Monday, May 26, 2008

Sermon: "The Life & Poetry of William Stafford" (Delivered 5-25-08)

The service this morning also contained three poems by William Stafford and a prayer written by Rev. Wayne Arnason.
A Ritual We Read to Each Other has been read all over the world at meetings held to resolve conflict, attempt reconciliation, and foster peace.

These Mornings was written in January, 1944.

At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border describes a place of natural wilderness near the boundary waters in northern Minnesota.

Wayne Arnason’s Memorial Day Prayer can be read here.

At his draft board hearing during World War II, a Harvard Ph.D. in Philosophy was asked if he opposed all wars. He nodded in the affirmative. “Even good wars?” a member of the draft board asked him. The philosopher’s reply: “Show me a good war.”

This morning’s sermon is based loosely around the life and poetry of William Stafford, a Kansas native who was a conscientious objector during World War II. [For this sermon I read the book Every War Has Two Losers, an anthology of Stafford’s writings on peace and war edited by his son, Kim Stafford.] This is provocative – is it not? – to talk about the life of a conscientious objector on Memorial Day. And, more than that, to talk about a conscientious objector to a war that is often lifted up as an example of a “good war.”

This morning will require your open-mindedness, your willingness perhaps to struggle with difficult ideas. I hope to provoke you – not in a rude or disrespectful way – but in a way that stirs the conscience. It is not my goal to convince you of the rightness or righteousness of any idea in particular, but to stimulate your powers of discernment.

Let me begin by recreating, will plenty of added embellishment, the discussion held by the worship committee at our last meeting when I presented this idea for an upcoming service.

“It will be a challenge to talk about a conscientious objector to World War II,” I began, “after all, if any war can be said to be justified, World War II would be it.”

Speaking up, a member of the worship committee disagreed, “That is a statement that can only be made in hindsight. We didn’t enter the war for moral reasons.”

“That’s true,” offered another member, “before Pearl Harbor the idea of going to war was extremely unpopular with a broad segment of the population. There was considerable division. Franklin Roosevelt had to promise not to go to war to win the election. The United States took an isolationist position up until Pearl Harbor.”

The conversation continued: “The leaders of the nations we declared war against were just so evil. Of course there were Hitler’s concentration camps and his attempt to exterminate the Jews. And, on the Japanese side, the atrocities perpetuated (the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March) were just so reprehensible and shocking. But, I think it is important to remember that we did not go to war to rescue the Jews or to liberate the Chinese. That was a justification given after the fact.”

I chimed in, “In July 2006 I was flown to Washington D.C. by the Gloria Steinem Leadership Institute to speak at a conference on reproductive justice. During my stay in D.C., I visited the Holocaust museum, which I had never previously. I remember a part of the exhibit that raised the question of why the Allies didn’t bomb the gas chambers or bomb the railroad tracks that were carrying Hungarian Jews to the concentration camps. War historians still argue passionately over this question.”

Another person added, “It is hard to make the case that our interest in the war was humanitarian. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden certainly put our own purity into question. (People still argue about the use of atomic weaponry on Japan.) On the other hand, look at Germany and Japan today. Both would have to be considered examples of highly civilized societies.”

The discussion continued: “I think the thing that influences our memory of World War II is that we were all in it together. It brought the country together. Everyone sacrificed. The elite fought alongside the poor. Remember, the sons of the extremely privileged fought. Jack Kennedy fought. George H. W. Bush fought. Sports heroes like Ted Williams fought. Hollywood stars like Clark Gable fought. It brought the entire country together.”

And it continued: “Well, that is if you don’t count the more than 100,000 Japanese Americans forced to spend the war in internment camps. Or, if you don’t consider the thousands and thousands of African-Americans who fought valorously overseas only to return to an America that denied their equality and often singled out African-American veterans for special violence and discrimination because it was felt that their wartime victories had made them too proud and uppity.”

What I am trying to do here is to complicate our thinking, to unsettle in a way that is as respectful as possible, our thoughts. I am indebted to a quote by William Stafford that I have included inside the order of service, “One of the consistent impulses of my life is to reduce uncertainties. But I find myself disquieted by expressions of certainty, or even by the manner of those who give off the sense of relying on their distinctive possession of truth. At any given moment, even a cloud is certain.” Etymologically speaking, a memorial day is a day of memories and it is worthwhile to probe and consider the way that we remember and the way those memories shape who we are. Emerson once quipped that “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.” Our memories, for better or worse, can ride and guide our living and thinking.

William Stafford was born in Hutchinson, KS in 1914 and graduated from high school in Liberal, KS. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas and was completing his masters in English Literature at KU when he was drafted for World War II. Stafford was a conscientious objector and a strict pacifist and spent the wartime years at work camps sponsored by the Church of the Brethren in Arkansas, Illinois, and California. During that time he earned $2.50 per month laboring in areas like soil conservation and forestry.

One event from his life as a conscientious objector stands out as both frightening and hilarious. During the early evening, after finishing with his day of hard work, Stafford and two friends decided to go into the small town in Arkansas closest to their work camp. They sat in a park – one writing poetry, one painting, and one reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass – when a mob of townsfolk approached them. Seeing the sketching pad and notebook, the crowd accused them of spying for the Germans. (As if a small Arkansas town of a couple hundred citizens would be of strategic interest to the Nazis.) Snatching the Whitman book the crowd demanded to know what it was. Stafford responded that it was a book of poetry. The crowd answered that it could not be poetry because it did not rhyme. The mob decided to lynch the three of them, but fortuitous intervention by the town sheriff rescued them.

After the war, Stafford went on to earn his masters degree from KU and became a professor at Lewis & Clark College. He spent the rest of his life teaching, writing poetry, and working on peace and reconciliation related issues. He was named the special poetry consultant to the library of congress – the position now known as US Poet Laureate – in 1970 and also traveled all over the world advancing the cause of pacifism. He died in 1993.

You may remember two weeks ago, on Mother’s Day, the fantastic Julia’s Voice group held what we believe was the largest peace rally in the Kansas City metro in the last five years. One funny observation: If you wear a suit and tie to a peace rally, you will get odd looks. The many, many people there who were not members of this church treated me with great suspicion. Some wondered if I worked for the CIA. Others thought I was a Jehovah’s Witness. When I was talking with a member of the American Friends Service Committee, I heard one of their members exclaim, “Watch out, there is a guy in a suit.”

During the rally, word got passed down the line that Channel 9 was all the way down at the other end looking for someone to interview. Having been through executive-level media training led by the president of a communications and public relations firm with a Park Avenue address in New York City, I figured I could give a pretty decent interview. Plus, I can run fairly quickly, even when I’m wearing a suit. And before you know it, I am standing in front of a camera talking about Julia Ward Howe and the original meaning of mother’s day and that we were there to lift up our hope for peace and for constructive solutions to the world’s problems. And the next thing you know the reporter cut me off and confronted me with a snide remark, “Don’t you think that is a little naïve?” Without missing a beat, I said something to the effect of, “No, I don’t. It may seem naïve to someone who doesn’t believe that human beings are capable of working out our problems. It may seem naïve if you are a pessimist or a cynic, but we are here today because we imagine the possibility of resolving our differences without bloodshed or vengeance, because part of us believes very deeply and can imagine that there is a different way than war.” Which I thought was a pretty good answer to give off the cuff.

What I find most inspiring about William Stafford is actually not the beauty of his poetry or even that he spent his life living out his convictions and dedicating himself to the possibility of peace. What struck me the most about him was a section of his writings about living as a pacifist that showed how expansively he thought about war and peace. Here are a few of the questions he was known to ask:

“Do you think any reduction in the ‘war making’ of ‘enemy powers’ can be induced in any way except by force? Well, could they reduce our war making against them by any means other than power? How do you account for or justify using one means of reasoning when predicting your own behavior and another means when predicting theirs?”

Or this question: “Is there any place in life today for persons who announce beforehand that they will not engage in carrying out the tasks implied in the current policies of the military? Well, would you like to see [more or less] of these people exist abroad? In Germany? In Russia? In the Middle-East?”

This turning of the question implies a way of thinking outside of the box, a way of releasing ourselves from the narrowness of our thinking. It claims: things need not be as they are. It claims: we ought to question the way things are and what we think we know. If we think that peace is naïve, we have limited our options

Following the first Gulf War, Stafford wrote this piece which shows his capacity to ask hard and unpopular questions:
“Is there a quiet way, a helpful way, to question what has been won in a war that the victors are still cheering? Can questions be asked without slighting that need to celebrate the relief of a war quickly ended?

“Or does the winning itself close out question about it? Might failing to question it make it easier to try a war again?

“Maybe a successful performance that kills tens of thousands, that results in the greatest pollution in history, that devastates a nation, that helps confirm governments in their reliance on weapons for security – maybe such an action deserves a cautious assessment?

“Does an outcome that surprised everyone confirm your faith in overwhelming armament as a mode of security for your country? If so, do you think that other countries may reach a similar conclusion? Has establishing the superiority of your own destructive potential made you feel secure against the terror that others have also learned to be effective?”
Memorial Day. We recall the wars of our nation: The Revolutionary War, the Tripolitian War, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, the war with Mexico, the Civil War, the Spanish-American war, World War I & II, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq. We remember so many lives lost. What better way is there to honor than to ask questions of our own memories, to employ our powers of imagination and reason to such an end that no more lives shall be added to the memorials we are bound to solemnly mourn into perpetuity.