Rural Crisis: A Call for Justice and Action

Message adapted by the Governing Board of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., May 17, 1984

THE CRISIS OF THE PEOPLE OF THE LAND

We warn that America is teetering on the slopes of a dark precipice: we are dangerously close to abandoning the egalitarian and communitarian goals of our religious and social heritage. We are well on the way to becoming a landless and fragmented people subject to the whims of those few holding disproportionate wealth and power.

Like our ancestors of the Farmers Alliance of 100 years ago, our cry seems to be lost in the void. Then, as now, family farmers were being driven off the land due to a mixture of high interest rates, low prices for farm produce, and a stagnant economy. Now, as then, the people of the land are told that this is the result of the inevitable march of history, that this disenfranchisement of the people from the land marks a steady onrush of the tide of progress. One hundred years ago the people of the land looked in vain to their elected representatives for assistance. Now, as then, our congress has favored the proponents of the “trickle-down” theory of economics, allowing the wealthy to pile riches upon riches while the people of the land diminish in number.

Our present period of crisis is unparalleled since the days of the Great Depression. An economic crisis in agriculture – one result of decades of public policy aimed at displacing people from the land – hastens the demise of our family – owned and operated – farms. Ownership and control of our rich land base is being consolidated at an alarming rate, and the loss of farms and people from the countryside is causing serious economic problems in our rural communities. Our cities re experiencing high unemployment rates among workers associated with agriculture-related industries. The economy of our states and of the nation itself is deteriorating because the foundation of that economy – agriculture – is suffering extraordinary losses.

This course of tragedy, which can be charted by statistics, masks an ever deeper and widespread suffering in the countryside. Economic stress results in personal and family stress. Many farm families facing financial difficulties are being personally blamed for their plight, even though it is due to circumstances well beyond their control. There are signs of increasing family tensions and even family violence, and the outright discussion of larger acts of violence against people and institutions indifferent to the rural crisis is heard more and more often.

The Crisis of Values – The Need for the Faith Community

One hundred years ago the Populists raised the alarm that the values of the day – the notorious “Gilded Age” – glorified greed, ruthless competition, and embodied an ethic of “progress” which was devoid of humanity. They demanded that the human costs of this so-called progress become a prime factor in policy decisions, and championed coalitions among farmers and city workers, among black and white persons alike.

The Populists’ most dire warnings have gone unheeded. The crushing effects of “progress” have proceeded apace. 

Where does this all end? When so-called rural communities consist entirely of urban bedroom commuters? When small businesses have4 been entirely supplanted by national chain-stores? When the number of farmers has been reduced to 10,000 per state, or 1,000 or 100? Who will decide that enough is too much. And by utilizing which values?

It is into this ethical vacuum that members of the faith community, and their organizational leadership, must plunge. It is true that over the past fifteen years individuals, churches, and representative bodies of the Christian faith have spoken often and eloquently in support of family farm agriculture and of the principle of widespread ownership of land. Yet, the larger society’s pursuit of unbridled individualism and of the accumulation of wealth without limit has continued without interruption.

Perhaps we of the church have been too silent, permitting our leaders to speak alone. Perhaps we have relegated the warnings of the prophets and the lessons of Scripture to the “safety” of a dead past. Perhaps we have forgotten that it was to the chosen people of Israel that Amos presented his list of grievances and his call to repentance. The Israelites, like us, had been very attentive to retaining the forms of religion, but had forgotten its substance. They had grown proud in their successes, and the wealthy rulers and their economic allies had come to oppress their people and to cheat the poor.

Perhaps we, like the Israelites of old, have turned our stony hearts from the message of Moses and the prophets and pursued other gods by making the economy and its siren song of promised individual enrichment fuel our greed and harden our hearts to the growing number of landless and poor among us.

The people of the land demand that we be loyal to our faith and, in so doing, come to their assistance.

The Terms and Promise of God’s Covenant

God’s promise was not limited in time. It and the terms of the Covenant, remain as valid for us today as thousands of years ago. In sum, God’s people were called to exercise loving stewardship over all of creation – land and creatures alike. Such were to be conserved in their use so that their blessings would continue for further generations. Further, we were to properly order our use and disbursement of those resources with regard to each other in order that God’s justice might reign. Greed, the accumulation of more than each person needs, and the driving of growing numbers of persons into poverty are absolutely inconsistent with God’s justice. All of us concerned today with the need for true peace in our war-threatened world should recall that peace was God’s promise to those who exercised the terms of the Covenant stewardship and justice.

THE CALL TO JUSTICE

God still calls us to give our all to the creation of a just world and, even now, summons us to action and justice with and on behalf of the suffering people of the land, regardless of color, race or creed.

We pledged ourselves to heed that call! 

We call upon our brothers and sisters of good will:

To realize a conversion of heart, to recognize that the values of individual enrichment and material accumulation are false gods, designed not only to lead one from God’s Covenant but to destroy community and harmony in our land. 

To remember the teachings of Francis of Assisi, who counseled the need to live in harmony with nature and to utilize tenderness in our dealings with others, and not follow the path of competition or hostility; who spoke of the ned to live minimally, and not to pursue the accumulation of surplus goods; and who said that we must live as an integral part of nature, not as one sundered from our roots; from the land and each other.

To stand side by side with their neighbors who suffer personal loss as a result of the economic crisis on the land, and to bring to a halt once and for all the demise of family farm agriculture by supporting actions and public policies that will bring about peaceful change in rural America.

We call upon our church leaders to make the continuing tragedy of rural America – the erosion of our fields and small communities, the demise of family farming and the forced liquidation of family farm operations, the growing concentration of land ownership – an urgent part of each church’s national agenda for action.

We call upon church leaders and members alike to press for enlightened public policy that will end existing favoritism towards speculators in land ownership and to create, in turn, public policy that has as its aim the preservation of diverse ownership of land and the continuation of the family farm system with its attendant values of stewardship, family, and community responsibility.

This we do as a people of God, struggling to be honest to the call to discipleship in rural America and all the world, and believing that future generations will judge us harshly if we fail in this time of grave urgency.

This message is from the Conference “The Church Encounters the Rural Crisis,” Des Moines, Iowa, October 4-6, 1983

Sponsored by the Iowa Inter-Church Forum, National Catholic Rural Life Conference, Rural America, Rural Iowa and the NCCC/Division of Church and Society

This Message and the Rural Crisis Resource Kit are available* from:

Division of Church & Society, Domestic Hunger and Poverty

National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

475 Riverside Drive, Room 572

New York, N.Y. 10115

*as of 1983

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