The shame of farm bankruptcy

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A Sociological And Theological Investigation of Its Effect

on Rural Communities

Cameron Richard Harder

A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Theology of the University of St. Michael’s

College and the Department of Theology of the Toronto School of Theology

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

awarded by the University of St. Michael’s College

Toronto, 1999, revised May 2000
© Cameron R. Harder

Introduction 7

A. Rationale for the Study 7

B. The Question 8

C. Author’s Context 9

D. Audience 11

E. A Conceptual Map of the Study 11

F. Method 14

G. Limitations 16

Chapter 1–What has been the Effect of the Farm Crisis? Stories of Grief 19

A. A Crisis of the Spirit 19

1. Loss of the “whole” self 19

2. Loss of purpose 20

3. Loss of intimacy 20

4. Loss of hope 21

B. A Crisis of Community 24

1. Breakdown in relationships with neighbours and church members .24

2. Disintegration of community life 25
Chapter 2–Why Do Communities Offer So Little Support to Farmers in Financial Crisis? 27

A. Silence 27

B. Shame and Withdrawal–a Social Discipline? 29

C. Honour as a Way of Life 34

Chapter 3–What Happened? Who Shares Responsibility for the Farm Debt Crisis? 42

A. Three accounts of farm debt 42

1. Bob and Helene 42

2. Ralph and Diane 43

3. Ron and Nora 43

B. What were the Critical Elements in the Farm Debt Crisis? 43

1. Debt has been an historic component of farm management 44

2. Why has farm debt reached such unprecedented levels in the last thirty years? 47

a. The political climate favoured “size” 51

b. Rapidly inflating land prices encouraged equity-based lending 58

c. Competition between lenders encouraged debt in a newly opened

credit market 61

d. Inflexible credit instruments resulted in the loss of “land for iron” 64
Chapter 4–If Many Contributed to the Farm Crisis, why are Only Farmers Shamed? 66

A. Farmers Are Perceived to be Poor Managers 66

1. The perception 66

2. The reality 67

B. Farmers Are Perceived to Be the Ones Who Broke Their Word 68

1. The perception 68

2. The reality 68

a. Lenders broke loan agreements, charging illegal interest 69

b. Governments broke their GRIP contract with farmers 73

i. The content of the new contract 75

ii. The process by which the new contract was brought in 75

iii. The results of the new contract 77

iv. The fundamental reasons for breaking the contract 77
Chapter 5–Why Do Farmers Not Protest the Selective Shaming and Blaming? 82

A. Mechanisms of Exhaustion 82

1. Exhaustion of time and physical resources through overwork .82

2. Exhaustion of financial resources needed to take a protest to court 83

B. Mechanisms of Disconnection and Isolation 83

1. Secrecy agreements 83

2. Isolated by proximity problems 84

3. Shut out from channels of appeal 85

C. Mechanisms of Intimidation and Coercion 86

1. Personal intimidation 86

2. Coercive legal instruments 87

3. Mediation instruments that increase farmers’ vulnerability to their creditors 88

D. Mechanisms of Catharsis 90

E. The Effect of Suppressing Protest: Reduced Alternative

and the Stabilization of the Honour Code 90
Chapter 6–What Is Really Behind the Shame? Understanding the Honour Code 95

A. Its Animating Metaphors 95

1. First metaphor: the frontier 95

2. Second metaphor: the promised land 96

3. Third metaphor: the pioneer 102

B. Its Core Assumption–Control 104

Chapter 7–How Do Religious Beliefs Tie Into the Honour Code? 107

A. The Wealth and Righteousness Equation 108

B. Theological Support for the “Work Ethic” 110

1. Building the Kingdom: the motivation for moral perfection…………………….110

2. Self-control: the capacity for moral perfection 112

3. Self-denial: the nature of moral perfection 113

4. Hard work: the way to moral perfection 114

5. Success: the sign of moral perfection 115

C. Identifying Distortions 117

1. Calvin’s concept of election 117

2. Luther’s concept of calling 117

3. Christian understandings of civil law 118

Chapter 8–How Has the Church Avoided Public Critique of the Honour Code? 121

A. The Suppression of Social Critique 122

1. Suppressing the voices of critical leadership 122

2. Undercutting the moral basis of protest 123

3. Suppressing ecclesial conversation about political and economic matters 124

a. The political captivity of the Reformation church 127

b. The Canadian accommodation between church and state 128

c. The misappropriation of Luther’s “two-kingdom” ethic 130

B. Providing Pain-killers Instead of Cures 132
Chapter 9–What Does Shaming Mean in the Light of Jesus’ Story? 136

A. My Approach to Interpreting the Bible 137

B. Jesus as the Healer of Broken Community 139

1. Redefining honour 139

2. Reassessing the wealth=righteousness equation 143

3. Restoring the exiles to fellowship 144

4. Shame ended by Jesus’ shameful death 148

5. Suffering shared–in the body of Christ 154


Chapter 10–How Can Congregations Build Bridges to Farmers in Difficulty? 159

A. Offering Pastoral Care 160

1. Listening and visiting 160

2. Counseling in a faith context 160

B. “Standing With” in Public 161

C. Giving Voice to Pain 162

1. In liturgy 162

2. In preaching 163

D. Equipping the Congregation for Outreach 165

1.Through training in care-giving skills 165

2. By organizing practical relief 165

3. By establishing support groups. 166

Chapter 11–How Can Congregations Facilitate Community Conversation About the Farm

Crisis? 169

A. The Need for a “Public Church” 169

B. The Possibility of Public Church 172

C. Preparing to Be a Public Church 173

1. Fostering a clear sense of Christian identity 173

2. Fostering an understanding of lay vocation and mission 174

3. Balancing koinonia and diakonia in the use of the congregation’s energies 174

4. Intentionally seeking a diversity of membership 174

5. Keeping pastoral and lay leadership in fruitful balance 174

6. Offering its witness in publicly visible and publicly intelligible ways 174

D. Structuring Fruitful Conversation in a Public Church 174

1. Supporting weak or marginal voices 175

2. Clarifying levels of discourse 176

a. Beginning with stories 177

b. Paying close attention to the facts 178

c. Making ethical judgements 178

d. Opening up beliefs and worldviews 179

e. Exploring alternatives 181

Chapter 12–How Do we Connect “Palestine” and the Prairies? 183

A. Comparing First-century and Modern Contexts 184

1. Honour and shame as constitutive of social life 184

2. Competition as a result of a perception of limited good 186

3. The accumulation of debt as a key factor in the destruction of community 187

4. Legislation that favoured creditors 190

5. Land as a focus for social power and destructive competition 192

B. Hearing the Story of Jesus in Palestine and on the Prairies 193

1. Luke 4:14-30 194

2. Luke 11:1-4 199

3. Matthew 18:21-25 201

C. Concluding Reflections: Grace as the Possibility of Genuinely Healthy

Human Community 203
Appendix A–Field Method 207
Appendix B–Interview Consent Form 209
Bibliography 210

A. Rationale For the Study

Between 1994 and 1999, I conducted interviews with sixty-four people who have had experience with farm bankruptcy in one role or another. Twenty-nine of them were farmers and spouses who had gone through a serious debt review or foreclosure process in the eighties or early nineties.1 What the farmers shared was deeply disturbing. They expressed an angry helplessness at being battered about by large forces over which they have little control. They related stories of systemic injustice in the lending industry and government. They spoke regretfully of foolish debts taken out and operational judgements that went sour. In weary voices they told of intolerable work hours filled with desperate attempts to subsidize full-time farming with income from off-farm jobs. They recounted a sad elegy of declining hope, abandoned homes, lost legacies. Some told how, in a deeply painful ritual of farewell, they watched their machinery sold at auction and left the farm. Others related the humiliation of being crofters–landless renters–on what were once their own fields. Most indicated that the stress has left them with wide rifts in primary relationships. Many said that depression and despair are daily companions. Some admitted to turning to alcohol for refuge; others spoke of family or friends who committed suicide.

Unfortunately, apart from a five year period in the mid-nineties, things have not gotten better. As these words are being written, Saskatchewan and Manitoba farmers are facing the largest net loss in farm income in recorded history.2 Faced with an epidemic of bankruptcies from flooded land and disastrous hog and grain prices, farmers in the southern region of these provinces have taken to public protest in an effort to pressure the government into a positive response. They have been blocking the Transcanada highway with equipment, holding a series of farm rallies, writing letters, physically and verbally jostling the federal agriculture minister in public, lobbying MPs and senators, staging a sit-in at the provincial legislature–capturing public attention in a variety of ways.

What is surprising about this protest is that it has not happened earlier. Canadian farmers have been suffering a process of rapid attrition for the last thirty years from the same causes. Yet, except in these periodic situations where most of the population in a region faces bankruptcy simultaneously there has been a strange silence. Discovering the reasons for that chronic silence at the community level and addressing it the light of Christian faith is central to this study.

A focus on the community is critical because that is where some of the barriers to protest seem to be lodged and where successful farm protest in Canada has usually begun. In To Set the Captives Free,

3 Oscar Cole-Arnal reminds us that agricultural reform has its roots in the vision and hard work of local leaders and their people. On the prairies it began with a gathering of farmers in Indian Head, Saskatchewan, December 18, 1901. They were convinced that the railroads, banks and government had entered into monopolistic agreements that seriously disadvantaged farmers. The meeting led to the founding of the Territorial Grain Growers Association and to similar organizations in other provinces. Eventually, under Ed Partridge of Sintaluta, Saskatchewan it became a co-operative grain growers company whose success stimulated the Wheat Pool movement of the 1920's and the formation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) as a political power.

In the post-war period, however, farm protest movements dropped out of public view and lost much support. Although the attrition of farms continued at a steady pace, there was little protest until the farm crisis of the late seventies and eighties. During this latter half of the century it appears that only when the number of bankruptcies begins to “saturate” a community do farmers feel that they can speak out about the problem. That happened in the Bruce and Gray counties of Ontario when the first round of widespread foreclosures hit in 1981. Out of those communities a militant group called the Canadian Farmers Survival Association was formed. After failed negotiations with bank and government they led demonstrations and organized farm gate defenses (preventing seizure of foreclosed land, or buying land and machinery cheaply at auctions and giving them back to the owners).4 The movement lost steam in the late eighties, however. Its spirit is only beginning to be felt again in the 1999 southern prairie protests as local leaders (such as Sharon Nicholson and the Bengough Rally Association) have found the courage to begin public conversations about political action and economic changes that their own communities can undertake.

This study is not intended to offer a template for restructuring the rural economy. It is meant, however, to help communities overcome the barriers that prevent them from discussing the problems locally and taking action to avert disaster.
B. The Question

One might ask why these matters are the concern of a theologian. For two reasons: first, because I am convinced that the farm crisis is a spiritual crisis. By that I mean not simply that there are moral and ethical dimensions to it, or spiritual effects–although of course there are these. Rather it is a spiritual crisis because it seems that the failure of rural communities to address the damaging impact of the crisis springs at least in part from a malaise of the spirit. Many potentially fruitful solutions to maintaining healthy rural communities (for example land trusts, farmer-owned processing plants, cooperatives) have not been adopted (to any great extent) at local levels. The reason, this study suggests, is that the rural ethos–particularly in its post-1970 form–has a peculiarly fragmenting quality. It separates community members from one another, preventing them from the public conversation that would enable them to develop and cooperatively test such alternatives.

A great deal of that fragmentation is due to shame. This research suggests that other than times when whole communities face bankruptcy together (and sometimes even then), farmers in difficulty find themselves isolated behind a wall of self- and community-imposed shame. The very people who are most aware of the difficulties in the present arrangements–because they have been hurt by them–are excluded from the common conversation. The converse of the shame–a competition for honour (social status) that is based on “successful” farming–also isolates farmers from one another by encouraging independent, self- rather than community-enhancing behavior.

Secondly, these matters, though concretely visible in loan agreements, social behaviors and government policies, are fundamentally religious. As we shall see, they have to do with the worth and meaning of human life. It is precisely such concerns, David Tracy says, that are the province of the theologian. Every theologian, Tracy says, addresses the questions of human existence: “Has existence any ultimate meaning? Is there a fundamental trust to be found amidst the fears, terrors and anxieties of existence? Is there some reality, some force, even some one who speaks a word of truth that can be recognized and trusted?”5

However, he notes, such questions can only be addressed to the particular conditions under which particular human beings live. To be truthful, theology must reflect on a clear, empirical description of the “conditioning factors”under which real people live.6 Two types of analysis are therefore required. The first is sociological. It explores (in this case) the situation in which insolvent farmers are living–the particular behaviors, social patterns, historical events and processes, and economic structures that condition their experience. The second is theological. It is concerned with the fundamental questions provoked by the situation of bankrupt farmers. As Tracy notes, it asks questions about what responsible, self-respecting, worthwhile human life might look like and how the conditions identified in the sociological analysis might help or hinder that life. It asks what this social reality suggests about the meaning of human existence.

Following then are the particular questions explored in this study, the first set sociological, the second theological: 1) How are bankrupt farmers treated by their communities? How is this treatment related to the farmer’s actual responsibility for the problems they face? And how does that treatment affect the ability of rural communities to work cooperatively toward survival in a hostile economic climate? 2) What does this treatment say about the bases on which farmers are valued? What does that valuation mean in the light of Christian tradition? And what alternative social behaviors might that re-framing by the tradition evoke?

C. Author’s Context

I initially became aware of the community-destroying effects of the farm crisis in the late eighties when one of my parish families lost their farm. Other Christians from the congregation and community were involved in the mortgage debt, foreclosure, sale and purchase of the farm. The experience was painful and divisive. As a pastor I felt that I had few theological or practical resources to understand the situation or to be a redemptive agent in it. It was out of a desire to find some tools for addressing the fracturing of community brought on by farm bankruptcy that this study initially emerged.

During the research I discovered that four members of my own family have endured the painful process of farm bankruptcy. Although I was aware of one of them, I had never heard the family speak of it. I was not even aware that the other three (which took place when I was young or before I was born) had occurred. This silence surrounding farm bankruptcy mystified me and became an additional reason for my undertaking this investigation.

My position as a pastor, with a family stake in the farm crisis, yet raised a “city boy” (that is, an outsider) has turned out to be helpful in the interviews. Farmers who had never spoken of their financial problems to any community members said that they agreed to be interviewed because they saw me as an interested, safe, trustworthy stranger. Lenders appeared to be open as well, recognizing that my interest was primarily interpretive and pastoral rather than legal.

Of course the things that make me “safe” also make it difficult for me to interpret the experience of farm bankruptcy authentically. I am not living in it, as a farmer or lender, in the way that they are. In that sense I can see only with a partial and borrowed vision. However there are several reasons that I believe the study is valid. First, it is a faithful expression of the impact that those interviewed have had on me. In this matter I do have some expertise. Secondly, in telling me their stories they have reformed the context of my life, made farm bankruptcy part of it. As Sharon Ringe points out,

Facts about myself cannot be erased at will, but they do not define the limits of my context, because others’ realities have become part of it . . . . I have never been abused by a spouse or a lover, but women who have lived with that reality have taught me their stories so thoroughly that the syndrome of domestic violence has become part of my own awareness and therefore my context–the meaning and value-filled matrix out of which I live and view the world. Put another way, while neither set of experiences is part of my story, those stories are now part of my experience, and because of them, my world will never look the same.7

Thirdly, a large number (hundreds) of farmers, lenders and others in rural communities have had an opportunity to listen to or read my interpretation of these stories and their feedback has helped to keep it “on-line” and as faithful as possible.8

It will become evident in the reading of this study that my position is not a neutral one. My deepest sympathies lie with bankrupt farmers. This does not mean, however, that I divide rural communities into simple groups of “oppressors” and “oppressed.” As a theologian who has roots deep in Luther, I have, on the one hand, a profound appreciation for the conflict between God and the powers of evil in all arenas of human life. On the other hand, with Luther, I am convinced that the battle line runs not simply between classes, races and genders (though it is there too) but through every human heart. I do not therefore exonerate farmers as if they had no responsibility for the debt crises of the last thirty years and lay it all at the feet of lenders, politicians, global markets, international corporations or bargain-hungry consumers. However farmers cannot avoid public accountability. The foreclosure process, and the social shame that accompanies it ensures that. Nor can they avoid the consequences. Tens of thousands have lost their homes, their livelihood, their dignity and their communities. They have borne a weight of suffering disproportionate to their own responsibility. What has been missing is an adequate recognition on the part of the rest of us of our own complicity in the problems of the agricultural economy, a willingness to accept responsibility publicly and the courage to redress the damage.

Having said this, my purpose is not to shame (that is withdraw from, exclude or hold up to public ridicule) bankers, politicians, agribusiness owners or others in the way that insolvent farmers often are. The shaming does not appear to be helpful for anyone. Instead I want to help all of the community to engage farmers in an honest, straightforward conversation about causes, solutions and the community’s future. To that end, I have discovered, as Roger Hutchinson holds, that “It is possible to be in solidarity with particular participants in the debate and to keep one’s position open to the scrutiny of persons with different commitments, orientations and basic premises.” The key to maintaining this “engagement/detachment” polarity Hutchinson says is ensuring that one is speaking the same language as one’s conversation partner–that is, talking on the same level of discourse. As claims about facts have been met with counter-claims about facts, and stories met with stories, a clarity of positions has developed that has allowed us to engage each other directly and honestly. A key conviction of this study is that facilitating such conversation among people of various roles in rural communities is essential to the economic and social recovery of those communities.9
D. Audience

David Tracy points out that every theologian addresses three publics–the wider society, the academy and the church. This, he says, is unavoidable because the “fundamental existential questions which theology addresses” involve all three.10 To a significant extent all three publics have already had opportunity to hear and respond to this study.11 Ultimately, I hope the work will be of value to rural community leaders who are looking for ways of interpreting and responding to the erosion of their communal life that farm crises have brought. Intermediately, I believe that rural congregations, especially their pastors and lay leaders, may be key figures in this process. As a systematic theologian responsible for interpreting the church’s religious tradition to itself in the light of its present context, I have had this audience most directly in mind. Immediately of course, the academy which will review this work and hopefully critique and build on it is also addressed.

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