The Need to be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice

"The theology undergirding Berry's work is 'the law of love,' and he urges us to obey it for our own good."

Wendell Berry
Shoemaker & Company, 528 pages | Published October 4, 2022

Wendell Berry insists the land and the people who tend it are essential to any conversation about this nation, including one involving the historical damages of prejudice. Berry’s multi-dimensional argument, unfolded carefully and with precision, leads him to declare a state of emergency: the land and the people are unhealthy. Unhealthy because of long-ago practices separating people from land and community, creating lasting patterns of abuse that destroy the land and injure humans of every race. He calls us to attend to the damage inflicted upon the land and the human community, rather than focus on isolated instances; for example, attending to the loss of health without attention to the root cause is not wise. And what we are lacking is wisdom.

The Need to be Whole continues what began in The Hidden Wound (1969) which addressed the wound of racism and The Unsettling of America (1977) which focused on agricultural practices leading to the destruction of rural communities. Berry refines his thinking about racial prejudice and the grave consequences for Black and White, as well as Native American peoples. A lifelong agrarian, he writes from the particular perspective of the land, literally and figuratively. “My point of view is from the ground-level. I judge things above the ground by their effect or influence on the ground.” The enslaved and the enslavers, for instance, suffered the same wound. Though not equal in consequences, the whole is damaged. Berry would have us consider the loss of farmland and the resulting struggles of rural communities in the same conversation as the consequences of slavery upon urban Black communities.

The “scandal of particularity” – preferring a particular person with a name, context and social location rather than generalizing about race, sex, culture – brings him to a contrarian view at every turn. For instance, Berry argues the history of this nation since 1492 is a “history of mistakes” intertwined with one another, which puts him at odds with those who view racism in isolation. Similarly, to achieve actual gender equality, he insists we must work from the experiences of real people on the ground with actual differences rather than engage in a “blunted egalitarianism” that leads to proposed solutions with no basis in reality.

The theology undergirding Berry’s work is “the law of love,” and he urges us to obey it for our own good. We cannot bind up one community’s wounds of race prejudice without addressing the complex reality of shared wounds, suffered differently. This perspective governs his criticism of general statements contradicted by the experiences of real people on the ground.

When I studied with Wendell Berry, he insisted on plain speech; writing sentences clearly with the least words. This book is an example. His persistent refusal to take generalizations at their face value, insisting rather on particular names, faces and places, makes conversations about prejudice more difficult — and necessary.

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