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Take a Side but Serve the Truth

I finished Distant Neighbors, a selection of letters between Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, a few days ago and the book has been knocking around in my head ever since.

Both men are poets and essayists, people of the land, and thinkers. Wendell Berry is also a farmer and novelist. Gary Snyder is Buddhist, while Berry’s roots and the trajectory of his worldview center on a lonely Christianity, developed day by day in the mundane experience of life.

Over a span of forty years, the two friends exchange letters between Snyder’s home in California and Berry’s in Kentucky. The letters address the trivial and the profound, politics, social criticism, literary insight, and their perceptions about ultimate reality.

One of the most moving observations amongst the correspondence comes in Berry’s letter of March 14, 1981.

I accept the tragedy that we must take sides. But there is nothing I distrust and fear more than side-taking, especially when one’s argument becomes an apology for one’s side. What I liked about M. L. King was that though he chose a side and spoke for black people, the sense he made belonged to everybody. In other words, I think you have to take a side, but you have to serve the truth.


It is apparent to me that we in the United States have entered a “side-taking” era unparalleled in recent history. The first thing we want to know about anyone is which side is he or she on. Once we have people lumped into one camp or another, only then do we look to their words and give them the thumbs up or thumbs down.

Maybe Wendell Berry is right that side-taking is an unavoidable tragedy. But he is also right that regardless of the side we take, we must still serve the truth. The truth is slippery and only reveals itself in the muck and mire of lived lives, in the pursuit of justice and fairness. It can’t be found in isolation from the struggle of human beings for better lives, and “better” is also a shifting and evasive target.

So, take a side if you must, but realize that truth is still your guide.

Or at least it should be.

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