Embracing the Enemy: Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace

“After I finished my lecture, Professor Jurgen Moltmann stood up and asked one of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating:  ‘But can you embrace a četnik?’” writes Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf in his preface to the first edition of Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.    “It was the winter of 1993.  For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called “četnik” [or chetnik] had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities.”

Only a few years earlier Moltmann had been Volf’s professor of theology and mentor at the University of Tübingen in Germany.  One of the most internationally esteemed theologians of the last decades of the twentieth century, he had known war even more intimately than Volf.  In 1944, he had been drafted into the German army and a year later had surrendered to the British. During his three years as a POW, he read the New Testament and Psalms for the first time and brought his personal  experience of war to his study and reflection. Later he wrote, 

In July 1943 I was an air force auxiliary in a battery in the center of Hamburg, and barely survived the fire storm which the Royal Air Force’s “Operation Gomorrah” let loose on the eastern part of the city. The friend standing next to me at the firing predictor was torn to pieces by the bomb that left me unscathed. That night I cried out to God for the first time: “My God, where are you?” And the question “Why am I not dead too?” has haunted me ever since.

In his lecture Volf had been arguing  that “we ought to embrace our enemies, as God has embraced us in Christ.”  So when Moltmann asked, “Can you embrace a četnik?”, his former student knew it was not a theoretical question. Moltmann had first-hand experience in struggling to love the enemy, and his question was part of what led Volf to write Exclusion and Embrace.

This 1996 book was named by Christianity Today as one of the best books of the twentieth century.  Several months ago Abingdon Press published a revised and updated edition, largely because it speaks to the hatred, conflict and the distrust of the “other” that are so prevalent around the world today.  Volf, who later founded the Yale Center on Faith and Culture and still teaches at Yale University Divinity School, wrote the first edition in a time when he believed that identity conflicts would fade as the processes of global integration would unite the world.  In his preface to the revised edition, he writes that such has not been the case: “The whole globe looks now more like Yugoslavia did on the eve of the outbreak of hostilities among its ethnic groups than like Europe when the Berlin Wall, that symbol of the bipolar world, came down and the European Union was expanding.” (1)

I’m one of the writers for FaithLink, a United Methodist digital curriculum on current affairs. This year’s Advent lessons were inspired by Volf’s book.  Although the curriculum is available only by subscription, the main essays from these lessons are posted on the Ministry Matters website:

“Violence and Peace” by Lyndsey Medford
https://www.ministrymatters.com/search/?t=a&q=Violence+and+Peace
“Deception and Truth” by Jill M. Johnson
https://www.ministrymatters.com/search/?t=a&q=Deception+and+Truth
“Oppression and Justice”  by Doug Paysour
https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9991/oppression-and-justice
“Exclusion and Embrace”  by Jeanne Torrence Finley https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9996/exclusion-and-embrace

Our times are racked by division and hatred–both stoked by fear of the other.  Volf’s book presents an alternative vision and a way toward human understanding and peace.  It’s a challenging read, but my colleagues and I at FaithLink hope that our essays provide a gentle welcome into his important work.  Mine begins with the story of the Grinch, which is not to be dismissed on December 25.  Remember that this is the 5th day of Christmas. Maybe the Grinch and the people of Whoville are still celebrating.

(1) To view Volf’s lecture, “Before Embrace,” visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5CFDY_9efU

Can I Get a Get a Witness?: Cesar Chavez and Peter, Paul, and Mary

Cesar Chavez

Can I Get a Witness?-Chavez

During Lent I’m participating in a study of  Can I Get  a Witness?:  Thirteen Peacemakers, Community-Builders, and Agitators for Faith and Justice, created through the Project on Lived Theology  at the University of Virginia and edited by Shea Tuttle, Charles Marsh, and Daniel Rhodes.   Released last week, the book presents the stories of thirteen pioneers for social justice who engaged in peaceful protest and gave voice to the marginalized, working courageously out of their religious convictions to transform American culture.

These stories of social activists, such as Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, and William Stringfellow, shed light on the spiritual motivation for their work for justice.  The first chapter is about Cesar Chavez, the organizer of “the first farm-worker union in a struggle for justice that took on the industry of agribusiness.”  Daniel Rhodes writes,  “Chavez always understood the movement to be about more than wages or contracts; it was a spiritual campaign.  For him, the work of the union was woven inextricably in a fabric of religious significance.  Jesus was with them, and in their struggle and sacrifices they were a part of his kingdom, his people.  It was nearly sacramental–eucharistic.”

Chavez’s story, as well as the others in Can I Get a Witness?, in of particular interest to me because I’m collaborating on a book with and about Noel Paul Stookey–the “Paul” of Peter, Paul, and Mary, a singer-songwriter and activist whose faith and social justice commitment have be integrated both in his work with the trio and in his career as a solo artist.   I share stories of Chavez’s connection with the trio.

In the 1960s Chavez and his co-leader in the United Farm Workers (UFW) organized a national boycott of grapes to draw attention to the exploitation of farm workers by mega-farm corporations.  Sympathetic to the cause, the trio was invited to perform in a Carnegie Hall concert to  support the UFW.   Noel and Peter write,  “Milton Glaser, the internationally acclaimed graphic designer who  . . . created all of the graphics for our record albums, stationery, and many other projects, asked his colleague, Paul Davis,  . . . to create the now famous image of a young Hispanic boy that was featured in the poster for the concert”  [1].  You can view the poster “Viva Chavez, viva la causa, viva la huelga” on the website of the Library of Congress.

Later, Chavez was among the people who invited Peter, Paul, and Mary to join in Survival Sunday, a 1978 concert in the Hollywood Bowl to protest the start up of a power plant in Northern California, built next to the San Andreas earthquake fault.

In 1997 the trio’s manager Martha Hertzberg called on them to  join in efforts  in Watsonville, CA, to organize strawberry workers, whose health was being affected by pesticides, who were having to work in fields that lacked potable water and toilet facilities, and who were greatly underpaid.  She partnered with Arturo Rodriguez, Chavez’s son-in-law, to organize a benefit concert and a trip to the strawberry fields of Watsonville to increase public awareness of the situation [2]. They sang Woody Guthrie’s song Deportee” about migrant workers [3].

Peter and Noel wrote, “Seldom had an audience touched us so deeply.  In some heart-to-heart exchanges with the United Farm Workers’ leaders, we found out what you cannot know from the printed page or from secondhand descriptions:  Theirs was a struggle for survival under  the constant shadow of illness, hunger, and possible death due to horrific working conditions, virtually no health services, and miserably low pay.”    They noted that efforts to improve conditions for the workers were “largely successful”:  “It was the legacy of Cesar Chavez, who changed the consciousness of American about some of our most forgotten and cruelly exploited workers.  Woody Guthrie spoke of these workers in the lyrics of Pastures of Plenty’:  ‘Pull beets from your ground, cut grapes from your vine, to set on your table that bright, sparkling wine.’  In Watsonville, we had come full circle from the ’60s to the ’90s.  The struggle for fairness and justice for the poor was, is, and, alas, will continue to be ongoing”  [4]

 

 

[1] Peter, Paul, and Mary:  Fifty Years of Music and Life.

[2] Peter, Paul, and Mary:  Fifty Years of Music and Life.

[2]  This version from the PBS Lifelines special includes Tom Paxton.

[4] Peter, Paul, and Mary:  Fifty Years of Music and Life.

 

 

Merton and Dylan: A Review of The Monk’s Record Player

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“You may think, as I did at first, that pairing a Utopian hermit monk and a demon-haunted rock star is just plain perverse or at the very least willfully paradoxical,” said David Dalton in his foreword to Robert Hudson’s The Monk’s Record Player:  Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966.  That drew me in.  Then Dalton said Merton and Dylan were “Siamese Twins joined at the hippocampus”(ix-x) and asked, “why wouldn’t two people as inventive, desperate, supernaturally talented, and aghast at the temper of the times have a lot in common?”(x)   Ok, so I was highly curious, but the clincher was this:  “Both were willful sinners, antiheroes of mysterious virtue and reluctant saints involved in issues of street-legal theology, Symbolist poetry, radical politics, morbid psychology, women (why leave them out?), the imminent spiritual crisis, and Doom—eschatology, to use theological terminology”(xii).

For serious seekers of increased understanding of either Merton or Dylan, Hudson’s book may not satisfy, but for readers who want an engaging look at possible parallels between two seemingly very different influencers of American culture and politics, it could be a good fit.   One was Trappist monk living as a hermit at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky who nonetheless wrote books that attracted the attention of both official Roman Catholic censors and the spiritual seekers the world over. The other is a Jewish singer/songwriter who “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, a performance that’s been the subject of much debate in American music history, and who won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Hudson begins his introduction with a quote from Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” (“Come writers and critics / Who prophesize with your pen . . . .”) and notes, “In the 1960s, these two were among the most outspoken writers and critics to prophesy with their pens, and they did indeed change the times they lived in” (1).

Although Hudson calls his book a “selective biography” and a “parallel biography” (7), its focus is much more on how Merton understood his own crisis in the summer of 1966 through the soundtrack of Dylan’s music. The monk, having fallen in love with Margie Smith, a nurse half his age, had to choose between her and his monastic vows, which included not only celibacy but the solitude of a cloistered life, a solitude that was always in tension with his public life as a writer and activist in the peace movement.

Claiming that “their souls were next door neighbors,” Hudson shows the “surprising parallels” between the two.  Both were

  • “cultural icons of the 1960s” and had to deal with interruptions from fans and interviewers”;
  • “prolific to the point of compulsion”;
  • “amateur visual artists” with “a love of photography, both behind and in front of the camera”;
  • “as inscrutable as they were brilliant”;
  • fiercely in “need for autonomy” and freedom, Dylan from the expectations of his fans and manager and Merton from the constraints of the Catholic Church and his monastic vows;
  • “unflagging spiritual pilgrims, perpetually restless, intense, and curious” (3-5).
  • poets, one a poet-singer and the other a poet-monk.

Perhaps their most interesting parallel was their gift of “the ability to hold within themselves beliefs entirely at odds with each other, dissonances usually more upsetting to their fans than to themselves.”  Merton explained, “We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them.”  Dylan simply said, “Chaos is a friend of mine”(5)   Hudson expresses his understanding of this ability in Merton in this statement:  “Just as he believed that he could only achieve unity with humanity by being alone, so too he realized that he could only be true to Margie by remaining true to his vows of celibacy.” (150)

Dylan fans may be disappointed that there is not more about Dylan in the book—three “interludes” that focus singularly on him—but Hudson makes up for sparse attention by doing justice to his crisis of the summer of 1966—no, not the motorcycle accident itself but the larger problem that it symbolized.  Hudson says that “if Dylan had done no more than stub his toe, a serious accident took place, one that involved the high-speed collision of his fame, his drug and alcohol abuse, and an impossible number of commitments that had been foisted upon him”(113).  His manager, Albert Grossman, was pushing him to promote his newest album, Blond on Blond, to go another tour, to write new songs, and to write a book (for which Grossman had signed a deal with Macmillan without consulting Dylan).  In addition, he simply needed to disappear from public view—from fans both adoring and hostile—“to find out what it felt like to be a family man, a patrician farmer, a father who was there for his kids.”  Hudson sees the “accident” as the beginning of “Dylan’s own search for solitude” (117), a search that in some ways mirrored Merton’s.

Merton had planned to write an article about Dylan.  Hudson says, “The core of the article would no doubt have been Dylan’s ‘prophetic’ voice . . . . For Merton, prophetic implied both a high level of truth-telling and the state of being ahead of one’s time,” and he believed poets possessed a prophetic vocation (159).  He never got around to writing it.  Merton died by electrocution in December 1968 when he touched a defective floor fan at a conference center in Bangkok, Thailand.

On July 25, 1966, at the Newport Folk Festival Dylan sang, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more . . . .”  (51)  Hudson calls that line “a chilling declaration of defiance that has resonated through the decades for anyone who has ever wrestled with authority, who has ever kicked against the oppression of society’s leveling influence.”  In The Monk’s Record Player he subtly shows how those words came to expression in Merton’s life and writing as he lived out his vocation as prophet and poet.

The Monk’s Record Player pays close attention to the influence Dylan had on Merton, documented in the monk’s journals and letters and evidenced in changes in his writing style, particularly in Cables to the Ace, in which Hudson says Merton “went electric, every bit as much as Dylan did at Newport the previous year”(139). Hudson gives reasons Dylan may have known of Merton, though the songwriter never mentions the monk in his own writings.  Nevertheless, Hudson makes a convincing case for affinities between the two men and succeeds in what he sets out to do—to write a book  “about solitude and love, originality and autonomy, and the extent to which music—functioning therapeutically—touched the life of one particularly gifted and troubled thinker in a time of crisis” (8).

Silence, Poetry & the Salvation of Seamus Heaney

In the spirit of “telling it slant,” I offer my friend Alex Joyner’s review of poet Christian Wiman’s new book. I especially like this quote from Wiman: ” What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety. (94)”

Heartlands

taylor-ann-wright-1136612-unsplash Photo by Taylor Ann Wright on Unsplash

 A Review of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light

The poet Seamus Heaney paused in the middle of dinner and leaned over to make a confession to Christian Wiman, who was, at the time, the editor of Poetry magazine. Knowing Wiman to be a Christian not only in name, Heaney admitted that he “felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up with in Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged. That was trying to emerge.” (88-9)

Wiman still wonders at his response to the confession:

What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities…

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That Attracting & Sustaining Divine Love: A Review of Evolving Humanity & Biblical Wisdom

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Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley

My review of Marie Noonan Sabin’s Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdom: Reading Scripture Through the Lens of Teilhard de Chardin [Liturgical Press Academic: 2018] is up on the Englewood Review of Books:

Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist and Jesuit priest (1881-1955), wrote about evolutionary science, spirituality, and the expansion of human consciousness.  Although the Vatican suppressed his writings during his lifetime, today his vision continues to be appreciated by scientists, religious scholars, and spiritual seekers.  In Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdom Marie Noonan Sabin brings Teilhard’s vision into conversation with scripture texts related to wisdom. With an interdisciplinary background in literature and theology, Sabin uses her interpretative skills in intellectually challenging ways that will fascinate some readers with knowledge of academic biblical studies but may mystify those without such a background. Though prior knowledge of Teilhard’s complicated thought would increase appreciation of Sabin’s work, her clarity and conversational style could well inspire Teilhard beginners to delve deeper into his thought. Continue reading