©1990 Richard Cartwright Austin
Affirming the covenant requires commitments in three areas: ecological responsibility, economic discipline, and sabbath observance. Members must promise to respect the integrity of the land and the living community upon it including both wild and domesticated animals, and the natural systems that support life. They affirm that the well-being of the Covenant Community depends upon a healthy environment, and they pledge efforts to improve the quality of their land. This commitment to ecological welfare is institutionalized in landholding partnerships with the Covenant Community Trust, which acts as a trustee for natural life.
Economic discipline takes three specific forms. First, members pledge to use the technologies approved by their neighborhood covenant council in return for neighborly assistance. This is the heart of the matter. Homesteading and subsistence living require a great deal of neighborly cooperation, yet neighbors can help each other efficiently only if their productive endeavors complement each other and, more particularly, if their technologies are compatable. The amazing efficiency of Amish neighborly assistance, for example, depends upon rigorous technological discipline so that one farmer may substitute his equipment for another and practice common skills with confidence. Forty men can erect a barn in a day because the design and building techniques do not vary from one barn to another or one year to the next. In these covenant neighborhoods, however, the intention is not to build a traditionalist society like the Amish but rather innovative communities, so the efficiency of neighborly assistance is somewhat less. Nevertheless, neighbors must harmonize their technologies if they are to be useful to each other.
Of the four original neighborhood communities, one decided to farm with horses rather than tractors although, unlike the Amish, they use electric power for many chores, and some farmers own a car or pickup truck. Farmers can support each other with compatible equipment, while the community includes a mechanic, an electrician, and a blacksmith. Over the years another neighborhood group has collectively acquired a fine tractor and a full range of tillage and harvesting equipment that are housed in an old garage in their village. One member works full time to maintain this equipment, while another operates it on the community farms. In one community, nearly half the families needed new homes and agreed upon a standard design so that materials could be prepared or purchased at lower cost and cooperative work could proceed more efficiently.
Neighborhood covenant groups meet every Sunday evening to plan cooprative activities for the week. While members are free to undertake novel projects on their own, the covenant standard is that where neighbors expect help from one another they shall agree on common technologies and procedures so that the assistance may be given efficiently, even in emergency situations.
The second element of economic discipline is a common wage-scale. Barter and neighborly helpfulness are encouraged to reduce the need for cash income to pay wages, and this contributes to the stability of each homestead. Nevertheless there are occasions when wages must be paid, and there are services for which salaries are required. The Covenant Community recognizes that a variety of vocations are needed in a healthy society - whether farming, medicine, teaching, carpentry, art, or preaching - and that those who practice any useful vocation are entitled to comparable dignity. Therefore it determined to make all professional wages the same. When one covenant member provides a skilled service to another in return for a wage, that wage is $15 an hour. Unskilled and apprentice labor is paid at the rate of $5 an hour. People are free to work outside the community without wage restrictions. However, now that Mercy and Central colleges are fully within the covenant community, professors, secretaries, and maintenance personnel all receive $15 an hour. Doctors and nurses at the new Covenant Clinic are paid the same. There has been no shortage of applicants for these positions up to now, for many people feel that the quality of life here provides an added reward.
The third aspect of economic discipline is scrip, a nominal paper currency that circulates among community members. A member must accept this paper currency, printed by the community, for one-fourth of the value of financial transactions with another member, and may accept it for more. This discipline is designed to stimulate trade within the community and reduce the temptation to purchase bargains from outside suppliers. If a quarter of my college teaching salary comes in scrip, I am sure to spend that portion within the community. If my neighbor who farms with horses and takes care of his land can sell me corn for $4 a bushel, $3 in cash and $1 in scrip, I will not be tempted to buy agribusiness corn at $3.50, in cash. As the community grows, the scrip system provides an incentive for the development of new crops, services, products, and businesses in the area.
Established merchants in Redemption County were irate when the covenant community introduced the scrip system, for they were sure it would deprive them of a share in the promised growth local trade. When a few tried accepting the scrip, however, they found they could use it in partial payment for products and services from covenant members who were willing to take scrip even though not obligated to do so in this instance. Merchants became more resourceful in buying from the local community as well as marketing to it. As the Covenant Community has expanded, most county merchants have come to accept scrip for some portion of payment because it brings them trade. Business is growing.
The third covenant commitment, sabbath observance, is not designed to compel religious worship but rather to limit power and greed. Most participants in the covenant are religious, but it is not a specifically Christian community and there are no religious requirements for membership. The sabbath pledge is a promise to rest and allow others rest, to refrain from long-term debt, and to forgive one¥s debtors. Homesteaders pledge not to turn their difficult work into perpetual drudgery nor to impose drudgery upon family members, draft animals, or the land itself. They will rest every seventh day and allow others that rest. This pledge builds community, for neighbors need confidence that on one day each week they will not be needed for production assistance, and societies need collective rhythms of relaxation so that cultural and recreational events may be scheduled. Since the Covenant Community defines its sabbath from sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday, hardly a Saturday evening passes without a community supper, dance, musicale, play, or some other social activity, while sandlot baseball thrives on Sunday afternoons. Even if you are poor and tired - indeed, especially then! - you need recreation.
This pledge embraces "sabbatical" disciplines as well, including the biblical ethics that inhibit long-term debt. Indeed, the most important part of the whole scheme may be placing people on the land without debt and then giving them incentives not to borrow. Debt ties families to the money economy and forces farmers to specialize in those crops that will satisfy their creditors rather than meet their own needs and the needs of their neighbors. Debt erodes personal freedom and damages the social fabric of a face-to-face community. Therefore Covenant Community members must promise not to mortgage their land or otherwise borrow money - even from institutions outside the community - for terms longer than six years, and that every seventh year they will remain debt free. The community acknowledges that brief borrowings may be necessary, but long-term debt forces people into drudgery and threatens the homestead. Likewise, all covenanters must forgive debts to other members that run to the seventh year, for a community cannot flourish where some people hold others to perpetual debt.
The biblical injunction to let the land lie fallow every seventh year is given a more imaginative, less literal application. The Covenant Community Trust tries to insure that the biotic life and fertility of agricultural land are sustained and, if possible, improved. In addition the trust insists that one seventh of every farm be permanently maintained in a predominantly wild condition with good habitat for birds and other wildlife. This acreage can include forests from which wood is harvested occasionally, stream banks and bogs where native plants are allowed to flourish, and even wild fencerows.
Sabbatical also embraces the covenant members themselves. While nobody is forced to leave their farm or their job every seventh year, and no funds are available for subsidized sabbaticals, the community nevertheless encourages people to take a break from vocational routines every seventh year. If some have the means to travel, their neighbors will watch the homestead, care for their livestock, or temporarily rent their fields. Other people trade jobs on sabbatical, so farmers and craftspeople may help teach at one of the colleges while faculty get practical exprience in the field. Some spend the year working outside the community, while a growing number spend part of their sabbatical on tour interpeting the Redemption County experience to people in other parts of the country. The Covenant Community encourages sabbatical because those who work hard need both rest and new experiences if they are to continue growing as healthy and productive persons.