Written by Wendell Berry | Reviewed by Doug Poland
I have long been a fan of Wendell Berry’s poetry and essays. If there were someone who over the past 50 years might best represent the conscience of America, especially when it comes to the violence and injustice worked by armed conflict, unchecked industrialization, and our desecration of our environment, surely Wendell Berry would be a contender for that title. I therefore looked forward to reading and commenting on his most recent original work, The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice (Shoemaker & Company 2022), in which Berry tackles many hot-button contemporary issues, including racial prejudice. At its best, the book provides commentary through storytelling, and there is little doubt that Berry is a gifted storyteller, especially when addressing topics with which he is most familiar, such as the relationships among members of the rural Kentucky community in which he was raised. At its worst, however, The Need to Be Whole serves up sprawling, overly generalized, contradictory, uninformed, and ultimately frustrating commentaries on many other topics, such as racial prejudice, the removal of confederate monuments, sin, and religion.
One of the more frustrating aspects of the book is its organization. So much of Berry’s book — and it is a long one, at 528 pages — describes various aspects and experiences in Berry’s life that have shaped his world view. Passages with these descriptions, stories, and commentaries are spread throughout the book, and they reveal much about Berry and his worldview. It is puzzling, then, that Berry and his editors chose to confront one of the most controversial and difficult topics he addresses, racial prejudice, right off the bat in the first two chapters, without first giving the reader the benefit of Berry’s own experiences that provide the lens through which he sees the world, or, put another way, his own prejudices. And that lens of Berry’s own personal experiences is critical to understanding the views he espouses on, well, everything.
For example, Berry rightly observes the difficulty that Americans have when it comes to discussing race. He notes, “we seem to have agreed to conduct our public conversation about race and racism in terms highly generalized, unexamined, and trite: bare assertions and accusations, generalizations, stereotypes, labels, gestures, slogans, and symbols.” In other words, Berry (again, accurately, in my view) criticizes Americans for substituting catch phrases, generalizations, stereotypes, and intuition for more searching and informed bases for their views on race. Berry blames this, in part, on what we claim to understand or to know about the topic of race and race relations. Here, one of his targets is case studies, which he observes “come from reporters who go to homes or schools or churches or towns or counties, which are in some way representative, in order to tell us about the setting and to quote the people’s answers to pertinent questions.” Berry’s take on case studies is that they “can be useful, but they give us what I would call visitor’s knowledge.” In other words, they are incomplete and, by definition, offer little in the way of true understanding. But Berry then spends the remainder of the book setting out his views on American race relations that are nearly entirely based on and informed by his personal experiences with Black people in the small rural Kentucky community where he has lived his entire life.
This is not to minimize Berry’s own personal experiences, or his reflections on and commentaries about race relations in the roughly 20 square-mile area where he has lived all his life. But although Berry’s personal experiences fall squarely into the category of a “case study” that, in his own words, “can be useful,” Berry’s broad extrapolation of his experiences to serve as the basis for commentary on race relations in the United States as a whole is problematic and undermines the credibility of his commentaries as a whole. That approach leads Berry to make observations about “urban liberals” like the following;
What urban liberals don’t see, and undoubtedly can’t see, is that our race problem is intertangled with our land and land use problem, our farm and forest problem, our water and waterways problem, our food problem, our air problem, our health problem. . . . [U]rban leaders seem to be specialists constitutionally. Despite their present emphasis on “diversity,” they seem unable to see or consider the necessary all-inclusiveness of Leopold’s “land-community.” They handpick urban problems and favor them one at a time without considering the connections that bind problems into bundles. They don’t know or think about or talk about the rural problems that are the causes or the results of urban problems.
This commentary begs the question: How does Berry know that this is the way “urban liberals” think? How does he know that they are ignorant of the issues he mentions? Berry doesn’t say. He doesn’t identify any “urban liberals” he knows, has spent time with, and asked about their views on race relations. Although he quotes from books by Black authors and prominent Black figures like John Lewis, he identifies no Black people who live in urban environments whom he has sought to befriend, or simply reach out to, to inquire how they view their own experiences, as well as our shared collective experiences, when it comes to issues of race. His commentary on race relations in the United States is, therefore, decidedly one-sided. Yet Berry feels no constraints about expressing what he claims to know about race based on his own experiences, while at the same time expressing what he claims to know about what other people know or think about race without listening to them tell about their own experiences.
Berry further amps up his criticism of “urban liberals” by accusing them of living and dealing exclusively with those who agree with their political beliefs, or what is commonly referred to as living in a bubble. Berry further identifies this as a root of the political divisiveness in this nation, asserting that this kind of existence is possible only in large towns and cities, but not in rural towns. He states that unlike urban dwellers, there is “no chance” that he and his family could live in the small rural farming community where they reside “and have to do only with people who voted as we did." This “impossibility,” he observes, “reduces our interest in who voted for whom. Often we have no idea. Almost never do we try to find out.” Indeed, as Berry tells it, at the neighborhood gathering place, “both political sides are represented, but there is no talk of politics.” For Berry, the “wholeness” that he believes is part and parcel of community is one without open discord, dissent, or contention. For him, the “Motherland” of one’s place of origin is everything; that is where people’s loyalty must lie, first and foremost. He makes the point most forcefully in his defense of Confederate soldiers, and of Robert E. Lee in particular, writing that although Lee was offered command of a Union army at the outset of the Civil War, he refused it “on the grounds of familial and local loyalty.” Berry further comments that “Lee thought, and no doubt felt more than thought, that he belonged to his family, home, and state, and that this belonging was absolute: Whatever the defense of these required of him, he was required to give.” Berry celebrates this view as one that is antithetical to a more contemporary emphasis on individualism that he classifies as “historical comedy.”
Berry’s defense of Lee and Confederate soldiers misses the mark, for at least two reasons that come to mind. First, Berry’s incredibly clannish view of the world simply assumes that one must “defend” the homeland to which they belong. In doing so, he fails to confront the moral question of the choices made by Lee or Confederate soldiers to take the actions that they took, dismissing that their situation posed any real choice for them. Known for his anti-war and anti-violence stances, Berry’s “my clan wrong or right” stance is perplexing. Second, Berry’s point of departure is troubling in that he approaches the Civil War from the Confederate side as being one in which Confederates were defending their homes from invasion by the North, and therefore (again) had no choice but to defend them. But in doing so, Berry fails even to acknowledge the Confederate role in igniting military hostilities by bombarding Fort Sumter, seceding from the Union, and establishing their own government. The idea that a nation, or a part of a nation, can engage in violent provocation, and then justify the actions of its people as being in “defense” of their homes when the war they started comes home to them is troublesome, whether that be the Japanese Navy striking Pearl Harbor in 1941, the German army invading the Soviet Union in the same year, the Russians invading Ukraine more recently, or the Confederates igniting open warfare in 1861.
All of these criticisms aside, what particularly troubles me about Berry’s book, at least from the standpoint of writing this review for a church blog, is Berry’s misunderstanding, or at least misuse, of Jesus’ teachings. Berry repeatedly refers to the Ten Commandments and to Jesus’ Great Commandment as foundational and necessary for a healthy community. As he puts it, “I still regard the Ten Commandments as a good set of instructions for people who wish to inhabit a land, to keep it, and to live in it as neighbors to one another. The ten, taken together, make a pattern of sense with he purpose of making something, namely a community, beloved and lasting.” So far, so good. But Berry begins to veer off course when he addresses the the Great Commandment, Jesus’ admonition that we love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. And the problems start with his view of those whom he considers his neighbors. For Berry, his own small rural community is everything; it is what matters above all else. Moreover, it demands total loyalty to the point of silencing one’s own different or dissenting views, and limiting discussion to those things that folks have in common or can agree on, in the interest of preserving communal wholeness and peace.
On both the questions of who is our neighbor and whether we should avoid conflict for the sake of preserving peace in the community, Jesus has much to say. As to the first question — who is the “neighbor” that Jesus instructs we must love as ourselves — there is perhaps no more well-known parable in the Gospels than that of the Good Samaritan. There, Jesus emphatically makes the point that from the standpoint of the Kingdom of God, the “neighbor” of the injured man in need at the 4side of the road in the parable was the man from enemy territory who stopped to offer assistance, rather than the two men who were from the same community as the injured man but who passed him by. Berry’s narrow view that allegiance to neighbor is defined by the narrow and limited geographic region in which they were raised or now live is directly antithetical to Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of God is far more inclusive, and that our interests must lie with this broader community. As for Berry’s observation that repressing differences of opinion and avoiding conflict is necessary for the health of a family or community, I offer the following passage:
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:34-37)
Jesus offers a similar teaching in Luke’s gospel: “He who comes to me and does not put aside his father and his mother and his brothers and his sisters and his wife and his children and even his own life cannot be a disciple to me.” (Luke 14:26) The point that Jesus is making is that if we are to live as disciples of him and his teachings, our fidelity must be to them, and if his teachings about how we are to live our lives conflict with the prevailing views in our family or community, the Kingdom of God must come first, even if that leads to conflict with the people who have been our family and community. In this way, Berry’s advocacy for the primacy of concern for the interests of local tribalism cannot be squared with the teachings of the Gospels he claims to revere.
In the end, Berry’s writing remains powerful and eloquent, if dated, on the issues he knows best and is sufficiently equipped through his own experiences to relate to his readers. For reading The Need To Be Whole, I am certainly more informed about the generational, geographical, and cultural viewpoints from which Berry speaks. But Berry’s is a myopic and narrowly informed view, and one that because of demographic changes in the United States, is less and less represented in, or representative of, our nation as a whole. That does not diminish the need to listen to Berry’s views and to try to understand them. But it does mean, at least to my reading, that Berry no longer speaks to the nation’s conscience the way he once did, and certainly not when it comes to race relations.