Sunday school classes, and we have been taking our children to the “adult” class with us for about two years because we think that it is best for them to be with us. Recently we have found out that some people have made an issue about it, and the church is proposing to make a “family” class and making the adult classes 18 and over only. Is it worth taking a stand about the rightness of the issue, or is the God honoring thing to do to just let it pass and go where they let us? Overall our church has not been antagonistic towards children like this, just has bought into the institutional model we see in schools… I keep hoping out of ignorance.

  3. We find ourselves in a similar situation regarding my wife’s soon-to-be launched midwifery practice and her ongoing apprenticeship, which involves her in activities that the Ohio State Medical Association are telling her to “just stop.”

    Political power is shifting in favor of homebirth midwifery, and it is doing so nationwide. As I consider this situation, I’m inclined to agree with Salatin: this power shift is a desirable thing, because it can help us become explicitly legal (rather than grey-market) and not liable to (wrongful) prosecution/persecution.

    I’m a bit wary about one of your last statements: “External authority is not something to be either obeyed or defied, but simply considered humbly—and then often ignored.” Is this really consistent with the Bible’s teaching about civil authority?

  4. When does the way we raise, process and sell our food rise to the level of “civil disobedience” endorsed by scripture? Insomuch as we are commanded to obey the civil magistrate, we are likewise to render unto God the things that are God’s. Does our “movement” rise to that level like the education movement did/does?

  5. Matt,

    “External authority is not something to be either obeyed or defied, but simply considered humbly—and then often ignored.” Is this really consistent with the Bible’s teaching about civil authority?

    I can’t yet make a positive case for it, but it is a position that I have been pondering and testing for the past couple of years. I deliberately chose the word consistent, because I don’t think the Bible gives us comprehensive direction on how to deal with civil authority. I also think that most of the confusion over this issue arises when we try to turn what little the Bible does say about it into comprehensive direction. And I think that the confusion is, if not deliberate, at least convenient for authorities both civil and spiritual.

    For example, Romans 13:1 tells us to be in subjection (hypotassō) to the governing authorities. The Strong’s entry (or at least this online version) says about the term hypotassō that in non-military use this refers to “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.” An obedient person certainly has this attitude, but so does someone who has decided to merely acknowledge the existence (and power!) of the authorities and to live at peace with them while still considering them illegitimate.

    Similarly, when Paul tells us in Romans 13:2 not to resist authority because to do so is to oppose the ordinance of God, I think that he is simply pointing out that God often uses unrighteousness to work His will, and so the unrighteousness of an external force is no excuse for resisting it. If God had wanted it to be easy for me to sell raw milk to a neighbor, He could easily have arranged for it to be legal in Kentucky; but it isn’t, and I need to deal with all the implications of that, including His reasons for arranging things this way.

    As both you and Jim point out, it is becoming ever more important for faithful Christians to get clear on exactly what sort of authority the civil authorities wield over us. Just to take one simple, practical example from Salatin’s interview: the woman who is now selling cheese as fish bait is clearly circumventing the intent of the authorities, who prohibits selling it as food. Is she going against the Bible in doing so?

  6. Laura,

    Who would you say is currently struggling to take command of the homeschooling movement?

    Right now I’d say the most active struggle is being waged by the patriarchally minded. Vision Forum is the most visible of the organizations; people associated with VF have come to dominate the lists of speakers at homeschooling conventions, and state organizations are beginning to explicitly align themselves with their teachings.

    Understand that I don’t have any particular objection to this. Perhaps homeschooling as a movement will eventually become identified with this certain specific understanding of the Christian life, or some other one, and those of us who don’t subscribe to that understanding will have to congregate elsewhere—or just get on with teaching our kids!

    As far as I can see, the movement is not being struggled over by distinct factions so much as it is the victim of its own success. Ever year we look more and more like regular school students who simply have more custom options than most.

    Perhaps the disappointment, if that is the right word, is over the fact that homeschooling never really became a movement, at least in the sense that it occasioned a different way of living. In my initial attraction to homeschooling I read way more into the motivations of homeschoolers than was justified, and hoped that doing school differently might eventually lead people to think differently as well. Now I see the two things as largely independent.

    What do you see as the institutional church’s unvarying answer to the question of how we respond to “You can’t do this.”?

    Roughly, I think the institutional church’s answer is that both civil and religious authorities are acting as God’s proxies, i.e. that to disobey their commands is to disobey God. Without some collection of caveats this is clearly absurd, but the caveats that are usually offered are awfully weak (e.g. when obedience would cause you to sin) and, as far as I can tell, not found in the Bible anyway.

    I am guessing that you to be saying any church would tell us to trust their authority, but the Bible says we should trust our own, as guided by the Word of God. Do I interpret that correctly?

    Yes. The usual objection to this is that the individual can’t be trusted to always interpret the Word of God correctly and then act on that understanding. My response is that nobody can be trusted to do that, not the individual or the husband or the church elder or the civil officer. Given that, I think it is best that the individual assume the responsibility, however imperfectly they may end up shouldering it.

    Is it true that we should entirely stop listening to institutions or talking about a vision of society?

    When they asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, he replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” As skeptical as I am about institutions and visions, I still study them avidly, whether current or historical—because that’s where the ideas are, for better or worse. But more and more I’m only looking at ideas that can be translated into my own very limited sphere of operation—family, relatives, neighborhood, customers, vendors, readers. Beyond that I trust in God to take the thread I’m spinning and weave it together with the rest to make the grand tapestry that He envisions.

  7. Thanks for your carefully thought out answer, Rick. This sort of question interests me personally, and that’s why I often ask for clarification.

    I see now what you’re talking about concerning homeschooling. The reason I didn’t see it before is that the patriarchy movement has little or no influence where I live, and people here don’t tend to belong to state organizations or go to conventions. But I am familiar with the gist of VF.

    I understand your point on homeschooling and “different thinking” as well. I’m not sure you read more into homeschooling than was justified, at least fifteen years or so ago. The success of homeschooling has changed the way homeschoolers think. If it’s easy to homeschool and you can outsource a lot of the work, then you don’t have to examine your premises as much. Some people still do, of course, but it’s not as common as it once was. I say this even though I do outsource some things. But I think hard about it, and I prefer not to.

    And I see that what you mean about visions and institutions is to be careful of what basically amounts to meddling–grand political schemes, for instance. I think I have read about your preference to think locally in some of the “useful posts.” An example would be not worrying about current events that you have no influence over anyway. But you’re not advocating an extreme sort of pragmatism.

    Perhaps you can see the common theme in the questions I was asking? (I didn’t at first.) I was trying to find the relationship between ideas and local practice. Thinking through premises sounds ideological, but it’s not really. Perhaps the biggest difference is that thinking through premises is primarily useful for living an inspired life of one’s own, not someone else’s!

    And that, of course, relates to the authority question. But that requires a study of its own, and I can’t touch it yet. I think I’ll check out Strong’s, though.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s