Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
By Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. Nation Books, 2012. 302 pages. $28.00/hardcover; $16.49/Nook eBook; $14.99/Kindle eBook.
Reviewed by Dave Austin
Pulitzer Prize-winning author/activist Chris Hedges and cartoonist/graphic artist Joe Sacco are angry. They want you to be angry, too. And after you read this book, you will be angry, if you aren’t already, about the state of our country and many of its people.
For this book, Hedges and Sacco present to us four of the most neglected places in the modern United States, so-called “sacrifice zones,” places that most of us drive by or fly over without a look or a thought. They show the desperation and dependency of the Native-American reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota; the grinding poverty, political corruption, and insane violence of Camden, New Jersey; the environmental and human devastation of Welch, West Virginia; and the degradation and inhumanity of Immokalee, Florida. The authors believe that the willful destruction of nature, infrastructure, and human spirit occurring in these communities is not accidental but deliberate, all part of calculated economic policies which place profits before people, and the accumulation of private and corporate wealth ahead of the good of our citizens and communities.
In each section, Hedges sets the scene by describing in great detail what is happening in each of these places. The Pine Ridge “reservation” is marked by utter despair and waste, the last vestiges of one of the worst genocides in human history, the one upon which our nation’s history is founded. Camden—only fifteen minutes from where I write this—was once a cultural and industrial center of the Atlantic seaboard, but is now one of the country’s poorest and most violent cities, left abandoned by the corporations that built it, where corrupt politicians and other gangs of organized criminals feed on what’s left of its carcass. The price of our cheap energy supplied by mountaintop removal in West Virginia includes scarred land, poisoned water, denuded forests, and human lives destroyed by polluted air and the heartache caused by long-term unemployment and a lack of basic resources. The depiction of the plight of the Immokalee farm “workers”—more accurately slaves—picking the tomatoes that garnish our salads and our restaurant fare in horrendous conditions, suffering unbelievable exploitation, has changed forever the way I think about the food I buy at the local chain supermarket. In each case, Hedges presents us with a dramatic description of the place and the people who occupy it; Sacco then uses his unique brand of graphic journalism to give us a personal portrait of one of those people we do not often see, or choose not to see, while we benefit from the same corporate capitalist system that destroys them.
This book does not make for comfortable reading precisely because it is meant to make us uncomfortable. Hedges is a talented polemicist who pulls no punches. Sacco’s drawings are stark and dramatic. Some Friends may find the harsh language in Hedges’s portraits off-putting and the descriptions of violence even more so. I also think Hedges has more faith than I do in the power of the Occupy Movement to change the system which has caused so much damage and so much pain. He sees in its leaderless “chaos” a light of hope, enough of a glimmer of what remains of the human spirit—of the American soul—to hope that change is possible. Whether Occupy has that power, I believe, remains to be seen. But I would agree that there may be enough there to give the rest of us the push we need to start seeing what is happening to us, to our fellow Americans, to the land we live on and which we depend upon for our very lives. And difficult as it may be to digest, I believe that this is an important book that every American should read—the sooner, the better.
Dave Austin is a member of Haddonfield (N.J.) Meeting. He lives in Marlton, N.J., where he teaches middle school social studies.
Dorothee Soelle: Mystic and Rebel
By Renate Wind. Fortress Press, 2012. 203 pages. $25.00/hardback.
Reviewed by Judith Favor
Scholarly Friends interested in political theology and post-World War II Germany will appreciate this biography of Dorothee Soelle (1929–2003), who was an insightful writer, provocative speaker and eco-peace activist. Born in Germany the same year as Anne Frank, Dorothee was twenty when she first read Frank’s diary. She found in Anne “the girlfriend who did not survive the gruesome terror of the Holocaust.” Her youthful pride in German culture was replaced by “an ineradicable shame” over these horrifying realities. Dorothee had grown up with a strong sense of her homeland. Mystical union with Anne Frank cast her into a profound sense of homelessness and became her catalyst for lifelong, scripture-based activism.
Because the church had failed to speak out against Nazi atrocities, theology rather than loyalty to the church became Dorothee’s spiritual home. If Quaker tradition influenced her, there’s no evidence in this book, but she poses queries like a Friend: “Who is our God? Where is God to be found?” Her questions become urgent. “What does Christ mean for our life now? In what direction does God want to move us?” When church doctrine failed to satisfy Dorothee, she turned for guidance to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Buber, Ernesto Cardenal, Julia Esquivel, and Gustavo Gutierrez.
“How can the world be shaped in accordance with God’s will?” Later, as outspoken opponents of the U.S. war in Vietnam, Dorothee and husband Fulbert Steffensky applied for a permit to celebrate political prayer liturgies in 1968. They sought to offer a biblical perspective on war, poverty and the violation of human rights. Political Evensong began when conservative Catholic government leaders in Cologne limited them to a time slot of 11:00 pm. Each week, thousands crowded into a small church to engage in the contemplatively-based struggle for justice. Political Evensong was a four-part process: information, meditation, discussion and action.
“That of God” was at the core of Dorothee’s theology. “Every human being is a mystery, something I understand only in union with God. To love means not only to discover the other. It also means to realize others in their boundless depth, precisely as they are known by God.” She wrote tirelessly on behalf of resistance and hope, and spoke fervently against resignation and cynicism. She was a seeker after truth whose most significant source of strength and inspiration was “cleaving to the hidden God with stubborn tenderness.”
Resistance is kindled by light. Dorothee Soelle described the beginning of her conscious life as “darkness without beginning.” At the end, she was “dying for Light.” These words from Psalm 36 are engraved on her tombstone: “In your Light we see the Light.”
Judith Favor is a convinced Friend, active in Claremont (Calif.) Meeting and Pacific Yearly Meeting.
The Trial of Fallen Angels: a Novel
By James Kimmel, Jr. Amy Einhorn Books, 2012. 384 pages. $25.95/hardback; $12.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Margaret Crompton
James Kimmel, Jr., intends his first novel to be “a thrilling, page-turning story.” To judge from my reluctance to put the book down, he has succeeded, for this novel can be read as a series of deeply probing parables within a powerful framing metaphor.
The novel’s plot is the post-mortal spiritual odyssey of the narrator, Brek Cuttler, a young woman who has been murdered. She finds herself in Shemaya, a gathering place for souls engaged in the process of judgement. Shemaya derives from Hebrew and Aramaic words which can translate as “Hear us, God” or “With the help of heaven.”
Through intricately interconnected life stories of the souls she meets, Brek explores truth, justice, forgiveness and compassion. She is faced with tremendous questions. Could she forgive her own murderer? Could Jews and Nazis, Palestinians and Jews, forgive one another? Could Noah forgive God for the Earth-destroying Flood? When she experiences the feelings and responses of people once thought of as enemies, Brek learns that we are all seeking our own truth, and that the life of every individual may combine heroism and horror.
Kimmel, a convinced Quaker and lawyer, focuses on the intersection of law and spirituality. The theme of this novel, as of his practice, was stimulated by experience as a civil litigator, which led to the realization that the achievement of “justice” is often at the cost of inflicting suffering. Rejecting the lex talionis, or principle of retaliation, he seeks to implement Jesus’s exhortation to forgive.
One of Kimmel’s achievements is integration of many strands of both narrative and philosophy. I admire the ways in which characters are developed and their stories told and drawn together. There are many challenging surprises. At first, I wondered whether I could feel convinced by a middle-aged man’s portrayal of a young woman, but soon enough, I fully engaged with Brek as she becomes involved with other souls. One night, I found sleeping difficult when Brek’s odyssey awakened my own painful memories. (After that, I made sure to keep a lighter novel by my bed.)
This novel is a strong and stimulating addition to the many treatments of life-after-life in literature and film. The images (for example, a trainless railway station) and dreamlike settings and episodes are vivid and disturbing and, for me, strangely convincing. I have no hesitation in recommending this book to Quakers. It is finely written, deeply thoughtful, exciting as a novel, and challenging as an exploration of life—not life-after-life, but the precious every-minute here and now for which we are all responsible.
Margaret Crompton is clerk and overseer of Alford, a small rural Meeting in Lincolnshire, UK. She and her husband, John, were Friends in Residence at Pendle Hill, Fall 2010. She writes about nurturing children’s spiritual well-being and teaches English literature.
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
By Richard Rohr. Jossey-Bass, 2011. 240 pages. $19.95/hardcover, $10.50/Kindle eBook.
Reviewed by William Shetter
“There are at least two major tasks to human life,” Rohr tells us. “The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; and second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.” The differences in the spiritual challenges of the “first half” and the “second half” of life are Rohr’s first two focuses in this book; the third is growing from the first into the second. It is this last that gives Falling Upward its fresh look at a much-written-about subject: the sharply distinct challenges of progressing from one world to the other.
The building of a strong personal identity in the first half of life is everyone’s task, and it involves learning to define ourselves by differentiation, adhering to a belief system and establishing our place in society. The legitimate needs for limits and structure, however, tempt many people to pass all their lives looking to authority and fearing to deviate from established truths; this is the problem Rohr sees. He feels that all our institutions, including churches, encourage us to stay in this true-believer, loyal role. Our adherence to this role is so strong, in fact, that he can bluntly say, “We are a first-half-of-life culture.”
Only after we have confronted the demands and challenges of a strongly-built personal identity is it possible to meet and explore the profound differences in spirituality of the second half of life. With less “I” to protect now, we can shed this “false self,” the role and personal image that we have created, and find our own “True Self,” our deepest identity that is our “unique blueprint.” As we give up control, the barriers and categories fade, and life takes on a new spaciousness. We find ourselves in a “both-and” world, which Rohr calls “the benchmark of growth into the second half.” The distinction between the two halves has little to do with chronological age: some are able to move into spiritual maturity while young, whereas many—most, in Rohr’s eyes—of the elderly remain spiritually immature; “our elderly,” he says, “are seldom elders.”
The idea of a division between two halves of life has been well explored at least since it was popularized by Carl Jung, and many have cautioned against thinking of the passage from the first into the second half as more automatic and inevitable than it really is. We must find a way, Rohr says, to honor the needs of the first half of life, while creating space and vision for the second. The holding of this creative tension is nothing less than “the very shape of wisdom.”
Rohr devotes considerable thought to the ways in which societies have always marked out steps on this road by means of myth, and he focuses on the universal myth of the hero’s journey. But most of us in the Western world “have no clear crossover to the second half of [our] own lives” because we are a “ritually starved” society.
Rohr claims society should be providing us with a structure wherein we can be unafraid of falling into failure and woundedness; we should be able to confront our shadow side and let it go. Only then can we awaken to the secrets of our personal destiny and thus find ourselves “falling upward” into the mysteries of the second half of life. Put more dramatically, going “down” is the true preparation for going “up.”
Father Rohr is director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM, and is best known for Discover the Enneagram and more recently The Naked Now. He addresses all who experience the spiritual restlessness that calls us to the culminating step in our journeys. Friends will see that Rohr’s “second-half-of-life culture” is similar to Quaker spirituality and faith; it is a proposed culture that, like Quakerism, avoids any static belief system and doesn’t invest full authority in any person or hierarchical system. My only unease about the book is the frequent all-or-nothing tone, implying that you either reach the spiritual second half or you do not. Most of us probably find ourselves there in some respects, but not (yet) in others.
William Shetter is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting. Sometimes he meditates on the challenges and the opportunities of the fourth quarter of life.
Love Wins: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
By Rob Bell. Harper One, 2011. 198 pages. $14.99/paperback; also available as audiobook, CD, and Kindle eBook.
The Love Wins Companion: A Study Guide for Those who Want to Go Deeper
Edited by David Vanderveen. Harper One, 2011. 198 pages. $13.99/paperback.
Reviewed by Margaret Fraser
At the age of 28, Rob Bell founded Mars Hill Bible Church in a commercial building in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which was loaned to him. 1,500 people showed up on the first Sunday. The growth was sustained, and the congregation was given an empty strip mall that is still their home. Several thousand still attend its activities weekly.
Grand Rapids is not short of churches, and the fact that Mars Hill has continued to draw so many worshipers may have partly to do with its programs, but also with its theology. In the heartland of the Calvinist Reformed tradition, Rob Bell and his associates were offering an inviting expression of Christianity, not just with a style that appealed to younger adults, but also an emphasis on a God whose love is endless.
Now, Rob Bell is the leader of an international movement of his own making; he is an author, speaker and presenter in some pioneering short films that explore faith. Love Wins is addressed particularly to those who fear a judgmental God, or have been wounded by narrow interpretations of who gets “saved.” At the same time, it incorporates the biblical roots of his evangelical faith. This has not prevented him from being attacked as “unsound” by many religious conservatives.
Readers will find his writing style fresh and easy, and the book includes questions, responses, and case studies. As someone who does not need to be convinced of the reality of God’s abundant love, I did not get particularly excited by the book, but I appreciate that I am not in Rob’s primary audience (Christian evangelicals), for whom this is a crucial message. What surprised me, however, was my enthusiasm about the study guide, The Love Wins Companion. This is well worth the investment.
If you are skeptical about Christianity, read the study guide to be able to engage in thoughtful conversation with Christians and learn a bit about Bible study. If you want a new focus for an adult or high school religious education study group, consider it. It includes excerpts from the work of Frederick Buechner, Anne Lamott, Peter Rollins, N.T. Wright and others (even Pope Benedict XVI). Once you have read it, you may want to read Love Wins, but, for me, the study guide stands well on its own.
Margaret Fraser is a member of Friends of the Light in Traverse City, Mich.
Pushing at the Frontiers of Change: A Memoir of Quaker Involvement with Homosexuality
By David Blamires, Quaker Books, 2012. 100 pages. $4.99/eBook. Available from Quakerbooks of F.G.C.
Reviewed by Kody Gabriel Hersh
In 2009, when Britain Yearly Meeting issued a minute in support of same-sex marriage equality, enthusiastic media coverage presented the decision as part of a legacy of Quaker action at the leading edge of social change. The Guardian, a prominent UK newspaper, enthused, “The decision yesterday by the Quakers to perform marriage ceremonies for gay couples was welcomed… as trailblazing. But it is not the first time that the Religious Society of Friends has gone out in front.” As flattering as this depiction of Quakerism is to those of us who like to picture ourselves as change-makers, it does not reveal the decades of conflict and dedicated advocacy that so often precede a victory in social justice. It is this story—the 40 years of activism and struggle that preceded BYM’s 2009 decision—that David Blamires shares with us in Pushing at the Frontiers of Change: A Memoir of Quaker Involvement with Homosexuality.
An openly gay author, activist, and long-time Friend, Blamires was at the center of several key events and publications related to gay and lesbian issues among British Friends—most notably, as the author of an early publication on gay identity and experience, Homosexuality from the Inside. In his newest book, Blamires contextualizes events by drawing on his own experience, and his personal correspondence is excerpted at times to highlight some otherwise little-documented events. Pushing at the Frontiers of Change gathers information about Quaker publications on sexuality issues and the ensuing responses, the formation of the Friends Homosexual Fellowship (now Quaker Gay and Lesbian Fellowship), the British Quaker response to the AIDS epidemic, and the process of discernment about same-sex marriage. This collected information will make the book valuable to scholars and historians, and also provides a compelling story to more casual readers.
Blamires has subtitled the book “a memoir,” and while he does draw from his personal experience to add detail to the text, I’m not sure it succeeds as a memoir in the same way that it succeeds as a historical account. There is little attention paid to the development of character, personality, or relationship. Some recurring figures are accorded brief biographical sketches, but most are limited to a name, and sometimes a role or professional title. The author’s great strength is that he was there—but this book includes little that couldn’t have been drawn from interviews and careful archival research.
It appears to me that for some time, at least in the United States, there has been a trend toward discussing LGBTQ—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer—issues as a connected whole. It was mildly disorienting to me, therefore, to realize that Blamires’s book treats gay and lesbian issues exclusively. This limitation in scope is not inherently problematic, but it can be hard to know how to react to it, when bisexual, transgender, and queer people and experiences have often been silenced and excluded because our stories are deemed too complicated or difficult to understand. This impoverishes conversations because bisexual, transgender, and queer identities, while separate, are historically and experientially linked to gay and lesbian identities and issues. Blamires refers only in passing to bisexuality and transsexuality, and I longed for more analysis and recognition of the interconnectedness of these issues.
Treatment of marriage equality as a “pinnacle,” the accomplishment of which signals the success of gay and lesbian issues, is troubling to me as well. Blamires acknowledges, again in passing, that “one can’t claim that [acceptance of homosexuality] has been total.” I do believe that the affirmation of marriage equality represents systemic change in attitude toward gay and lesbian people. But there are many other critically important barometers of acceptance within a faith community. Is bullying of students based on real or perceived sexual orientation addressed seriously and clearly in Friends schools? Are meetings welcoming and warm toward lesbian and gay people, partnered and unpartnered? Are Quaker children taught a range of possible identities they might have as adults, and told that they are loved and valued regardless of this outcome? Outside of Quakerism, marriage equality is often treated as the gay and lesbian issue, at the expense of much-needed conversations about bullying, harassment, job discrimination, health care access, the continued presence of HIV/AIDS, immigration, and other issues disproportionately affecting gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. Quakers should not be excused, directly or by default, from these conversations.
Despite these reservations, I ultimately found Pushing at the Frontiers of Change to be a helpful, important, and engaging account. It will be of interest to many Friends who have been engaged in the struggle for LGBTQ equality within U.S. Quakerism, to activists of all kinds who are interested in the process of creating cultural change in a large group, and to social and religious historians both inside and outside of the Religious Society of Friends.
Kody Gabriel Hersh is a young adult Friend living in Philadelphia. He is an active participant and former co-clerk of the Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns, a youth worker, and a member of Miami (Fla.) Meeting.
The Indispensable Zinn: The Essential Writings of the “People’s Historian”
Howard Zinn, edited by Timothy Patrick McCarthy. New Press, 2011. 496 pages. $19.95/paperback.
By Gwen Gosney Erickson
Howard Zinn’s bestselling book, A People’s History of the United States, introduced many to an alternative perspective of United States history, acknowledging voices often missing or ignored in more traditional political histories. Zinn’s life work drew attention to ”history from below” and connected his students and readers to present-day social justice issues. This latest publication, appropriately titled, provides fans and novices alike with a single volume of Zinn’s essential writings.
The book is a rich combination of biography, autobiography, and history lesson. Editor Timothy Patrick McCarthy knew Zinn professionally and personally. His introduction, the foreword by Zinn’s close friend and fellow radical academic Noam Chomsky, and a touching afterward by author and former student Alice Walker, showcase Zinn’s writings in a movingly intimate way. The book is organized by the major themes of Zinn’s writings: “The People’s History,” “The Politics of History,” “Protest Nation,” and “On War and Peace.” Interviews by David Barsamian serve as interludes between the sections. This combination presents Zinn as historian, activist, and unique human being—a fitting tribute to a scholar and author whose life integrated all these aspects of identity.
Friends will appreciate the passages relating Zinn’s deep commitment to nonviolence and social action. Aspects of this appear throughout the book. However, the connections between nonviolence and relations with the wider world are highlighted in the “On War and Peace” section, spanning Zinn’s life of activism from Hiroshima to the twenty-first century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Zinn’s writings, reinforced by the way they are presented in this volume, educate and inspire a commitment to peace and social justice.
For those who only know Zinn through his bestselling People’s History or from hearing him mentioned in the work of others, this book presents a broad variety of writings ranging from researched essays on historical topics, to excerpts from Zinn’s more autobiographical pieces, to the full text of his play, Marx in Soho. As editor, McCarthy introduces each chapter in a way that provides contextual reference to Howard Zinn’s life. This allows casual readers to easily dip in for specific pieces as well as informs those with time to read the book cover to cover. Those critical of Zinn will likely be frustrated. This is not a critical analysis of his work. It is a loving tribute crafted by those who considered him a friend and mentor.