When I can, which is most of the time in the warmer months, I drive the back roads to work, around 25 miles each way. This takes me through the fertile farmland of western Stark and eastern Wayne counties: rolling hills, cropland and meadows, with some woods, and lots of dairy farms.
And lots of Mennonites.
I pass five Mennonite churches on the way to Wooster; two of them are fairly ‘liberal’, ie, they do not wear distinctive dress, and are generally moderate on questions of discipline and doctrine. The others are what I call Black Vehicle Mennonites. I do not know the formal name of the group, but they are on the plain end of the Mennonite tradition. The women look like Amish women, covering their heads and wearing long solid colored dresses (a slightly more relaxed group wears floral patterns). The men look like ordinary farmers when at work, jeans and ball caps and work boots, clean-shaven. But on Sundays the men don wide-brimmed hats and wear a collarless suit, sans tie, of course. But they get their nickname because of their custom of driving only black cars, which is considered less worldly.
That appears to be the only limit on the use of technology for the community, and they go for big, industrial style farms. Most of the farms are dairy farms, and the cattle spend their days in feedlots much of the year, standing shin deep in their own shit. Monstrous tractors and combines do the hard work and the farms are, by their Amish cousins’ standards, huge.
A couple of years ago religious signs began appearing in the yards of the farms. They are painted, made of wood, and carry simple religious messages: “Abide in the doctrine of Christ”, “Behold God is mighty”, “My soul thirsteth for God”; that sort of thing. Every few weeks or so the signs are retired, and new messages appear. I realize that to the people putting the signs in their yards they are meant to be messages from God, and sometimes it seems like they are. But all of the time they are messages about this small community, its values, and its understanding of who God is and what is important.
There is one farm on the road that stands out, not least because of the odor. It is a huge enterprise, with big barns and feedlots and many feeder pens for veal calves. Across the road from the farmhouse is a giant manure tank, and that is the source of the stench. This is not like the healthy smell of composted manure, or even fresh manure being spread on the fields. It is manure that has been stored, liquified and aged, maybe fermented.
It is foul.
I don’t want to be too harsh on the people who own the farm. I have stopped there to buy mums in the fall, when they have a flower stand, and they are very nice, with the straightforward and guileless air that seems to mark the Plain Peoples as outliers of pre-modernity, if not always technologically. They are not, however, as disconcerting as their Old Order Amish neighbors, who will stare like children if something or someone interests them.
And they are Mennonites; however finite their version of the Infinite, at least their God does not countenance killing or empire. And their lives are marked by intact organic human community. Divorce is rare, unwed motherhood unheard of. Faith, for any plain community, is not just a Sunday thing but an all-encompassing reality. That this often can mean dysfunction does not negate its value; that just comes with the human territory.
A couple of weeks ago a new sign appeared in front of the stinky farm. It says “Jehovah: the Most High over all the earth.”
I found myself embarrassed. I don’t know how many organic or sustainable farmers pass that way, or if anyone else noted the discrepancy of one of the more unsustainable farms in the area boasting such a sign.
But all I could think was that the image of “Jehovah” as lording it over the earth was a fitting image for such a place, which appears indifferent to the lives of its animals.
About 99% of religion, even revealed religion, is human construct. This is not bad; “human construct” is inevitable. Humans need their propositions and ordered worldviews and cannot do otherwise. We need frameworks to approach reality, and when inspired, human co-creation and cooperation with the creation can bring it to perfection and reveal the divine order and beauty at the heart of the world. At its highest, it is sacramental.
But even the best of these templates for navigating reality can become a hindrance, a distraction, especially when the human model, always by its nature contingent and incomplete, becomes, in the minds of its adherents, identified with the Absolute. The ephemeral squeezes out the eternal; image is replaced by idol. That is true whether we are talking about the width of hat brims, the exact form of Lenten fasting, the Latin Mass, or the minutia of forms and customs that eats at a certain type of religious person.
So this agribusiness farm touts the transcendent monarch with the misnomer “Jehovah”.
For “Jehovah” is not the name of God, but a pure human construct, a Latin mistranslation of the Hebrew “name of God”, the Y word, the one Catholics used to throw around with aplomb at Mass: “For our closing hymn let us sing song 176 in the missalette: ‘Have a Nice Day, Y_____.'”. Eventually the Vatican got around to instructing the faithful to not utter the alleged name, to emulate the Jews in their reverent aversion to pronouncing it aloud.
I say “alleged name” because if you read the narrative it is not a name at all. Moses asks, in Exodus 3 “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ”
“I Am” is not a name, it is a koan, a mystery, the very mystery of noncontingent being. It is a playful answer, an evasion, meant to inspire wonder.
Instead, true to human form, it gets tamed and corralled, becoming the “Sacred Name” which cannot be uttered (and note my hesitance to write it). In Hebrew it is written without vowels, and how the consonants YHWH came to be rendered as “Jehovah” is a convoluted tale, one not without controversy to this day.
The “I AM” of Genesis is clearly not a personal name. When someone asks “Who are you?” and the response is “I AM” no nomenclature has been offered, only an invitation to Mystery.
“Jehovah”, though, certainly is a personal name, and one that has come to symbolize a certain take on western monotheism, heavily anthropomorphized. It invokes the wrathful “Old Testament God”, bent on justice, easily pissed. It is pure human construct, a Hebrew version of Zeus, and in this instance symbolizes in an almost cartoonish way the blindness of certain visions of the divine order. If “Jehovah” is “over” all the earth, above it as a sort of autocrat then humans, created in his image, may lord it over the land and the beasts. Whether one’s cattle are living satisfying lives is a matter of little consequence rather than a test of whether the covenant of domestication is in fact working out for both partners in the deal.
My bride suggested some time ago that I should paste another sign over the ones the Black Vehicle Mennonites display, something from Proverbs: “The just man considers his beasts.”
I don’t know if I will ever coordinate that, but I was tempted by a sign in the yard of one of the neighbors to the farm with the manure tank. It is a smaller version of that farm, with no tank but a feedlot and lots of cowshit. Their sign currently says “Buy the truth and sell it not.”
I was thinking “Buy the poop and sell it not” might be pretty funny.
And I’d only have to change one word.
Painting by Megan Lightell, of Coshocton, Ohio