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Touching a New Kingdom


On William Stafford and Peace


Sermon given at First Mennonite Church, Bluffton, Ohio, 9/11/2011

Touching a New Kingdom (On William Stafford and Peace)

First Mennonite Church, 9/11/2011

I suspect everyone here who’s old enough remembers the morning of 9/11/01, ten years ago today, and what we were doing when we heard about the planes crashing into towers and buildings. I was at my desk, getting ready for class, and at first thought the web headline about a plane crash was just a curiosity, a freak accident. Of course, I soon learned otherwise.

But a moment I especially remember came a few days later, when Marlyce and I got to talking with some other soccer parents. We were all still stunned and reeling from the images on the news, collapsing buildings and plumes of smoke, people running through the streets, faces of hijackers, all the rest. And yet here we were at the field on a beautiful early fall evening, watching our sons run around. It seemed so ordinary, and yet we knew things were going to change.

“One thing I know,” another parent said, “things like this bring us together as a country.”

“True,” I found myself saying to him. “But together to do what?”

I’ll come back to that question. But first, a little background on our feature person for today, poet and pacifist William Stafford. He was born in Hutchinson, Kansas in 1914, grew up in various Kansas towns, in a close but not wealthy family. He was an older student at the U. of Kansas in December 1941, already starting to write poems; his life was changed by Pearl Harbor as ours were by 9/11, but even more dramatically. Stafford was not a birthright Anabaptist or member of a peace church; but when his society was swept up in war fervor and total mobilization for the vast enterprise of World War II, he became one of that small group who refused to go off to war. He convinced his draft board to grant him conscientious objector status—then a new thing—and was sent to Church of the Brethren camps in Arkansas and California, where he did forestry work and firefighting.

He also found himself mingling with other CO’s from around the country, of a wide range of backgrounds and educational levels. The men soon began to talk and study together in their free time, and pooled their books to form a small library. They decided to get up early for study sessions so they could do their “real” work while they were fresh, not when they were worn out from a day laboring at the government’s tasks. And one day a Brethren minister came for a visit, brought along his lovely daughter Dorothy, and she and young Bill struck up a relationship that led to marriage and lasted until his death in 1993. They had four children. Bill went back to grad school after the war, even joined the Brethren church. He taught for a year at Manchester College in Indiana, and at one point was offered a job by Bethel College in Kansas. But Lewis and Clark College in Portland offered him more money, and he spent most of the rest of his teaching career there—and became steadily better known as a poet.

His time in the camps changed Stafford’s life in at least two ways. He kept the lifelong habit of rising early every day to write, and left 20,000 notebook pages of that writing behind him, along with thousands more finished poems and over 60 books. He published his first major book of poems, Traveling through the Dark, in 1963, when he was already 48 years old, but it won a National Book Award and widespread acclaim. He traveled widely and became one of the best-loved poets in the country, was appointed Oregon’s Poet Laureate, and is still fondly remembered by fans and colleagues all over.

But even more important for us as Anabaptists, perhaps, Stafford learned from that time in the camps about being a part of a small group, set apart from society by its beliefs and commitments. He spoke of picking up a deep sense “that one didn’t have to conform; in fact conformity was a danger sign.” (Every War 130) Years later, he often reflected on the experience of being suddenly judged as he was during the war years, when those he considered friends realized that he did not share their support for military enterprises. And while he made friends everywhere, he also remained aware that any moment might bring what he called “the sudden quiet stare / and fatal estimate of an alerted neighbor.”

As many of you here know, it’s easy enough, much of the time, to live in a place like Bluffton and blend in with our neighbors, who are mostly pretty nice people even if we don’t agree on everything. We dress more or less the same; we don’t drive buggies or stay off the power grid. The youth don’t get told that they can’t dance or play sports. Some days I think I am pretty much a regular American; I like football and movies and the American countryside, even the flatlands of northwest Ohio.

But I’m also reminded, regularly, that in some crucial ways I’m not a regular American. Yes, the attacks on 9/11 “brought us together.” Yes, even a lifelong peace creep like me understood the felt need to do something in response, and yes, going after Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan at least made some practical sense, compared to the war in Iraq, which never made any kind of sense I could understand. But like Stafford, I still find myself among those unusual few who believe that when Jesus said love your enemies he actually meant don’t kill them.

And as David Rothkopf argues in a recent essay, 9/11 led this country into what he calls “one of the most profound overreactions in military history. Trillions of dollars were expended and hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the emotion-fueled maelstrom unleashed by a shaken and clearly disoriented America.” Really, he says, 9/11 was the “Great Distraction”: in over-reacting to a small group of terrorists and a single, awful event, we neglected many other things that will matter far more in the long run: economic stagnation and increasing inequality in the U.S., the rise of China and other countries around the world, and (this is second on his list, but I’d put it first) global warming, which threatens to create bigger problems than any political or military action we’ve ever seen.

In such times, the voices of Christians and peacemakers and those who care for the earth—and I think anyone who claims one of these allegiances surely ought to claim the other two as well—need desperately to be heard. And we can look to people like Stafford to help us in this effort.

Here’s a Stafford poem titled “Learning” on the subject of “enemies” and how we learn to put people and countries in such categories:

A piccolo played, then a drum.

Feet began to come -- a part

of the music. Here came a horse,

clippety clop, away.

My mother said, "Don't run --

the army is after someone

other than us. If you stay

you'll learn our enemy."

Then he came, the speaker. He stood

in the square. He told us who

to hate. I watched my mother's face,

its quiet. "That's him," she said.

How does it happen, that we learn to hate some people, some countries, even some religions? Jesus tells us in plain language, after all, to love our enemies. And yet politicians and pundits, many of them professing Christians, argued in the buildup to the Iraq War that invading that country, overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and killing as many soldiers and civilians as necessary was right and just, even God’s will. Some argued that anyone who questioned any of this was not just wrong but a traitor to the country.

Such rhetoric was a frighteningly echo of Hermann Goering’s reflections on how to create war fervor, from an interview done while he was awaiting trial as a war criminal after World War II:

Naturally, the common people don't want war . . . . But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along,. . . . All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

One of the most famous preachers in the country at the time, Jerry Falwell, proclaimed that “God Is Pro-War” and that “our God-authored freedoms must be defended.” In the last few weeks, Dick Cheney released a book in which he repeats his long-held position that the war was entirely the right thing to do, and that even torture is quite all right if it seems necessary to “defend” the nation.

I don’t have time today for a full critique of these ideas or values . . . but I do want to go on record as one who believes, as William Stafford did, that Jesus’ message of love, justice, and mercy was meant for everyone, and that God does not sort us out according to the political system under which we happen to live.

Yes, I know plenty of admirable people who don’t agree, many of them better Christians than I ever hope to be, people who think that God takes sides—in wars and in football games—and who view nonviolence as a nice idea, but one we have to put aside when things get serious.

William Stafford knew those people too; he lived through several waves of American exceptionalism, but he never accepted the idea that one group of God’s children had it over all the rest. And he believed, in the best Anabaptist tradition, that in the long term active peacemaking and concern for the whole of creation is not just a nice, impractical idea, but the only plausible way that human beings can survive and thrive on this planet.

How do we go about that? This is a big question. Stafford’s first book, Down in My Heart, is about his experience in the Civilian Public Service camps, and it turns on the choice between a kind of radical, uncompromising pacifism (one character goes on a hunger strike that puts him in a coma) and a less drastic, less rigid approach emphasizing conversation and witness. Stafford does not regard this as an easy decision, but in the book he takes the second path, and in fact he followed that route all his life.

In one of my favorite moments from the book, we see this stance crystallizing. A group of conscientious objectors are talking with Quaker writer and activist Gerald Heard. One asks how he can prove that he is not merely cowardly or dumb for refusing to fight; Stafford records this answer: “Do not attempt to do so,” said Gerald Heard. “We are each of us fallible, cowardly, and dumb. We can say, as great men have said before, ‘Yes, it is true, I am a frail vessel in which to transport the truth; but I cannot unsee what I see. . . .’”

He told me once of something else he heard in the camps: “If struck I should give off a clear note,” one of the men reflected. “But I don’t have to go around ringing myself like a gong.”

And from 1970, here’s a statement about poetry as a counter to the sort of aggressive and bi-polar thought and action he described in the passage I just read:

Poetry and other arts come from acceptance of little signals that immediate experience contributes to beings who are alive and fallible, and changing. Any conscience relevant to that kind of activity will tend to be un-national, not American or foreign, or North or South, or Black or White, or East—but alive and ready to confer. (Every War, 33).

“Un-national . . . but alive and ready to confer.” Isn’t that good?

In Sunday School we listened to John Gorka’s sung version of Stafford’s “At the Un-National Monument on the Canadian Border,” and its beautiful praise for an ordinary place: “This is the field where the battle did not happen. Where the unknown soldier did not die. . . . and the only heroic thing is the sky.”

Stafford was particularly suspicious of heroism and hero-worship. He liked to quote Thomas Mann, who once said, “A hero is a national calamity.” The stress on “winning” distorted lives and cultures, he thought; his poem “Allegiances” begins with the curt lines “It is time for all the heroes to go home / if they have any, time for all of us common ones / to locate ourselves by the real things we live by.” [ . . . ] There’s a lovely “quiet in the land” vision at the end of the poem:

Suppose an insane wind holds all the hills

while strange beliefs whine at the traveler's ears,

we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love

where we are, sturdy for common things.

And Stafford often spoke of the importance of a true humility—not the anxious groveling in the dust we sometimes encounter, but the sort that recognizes all of our limits and runs counter to the “all our children are above average” mythos that surrounds us. “Our Kind” is one of my favorite, playful Stafford poems for the way it undercuts a number of American pieties:

Our mother knew our worth-

not much. To her, success

was not being noticed at all.

"If we can stay out of jail,"

she said, "God will be proud of us."

"Not worth a row of pins,"

she said, when we looked at the album:

"Grandpa?-ridiculous."

Her hearing was bad, and that

was good: "None of us ever says much."

She sent us forth equipped

for our kind of world, a world of

our betters, in a nation so strong

its greatest claim is no boast,

its leaders telling us all, "Be proud"-

But over their shoulders, God and

our mother, signaling: "Ridiculous."

Someone came up to Stafford after a reading once, he told me, and asked him why he didn’t write more political poems. He paused, half-laughed, half-sighed, and said “I thought all my poems were political!” But it’s true that many of them have to do with a kind of careful, respectful attention—to each other, to the world, to events large and small—whose political implications are easy to miss. What if we all took the advice of a poem like this one, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” seriously?

If you don't know the kind of person I am

and I don't know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,

a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break

sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood

storming out to play through the broken dyke. [ . . . ]

For it is important that awake people be awake,

or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;

the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--

should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Bill was often cagy about exactly what he believed, resistant to being boxed into any too-rigid set of categories. But he loved to ask questions, to challenge the overly comfortable, and he insisted that while beliefs were important, poetry required the freedom to follow any line of thought and explore any idea. “Ultimate Problems” is typically open-ended:

In the Aztec design God crowds

into the little pea that is rolling

out of the picture.

All the rest extends bleaker

because God has gone away.

In the White Man design, though,

no pea is there.

God is everywhere,

but hard to see.

The Aztecs frown at this.

How do you know He is everywhere?

And how did He get out of the pea? (The Way It Is, 222)

I’m pretty sure that if Bill were with us today, he’d be getting uncomfortable about all this praise, ready to sit in a little circle and just talk about things. He carried himself, always, with a steady, unaffected modesty that set him quite apart from some of the poets I know. He did a great deal, but without seeming much interested in personal accomplishment; one of my favorite poems of his, “Vocation,” ends with the wonderful line, “Your job is to find what the world is trying to be.” He had, as I’ve outlined, all kind of firm beliefs and commitments, yet never demanded that others think as he did—though he certainly hoped to change minds, and spirits, and eventually the world. He tried all his life to maintain this difficult balance between witness and conversation; in talking with me he used a phrase he’d heard somewhere, “a certain courtesy of the heart,” to describe what he had in mind.

Lately I’ve been reading the theologian Grace Jantzen, who argues in a series of powerful books that Western culture has been far too focused on violence, death, and abstract belief systems—and that we must turn away from these, and toward the kind of beloved communities in which all life, human and other, can flourish. Creativity, she suggests, is essential; the “creative desire . . . to make something beautiful, something new . . . . bespeaks fullness that overflows, that wants to give of its resources, express itself.”

In the Old Testament, Jantzen points out, Yahweh is often depicted as a violent military leader, and many stories celebrate brutal violence. Even today’s lectionary passage from Exodus celebrates the Lord casting Pharoah’s army into the Red Sea, shattering the enemy: “the sea covered them; they sank as lead in the mighty waters.” Yet alongside such troubling narratives, and especially with the coming of Jesus, there are other stories and songs that trace a different path, a counter-theme that is rarely dominant but has proven impossible to extinguish. Like the prophet Hosea, and like William Stafford, Jantzen calls us to follow Jesus in imagining, and seeking to create, spaces where beauty, creativity, justice and peace are the core values, where all God’s creatures flourish together.

Stafford believed, you see, that real peacemaking goes all the way down. It does not mean boasting that our God can lick their God, or fighting against wars with violent rhetoric, or resisting militarism with militance. He believed in taking the long view, and in the kind of God he glimpses in “On a Church Lawn,” one that I must say I also find attractive, though it may surprise some of you.

Dandelion cavalry, light little saviors,

baffle the wind, they ride so light.

They surround a church and outside the window

utter their deaf little cry: “If you listen

well, music won’t have to happen.”

After service they depart singly

to mention in the world their dandelion faith:

“God is not big; He is right.”

Could it be that the new kingdom, the true reign of God, will come when we see God not as not a mighty warrior or a stern father, but as a force that binds all living things into a shining net of community and communion? The arc of the universe is long, but I believe this is the way that it bends.

Sources:

Jantzen, Grace M. Violence to Eternity. Routledge, 2009.

Stafford, William. Down in My Heart: Peace Witness in War Time. rpt. Oregon State Univ.

Press, 2006

Stafford, William and Kim Stafford. Every War Has Two Losers. Milkweed Editions, 2003.

Stafford, William. The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. Graywolf Press, 1999.

About the Author

Jeff Gundy

Jeff Gundy’s seven books of poems include Abandoned Homeland (Bottom Dog, 2015) and Somewhere Near Defiance (Anhinga, 2014), for which he was named Ohio Poet of the Year. His most recent prose book is Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace (Cascadia, 2013). His essays and poems appear in Georgia Review, The Sun, Kenyon Review, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Forklift, Ohio, Christian Century, Image, Cincinnati Review, Terrain, and many other journals. He spent a 2008 sabbatical as a Fulbright lecturer and poet in residence at the University of Salzburg, and a 2015 semester at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania. He graduated from Goshen College and teaches at Bluffton University in Ohio.