Wednesday, March 20, 2013

For the 10 Year Anniversary of the Beginning of the Iraq War: Wisdom from John Howard Yoder and Wendell Berry

"We have always been taught to understand the nature of power in society so as to expect that the way to get useful things done is to find a place at the command posts of the state. We have suggested already that the man in power is not as free or as strong as he assumes, that he is the prisoner of the friends and the promises he made in order to get into office. But an even more basic observation is that he is not at the place in society where the greatest contribution can be made. The creativity of the 'pilot project' or of the critic is more significant for a social change than is the coercive power which generalizes a new idea. Those who are at the 'top' of society are occupied largely with the routine tasks of keeping in position and keeping balance in society. The dominant group in any society is the one which provides its judges and lawyers, teachers and prelates -- their effort is largely committed to keeping things as they are. This busyness of rulers with routine gives an exceptional leverage to the creative minority, sometimes because it can up the scales between two power blocs and sometimes because it can pioneer a new idea. In every rapidly changing society a disproportionate share of leadership is carried by cultural, racial, and religious minorities.

"What is said here about the cultural strength of the numerical and social minority could just as well be said with regard to political strength. The freedom of the Christian, or of the church, from needing to invest his best effort or the effort of the Christian community, in obtaining the capacity to coerce others, and exercising and holding on to this power, is precisely the key to the creativity of the unique Christian mission in society. The rejection of violence appears to be social withdrawal if we assume that violence is the key to all that happens in society. But the logic shifts if we recognize that the number of locks that can be opened with the key of violence is very limited. The renunciation of coercive violence is the prerequisite of a genuinely social responsibility and to the exercise of those kinds of social power which are less self-defeating."

—John Howard Yoder, "Christ, the Hope of the World," in The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1971), 171-72

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Now you know the worst

By Wendell Berry

To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzhak Rabin

Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,

for I know that you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know

there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.

But remember:
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine

though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.

You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light. It will be

the light of those who have suffered
for peace. It will be
your light.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Origen's Exhortation to Martyrdom: A Scriptural Manual for How to Be Killed

The most striking thing about Origen's Exhortation to Martyrdom is not its otherworldliness, its openness to or even zest for dying, its idiosyncratic interpretation of Scripture, or its full-throated subordination of the body to the spirit (what a drag for souls to be saddled with bodies!). It is, rather, the dawning realization of what Origen is attempting to accomplish as the work slowly unfolds. Because Origen's Exhortation is nothing less than a biblical script for dying: a practical manual for Christians to be trained how to be murdered in public—and, moreover, how to do so in a way that is not shameful to Christ but faithful to his way. Origen views Scripture as typological all the way down; consequently, the words of the heroes, fathers, and forebears in the faith are there for the express purpose of contemporary appropriation. The Spirit has provides these for our use, so that we will know what to say when the time comes to die.

He therefore writes: "I pray that when you are at the gates of death, or rather of freedom, especially if tortures are brought . . ., you will use such words as these . . . [2 Macc. 6:30]" (Exhortation, XXII). Regarding the Maccabees, he says that "it would be appropriate for us, as well, in such circumstances to use their words . . . [2 Macc. 7:6]" (XXIII). Or when worries for one's family or children arise, with immediacy he urges: "Now have the words ready . . . [Matt. 10:37, 39]" (XXXVIII). Or perhaps one knows oneself to be "hated and abominated and considered impious"; in the event, "take up the saying . . . [John 15:19]" (XXXIX). Not only evil men but evil spirits may threaten, and in that case "let each one of you say when you smite [them] . . . [1 Cor. 9:26]" (XLVIII).

Scripture, in Origen's use, is a collection of various scenes and acts in the drama of God's victory over death through Christ. His advice to those who would be faithful μάρτυρες is simple: Know in your bones, through diligent and disciplined study, the trustworthy sayings of those who have come before; for when you, too, find yourself in similar dire straits, just the right words will come to you, and they will not fail.

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Christian Wiman (II)

It's hard for me to believe that it's been more than a month since my last post, and really a full three months since my last substantive post—i.e., where I wrote something of my own rather than quoted or excerpted someone or something else. I'm not quite sure these days how to make time for writing in this forum, but I would like to make the attempt. In the meantime, here is another wonderful poem from Christian Wiman's extraordinary collection, Every Riven Thing.

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Hammer is the Prayer

By Christian Wiman

There is no consolation in the thought of God,
he said, slamming another nail

in another house another havoc had half-taken.
Grace is not consciousness, nor is it beyond.

To hell with remembrance, to hell with heaven,
hammer is the prayer of the poor and the dying.

And as wind in some lordless random comes to rest,
and all the disquieted dust within,

peace came to the hinterlands of our minds,
too remote to know, but peace nonetheless.