This past summer, thanks to a generous grant from the Eli Lilly Foundation, my family and I had the opportunity to experience the trip of a lifetime. My pastor husband had applied for a sabbatical grant that would allow us to experience “church on the margins”: worship in places mainstream American church culture often overlooks.
We traveled to three places. First, a refugee congregation in Cameroon, where we gathered in a dirt-floor shed alongside a joyful throng of worshipers all praising God for the help they’d received as they’d fled the violence in their home country. Next, we visited Aberdeen, Scotland, where Dr. John Swinton (who had just been named Chaplain to a dying Queen) works on theology of disability, asking questions about how the church can best love those who struggle with mental illness and dementia. Finally, we sat in a log cabin church in the heart of America, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, singing hymns in the indigenous language that has been spoken on those prairies for thousands of years. It was an incredible summer.
On the flight home from the international portion of our trip, I watched a documentary called The Biggest Little Farm. At first, it did not seem as if the movie had much to do with our summer theme. A woman named Molly Chester had convinced her wildlife-photographer husband John to film the startup of a new farming project. As I pressed play on the video screen in front of me and settled back in my economy seat, I didn’t imagine that this video had anything to do with people around the world.
But I realized, as I watched, that this was no ordinary farming project. On the biggest little farm, Molly and John were experimenting with a whole new method of agriculture. On their farm—in contrast to big corporate monoculture farms that plant one crop in each field—they were farming everything, from pigs to potatoes. And instead of using pesticides to control invasive species, the Chesters were attempting to allow each part of the ecosystem to work as an integrated part of the whole. When snails started eating their fruit trees, for example, they simply allowed the ducks to waddle out of the pond and over to the orchard. It turns out, ducks love snails even more than snails love pears. The experiment had its bumps along the way, but after seven years, the documentary records a breakthrough into a successful new way of farming. All different kinds of plants and animals, growing together. With its dazzling cinematography and wholehearted optimism, I found The Biggest Little Farm to be utterly enchanting.
When the movie was over, I leaned my forehead on the plane window and gazed down at the patchwork quilt of single-crop fields that blankets the entire middle of our country. I felt like I’d been transported, for an hour and a half, into a little slice of Eden: Earth as it was intended to be, lush and thriving. But on the ground down below me, farmers were still trying to force an unnatural monoculture. Maybe it was better for their bottom line, and for my ability to walk into a supermarket at any time of year and buy any vegetable I wanted. But at what cost to the future of our planet?
Then, my mind still full of my summer’s adventures, I started wondering if people are a little bit like plants. Maybe people, too, need to be part of a diverse ecosystem in order to truly thrive.
Many people today are advocating for a kind of societal monoculture. Far-right politicians and commentators seem to believe that each country should contain only one kind of person, like a field that grows only potatoes. In 2018, Tucker Carlson scoffed on Fox News, “How, precisely, is diversity our strength?” The implied answer to his rhetorical question was that it’s not. Countries function best, Carlson argued, when everyone in them is the same. Underneath this argument, of course, is the belief that the only sameness that really matters is racial homogeneity.
Three years later, Carlson informed his viewers that liberal politicians were actively working to change which single kind of person lives here in America. He seemed to have moved from thinking different kinds of people should not exist together, to believing they could not: if immigrants from other countries entered our borders, somehow the people already living here would magically cease to exist. “In political terms this policy is called the ‘great replacement,’” Carlson warned.
The Great Replacement Theory treats countries like fields and people like plants, and it assumes that efficient nation-building can only happen when the whole field is sown with only one kind of seed. There are two problems with this theory. First of all, racial homogeneity is a mirage. People who share a common skin tone, ethnic heritage, or language are not therefore automatically the same. But second, and more to the point: the Great Replacement Theory is bogus because monoculture is not the best way to build a nation. Diversity is our strength. When new people join us, they do not take away from those of us who are already here. They only add.
Shifting away from monoculture farming practices is difficult. But as Molly and John Chester discovered, it’s worth it. Shifting away from great-replacement-theory thinking—that I have the most in common with people who look like me, that their group is out to get my group—will be difficult, too. But as we do, we can begin to build a world where all different kinds of people come together, bringing their God-given strengths for the good of the whole. A world where the people formerly on the margins are honored in the center.
A world, like the vision of the new earth at the end of the book of Revelation, where all kinds of fruit trees grow on the banks of the river of life, and the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.
By Sarah Sanderson