Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Faith Works 1-18-14

Faith Works 1-18-14

Jeff Gill


Onward, Christian Metaphors




Perhaps "the moral equivalent of war" is a good way to go about mobilizing a culture.


William James thought so around 1900, and some sixty years later LBJ declared one against poverty.


At the same time, he was pulled into ramping up a . . . war-war, if you will. Not a moral-equivalent-of, but an actual Vietnam War. Did the use of the one metaphor cause some pushback because of the other?


I wonder about this. I'm not, as I've said in this column before, not a pacifist, but I don't say that proudly. It's pretty clear Jesus was one, and yet neither he nor his forerunner (and cousin) John the baptizer nor his leading follower, Simon Peter, condemn those who practiced the arts of war. I missed the era of the draft by a few years, but grew up in its shadow, yet I signed up for as complex a set of reasons as anyone who has enlisted. I'm proud to claim the title of United States Marine, even if I'm a bit bemused that I actually have an honorable discharge. My service was short, quiet, and stateside. Anyhow.


Obviously, I went on into ministry, and in looking at this history of that trade, I've seen a noticeable knot between warfare and worshipful arts back around 1914.


That's right, a centennial this year: The War to End All War. The Great War, they called it during its terrible course in England. Or as we later, more reasonably called it, World War One. Or some might say "The First Phase of the Century Long European-Focused Conflict."


It began a hundred years ago this summer. In late June Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, and by late July the armies were mobilized and the mortars began their steady thump, a pounding rhythm that would relentlessly beat away at lives and property until four and half years later on November 11th, still Armistice Day to many.


That conflict began without American involvement, and ended with our entry in 1917 decisively swinging the balance to the Western Allies. There's much to say about how "The Sleepwalkers" let the war begin, and much still to debate about how it all should have ended, but the League of Nations and the Versailles treaty certainly didn't work out the way people had hoped.


For churches, specifically American churches, there was arguably an element of their own involvement in the move to a "war footing" that didn't work out as they'd expected, either.


A startling book entitled "Preachers Present Arms" came out in 1969, researched and written by a pastor & historian named Ray Abrams. He pulls together the myriad stands of how Christian denominations, congregations, and individual parsons all ended up marching largely in lockstep to encourage entry and celebrate taking an active role in what had been, up to that point in the US, "the European Conflict."


It's a hard book to read. It doesn't matter how martially minded you are, or are feeling in that moment: the announcements and proclamations and sermons cited in this book trace a spasm of cheerleading for war and fervor for "slaughtering the Hun" as the German enemy was termed that can't not leave you breathless.


The bloodlust was bad enough in and of itself, but the aftermath is one of a stuttering, staggering, flailing Christian community across the nation looking back and asking "what in Heaven's name were we thinking?" The rationale for supporting the Allies entirely aside, the sheer zest for battle and blood specifically on the part of clergy safe in their US pulpits: it was appalling. And in many ways, the church bodies and institutions of ministry said "never again." The country may go to war, but the church doesn't have to lead the charge with fixed bayonets.


And whether you see that as a reasonable reaction or a failure of nerve, it was in my reading pretty clear that this war hysteria actually did a great deal to undermine the moral authority Christianity had in American culture. Everyday folk who may have had little heartfelt commitment to a particular church body came away from 1917-1918 with the thought "those folks are easily co-opted, and don't mind getting us into pointless bloodbaths."


I would argue the great loss of cultural authority on the part of Christendom that we usually associate with the 1960s actually has its basis in the reaction that began to set in after 1918.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he will have a bit more to say about war and faith next week, but tell him what you think at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Notes from my Knapsack 1-16-14

Notes from my Knapsack 1-16-14

Jeff Gill


Deep freeze and wide muddy lawns




There's a particular type of mud you find on your shoes this time of year. If you have an awkward tendency to stroll off of paved paths and blacktopped parking from time to time, you know the sort of fluid, glutinous mud I mean.


When the soil freezes, thaws, and refreezes, you have a slurry near the surface that squirts into your shoes and makes each step squirm a bit, swivel left, twist right, as you curse the wandering impulse that took you off of the flagstones or concrete walkways.


The turf, such as it still is, comes loose when the temps shoot back above freezing, barely a loose skin on the bones of what may still be a deeper solidity below. There's an undead element to the grayish-brown colors that overwhelm the few sickly shades of green left on the ground.


A good hard permafrost creating cold snap is actually good for the soil, maybe even for the ecosystem, although your more sensitive perennials may not agree. Some roots of recurring plants can get too cold, too fast; earthworms, whose beneficial effects I think we all know, can get down below the frost line if the cold wave doesn't hit too fast.


There are nasty plants and grubs and bugs who are duly "iced" in such weather, and you know the kinds of mold and mildew that grows on the north (and even the east or west) side of your house. A winter full of warmer weather and lots of cloud cover as we had a few years back, and that blackish green rash breaks out on siding, stucco, even fence rails and lawn furniture.


A certain amount of freezing "exercises" the earth, the frost lines popping open and heaving shut. Much of the original formation of soil in this area happened as the glaciers retreated barely more than 10,000 years ago. Scientists note that soil (dirt is what's under your fingernails, soil is what grows plants and feeds the world – that's what the Ag Dept. at Purdue taught me!) only forms at a rate of about half an inch every four to five hundred years.


So topsoil, the good soil in this neck of the woods, is at most twenty inches deep, and the fact is that not every area was prime for soil formation, nor did those conditions continue steadily throughout pre-history. Six inches is a good layer most places in the county, less of course on slopes, on rocky ridgetops, and so on.


To get from those ancient glaciers, tumbled granite washed down from Canada, and native sandstone, an end product of useful soil, you first need: freezing. Not just freezing, but a freeze-thaw cycle. The cracks in the rock that expanding water  pops open begins the long cycle of decay, breakdown, and chemical incorporation that end in rich, organic-filled topsoil.


But it starts with freezing. As King Lear says, "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!" The ice and wind play their part in preparing the ground for coming spring.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him about your muddy shoes at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.