Pathos in the Processes of Social Change: Faith, Art and Organizing

This (below) is an edited version of a presentation I made during a debriefing session for a farm conference at the Dubuque seminaries.  I’m posting it now as part of a series of debriefing pieces related to the recent Community Food Security Coalition conference, “Food Justice:  Honoring Our Roots, Growing the Movement,” 15th Annual Conference.  

What I describe here is also how I approached, and experienced the conference.  The CFSC conference, that is, in immersing me so deeply into pathos, was also, paradoxically, a place to create art (ie. drama), deepen faith, and stimulate authentic organizing.  This, then, is to anchor people from the conference who come here looking for me.  Additional blogs will provide a greater explanation of what this was and is all about.  It will take about 6 blogs, I think, to briefly introduce the various components to my story, which I’ve described more fully in my multi-volume writings off-line (Hog Farming and the Human Spirit:  My Sequel to Moby Dick, ©1999, etc.).  Some of these will be at zspace, some at La Vida Locavore, (which is linked on my zspace home page,) and some will be unposted emails to key leaders.

The purpose of this short essay is to introduce, in a general way, my method of using grief as a “prophetic” process for social change.  I used this method repeatedly at the conference, and at the subsequent assembly of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance.  As a result, I owe a number of key leaders, especially “allies” to the grassroots, some big explanations. 

Reflections on Rural Ministry Conference: “Patchwork of Faith and Culture”1

I am struck by how nice we are, as religious people.  We are so nice that we won’t get involved in politics.  For Presbyterians, at least, we are called to “take sides” and to “become deeply involved in politics” according to our document, Christian Faith and Economic Justice.  

With this in mind I want to tell how I create art.  I go out into the world and have experiences, like coming to the conference, and then create art out of those experiences.  Experiences of nonviolence work well in this respect.  

Here is an example.  I went to the Iowa Business Council to get their document, The Food Production System in Iowa:  Gaining World Market Share.  In the document they recommend changes which will lead to “the elimination of small towns,” “family farms,” and by implication, small town churches.  These changes are being “wisely” pursued, they argue.

Say that again!

They recommend changes which will lead to “the elimination of small towns” and “family farms.”   These changes are being “wisely” pursued.

This is the moment in which I can easily create art.  I write a poem, folk song or vignette, or a series of such pieces.  (I call myself a “folk” artist, by the way, because with that label, “folk” I don’t have to follow any rules. It’s an area of art that anyone can access.)  

My challenge as an artist is, for example, to make art that makes sense to quilt people, after I’ve been to the Iowa Business Council.  A quilt is soft and “nice.”  It doesn’t seem congruent with the kind of art which upheaval stimulates in me.  I say to myself, (pointing to the quilt hanging beside me,).  How can my art reach these people.  Symbolism can do that.  I seek the symbols which can integrate these diverse contraries.  I try to take my meaning and put it in their language, their language of symbols.  

This is very difficult.  I find myself becoming immersed in pathos.  I find myself appearing pathetic.  I sometimes wonder if God is calling me to go around looking pathetic.  

I know you like to read (audience of ministers, religious leaders, farm leaders).  I recommend a book by Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet.  “Finally comes the poet to speak the rage and resentment that will tolerate no prosaic utterance.  The indignation is not resigned.  It is an act of insistence and of hope. . . .  Characteristically, God is not offended by such speech but welcomes such speech and is moved to new possibility by it.”

Further reflections on Pathos.

I have worked as a farm organizer.  In a situation of crisis and upheaval we often see people who are filled with pathos.  They express rage and despair.  They often come across as pathetic.  When I see this as an organizer, I smile, to myself at least.  These are the people I want to work with so I can be successful in organizing.  Pathos is a wonderful resource.  No pathos?  Sorry, I’m not interested.  

The same can be said about art.  If I’m an art educator and my students are men and women who are experiencing the farm crisis first hand, (assaults on all they hold dear, all they have worked for their whole lives,) if they express deep pathos, great art can be created.  Folk art can give access to great depths.

Now let’s take a third example.  If I work in the ministry with people of pathos, it’s a wonderful thing.  These people will really understand the Psalms!  My work is half done.  They are like gold.  I am rich.  We will build an awesome church here.

Brad Wilson:  March 2001 

1. This essay is from my book, Hog Farming and the Human Spirit: vol. 2, Confronting the Hogwash,  Fireweed Farm, ©1999.


Erich Fromm, You Shall Be as Gods, appendix on the 22nd Psalm.

Walter Brueggemann, “Hurt as Hope’s Home,” & etc. in Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile.

________, The Prophetic Imagination.

________, “Embrace of Pain” & etc. in Old Testament Theology.

________, Finally Comes the Poet.

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