Sunday, November 11, 2007

Armistice/Remembrance/Veterans' Day

Strange Meeting
Wilfred Owen (1918)

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, -
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
'Strange friend,' I said, 'here is no cause to mourn.'
'None,' said that other, 'save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now...'

God's Grandeur
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1918)

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the guns fell silent.

Too late.

The profligate, senseless waste and carnage of the First World War had put the lie to the unreserved faith in human nature that was known as “Liberal Religion”. Just as the aftermath of World War I birthed the political tensions that would define the rest of the twentieth century and still burden us today – communism, fascism, democracy, the failure of each to live up to its own ideals, and the instability of the regimes and national borders carved out of the old Ottoman Empire – so also did it birth a spiritual challenge that Liberal Religion has not yet adequately answered: facing the reality and tenacity of the problem of human evil, which is present not only "out there" in some demonized adversary, but more importantly "in here" within each of ourselves.

Woodrow Wilson, a liberal Presbyterian and strong advocate of what we UUs have called "the inherent worth and dignity of every person", tried and failed to “make the world safe for democracy,” and to establish a League of Nations in which the political forces that historically had led to war could be resolved instead by reasoned deliberation. Instead, even with the fatal foolishness of national jealousies freshly obvious to all Europe, the terms of peace that were forced upon Germany were so punitive that they almost inevitably gave rise to a Hitler. Yet Neville Chamberlain, a Unitarian and arguably the last great national leader that Liberal Religion ever raised up, is known now to posterity as the great weakling of the century, the trusting fool who appeased Hitler, precisely because of his naive optimism that his own revulsion to war would be shared by his national and political rivals.

We whose spiritual ancestors scoffed at Calvinism must grant the prophet of Geneva at least this much: there is something enduring and rotten at the center of the human soul that can never be completely expunged. And yet, unlike Calvinists, and in spite of the weighty contrary evidence of the twentieth century, we liberal religionists of today still behold and affirm, if not the certainty of the eventual perfection of human nature, then at least that there also exists in the human soul an essential goodness, abiding together with essential human depravity and carrying the potential in every heart and every age to outshine it.

We refuse to abandon our very ancient faith that, over the long sweep of time, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it. We do, nevertheless, tend to lose sight of the fact that in the present moment what is required to lift darkness is the right quality of light, rightly focused. Evil has power, and – as Chamberlain discovered, to his rue – good will does not necessarily prevail over evil merely because it is good. Our challenge in our time is to find a way not only to acknowledge the presence of corruption in the human spirit, but also to make persuasive again the case that the nobility also present in the human spirit is stronger, and must win.

[Erratum 11/13/07: It appears that my source giving the date of the Hopkins poem as 1918 was incorrect. Another source indicates that Hopkins died in 1889.]


At November 12, 2007 at 11:47:00 AM EST, Anonymous Parisa said...

What an excellent post, Fausto.

As you mention the need to confront evil both without and within, I'm reminded of the vexing problem I see with efforts at international diplomacy (if, indeed, they are efforts to allow the maximum good to emerge -- an arguable point). When we get to the big questions that lead to war -- fights over territory or resources or ideology -- the conversation back and forth has less to do with "good" than it does with strategic power manipulations. We pretty early pass a point at which we're inviting the good in another to respond and into a chess game before there's a chance for mutual realization or growth toward the good. It's not politically acceptable to have negotiations in which diplomats sit and dwell deeply on what would truly be best for their people *and* the people of another nation, or for them to leave behind a need to appear a certain way to other real or perceived enemies in order to do what is right.

It seems that the strategic process and the need to retain power keep the good from emerging even before the conversation has begun.

At November 13, 2007 at 5:14:00 PM EST, Blogger Bill Baar said...

David Cannadine on Chamberlin in Cannadine's review of Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England

He wasn't an appealing fellow for Liberals and I suspect many Unitarians and Univesalists of the 30s new it.

He was a dominant leader of his government, utterly convinced of the righteousness and the rectitude of his policies, especially insofar as they concerned international affairs. He gathered around him a coterie of tight-lipped conservative advisers who were as like-minded and narrow-minded as he was. He scorned his critics in the legislature, branding them foolish, ignorant and unpatriotic. He had no time for members of any party but his own, and he treated the opposition with contempt. He cowed and coerced the media, and he authorized telephone tapping on an unprecedented scale. By such arrogant and intimidating means, he was determined to leave a more significant mark on public affairs than either his father or his brother had. But the result was a succession of foreign policy disasters that did his country untold damage in the eyes of the world.

George W. Bush? No, Neville Chamberlain. As Lynne Olson, a former White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, points out in this vivid and compelling book, these were exactly the criticisms directed at the British prime minister as he persistently pursued his policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler in a manner that may be described as vain in both senses of that word. Chamberlain was conceitedly confident during the late 1930s that he was doing the right thing, but his policy crashed into ruins when it turned out that the Führer could not be sated and that a second world war with Germany could not be avoided.

At November 16, 2007 at 12:17:00 AM EST, Blogger ogre said...

An excellent post indeed. In criticism, I'll only observe that Wilson was hardly the paragon of religious liberalism--the man who studiously resegregated the US government. Worth and dignity of every person?

I thank you for the Owens poem. I am always struck by the power of his poetry.

I think that Solzhenitsyn offers us one perspective for wrestling with the ghost of Calvin and the (I believe) equally bad idea that humanity was perfectable and en route to that state. From The Gulag Archipelago;
In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhlemed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

Lean towards the one side, looking only towards it, and you get Calvinism, viewing humans as almost unremittingly vile and corrupt, with barely a glimmer of good and there mere hope for salvation.... The other way and you have that absurd notion that we're truly angelic beings with just a faint smudge on our halos if only we'll let ourselves fly.

We're neither. We're both. Only in embracing both sides of our nature, and looking at ourselves in the mirror, and seeing both sides, can we see the possibility we each hold for doing terrible evil, or for acting out of vast compassion and love. But they are ever present in each of us, and there is no purgation of one or the other. The choice is made every hour of every day.

There's a poem by Parmenides that speaks of Orpheus' journey into the underworld, and his discover there that Apollo, the God of Light and the Sun, shares his powers with the night. The source of light is at home in the darkness. Those who refuse to acknowledge and face the darkness and those who only see the darkness are two sides of the same foolish coin.

We are not either/or. We are both.

The father who gently holds his newborn child, awestruck... is the same man who can ruthlessly carve the life out of another's body.

May we never forget that lesson from the Great War (nor the others). It was gained at such an appalling cost.

Remember. And each moment of each hour, make the choice consciously, and wisely.

At September 25, 2009 at 3:22:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Freedom isn't Free. My only son joins the Navy in December. Say what you will, and remember who fights for your right to do so.


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