New creation agriculture: An interview with Dr. Presian Burroughs

January 6th, 2016

Recently I was able to visit with Dr. Presian R. Burroughs about matters ranging from faith and biblical scholarship to the ecological crisis. Below, she shares a bold vision for the way United Methodist churches and others can respond to the ecological damage caused by industrial agriculture through alternative agricultural networks. Dr. Burroughs is Assistant Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. She holds both a Th.D. (2014) and M.Div. (2006) from Duke Divinity School.

Clifton Stringer: In high school, I believe, you began attending a non-denominational “Bible Church.” How did you come to faith in Jesus Christ?

Presian Burroughs

Presian Burroughs: I grew up in a family that didn’t attend church but loosely believed in something I’d call “American Christianity.” I’d watch Charlton Heston’s The Ten Commandments every Easter with my dad when it aired on public television. Note that I associated this movie more with Easter than with Passover! When I’d spend a Saturday night at a friend’s I’d often attend church with her and her family.

By high school I had a very dear friend that noticed I was going through a difficult time and asking questions about God. He and his family invited me to church several Sundays. Eventually I got one of my parents to drive me to my friend’s church every Sunday until I could drive myself. During that time, I heard and received the gospel message that God loved me and forgave me on account of his precious Son’s death on the cross.

CS: You've become a member, as an adult, of the United Methodist Church. What's the story there? How on earth did you wind up deciding to pursue biblical studies at the doctoral level?

PB: After high school I attended a number of different denominations – mostly in the Baptist and Presbyterian traditions. I didn’t perceive myself as anchored in any denomination until my second year of a Master’s program at Duke Divinity School. I was so impressed with the theology (such as it is!), worship, and doctrines of the United Methodist Church, as demonstrated by several key professors at Duke, that I began contemplating membership. Membership became a lot more practical once I married my husband, Brad Burroughs, who is United Methodist!

As for a doctorate, I had hoped to pursue a doctorate in New Testament since about 2000 or 2001. While I was studying to be a Bible translator (at Canada Institute of Linguistics at Trinity Western University in lovely British Colombia), I had the privilege of TA’ing for a professor of Old Testament. I began to sense that my passion, skills, and interest aligned more with higher education than with full-time overseas mission work. Eventually, I attended Duke for a Master of Theological Studies degree that then took a more practical turn in my second year to the Master of Divinity degree. It took several years for me to find a doctoral program that fit my interests – in other words, a program that accepted me and that I wanted to attend! Although I was a little hesitant about a “ThD” at first, the degree and program at Duke have fit me like a glove and have empowered me to do New Testament studies in a way that is relevant to real Christian living.

CS: A major focus of your scholarship is bringing together your interest in Scripture with pressing matters ecological and environmental. How did you acquire this "green" scholarly passion?

PB: I am sure my love of creation began outside on my family’s small farm in Ohio. Additionally, my seventh and ninth grade science teacher instilled in me a concern for conserving water and caring for animal habitats and introduced me to the wonders of the biological sciences. When I attended college, I majored in Biology and one summer took a couple of classes at Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies. There, I encountered Christians who were passionate about science and about learning to live in God’s creation sustainably and faithfully.

CS: Your dissertation looks at Romans 8:19-22 in relation to what Paul calls the "futility" and "travail" we see in the created world around us. What did you discover in your research? What is the call you see St. Paul issuing the church in our present moment?

PB: In a nutshell, Romans 8 expresses the Christian belief that humans await the healing of our bodies and souls through resurrection (8:23). But, just as humans await this apocalyptic event, other-than-human creation also eagerly awaits our resurrection, the apocalypse of the sons of God (8:19). During the miracle of resurrection, other-than-human creation will be liberated from the futility of untimely and excessive death (and possibly death itself) (8:21). We find at the heart of Paul’s soteriology, then, the Creator God working to restore life through resurrection, and this restoration does not end with humans. God plans to liberate the other-than-human creation too, renewing the earth itself. Creation will be liberated from its bondage to destruction and its subjection to futility at the resurrection of humanity.

Consequently, God’s ultimate goal for creation – the New Creation – should influence the way we live now. We get this ethical principle from Paul himself: his eschatology informs and determines his ethics. For example, in Romans 6:1-4 Paul indicates that Jesus’ saving grace does not excuse people from living in righteousness now. Because we have died and risen with Christ through baptism and because of the eternal life to come, we are to walk in newness of life even in the midst of futility and destruction (6:3-5). Participation in Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection empowers and obligates people to live in righteousness now according to the new life of resurrection. So the future goal of Christian faith – glorious resurrection life – necessarily shapes ethical behavior now. Now, in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the possibility exists for us to break the cycle of violence and excessive destruction that plagues the world – at least to a limited extent. Just as we cooperate with God in the process of sanctification, we cooperate with God in the liberation of creation. I could of course say more about this. Stay tuned for my first book publication . . .

CS: Indeed we will! And, speaking of the future: As you think about the ethical implications of the New Creation in relation to your participation in the United Methodist Church and our present ecological moment, what are your hopes, dreams and visions for the future?

PB: Part of my research has led me to investigate some of the ways in which agriculture has deteriorated the health of local and global ecosystems. Although I plan to study a wide variety of agricultural activities, up to this point I’ve primarily focused on the growing of wheat in the United States. To put it briefly and too simply, a number of our agricultural practices are having deleterious effects on both human and other-than-human creation. These practices include: the annual plowing of precious topsoil; the planting of patented wheat seeds in huge swaths of former prairie lands; the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides; the irrigation of wheat fields with un-replenished aquifers; and the continual movement of heavy fossil-fuel-driven tractors and trucks in the production of wheat.

Every year when fields are plowed, our topsoil washes downstream and whooshes into the atmosphere. Our “clever” fix-it approach leads us to add chemical fertilizers to the less-than-fertile soils. No matter how carefully we apply these fertilizers, some gets swept into the creeks and rivers of the Mid-West and finds its way to the Mississippi River Delta. Because algae thrives in nitrogen-rich waters, excessive amounts of algae grow along the Gulf coast and ultimately consume much of the oxygen that other life forms – like shrimp and fish – need to survive. What has resulted is a huge dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi.

Further, and as is more widely known, the burning of fossil fuel has filled the atmosphere with an inordinate amount of carbon dioxide, leading to global climate change.

To be sure, the growing of wheat does not stand as the sole culprit for these devastating ecological realities. Modern wheat production is one slice of a much larger toxic pie.

So much for the bleak realities of our ecological crisis. What about hope for the future? My hope takes root in the prospect of perennial rather than annual varieties of grain (see the work of The Land Institute for examples). Perennial agriculture may resolve the primary complications of traditional industrial agricultural practices. Consider that:

(1) Perennial crops do not require annual plowing and planting, as do annuals. They can prevent thousands of barrels of fuel from being burned.

(2) Farmers don't need to replant these crops each year. Thus they are liberated from the annual expense of purchasing seed, often from multinational corporations.

(3) Perennial plants secure and also make available more soil nutrients than do their annual counterparts. This is both because they are not plowed up and because their roots reach deeper into the ground. So they require fewer (or no) additions of chemical fertilizer. This frees farmers from the heavy financial burdens that industrial farming places on them.

(4) The grain grown from perennial varieties exists outside the traditional grain market. This liberates farmers and consumers from the market forces that drive up conventional grain prices.

(5) Polyculture perennial crops have greater resistance to drought and insects. Because of this resistance, they provide local and regional communities with more reliable harvests in a time of climate change.

Now to the nuts and bolts of what the church can do. Since the UMC has administrative and communication networks ready to hand, it can effectively get the word out about alternative agricultural networks and can help mobilize ecologically sound farming practices.

I propose that a large number of churches collaboratively adopt or sponsor individual farmers. I offer this proposal in hopeful coalition with a variety of efforts, including political advocacy, sustainable agriculture research and development, personal lifestyle changes and international sustainable agriculture activities. Yet church adoption or sponsorship of individual farmers could make for real change. Farmers stand in very vulnerable positions in the transition to sustainable agriculture. This is in part due to debt, but also as a result of farmers' need for a reliable market. Together, churches (rather than corporations) would contract with farmers to purchase their grain at affordable yet profitable prices. The contracts would provide the financial security that farmers need (no matter crop yield) and the food security church members and the people they serve (including low-income persons) require. This “perennial bread cooperative,” as I will call it, mimics the model of community supported agriculture (CSA) relationships.

Local millers and bakers would benefit from these ecclesial-pastoral relationships since consumers would need the grain to be milled and, perhaps, baked into delicious and nutritious foods. Thus, rather than the jobs and profits of these enterprises benefiting large manufacturing businesses far removed from farmer and consumer, the perennial bread cooperative would revitalize local businesses and communities. Local millers, moreover, might function as local grain reserves, providing communities with a small but significant measure of protection in times of dearth and high market prices.

At first, churches might commit to purchase enough grain for weekly or monthly Communion bread. Eventually (and, ideally, initially) churches and their congregants would purchase grain products (breads, cereals, granola bars, etc.) for use in homes, soup kitchens, and congregational meals. As more people participate in this alternative, perennial market and as more products become available, so too more farmers would be invited to transition out of annual into perennial wheat farming.

I imagine the UMC would promote this perennial bread cooperative but would not administrate it. Thus, a business – preferably one that is not-for-profit – is necessary to facilitate the cooperation between farmer, miller, baker, and consumer. Such a business – in addition to having a positive figure on its bottom line so that it might expand its work – must ever seek a positive figure on the triple bottom line. The triple bottom line includes not only economic profit but social and ecological profits as well. Thus, the perennial bread cooperative would pay its employees and farmers living wages and would choose zero emissions practices, for example.

The business (and the clientele it serves) could take a biblical tithing model to its sales as well. Perhaps for every nine products sold it could give one product to a low-income person or family (thus, one tenth of its products would go to those in need). First and foremost the health and wellbeing of all creation – human and other-than-human – would be in view.

Since perennial bread will not require the sacrifice of ecological health for its production, our offering of this bread to God in the Eucharist will represent the one intended sacrifice: that of Jesus Christ. This is my dream!

Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College and the author of Christ the Lightgiver in the Converge Bible Studies series.

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