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Friday, June 03, 2005

The Fallow Ground of Democracy

Raising crops is hard on soil. It pulls vital nutrients out of the soil with each successive crop. If no action is taken, crop yield will slowly decrease as plants are starved for nutrients by the soil beneath them. In times past, farmers rotated crops - planting beans one year, corn the next, sorghum the next, etc. The stalks of the plants were then plowed back under to renourish the soil so it would be ready the next spring for a new crop. The Bible teaches that Jewish farmers were to go one step further - every seventh year they were to let their fields lie fallow.

Asking a farmer not to plant - that's what "fallow" means - is literally asking him to not try and make a living. It's like asking a banker not to use money for a year or a lawyer not to try a case for a year. It was literally takeing food out of the mouth of the famer and his family. What good could this possibly do?

The first thing it did was teach the farmer to live frugally. He was to set aside a portion of his grain for six years so that his family would not go hungry during his sabatical year (yep, that's where that word comes from). The second thing it did was make him depend upon God for providence. Even if you have a whole silo of corn, once planting time is over you are not going to get any more corn if the silo burns down. The third thing it did was to make farmers depend on each other - if your neighbor was on sabatical and needed food, it was your duty (and evidence of God's providence) for you to feed him. If you want a fourth reason, it also forced a stern work ethic on the farmers to work the land an entire year without bringing in a crop - see, "fallow" means you don't plant, but it doesn't mean you don't plow.

All of these things are also good for the soil. Giving the soil a year's rest allows it to replenish its nutrients. However, abandoning a field for a year does nothing for it. Anyone who has been in West Texas in late March knows about sandstorms that result from the drying topsoil not having enough growth to hold it down. By turning the soil, the nutrients mix more evenly. Turning the soil also allows the billions of organisms in each tablespoon of soil to gain better access to oxygen and thus processes decaying plant and animal matter into rich soil.

Much of this knowledge has been lost in the United States because most of us are no longer farmers. Even those that are farmers rarely leave a field fallow. They don't even rotate crops. They simply spray nutrients and pesticides and force the soil to give up more and more. Over time, more fertilizer is needed to maintain the yield.

The prophet Hosea said, "Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the LORD, till he come and rain righteousness upon you." (10:12). He was calling an agricultural based society back to God's plan for them. See, there are only two forces that make farmers leave behind the Biblical plan for farming - greed and fear. Greed causes them to plant during their sabatical because they want to be better off. Fear causes them to plant during the sabatical because they don't want to lose what they have. The result is an un-balancing act that rushes headlong into destructive production as the only legitimate reason to farm.

It occurred to me today that democracy is much like farming. Our fields are the population at large and our seeds are our ideas. Year after year, the same ideas are thrown out into the same fields. There's no sabatical here - every year holds the potential for a bumper crop. The partisan faithful are plowed back under and turned to aerate them. Some years erosion cuts them back and leaves horrible valleys that divide the faithful because of some intrusive issue.

There's no longer an off season for politics - it's all campaign all the time. That's the fertilizer being pumped back into the tired soil. Damn it, you will vote for me this time! And by the time our tired bodies finally yield a pitiful harvest of votes, the reaper slices it off and disappears for another year. Like a stripped stalk of cotton, we stand naked in the tired soil of tired ideas feeling tired and used and unappreciated. If laying fallow is God's plan for farming and farming and politics are no so different, then we are no closer to God's politics than we are to letting our farmers take off a year.

But this analogy only holds if you look at politics is something that is done TO you and not WITH you and FOR you. Where is this country Of the people, By the people, and For the people? Somehow, I can't find it! When was the last time the people of the country really had meaningful input on policy? Traditional politics doesn't measure people's values or ideas, it claims an idea in their name and whips up support for it in an "us versus them" manner that erodes the popular support necessary to make democracy vital. Like the farmers in Hosea's time, we are driven by greed and fear and have no time to look after each other or to look up to God for guidance.

If democracy is like farming, then we have to place ourselves in the position of the farmer and not the crop. We have to be willing to work, to discuss and dialogue with our opponents as well as our friends. Democracy works, like ancient farming societies, when we worry more about helping each other and worry less about winning this election or that office. Instead of laughing at the firey young activist, we should sit and listen for the truth under her passion. Instead of waiting until the election truly is the choice between the lesser of two evils, we should work the entire year to make sure that the candidate choice has at least one non-evil selection.

Last night I was asked what I thought the state of democracy was here in this country. My answer then was that it was improving. My answer today is that it is lying fallow - it is an unfulfilled promise waiting upon a few faithful workers to dedicate the labor necessary to bring in the crop.

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