When advocating for justice in public life, it’s easy to think we’re championing the side of love against the side of hate. But that’s not love, Wendell Berry argues in the following excerpt from his new book, The Need to Be Whole.
I recommend second thoughts about the possibility of a “side” of love, but current political rhetoric tends toward such an absolute division. The side of hate is composed of avowed racists; avowed racists have espoused an absolute, un-excepting prejudice against a kind of people; and so they may be called “the side of hate” rightly enough. That haters hate is morally as straightforward and uncomplicated as it can be. But they themselves are perceived by the side of love as a kind of people. And the side of love, as perceived by the side of hate, is a kind of people also, another kind. And so we have a confrontation of two opposite kinds of people, lovers and haters, each side as absolute in its identity as it can make itself, and they do not know each other. They cannot imagine each other. For the haters, this situation is wonderfully simple and entirely acceptable. They don’t need even a notion of consequence. They are there to oppose. That is all. The lovers, on the contrary, have everything at stake and the situation is clouded by moral danger.
Because the confrontation is between two categories of people who do not know each other, it will be easy for the side of love first to understand love merely as opposite and opposed to hate, and then to generalize this opposition as an allegorical battle of Love versus Hate, exchanging slogan for slogan, gesture for gesture, shout for shout. Then if nature and the rule of battle go unchecked, the side of love begins to hate the side of hate. And then the lovers are defeated, for they have defeated themselves. They have fallen into the sort of trap that Mr. Jefferson set for, among others, himself. If you say, “All men are created equal,” then adding “except for some,” the exception overturns the rule, and a great deal else along with it. Just so, love that hates has canceled itself. It cannot survive its hatred of hate any more than one can survive minus one. It is no more. Chaos and old night have come again.
With us, love has been reduced mostly to a popular word, easy to use to intensify a frivolous appreciation. “Oh, I love it!” we say when told of something really cute. Or it can be used as a handy weapon against the haters of whom we disapprove. Too bad. But love comes into our civilization – the Gospels being the source best known to me – as a way of being in the world. It is a force, extraordinarily demanding and humbling, dangerous too, for those who attempt to take it seriously.
As a force and a way of being, love is never satisfied with partiality. It is compelled, by its own nature and logic, to be always trying to make itself whole. This is why the Sermon on the Mount tells us to love our enemies. That is an unconditional statement. It does not tell us to fight our enemies in order to improve them or convert them by our love.
In practice, this commandment seems to cancel or delete “enemy” as a category of thought.
My long advocacy began in love and fear for my own home country and community. By the time I was thirty, I could see that my native place and the life of it, along with my affection for it, was not in favor with the urban-industrial system that had clouded over it after World War II. Such a place – rural, small, “backward,” and “under-developed” – was, in fact, invisible, virtually nonexistent, to that system, and thus mortally endangered by it. I could see that, as it was, its days were numbered. But I could see also that, as it was, its human community was taking respectable care of itself and of the local countryside that supported it. It was clear to me that this good keeping, if it could survive and be cherished, held the possibility of better keeping. There was nothing in the dominant economy and state of mind, however, that would support such a possibility – let alone the possibility that anything at all in such a place, or in fact in any place, might be cherished.
My concern might reasonably have made me an advocate for “soil conservation.” But I was a native. My affection for my place was already established in my heart and unspecialized. It included the people and other creatures along with the soil, and it has become ever clearer to me that you cannot conserve the land unless you can conserve the people who depend on the land, who care for it, and who know how to care for it – the people on whom the land depends.
Love that hates has canceled itself. It cannot survive its hatred of hate any more than one can survive minus one.
Without quite knowing what I was doing at that time, I had entered the way of love and taken up its work. It could not be simplified or shortcut, but became ever more inclusive, complex, and difficult. Any violence that intrudes between the land and the people extends its damage both ways. But I could not restrict my understanding of the problem of violence to my own place and people. Violence to one place cannot be dissociated from violence to any place. Violence to some people cannot be dissociated from violence to other people. This is the sort of difficulty that imposes an irremediable amateurism. I finally understood this and approved of it. It meant that my permanent motive would be love; it certainly did not mean that I was a hobbyist. But my commitment was pushing me way beyond my schooling. I would have to deal with issues of science, of art, of religion, of economy, of ecology, and so on, with no foreseeable limit. There can be no set bounds to the work of love when it faces boundless violence.
I am not speaking here of the love that thrives only by feeding upon a commensurate hatred, but rather of the love, perhaps more fearful, that draws no boundary around itself.
How might we imagine imposing by mere law the principles of equality and justice and love upon a society dominated in its economic life by the violent principles of individualism, competition, and greed? How might we imagine the loyalty or patriotism that could protect the life of the land and the people of any place under the economic rule of “maximum force relentlessly applied”? What must we do for the success of the personal generosity, the common decency, the good manners that are the ultimate safeguards of equality and justice, now that we apparently have settled into permanent war as the basis of our economy? Our economy, let us not forget, defines “equality” as the “right” of everybody to be as wasteful, violent, destructive, consumptive, lazy, and luxurious as everybody else.
If you see the world’s goodness and beauty, and if you love your own place in it, then your love itself will be one of your life’s great rewards.
For me, the greatest, most comprehensive difficulty, the one I endlessly return to, is that I do not think of the chattel slavery of the antebellum South as a problem that is isolatable or unique. The more I have read and thought about our history, and the more I have observed of the works and effects of our present economy, the more plainly I have seen that old-time version of slavery as one of a continuum of violent exploitations, including other forms of slavery, that has been with us since the European discovery of America. It is so far our history’s dominant theme.
A failing too little remembered but nonetheless significant is that the southern planters, using slave labor, cropped their land to exhaustion. The availability of apparently endless tracts of “new” land to the west made the eastward lands dispensable. And so we come to a key word in the story of American development or progress: Anything superabundant or “inexhaustible” can be treated as dispensable. One of the cruelest ironies of postbellum history is that emancipation, in freeing the slaves of white proprietorship, freed them also from their market value and made them individually worthless in the “free” economy – like the poor whites whose “free labor” was already abundantly available, and who thus were individually dispensable.
So far, there has been no limit to this equation between apparent abundance and dispensability. The immigrants who work in Tyson’s meat factories, where they are ruthlessly exposed to the coronavirus (among other dangers) are extremely poor, having only their bodily labor to depend on; they also are numerous and therefore are considered dispensable. We must remember also the homegrown great corporations that depend upon, and defend, forced labor in China. But this freedom to enslave, use, and use up is not limited to corporations. Because the atmosphere is so far too abounding to be captured and sold, it also is worthless, useful for disposing of wastes. All of us now pollute it freely, at no cost except to the health of every living thing.
On the contrary: It seems natural to me to think that there is a law of love operating in this world. If you see the world’s goodness and beauty, and if you love your own place in it (no deed or title required), then your love itself will be one of your life’s great rewards. That is the law that rules the “sticker,” the settler, the actual patriot. The opposite law is that of greed, which sees the goodness and beauty of the world as wealth and power. It says: Take what you want. No individual person is purely a settler or an exploiter, but perhaps every person must submit to the rule of one law or the other.
Excerpted from The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice, by Wendell Berry. Copyright © 2022 by Shoemaker & Company. Used by permission of the publisher.