Spirituality and the insurrection of seeds

All monopolies—religious, social, political and economic—spring from the desire for power and domination.

Filipe Maia
6 December 2016

Credit: Keith Weller, USDA via Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Don Halcomb is a 63-year-old farmer who grows corn, soybeans, wheat and barley on his 7,000-acre family farm in Adairville, Kentucky. According to a report in the New York Times he’s expecting his profits to vanish this year because crop prices are falling and seeds and fertilizer are increasingly expensive, their costs driven up by Monsanto, Dupont and other agribusiness giants.

“We’re producing our crops at a loss now,” he told the Times, “You can’t cut your costs fast enough…It’s just like any other industry that consolidates. They tell the regulators they’re cost-cutting, and then they tell their customers they have to increase pricing after the deal’s done.”

The ‘deal’ cited by Halcomb concerns Monsanto’s recent announcement that it plans to merge with Bayer, one the world’s largest producers of agricultural chemicals and biotechnology products, spiking fears that the new conglomerate will raise the cost of inputs even further. Less competition equals more room for large corporations to dictate their prices and raise their profit margins, producing a virtual monopoly on seeds which will prevent farmers from diversifying and encourage the trend towards highly-vulnerable agricultural monocultures.

It’s a fearful image that’s been exercising my imagination in recent weeks, evoking some powerful theological memories in the process. Yes, I did say ‘theological’, though perhaps ‘spiritual’ is a better word, so what’s the connection between spirituality and seeds?

I work as a professor of theology in a seminary, a place where the imagery around seeds is abundant. Etymologically, a seminary is a place of planting and harvesting, of discerning which seeds are good for each type of soil, and testing how different varieties can be mingled together to form new types of vegetables and plants. Seminaries are also places of dissemination—where we launch the seeds of ideas and interpretations and cultivate both faith and doubt in our students.

It’s in this context that a monopoly over seed production and dissemination—just like a monopoly over theology and religious teachings—strikes me as especially dangerous.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religion philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive and insipid.” As religion loses its ability to connect to the struggles and the suffering of the world, spirituality becomes vacuous and alienating.

“When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, and love by habit,” Heschel continued, “when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes a heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.”

His warning reminds me that when I was preparing to join a seminary for my own theological education, I was told that they were places where people go only to lose their faith. I didn’t lose mine, but I certainly questioned and deepened it, very much in the tradition of religious scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith. In his essay on “The English Word ‘Believe’,” Smith takes us back to the roots of that word which signify to ‘hold something dear,’ not simply to assent to something like a belief in God or a set of predetermined teachings.

“Virtually to love” something, Smith says, is “To believe:” to align oneself to something, to pledge love and loyalty. So it is worth asking: what alliances, what relationships, and what loves do we profess with our beliefs—whether they are religious, social, political, or economic?

The Christian gospels say that faith is like a mustard seed—very small but also very wild. The website of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs in Ontario describes wild mustard as “a serious weed of cultivated land. It is responsible for reductions in crop yields, dockage losses, and for costly chemical and cultural controls.” Mustard seeds are not fond of mono-cultures, just as faith often leads people to ally their hearts beyond the assertions of religious orthodoxy. Both real and spiritual seeds are constantly crossing boundaries and disturbing large plantations, growing in-between other plants, creating spaces that did not previously exist, and finding new life there to nurture.

When we have this kind of faith we align ourselves to that which is more-than-one, to the polar opposite of a monoculture enforced from above. We align our hearts to a multitude of seeds because we recognize that their convergence—the meeting and cross-pollinating and living together of different cultures and traditions—is the wild and wonderful result of a wind that continues to blow. But then I think of all the heavy and almost unmovable articles of faith that are carried on by my own Christian tradition: of God the Father, God Almighty and God the Spirit; of The Church, the Trinity and Sin.

These are heavy words, burdened with a long history of abuse, patriarchy, militarism, and colonialism. Their traditions grow deep, and so uprooting them is very difficult. Like Heschel, I fear that some of my colleagues have been so fixed in defending their heavy and deeply-rooted creeds and books of discipline that they have neglected to notice that our spiritual roots are barely alive. According to the gospels, faith cultivates in people a capacity to move mountains and trees to other places as part of a healthy and diverse ecosystem of social, economic and spiritual growth and development. The problem is that faith and spirituality can become just another way of maintaining these heavy and deeply-rooted things untouched in their terrain.

In the same way, I am deeply troubled by an economic system in which a single for-profit corporation is responsible for the production and dissemination of most of the world’s seeds, especially when we still have 48 million people in the United States who suffer from food insecurity in the wealthiest nation on earth. Here is the most important parallel between the monopolies of Monsanto and other agribusiness giants and the monopolies of formal religion: both spring from the desire for power and domination. Both presuppose that seeds can be controlled and constrained and limited. But monopolies can never impede the dissemination of new seeds, since buried under the earth those seeds are always sprouting into the wildest of things.

It will take both faith and courage to uproot these heavy and oppressive systems. This faith will not be about great affirmations; instead it will be a way of aligning our hearts to the seeds of change that are growing right under our feet. As we are fond of doing in seminaries, let us pray that we may witness a true insurrection of seeds. 

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