Monday, September 2, 2013

Soil and Soul

When I was eighteen, I went with a friend on a visit to two islands in the Inner Hebrides - Eigg and Rhum. They were islands that my friend had known since childhood. They were woven into the fabric of his spirit and both vicariously through that attachment and through their translucent beauty, I drank from their wells.

However, on Eigg I was aware of a human conflict between landlord and community. The then landlord, Keith Schellenberg, was eccentric, volatile and an exemplar of how 'landlordism' was both oppressive, arbitrary and a brake on the development of vibrant, self-sustaining communities, never perfect but real.

Reading Alastair McIntosh's fabulous book, 'Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power', I discovered the history of Eigg's liberation as one of the first communities in Scotland to effectively buy itself out and embark on a new life as a community land trust. It is a complex story of empowering a community to enable it to take control of its own destiny set within a wider context. The wider context is both global, the indigenous struggle for land rights, and spiritual: what does it mean for a community to rediscover its identity in belonging to a place?

The book explores the culture of the Hebrides, both pagan and Christian, as a place where nature is reverenced as revealing divine creativity and what a rediscovery of that reverencing may mean for contemporary society.

Equally, it explores how we come to live in a society that is displaced from reverence, eager to find meaning in consumption rather than contemplation. It explores too the dynamics of power that keeps that displacement in place.

The book beautifully uses the work of the American theologian, Walter Wink, to explore 'the powers'. Wink showed that we live under a system of 'domination' - the powers that were created good, are fallen and need of redemption. Every institution has an 'inner spirituality' that shapes its actions. An organisation, whether a church or a mining company or a bank, may indeed be composed of people, good, bad, indifferent, but its actions are greater than the sum of its parts and, thus, we can find ourselves struck by the paradox of 'good' individuals taking decisions that are bad (but out of our hands).

The first task of any campaigner after the good is to name and unmask the powers, to show how the consequences of collective actions tend towards negative outcomes, and awaken the conscience of individuals to collectively act after a redemption, to take a new course.

I am reminded of Wink telling of a church that for more than a hundred years (as its members' changed) had taken up, exalted, been disappointed in and spat out their pastor! The powers are formidable!

But Alastair shows how you can, creatively, engagingly, unmask the powers that be and find ways of shifting the dynamics of what is possible by helping people, individually and collectively, re-imagine their own possibilities. But you need to address people's spirits as well as their minds and materials. His book is a theology of community empowerment and as such is an unusual and necessary addition to how we see change happening.

My favourite moment must be Alastair giving evidence to a public enquiry (on an application for a super-quarry) with a prominent Free Church theologian and a Native American warrior. Three radical different spiritual arguments for reverencing nature undermining the inquiries presumption for 'rational evidence', not itself being compelling within the inquiry but generating such interest without the inquiry as to help swing the balance of public opinion against the quarry that ultimately proved decisive by helping people make a decision with their hearts as well as their minds and recognise that both give knowledge that it is important to honour.  

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