Mike’s note: The following guest-post by Marcus Rempel is excerpted by his eclectic collection of delightfully subversive essays, Life at the End of Us Vs. Them: Cross Culture Stories – a Speakeasy selection. If you review books for your blog, podcast, or are an Amazon/Goodreads superstar, there are a limited number of review copies left here.
“A contrary view . . . prevails when a community chooses a subsistence-oriented way of life. There, the inversion of development, the replacement of consumer goods by personal action, of industrial tools by convivial tools is the goal. . . . There, the guitar is valued over the record, the library over the schoolroom, the back yard garden over the supermarket selection. . . .They try to “unplug themselves from consumption,” . . . women seek alternatives to gynecology; parents alternatives to schools; home-builders alternatives to the flush toilet.
The Meaning of Poverty
I poop in a bucket. Does this mean that I am poor?
I also co-own 144 acres of farmland. Does this mean I’m rich?
I spend my summers bending my back, working outside, with dirt under my fingernails. Does that mean I’m poor?
I find restaurant food sub-par compared to my regular diet of made-from-scratch meals, loaded with meat and organic produce. Does that mean I am rich?
Our family’s after tax income last year was about $25,000. The poverty line for a Canadian family our size is calculated at $34,829. Does that mean we are poor?
We own two vehicles, one of which is a 2003 Mercedes Benz SUV, sold to us for a silly low price because the seller likes us, and I think because she thinks we are poor. Does that mean we are rich?
I suspect that all of these are beside the point. What makes me a wealthy man, I think, has much to do with the fact that I am not ashamed of any of the above facts, but instead am pleased with them. Okay, the Mercedes is kind of embarrassing—but also kind of fun. Our family used to sing Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” at the top of our lungs while driving down the road in our plebeian Honda Civic:
O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all drive Porsches,
I must make amends
Worked hard all my lifetime,
no help from my friends
O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.
Joplin’s lampooning of the “health and wealth” Gospel was so delicious to us as we laughed at the silliness of praying to a great shiny Car Dealer in the Sky. And then, when we weren’t looking for it, we got a Mercedes, which we have taken to be God’s laugh on us.
But back to the bucket-pooping, exhibit A in this goofy, but serious, argument about the meaning of poverty. It’s not that gross. We cover our business with sawdust, so it’s really no more smelly or unsightly than a kitty litter box. When the bucket is full, I add the contents to a pile covered with straw, where all that carbon, and nitrogen are digested by a community of microorganisms that turn filth into fertility. This eventually goes on our hay-land, making it bloom a verdant green wherever the humanure has fallen. These are things that make me happy.
But here’s where things get complicated. For while I am happily closing the loop of my poop, Aboriginal communities in Manitoba are trying to get my larger and privileged Mennonite faith community to lend their voice to those of local chiefs, who are challenging the government to address the scandal that in the twenty-first century Aboriginal reserves still lack basic plumbing. That is to say, they have to poop in buckets.
Here I have to reckon with the strange but indisputable fact that my white male privilege allows me to enjoy and celebrate the practice of twenty-first-century bucket-pooping, which remains to my Aboriginal neighbour a disgusting misery. When I carry out the poop bucket, I am thinking back to the Gandhi movie, which I watched with adolescent fervour with a pile of other liberal Mennonite teens, as we stuffed our faces with taco chips and packaged macaroons while Gandhi defeated the British Empire with fasting and nonviolent truth-force. I’m remembering that moment when Gandhi tells his highborn wife not to shun the work of Untouchables, insisting that she take her turn in cleaning out the communal latrines. I’m feeling righteous carrying that bucket, saintly even.
But while I was busy falling in love with Gandhi’s noble poverty and nonviolence in the safety of a suburban basement in Winnipeg, a boy my age on the Garden Hill reserve in northern Manitoba was being beaten up for his Nike Air Jordans—shoes his folks hadn’t really been able to afford—only to have those shoes tied together and slung high over a power line to dangle and to taunt him with their out-of-reach status—as similar shoes do for similar boys in that reserve to this day. I think of that boy today, perhaps a father himself now, trying to raise his family in a crowded reserve house with only a bucket of shit and piss for a toilet, yet another taunt of his worth. For him, the lack of basic plumbing can only be a source of humiliation, sparking rage that his people should have given up their land to a wealthy and progressive nation that continues to leave them so far behind.
I have half a mind to become a bucket-pooping missionary to the people of Garden Hill—to go and share the good news of the carbon cycle, the priceless pearl of nitrogen. That ongoing source of nitrogen could improve the poor soils where my government confined them. That father could grow fresh local food for his family, which he must now buy at a gouging price at the Northern Store. But who am I kidding? No one in Garden Hill wants to see my poopy power point presentation. They have endured enough assaults to their dignity.
Still, none of this changes my belief in “a subsistence-oriented way of life,” per Illich, or in the helpfulness of The Humanure Handbook, for myself or for someone in Garden Hill. But I know I cannot “sell” these ideas to the people of Garden Hill as a traveling salesman—particularly since I would not be going to them as a genuine missionary, one who makes his life with the people. I am committed elsewhere.
In the 1960s, when gung-ho do-gooders were flooding into “underdeveloped” countries to bring them, by way of industrialization, into the benefits of “freedom” and “equality,” Ivan Illich gave this program of “development” another name: the war on subsistence. David Cayley summarizes Illich’s view of this colonizing project:
[It] would replace a tolerable absence of goods and services by a much more painful condition which he named “modernized poverty.” Development, he argued, opened a vista onto “an earthly paradise of never-ending consumption,” but ends up generating needs that cannot be met and demands for services that can never be delivered. At the same time, the glamour that attaches to development dulls the dignity of subsistence and disables the pursuit of self-sufficiency . . . . [H]e predicted . . . the result would be chronic underdevelopment, grotesque social polarization, and more acute misery for the millions who would inevitably be excluded. Forty years later, with the foggy enthusiasms of the development decade long ago dispelled, I can leave it to the reader to judge whether Illich was right.
Clearly, this diagnosis of “chronic underdevelopment, grotesque social polarization and acute misery” also aptly sums up the malaise of reserve life in Canada in the twenty-first century.
Illich told the development do-gooders to please stay home. For by “building more schools, more modern hospitals, more extensive highways, more power grids”—and yes, more sanitation facilities—“together with the creation of a population trained to staff and need them,”7 this program made it increasingly difficult and increasingly shameful for people to choose simpler ways of living.
I was an operative in that program for a time as an itinerant occupational therapist consulting schools in Manitoba’s remote Aboriginal communities. Every time I went north, I would hop on a plane full of highly paid, mostly white, traveling professionals, piloting around these small, poor communities to offer our expert skills on managing everything from their social problems to their sewage problems. We were fly-in doctors, trying to keep alive transplants of suburbia8 in Canada’s remote wilderness. For fiscally conservative governments, we were the agents that allowed them to say, “Look, we’ve spent billions on First Nations. Don’t ask us for more!” For fiscally progressive governments, we were the agents who tallied and documented the costly needs of these communities, allowing them to say: “Look at the plight of First Nations. We have to spend more!”
My job was to run under-performing kids through a series of standardized tests. As African-American culture critic Dr. Cornel West says of his community’s experience: “We know that rich kids get taught. Poor kids get tested.”9 The results of my testing would determine the level of funding attached to the files of struggling students, justifying a larger budget for the school and thus a larger staff.
I remember talking with one of those staff, a resource teacher I’ll call Al, who had spent his career in northern schools—perhaps even in Garden Hill. (I don’t remember. My engagements in these communities were in-and-out, my reports very cut and paste.) Al exhibited a superior kind of friendliness to the “special needs” students he hosted daily in the resource room, but overall he struck me as a tired and cynical man. He couldn’t wait to retire. On the last day of school, he, like virtually all his white, southern colleagues, would be at the airport and long gone by the time the northern sun had set on the reserve. The students were his caseload, not his people.
I remember asking Al what positive changes he had seen, if any, over his long career in Canada’s North. “They aren’t really doing any better,” he shrugged, “but at least they don’t disappear for months at a time like they used to.” When Al was a young teacher, whole families would leave the reserve to go out on the land and run their traplines after freeze-up and then go to their fish camps in the spring. When the state-run schools first started, the spring melt was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the school year—not the date set by someone behind a desk in a square brick building on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg.
According to Al, the bad news was that Aboriginal kids were still learning hardly anything from the state’s official curriculum. But the good news was that they weren’t learning anything anymore from their families on the land! He was defining progress precisely in terms of a war on subsistence.
I’m sure there were no flush toilets out on the land, but I know there was dignity—and good work, good food, mutual help and love—along with suffering, endurance and wisdom.
White Man’s Burden
Illich traces the West’s war on subsistence to its distinct conception of the alien as a burden, “someone in need, someone to be brought in.” The institutionalization of the Samaritan’s merciful action toward an injured enemy gives rise to a Western compulsion to “rescue” cultural outsiders. This “universal mission to the world outside” is “constitutive;” it makes the West the West. Though this impulse to rescue changes form over the ages, the underlying pattern carries through. The barbarian who is to be subdued by Rome becomes the “naturally Christian” pagan who is to be baptized into the Church, who then becomes the “infidel” who is to be converted (by the Crusader’s sword) to true faith.
After Columbus arrives in the Americas, the stubborn infidel who threatens the Church is replaced by “the wild man who threatens the civilizing function of the humanist.” Initially Europeans see the wild man as one who has no needs, one who can exist without the benefits and securities of their higher civilization. “This independence made him noble, but a threat to the designs of colonialism and mercantilism. To impute needs to the wild man, one had to make him over into the native,” says Illich. This means ascribing needs to the native that are not the same as the needs of Europeans, but are enough to justify the “white man’s burden” of colonization: “The provision of government, education, and commerce for the natives.” Four hundred years later, “developed” nations are finally repenting of the project of colonization—and nations that were administered by the colonial powers are categorically rejecting it. But many are still enamoured with the lure of development, which Illich sees as colonization’s most recent mutation.
Beginning with the Marshall Plan—the design to make over Germany after the wreckage of the World War II—Illich sees the roll-out of the West’s most pernicious and global missionary effort: “Development based on high per capita energy quanta and intense professional care.” This new missionary effort required a new definition of the proselytes to be saved.
. . . when multinational conglomerates were expanding and the ambitions of transnational pedagogues, therapists and planners knew no bounds, the natives’ limited needs for goods and services thwarted growth and progress. They had to metamorphose into underdeveloped people, the sixth and present stage of the West’s view of the outsider.
“Development,” according to Illich, has destroyed a world in which the supposedly “underdeveloped” can live well with less. Illich opens my eyes to the wreckage of development. In the city, developed landscapes designed for the automobile make participation by walkers and cyclists nigh impossible. You need money and a license just to move. In the North, Western-style education defines traditional schooling as “absenteeism” to be discouraged and penalized. You need money and a license to teach. On the farm, “Health and Safety” standards make home-scale food enterprises uneconomical, if one complies, and illegal, if one doesn’t. You need money and a license to feed. And God forbid if people should take responsibility for managing their own crap. You absolutely need serious money and a special license for that! For the moneyless and the unlicensed, development means condemnation.
In defiance of such condemnation, Illich reclaims a sphere of life that is free from the spell of development. Illich names this sphere “the vernacular,” taking a word that has come to be associated with untutored speech, and returning it to the meaning of its Latin root, vernaculum: “whatever was homebred, homespun, homegrown, [or] homemade.”
One of the strange signs of our time is that this vernacular sphere is no longer the domain of the poor, but the hipster. In the 1970s, Illich noticed that the narrative of progress and development was being confronted by a force that had not been anticipated: the rich and the privileged were carving out spaces for themselves that were free of “the damages inflicted by development.”
You have arrived if you can commute outside the rush hour; . . . if you can give birth at home; are privy to rare and special knowledge if you can bypass the physician when you are ill; are rich and lucky if you can breathe fresh air; by no means poor, if you can build your own shack. The underclasses are now made up of those who must consume the counterproductive packages and ministrations of their self-appointed tutors; the privileged are those who are free to refuse them.
Illich names the odd way in which I am rich and privileged by growing my own food, living in a cabin built of reclaimed hog barn lumber, cutting my own firewood and composting my own crap. I am freer to refuse the “progress and development” package than my Aboriginal neighbours, who are penned in and bureaucratically administered on the reserve. I can pick and choose my renunciations. By way of these renunciations, I can find “a way back to a self which stands above the constraints of the world,”11 as Illich puts it. I can choose my story. I am not “underdeveloped.” I am breaking free.
By naming and re-dignifying the homegrown sphere of the vernacular, Illich claims a validity for activities of people . . . not motivated by thoughts of exchange, . . . autonomous, non-market-related actions through which people satisfy everyday needs—the actions which by their nature escape bureaucratic control . . . [and] that we want to defend from measurement or manipulation.
By protecting and reclaiming vernacular values and vernacular work, people can find their way back to what Illich calls a life of conviviality, the free and creative exchange among persons and between persons and the living world that can come about only in spaces that are free of regulatory or monetary considerations—in other words, in spaces that rightly belong to the poor. I have dwelt in these spaces when picking blueberries with Aboriginal friends, or roasting deer ribs around a fire, or gathering fresh water from a secret spring, or overhearing languages only ever un-learned in schools. These experiences have given me a taste for the simple joys I now experience in my own life on the land.
Illich draws angry rebukes for his criticism of development. He is decried as unsympathetic to the poor and as an enemy of their advancement. Yet Illich insists that in defending the vernacular, he is returning the poor’s birthright. I believe that time will tell that Illich has a more compassionate, more honest and more hopeful vision than the champions of progress and development. As a closer reader of history, he can see further ahead. He is what Aboriginal people would call a “seven generations” thinker, for he can imagine a good life for the poor beyond the collapse of unsustainable, globalizing missions. He can make out “rivers north of the future.”
There are a lot of different kinds of poverty: the grinding poverty of hunger and want, the poverty of shame, the poverty of imagination. But there is also the shameless, holy poverty of the saints—a poverty that inspires and frees the imagination. A poverty that heals the land. A convivial, vernacular poverty.
But for poverty to be freeing, it must be entered into completely freely—humility imposed is humiliation. So with complete freedom, I offer this little beatitude to the good people of Garden Hill for their contemplative moment on that humblest of thrones:
“Blessed are the bucket-poopers. They shall inherit the compost.”
Marcus Peter Rempel is the author ofLife at the End of Us Vs. Them: Cross Culture Stories. He and his family live at Ploughshares Community Farm in South St. Ouen’s, Manitoba. A son of Mennonite mission workers, Rempel has been a cross-culture kid all his life, an insider and an outsider wherever he lives. Professionally, he has been an occupational therapist, a mental health clinician, a hydro justice worker, a market gardener and a pastor.
In the fall of 2018 Marcus is returning to school for his Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy, which he will apply toward work with an Indigenous Family Reunification pilot project at the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre, just a few twists of the Brokenhead River downstream from Ploughshares. As an inheritor of a tradition that broke up Indigenous families via the residential school system, Marcus is deeply honored to be invited into an effort to reduce the apprehensions of Indigenous children by Child and Family Services and rebuild Indigenous families in a healing place rooted in traditional teachings and ceremony.
Acclaim for Life at the End of Us Versus Them
“I’ve read a lot of books, but very, very few have been as rich in generative insight as this one.”
— Brian McLaren, Speaker, Theologian, Author of The Great Spiritual Migration and A New Kind of Christian
“I’m in huge awe at this incredibly powerful material, wonderful storytelling gifts, and the hugely rich sense of a Christian re-telling Rempel offers … [This book] brings together Illich and Girard in what I can only call a Thomas Merton style, with Rempel’s community farm as his Abbey/hermitage. I also love the bravery and straightforwardness of what he has to say about sex.”
— James Alison, Author of The Joy of Being Wrong and Undergoing God
“A powerful and passionate fresh voice from the Mennonite Tradition. I am reminded most of Belden Lane’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes.”
— Cynthia Bourgeault, Author of The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three and Mystical Hope
“This is an attempt to speak to a new world, a world that many churches appear to have no capacity to recognize … As a believer in militant nonviolence, I will think about Rempel’s conclusions for some time.”
— Mark McDonald, National Indigenous Bishop for the Anglican Church of Canada
“Many are writing today in an attempt to unhook Christianity from the cruel ravages of European colonialism, but few are getting us past the rage of particular injustices. Marcus Peter Rempel serves us well by introducing a vital relationship of thought between René Girard and Ivan Illich that gets to the root of things and offers a pathway of recovery and renewal, and good hope for a kinder future.”
— Steve Bell, Singer/Songwriter