I am a tremendous fan of documentary films. Even while some of the best films are documentaries, Docs are among the most underrated of film genres. These films provide fascinating insight into the passions and lives of amazing people as well as information on almost any subject, place and culture. Even more impressive, documentaries are usually made on the lowest of budgets but with the highest degrees of passion by the most dedicated of filmmakers. I stumbled upon a gem of a doc the other day on the Smithsonian Channel entitled “The Seed Hunter.” This 2008 film chronicled two weeks in the life of Dr. Ken Street, the “Indiana Jones of agriculture,” in his quest to find ancient seeds in some of the most remote places on earth.
Over the last 50 years agriculture seeds have been genetically altered in order to provide increasingly greater yields. While this effort was successful in dramatically increasing crop production, it also resulted in substantially less hardy crops that are significantly more vulnerable to disease and changes to the environment and climate. “The Seed Hunter” shows farmers in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries battling droughts of the last several years that have all but wiped out their production. Where they used to be able to raise enough for family and community needs with enough left over to sell or store, they are now struggling to raise enough to feed their families.
In addition to the Middle East, the film shows farmers in southern Australia, Dr. Street’s native country, struggling with declining yields due to rising soil salt levels. Dr. Street and other seed hunters are searching for seeds that predate the genetic changes of the mid-20th Century so as to isolate and use their DNA in an effort to make today’s weaker, declining crops better able to withstand disease, drought, and other threats. Dr. Street is also part of an organization that is storing the seeds in a self-described “Noah’s Ark” for agriculture should there be continued degradation of seeds or some other unforeseen circumstance wherein crops become extinct.
In the Documentary Dr. Street travels thousands of miles through the most remote portions of Tajikistan searching for the “holy Grail” for seed hunters, older, pre-genetically altered chickpea plants and seeds. Chickpeas are valued as a food source; particularly in the event of a wide-spread failure of other crops such as wheat, barley, and corn, (which would also impact protein sources such as beef and chicken) because they are an effective source of fiber, protein, zinc, folate, and phosphorus. As is often the case when I watch documentaries, I am amazed at the interests and subject matter people devote their lives to. I have barely heard of, and rarely consume, chickpeas and yet here is a man who has devoted much of his adult life braving dangerous and difficult travel searching for a way to grow a hardier chickpea and, in the worst case scenario, save an important food source from extinction.
As I watched and rooted for Dr. Street and his team to overcome the odds and discover the ever illusive legume I began to associate his world and mine. In nature, for the most part, genetic diversity is good. The more uniform the genetics, the weaker and more susceptible a plant or animal is to disease and dysfunction, and the less able it is to survive extremes in weather and climate. On the other hand the more genetically diverse a crop or species is the better able it is to survive, if not thrive, in extreme conditions. Often, smart farmers plant a variety of crops or differing strands of crops / seeds which result in crops and crop types that respond differently should there be extremes of temperature, moisture, or disease. In other words, the smart farmers will not put all their bushels in one crop or crop strand.
As with animals and crops, theologically segregated faith communities are more susceptible to spiritual and physical dysfunction than groups wherein diversity of beliefs are tolerated and people from different cultures accepted. Groups of like, and often identical, minds, bodies and spirits face greater dysfunction in the face of the challenges, disappointments, and ambiguity that are a part of life. This dysfunction happens because the more homogeneous, rigid, and isolated a group is in its beliefs, the more focused and reliant it becomes on its ability to discern right from wrong. Groups and the individuals / leaders in them become used to knowing and deciding moral and theological issues without the checks and challenges other voices and ideas can provide when considered.
One reason groups become inward focused in thought and practice is in reaction to stress brought on by the financial challenges and cultural changes the outside world places on the individual members. In contrast to the ambiguity, problems, and challenges perceived in the world, individuals find comfort and safety in the predictability and control found in homogeneous groups and communities. The greater the stressors and the longer their duration the more dependent the members become on the group for comfort and release of fear and stress. This intra-community dependence leads to isolation from society and the surrounding community which results in greater dependence by group members and further withdrawal from friends, family, and other communities and activities. As this cycle continues the members become increasingly isolated and dependent on the group from which they continue to seek greater stability and protection from the outside.
Such safety seeking activity grows from individuals living more in fear rather than living by faith, and their perceptions being based on sight rather than vision. To these people the world seems hopelessly broken and they are helpless to change anything. The result is a hunkering down with folks of similar perceptions and the rejection of those who do not share the same beliefs. As the group withdraws from society, it is forced to continue to litigate the dangers of the outside and enhance the perceived safety of the group, and again, the cycle continues.
Even if the group is successful in isolating itself and members from others, fear will exist in the group because the members individually, and the community collectively, have not dealt with their fear but rather have covered it up through isolation. Since the community has not truly addressed its fear, fear remains and the group, now totally isolated from the greater community, will begin to isolate internally and marginalize those who show any signs or nuance in thought, speech, or action. Power in the group will typically begin to coalesce around stronger, charismatic members as sub-groups develop within the community. This cycling of fear driven isolation was the genesis of the Jonestown and Mount Carmel tragedies in the 1970’s and 90’s.
Openness by faith communities and other societal groups to consideration of other ideas and voices, in addition to fostering spiritual and intellectual growth as beliefs are validated, nuanced, or changed helps communities and individuals live by faith rather than fear. A willingness to examine and tolerate those who are different and present other perceptions, beliefs, and actions is an act of faith and humility as it is a demonstration that the individual or group does not have, nor can it attain, full or perfect knowledge. Another benefit of openness to, and consideration of, other ideas, beliefs and cultures is a greater, more accurate understanding of one’s own beliefs and values. As with the chickpea and other crops and animals, societal diversity and toleration enable life that blossoms through faith rather than one that withers from fear.