In the conservative, Catholic journal, First Things, executive editor David Mills writes of Wendell Berry, “There seems to be no principle [he] will think through to its conclusion.” This statement betrays a stunning ignorance of Berry’s work, so much so that I am tempted to dismiss Mills’ claim. However, there seems to be more at stake.
Mills’ derision was prompted by a single comment he lifted from an interview Berry gave for the National Review. The quote, which raised Mills’ hackles, is as follows: “I’m pro-life, in lower-case letters . . . Abortion for birth control is wrong. That’s as far as I’m going to go.” Mills feels that Berry is avoiding the “hard questions of political commitment.” I see things differently.
In essays, fiction, and poems, Berry has developed, in rich and luminous ways, the concept of community that he calls membership. In a short story entitled “The Boundary,” Berry’s narrator has the character, Mat Feltner, define the term in this way:
A shadowless love moves [Feltner] now, not his, but a love that he belongs to, as he belongs to the place and to the light over it . . . He is thinking of the membership of the fields that he has belonged to all his life, and will belong to while he breathes, and afterward. He is thinking of the living ones of that membership – at work today in the fields that the dead were at work in before them. “I am blessed,” he thinks. “I am blessed.”
In Berry’s fictional world of Port William, this membership is love, but not sappy or sentimental; rather love through daily action, the toil of making a living and the joy of that work. Fundamentally, the membership represents a deep and abiding sense of belonging to something greater than oneself. This is what Berry means by pro-life in lower case letters. It is the blessing of community, of trusting others and being trusted, of giving one’s life over to others as they do the same for you. It is the blessing of relationships, both past and present, and the gift of a sustaining vision for the future, which means that after one dies, the way of life continues. And so, you are forever a part of the membership.
Where does abortion fit into this membership?
The same Mat Feltner lost a son, Virgil, to World War II. But not before he impregnated his new wife, Hannah. The family learns of Virgil’s death before the child is born. Hannah remains a daughter-in-law, more like a daughter. She names the little girl after Mat’s wife; they call her little Margaret. In the coming years, Hannah will re-marry a local boy, Nathan, who works on the same fields. She remains just as much a part of the Feltner family, for Nathan, too, is a part of the membership.
At bottom, Berry’s work is about cultivating such community where mothers would have the support to raise children. Yet, to his credit, Berry is also a realist. He knows that the world intrudes on the membership; that things, like war, tragically break up families. Moreover, our increasingly transitory society makes it harder and harder to find “memberships” by which communities are bound together by blood, sweat, and tears – the kind of intentional effort at creating meaning that constitutes Berry’s ideal for raising children.
If David Mills had bothered to research Wendell Berry’s work, I think he would have found much to commend. Unfortunately, he seems more than willing to lapse into categories that readily discredit those who do not immediately seem to agree with his position. It seems to me that one of the tragedies of a sound bite culture is the so-called pundits that supposedly interpret positions for us. While it is a shame that David Mills is unwilling to investigate the idea, Wendell Berry’s stance of being “pro-life in lower-case letters” is worthy of consideration by all sides of the abortion debate.