“Though the Mountains Be Shaken”: Toward a Countercultural and Liberative Ecclesial Ethic for Appalachia (7 – Conclusion)

“Though the Mountains Be Shaken”: Toward a Countercultural and Liberative Ecclesial Ethic for Appalachia (7 – Conclusion) September 20, 2007

Part Seven (conclusion): Appalachia today in the midst of new forms of “imperial capitalism”


These insights from the “new ecclesiology” and from the past decade’s radical social movements suggest that, in terms of action, the trajectory started by At Home in the Web of Life could be continued and radicalized. The Church should devote more resources to alternative social and economic experiments and should learn to see itself as the “experiment” of God’s new community, the “new thing” that God is doing in the world. Part of this new vision of Church would be the fostering of a new spirituality and vision of Christian discipleship that involves, as liberation theologians advocated, the conscientization of the people, but would emphasize an ecclesial dimension to the process of conscientization. That is, in addition to raising people’s consciousness to see themselves as subjects of history and as agents of their own liberation, the Church itself must learn to see itself as a “subject” in history as opposed to the privatized, and indeed marginalized, reality that it has become under the modern nation-state. The People of God, as subject, must then network with the larger “movement of movements” that seeks to reclaim space for alternative economies and structures that liberate the human family from the logic of capitalism and the nation-state.[74]

These alternative social experiments should be connected more clearly with parish life and the local Church (diocese). At this time, some projects are underway in Appalachia but they take place largely out of sight of actual parish communities. Interested parishioners would have to dig to find out about these projects which are sometimes marginalized by more “mainstream” aspects of parish life. I will list here some possibilities for the embodiment of ecclesial alternative structures and experiments, some of which are already taking place but also others that would be completely new:

  • Church-based land reform strategies, as described by Richard Cartwright Austin, such as land trusts.[75]
  • The creation of various forms of intentional communities and cohousing neighborhoods.[76]
  • Church involvement with environmental direct action groups such as the Mountain Justice Summer initiative and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.[77]
  • A revival of Catholic Worker-style farms and houses of hospitality, once quite active in Appalachia.
  • Church-based alternative technology development, such as Al Fritsch, SJ’s Appalachia Science in the Public Interest (ASPI) and Paula Gonzalez, SC’s EarthConnection.[78]
  • Church supported alternatives to conventional prison sentencing,[79] such as the Appalachian initiative called the Victim Offender Reconciliation Project.[80]
  • Skill-sharing initiatives that encourage the free exchange of practical and creative skills.[81]
  • Parish-sponsored community centers, libraries, and media centers.
  • Ecclesial support/initiation of Community Supported Agriculture projects, as discussed in At Home in the Web of Life.
  • Experimentation with alternative energy sources in parishes, dioceses, and other ecclesial communities.[82]
  • Ecclesially promoted “buy local” initiatives.
  • Alternative education such as homeschooling and alternative local neighborhood schooling as well as a radical rethinking of Catholic and other Christian approaches to higher education that focus less on training young people to “take their place” in the global economy and more on becoming true schools of discipleship and centers for teaching radical Gospel values.[83]
  • Church sponsored health clinics, and Catholic hospitals that engage in radical strategies to oppose the increasingly immoral U.S. health care system, such as civil disobedience through “reverse cost-shifting.”[84]
  • Parish resistance of the funeral industry by returning capitalistic funeral and burial practices to church communities themselves.[85]
  • Parish or diocese based credit unions.
  • Labor exchange or “bartering” practices, and appliance/tool lending centers.[86]
  • Encouragement of vocations to religious life in community.
  • Locally-based and ecclesially-sponsored alternative media in the style of The Catholic Worker, but expanded to include other print media forms, internet sites, and even pirate radio stations.
  • Peace and anti-war oriented projects to oppose warmaking and recruitment efforts in Appalachia through cooperation with the Catholic Peace Fellowship, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Pax Christi USA, and other groups.

In developing these experiments and putting them into practice, the Church must model to the wider world an authentic model of community reflection on the common good that begins from the view of victims and asks how the alternative structures will include and benefit those who are marginalized and oppressed.[87] This is especially important in reflecting on the feasibility of particular alternative projects: “Every practical proposal regarding alternative institutions and actions is to be checked and judged by whether it is de facto useful to real life,” especially in the meeting of basic human needs, “and whether anyone was excluded from the process of devising it or would not benefit from its consequences.”[88] This kind of communal discernment could be facilitated in an Appalachian version of the base community phenomenon that has seen some success in Latin America, particularly in Brazil.[89] Scripture reflection, done intentionally from the margins[90] and drawing from the insights of postcolonial biblical hermeneutics and social-scientific criticism[91] could no doubt yield creative proposals for how to incarnate the Reign of God within the common life of the regional ecclesial community. Churches must make strong attempts, in various ways and one various levels, to confront the Appalachian stereotypes that are still so present in the worldwide mass media and popular culture, developing new language and new narratives of the region that contribute to the people’s sense of human dignity.

An important dimension for the Church’s ongoing reflection and action, yet a dimension virtually unexplored in the two pastoral letters, is the extent to which the Church itself, within its own structures and in its collaboration with capitalism, has actually been a part of the problems experienced in Appalachia.[92] In a reflection written after the promulgation of This Land is Home to Me, Walter Sullivan, then-Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Richmond, wrote that, although the Church has been present in Appalachia for some time, its initial mode of presence was as an outsider, and the Church at times profited from the exploitation of the land, its resources, and the people, just as any other corporation.[93] In a less direct way, Christian churches in Appalachia often served a “chaplaincy” function to the mining companies by preaching against unionism and in favor of the “Protestant work ethic.” Some miners and preachers turned against the official churches and held alternative services or sponsored union meetings on church property itself in resistance to the dominant chaplain-churches.[94] Sadly, the Church’s collaboration with capitalism and other imperial forces has not gone away; in fact, there are ways in which it is getting worse and even more difficult to detect as the logic of capitalistic globalization colonizes the hearts and minds of believers.[95] An important, and still neglected, part of a liberating and countercultural Appalachian theology for today is an honest confrontation of the Church’s collaboration with the forces of oppression in the region and throughout the world. While the Church has made efforts toward communal statements of repentance for past wrongs, such as Pope John Paul II’s famous recent public recognition of the sins of the Roman Catholic Church, a contextual ethic that emphasizes the concrete practices of the Church demands that the specific contributions of the Church to the marginalized experience of the oppressed be recognized and repented. Current attempts to narrate the story of the Catholic Church’s presence in Appalachia seem to gloss over what is likely a mixed history of both good and bad.[96] We have seen the way that the field of Appalachian studies attempts to deconstruct one-dimensional histories of the region. What might a postcolonial history that focused on the Church in Appalachia reveal? Current ways that the Church contributes to exploitation in Appalachia need to be continuously discerned as well. The current state of diocesan finances and investments, for example, should also be brought to public scrutiny in an effort toward a more faithful embodiment of the Gospel of justice.

In light of the imperialist War on Terror and its connection to Appalachia (noted earlier), the Church in Appalachia, and indeed throughout the United States, can and should develop a stronger posture of opposition to the state’s warmaking because it has a devastating effect on Appalachia’s most precious “resource”: the bodies of Appalachians themselves. While Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly and consistently denounced plans for a war against Iraq from the beginning, this clear position on the war did not “trickle down” to Catholics on a local, pastoral level and Catholic involvement in the war continues to bear no difference to the participation of other religious and secular communities.[97] A quick, informal email survey of some of the major dioceses and archdioceses of Appalachia reveals little deliberate ministry taking place for Catholic soldiers struggling with questions of conscience, students and other young people discerning careers in the military, or soldiers returning from serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and other battle zones. If the Church is to be a prophetic presence in a region of the country that is particularly effected by the economic policies driving the War on Terror, it must take its concrete mission in Appalachia seriously by calling on the people to resist participation in the nation-state’s imperial wars.[98]

Finally, the tendency of Appalachian studies to bring to light the real diversity of the region, along with postcolonialism’s focus on the existence of hybrid identities, should lead us to make one cautionary note that attempts toward an Appalachian ecclesial ethic must keep in mind, and that is the danger of romanticizing the region of Appalachia. In their reflections on the Canadian reality, theologians like Baum and Cormie are careful to note the way in which Canada has a dual identity, i.e. there is a sense in which Canada is oppressed by the dominance of U.S. economic forces, but also a sense in which Canada participates in the oppression of the so-called Third World.[99] This dual identity of victim and victimizer must also be recognized as part of the story of Appalachia. This paper, and much writing on Appalachia, rightly focuses on the ways in which the region is oppressed, but it is important to recognize as well the complexity of the global relationships of which Appalachia is a part. While Appalachia is no doubt exploited by the world’s economic forces, the people of the region also benefit from the exploitation of other marginalized communities throughout the world. As we have seen, Appalachians are among the victims of the War on Terror as they are exploited to fight on the front lines of the U.S. imperialist war, but through their participation in the war they are, of course, victimizers of those on the receiving end of the violence. This complexity must be taken into account to avoid another kind of one-sidedness in the Appalachian story, one that romanticizes the region and hides the stories of other communities to which Appalachia is connected in this increasingly globalized world.

Combining the liberationist and countercultural approaches could potentially yield ecclesial experiments that take what is important and powerful about each approach while correcting their limitations. Thus, rather than simply inspiring Christians to be “politically engaged” by trying to take over the structures of power in order to “Christianize” them, and rather than withdrawing into a type of sect or contrast community that does not attempt to impact the world, an ecclesial ethic of resistance would seek to threaten the unjust social order by encouraging non-participation in social structures that threaten life and by embodying liberating values within the very ecclesial community itself. An ecclesial ethic of resistance should not exclude the possibility of effective political engagement through the “usual” means of voting, lobbying, boycotts, protests, and the like, but will shift the overall focus to the “do-it-yourself” vision of a practice-centered ecclesiology. Just as many recent social movements have encouraged multi-faceted method of political engagement for fighting imperial globalization, a multi-faceted approach to understanding the Church “as political” is likely the most effective—and faithful—means for embodying the Gospel commitment in our world, especially in the heart of colonized Appalachia.

Previously: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six


[74] Ethan Miller, “Other Economies Are Possible!: Organizing Toward an Economy of Cooperation and
Solidarity,” Dollars and Sense, no. 266 (2006 July/August 2006), Available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2006/0706emiller.html.
[75] Richard Cartwright Austin, Reclaiming America: Restoring Nature to Culture (Abingdon, VA:
Creekside Press, 1990), cited in At Home in the Web of Life, p. 71n103.
[76] Just a few diverse examples include intentional ministry communities such as Nazareth Farm (http://www.nazarethfarm.org), intentional communities dedicated to living the sustainable principles of the Appalachian pastorals such as Bethlehem Farm (http://www.bethlehemfarm.net), communities of hospitality such as Catholic Worker houses and farms (http://www.catholicworker.org), new forms of intentional community for the aging (http://www.elderspirit.net), the intentional neighborhood or “cohousing” movement (http://www.cohousing.org), and the “New Monasticism” project (http://www.newmonasticism.org).
[77] See http://mountainjusticesummer.org and http://www.wvhighlands.org.

[78] Catholic Bishops of Appalachia, At Home in the Web of Life, 72n109.
[79] Griffith, Fall of the Prison.
[80] Catholic Bishops of Appalachia, At Home in the Web of Life, 64n43.
[81] Skillshares can be organized to deal with a particular problem, to pass on regional culture, or any number of possibilities. One example is the annual Boston Skillshare (http://www.bostonskillshare.org).
[82] Imagine a diocese or religious order whose fleet of vehicles was converted to run on vegetable oil! (See http://www.greasecar.com.)
[83] For a collection of essays that explores the possibility of radically rethinking church-based colleges and universities, see Michael L. Budde and John Wright, eds., Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-Based University in a Liberal Democratic Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004).
[84] Robert Macauley, “The Hippocratic Underground: Civil Disobedience and Health Care Reform,” Hastings Center Report 35, no. 1 (January-February 2005): 38–45.
[85] See chapter 4, “The Church and the Death Business,” in Michael L. Budde and Robert W. Brimlow, Christianity Incorporated: How Big Business is Buying the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002), 83–108.
[86] Budde and Brimlow, Christianity Incorporated, 171–2.
[87] Duchrow and Hinkelammert, Property for People, 160. For a model of spiritual reflection that begins from the view of “the crucified peoples,” see Ignacio Ellacuría, “The Crucified People,” in Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology, ed. Ignacio Ellacuría and Jon Sobrino (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 580–603; Jon Sobrino, The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994).
[88] Duchrow and Hinkelammert, Property for People, 161. Wendell Berry has also articulated criteria for healthy local sustainable communities, for example “Conserving Communities,” in The Case Against the Global Economy: And for a Turn Toward the Local, ed. Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), 413–5.
[89] For one perspective on the base community movement in Latin America, see Leonardo Boff, Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986) and his more developed ecclesiological reflection in Leonardo Boff, Church: Charism and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church, trans. John W. Diercksmeier (New York: Crossroad, 1985). For Cavanaugh’s take on the base
community phenomenon including its strengths and weaknesses, see “The Ecclesiologies of Medellín and the Lessons of the Base Communities.” “New ecclesiologist” Reinhard Hütter includes base communities in his discussion of the importance of the Church seeing itself as a “public in its own right” in his Bound to be Free, 36.
[90] For one account of bible reflection in Appalachia, see Mary Ann Hinsdale, Helen M. Lewis, and S. Maxine Waller, It Comes from the People: Community Development and Local Theology (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995).
[91] Recent scholarship on the context of the “Jesus Movement” (Wright, Horsley, Crossan, Stegemann and Stegemann, etc.) can reveal some interesting parallels between the imperial contexts of Galilee and Appalachia.
[92] Walter Sullivan, “The Catholic Church in Appalachia: Learning and Becoming,” in Redemption Denied: An Appalachian Reader, ed. Edward Guinan (Washington, D.C.: Appalachian Documentation, 1976), 23–24.
[93] Ibid., 24.
[94] Dwight Billings, “Religion as Opposition: A Gramscian Analysis,” American Journal of Sociology 96 (July 1990): 17–19.
[95] Budde and Brimlow, Christianity Incorporated.
[96] Ecclesiastically-sponsored histories such as Pyne, Faith in the Mountains, a history of West Virginia’s Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, tend to emphasize the founding of churches and the overall doings of clerics and neglect people’s movements as well as the “dirty” aspects of ecclesial history.
[97] One notable exception was the heroic pastoral letter of Romanian Catholic bishop John Michael Botean who forbade the faithful of his diocese to participate in the war. The text of the letter can be found in “A Moment of Moral Crisis: The Lent 2003 Letter of Bishop John Michael Botean,” in Neo-Conned!: Just War Principles: A Condemnation of War in Iraq, ed. D.L O’Huallachain and J. Forrest Sharpe (Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2005), 291–4, Also available at http://centerforchristiannonviolence.org/downloads/Pastoral_Letter_Iraq_War.pdf.
[98] This is a passionate concern of Cavanaugh’s and he has written on the topic extensively, e.g. William T. Cavanaugh, “At Odds with the Pope: Legitimate Authority and Just Wars,” Commonweal 130, no. 10 (23 May 2003): 11–13; and William T. Cavanaugh, “The Empire of the Empty Shrine: American Imperialism and the Church,” Cultural Encounters 2, no. 2 (Summer 2006): 7–19. See also the collection of essays Wes Avram, ed., Anxious About Empire: Theological Essays on the New Global Realities (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004), especially Michael Budde’s contribution “Selling America, Restricting the Church,” 79–88.
[99] Baum, “From Solidarity to Resistance,” 58.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

4 responses to ““Though the Mountains Be Shaken”: Toward a Countercultural and Liberative Ecclesial Ethic for Appalachia (7 – Conclusion)”

  1. Michael,

    Thank you for the series — it’s been an enlightening one.

    I did have a question — and maybe I missed it (and I went back to try to see if you touched upon it and I forgot):

    Has the resources of the region been put into greater use because of the war? That is, not just the people going to war, but the region itself and what the US would want from it (in the mines) — is it being used quicker, more efficiently, because of the greater need for the resources from the war? Could this also explain why the brutal, war-like methods of treating the mountains are on the rise?