Here's another book everyone needs to read. It's "Against the Grain" by Richard Manning. The title should be taken
literally since the book is an eloquent and well-argued critique of the catastrophe wrought by the Agricultural Revolution.
This is an event that began around 10,000 years ago and we are still in its throes, though it is so much a part of our cultural
landscape that no one notices.
With the domestication of certain grains --- rice, wheat, and maize (corn) --- humanity traded away its freedom for the
reliability and abundance of these food sources. Myriad subsequent social atrocities, from slavery to famine to economic
inequities to imperialism to obesity, are a product of this bargain. Most of us have been educated to think of the Agricultural
Revolution as a Great Leap Forward for humanity, the dawn of civilization, the engine of progress. Manning reveals the other
side to this story, covering what we have lost and continue to lose at an accelerating pace, from agriculture.
Before we dismiss Manning's thesis, remember that the Bible agrees with him. The oldest portions of Scripture literally
remember this revolution when it swept through the Middle East. In seminary we learned that the dispute between Cain and
Abel may have been rooted in tension between nomadic shepherds and settled farmers. That God was squarely on the side of
the shepherds was indicated by his rejection of Cain's offering of cereal. Cain, the farmer, then not only invents murder,
but his descendants go on to develop cities and civilization.
Genesis also sees agriculture, not as a great blessing but as part of God's punishment for disobedience. "Cursed
is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life... you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground...." Perhaps the Garden of Eden preserves
a memory of hunter-gatherer existence predating both herding and farming.
In Egypt, Joseph, in his days as Pharaoh's lieutenant, used grain as a way to both save the people and concentrate Pharaoh's
power. This strategy would become a common one throughout subsequent history. Then, when the political winds shifted, the
agricultural Egyptians enslaved the nomadic Israelites, revealing another theme that would recur often in ensuing centuries.
The settling of the Israelites, like their getting a King, seems more like a grudging concession by God to irreversible
human developments. God gives the Commandments to institutionalize in their polity values opposite those asserted by Pharaoh.
For 40 years in Sinai the people do not plant crops but live off what God provides directly, like a wistful memory of some
earlier time when food could be simply gathered from the earth.
The "conquest" of Canaan may be seen as a sort of reactionary rebellion of people whose lives have been disrupted
by agriculture. The new ruling class of landowners lived in walled cities like Jericho to protect themselves both from other
cities following agriculture's demand to bring increasing acreage under the plow, as well as from the poor who had to do the
work in the fields (which is sort of what Norman Gottwald says).
Having been finally settled in Canaan, the Israelites find themselves tempted by agriculture's fertility gods, like Baal,
which, the prophets continually howl, are leading the people back into slavery. Amos, for instance, was a shepherd who railed
against the economic injustices and inequalities which inevitably accompany an agricultural economy. Jeremiah lifts up as
a shining examples the Rechabites, an Israelite sub-tribe that continued to maintain the ways of nomadic shepherds. As a
further punishment for agriculture, the people are subjected to drought, famine, pestilence, and flood, events that were less
common and less calamitous for mobile hunter-gatherer societies.
(This whole line of analysis may even shed light on, and raise some questions about, Margaret Barker's theses about Israelite
history. Perhaps the "reform" of Josiah, which Barker paints in such dark colors, was an attempt to rid the culture
of these agriculturalist innovations and return to an even earlier piety and cult. Maybe the furnishings of Solomon's Temple
which were excluded from the Second Temple where things that had been added long before as a compromise with agricultural
life. Barker never offers an explanation as to why the Deuteronomists went on this puritanical rampage. The hypothesis that
they were trying to recover the lost, pre-agricultural spirit of Israelite religion deserves a hearing....)
By the time of Jesus, the agricultural regime is embedded, ingrained, and thoroughly entrenched in Judean society, and
the injustice and poverty accompanying it is pervasive. Even the Law, originally intended as a resistance to it, was corrupted
by this regime. (Not to mention the fact that obtaining land for wheat production was the whole reason the Roman Empire even
Manning makes the point that the slaves, displaced and poor people who made up the bulk of converts to early Christianity
would have been fed on bread, as opposed to the more varied and sumptuous fare enjoyed by the wealthy. Bread thus had profound,
and of course sacramental, importance in Christianity. Monastics would rely on bread, especially during periods of fasting.
(He goes on to draw some conclusions about asceticism I either don't understand or don't agree with or both.)
The long, sordid history of agriculture, through slavery, famine, over-population, imperialism, extinction, genocide,
and malnutrition culminates in our own time with mammoth agri-business conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland, a heavily
subsidized pusher of agricultural commodities that is systematically wrecking both the planet and people's health. The main
impetus of an agricultural economy is not nutrition but the need to sell off an overproduced commodity.
Anyway, this is another book that I read as a sign that the End Times are upon us. Agriculture simply cannot continue
to do this much damage without something in the system finally breaking and bringing down the whole edifice of civilization.
Manning does see some hope in movements like Slow Food, organic farming, and the rise of local produce markets. (He does
not necessarily see "agriculture" as identical with farming, by the way. Agriculture is the wheat-corn-rice-potato-meat
economic juggernaut. Agriculture grows commodities for processing; farming grows food to eat.)
I have heard the question raised recently by a Christian vegetarian group, "What Would Jesus Eat?" Their point
is, Not animals. But this barely touches the surface of the issues Manning is dealing with. And neither is any moral answer
discovered in a different rule, like "Don't eat bread." (By the way, the popular Atkins diet has a lot in common
with that of a hunter-gatherer society, for what it's worth.) More to the point would be not conforming to the standards
and dictates of the world and the principalities and powers that hold sway over it.
For meat and bread are not the problems. The real issue is control. Agriculture rose, as the Bible seems to know intuitively,
out of a desire to dominate and control life, the world, nature, food, others. In some ways it is a conscious rejection of
God, a refusal to trust in God, a declining to rely upon what God provides. Instead, we chose to provide for ourselves.
And in the process developed a system of ownership, production, hoarding, trading, controlling, conquering, subordinating,
and dominating. On the one hand, this ensured the explosion of human beings (not to mention wheat, rice, corn, et al, all
over the planet. On the other hand, it meant that our life became mean, hard, unfair, and brutal, for most of us. We got
Plato, Beethoven, and Shakespeare; and we got famine, slavery, poverty, and war. Agriculture gave some people the time to
develop human civilization and culture... even if this progress was paid for by the sweat and tears and blood of the vast
majority. And no one, not even Manning, romanticizes hunter-gatherer existence either.
Maybe we need to think, as God was trying to teach the Israelites during their 40 years of schooling in the wilderness,
to depend less on ourselves. And to trust in God more. To control less, and to obey God more. Less "progress"
more faith. Maybe in terms of food, we need to hunt for and gather what God is providing, rather than allowing ourselves
to be force fed by ADM and their ilk.