The Unexpected Neighbor
The remarkable social philosopher and Catholic priest Ivan Illich was once asked, “Given what you suggest about institutions, what is the best way to make change, violent revolution or gradual reform?” Illich answered, “Neither, the best way to bring change is to give an alternative story.” (in David Cayley’s, The Rivers North of the Future).
Illich, was an iconoclast, a Christian visionary, a prolific writer — and widely read in the last decades of the Twentieth Century. His brilliant critiques of our institutional practices, still provide a clear-eyed challenge and much valuable reforming wisdom, about our easy customs, traditions and ideologies. Schools, hospitals, courts, governments and churches were all subjects of his analysis.
He was more! Each critique was not a call to anarchy, nor was it an invitation to some elaborate new strategy whereby those in power can better serve their “clients.” He was about something much more basic — as basic as a table where all may share.
His call is to reinvest in the original motivating principles behind our “helping” institutions. He was about the nurturing of an underlying community spirit built on the essential importance of neighborliness. He suggests there are ways of living into such community understandings as evidenced in his book Tools for Conviviality.
Illich spoke of “corruptio optimi pessima” or “the corruption of the best becoming the worst.” He writes, “Through the attempt to ensure, to guarantee, to regulate Revelation, the best becomes the worst. And yet at any moment we still have opportunities to recognize, even when we are Palestinians, that there is a Jew lying in the ditch whom I can take in my arms and embrace.” (David Cayley, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Toronto: Anansi Press, p. 242.)
As Illich would put it, there is a “sad historical progression in which God’s incarnation is turned topsy-turvy, inside out” (from David Cayley’s Rivers North of the Future, p. 29). This corruption may be seen in our many efforts to serve, to control, to regulate, to manage and to turn our neighbors into categories or objects of our good intentions. A simple illustration he gives is as follows: “In the early years of Christianity it was customary in a Christian household to have an extra mattress, a bit of candle and some dry bread in case the Lord Jesus, should knock at the door in the form of a stranger without a roof” (Cayley, Rivers North of the Future, p. 54.). Over the centuries, hospitality was “improved upon.” The work of each householder is transformed into the responsibility of our “serving institutions.”
If there is one alternative story which Ivan Illich cites more than others, it would, no doubt, be the one known as “the Good Samaritan Parable” in Luke 10.
I have spent much of my adult life sifting through the human wisdom nuggets of truth in this story — AND BEING CONVERTED BY THIS WITNESS. It is astonishing that in these few verses in Luke’s gospel, there are dozens upon dozens of insights into our institutions, our freedom, the incarnation story and the wider human reality — tragic and blessed. I have written about this in other places — and will, no doubt, write more in the future about this upside down reality, this conspiracy, which is the core of Christianity (and that of many other great religious traditions). Instead in this piece, I want to begin to share a few other alternative stories. Today, there is the story from Wes Jackson, environmentalist and founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.
Alternative Story #1:
Wes Jackson shares a story of a visit E.F. Schumacher, author of the widely known work Small is Beautiful, made to his fledgling organization in Kansas in 1977. Jackson says The Land Institute was “scarcely six months old and we were honored that Schumacher, the widely acclaimed author would visit and give a public lecture.”
“When Schumacher arrived, he did not dismiss this tiny organization that had recently experienced a devastating fire, destroying much of their early work. Instead, E. F. Schumacher listened patiently and insisted on being called ‘Fritz.’ On the evening of the lecture, the Salina Community Theater was filled with farmers, small business owners and the unemployed.”
Fritz began by telling of a trip he had made during the 1930s with some friends in an automobile across America. He and his compatriots had stopped at a service station in some small Kansas town at the height of the Great Depression. Fritz engaged a local man at the station by asking, “How are things?” “Fine,” the local replied. “What is it you do?” asked Fritz. “Oh, I work on that farm over there,” he said pointing in the direction of the farm. “I used to own that farm but I had no money to pay the hired hand, so I paid him in land. Eventually he owned all of my farm and now I work for him.”
“That is a very sad story,” replied Fritz.” “Well, not so sad,” countered the hired hand. “You see, now my friend has no money either and so he is paying me back in land.” (Jackson, Wes, The Land Institute, December 1999, see firstname.lastname@example.org).
What are your thoughts about such alternative narratives? Let’s have a conversation. Let’s keep listening for other stories that conspire to teach new lessons than might transform our view of the world — and perhaps even change the way we see ourselves.