At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

Joel Salatin on Forgiveness Farming and Redemptive Work (Part 2)

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My dad used to always admonish us: “Remember, machines don’t forgive.”

– Joel Salatin

In this second part of my three part interview with Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, Salatin explains some of the theological principles that inform his farming.

Inanimate things—objects, systems, social structures—are not forgiving. If you mishandle a chainsaw, says Salatin,

[I]t can cut your arm off and no amount of apologies to the chain saw for mishandling it will make it remorseful. It’s inanimate, inert, a pile of unfeeling, uncaring metal and plastic.

That’s the difference between the living and the non-living: inanimate objects cannot forgive, but living things are created to forgive. Salatin further explains this concept:

Any living thing, plant or animal, can be abused or mishandled. If we show enough remorse and ask enough forgiveness, healing will set in and things can be made right. That’s the fundamental difference between the biological and mechanical world.

Salatin believes physical principles should show what we don’t see spiritually. This means creation can reveal a lesson of spiritual truth and vice versa, even in forgiveness.

Convicted that his work as a farmer should somehow reflect Christ’s forgiveness, Salatin implements a model of “forgiveness farming.”

How do you develop a forgiving farm? Salatin summarizes seven different ways:

Eliminate Flooding and Drought

“Nature is not always kind. Floods and droughts come as part of creation’s fallen condition. Our job as stewards is to massage the landscape so that when these assaults come, it is more resilient, more forgiving. On our farm, we have built and continue to build many ponds to hold surface runoff that floods the downstream neighbors, and hold it for slow release during a drought to maintain springs and creeks, again to help our neighbors downstream.”

Build Soil

“Fertile, rich soil is the basis for all productive plant life. The story of civilization and agriculture is the story of desertification and erosion, unfortunately. But with perennials, predators, and herbivores, God’s design builds soil. Mimicking that design through an herbivore-perennial base using electric fencing as a predator, we can actually better duplicate the soil-building patterns so that the human footprint builds soil rather than depleting it. That’s fundamentally healing rather than sickening.”

Maintain Symbiotic Order Through Relationships

“God has orders of church government, civil government, gifts and talents—lots of permutations on order and relationship. A farm that exemplifies this principle, therefore, should have an intricately-choreographed dance of multi-speciation rather than growing only a single crop or simplified corn-bean rotation.”

Recognize the Pigness of Pigs

“If we’re going to respect the unique gifts and talents of human beings, we start by respecting the physiological distinctiveness of the plants and animals. It’s how we respect and honor the least of these that creates an ethical framework in which we honor the greatest of these. That means our farm provides each plant and animal a habitat that enables it to fully express its gifts—like the ‘pigness’ of pigs. That certainly means we do not feed dead cows to cows, and we don’t lock animals in concentrated confinement factories. Animals are free to move, to express their individuality, and to eat a diet they were designed to eat. They aren’t machines; they are biological life.”

Be Sun-Driven

“The energy source for the farm is the sun, preferably in real time. Clearly, God intended that the land would become more and more productive under proper stewardship. He gave the Israelites a clearly-marked boundary called the Promised Land, and then told them to be fruitful and multiply. This was before petroleum, chemical fertilizer, Faber-Bosch, pesticides, herbicides, and genetic modification. Our farm, then, leverages the carbon cycle for fertility and energy rather than chemicals and petroleum. Just like we’re supposed to be Son-driven spiritually, our farms should be sun-driven physically.”

You Cannot Have Life Without Death

“Perhaps one of the biggest travesties of the chemical fertilizer industry is to encourage the notion that life can spring from inanimate products, that life does not require sacrifice. The foundation of all ecology is the cycle of life, death, decomposition, and regeneration. A farm without a compost pile is a farm without a demonstration of that fundamental physical principle, which is a basic spiritual principle. Sacrifice precedes life. If you want to fully live, you die to yourself, to your spouse, to your classmates.

Disturbance creates succession. We live in a time of environmentalism by abandonment. To many, the environment is too sacred and special to be touched by human breath. But in fact, all innovation requires disturbance. All change requires disturbance. Repentance is disturbing, but it’s the precursor to spiritual growth. Disturbing the landscape–temporarily–to move it to a better state is one of our human mandates. Our big brains and opposing thumbs are not bestowed on us to make us more efficient pillagers of creation, but rather to massage this ecological womb so that it can be more productive and beautiful than it would be if left in a static state. That is our mission.”

Redemptive Work

Salatin is driven by his God-given calling to understand the intricacies of creation in order to steward all of the resources that God has given him. His faith motivated him not only to work more productively, but also redemptively. He says,

Part of our redemptive imperative is to extend our spiritual forgiveness to the physical universe around us, to show through physically healing our soil, air, and water the incredible capacity of a loving caress and sacrificial devotion to turn hurting landscapes into beautiful, productive areas.

Salatin passionately believes that his work in redeeming the earth with his gifts and talents puts flesh and practicality around the theological concept of Christ redeeming the soul.

Want to see what God can do for a person? Come and see our farm, and I’ll show you what God can do.

Next week, in the final part of my interview series with Joel Salatin, he will explore tensions between economic, environmental, and theological principles.

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