Monday, January 19, 2009

Maybe this land was made for you and me after all

I have pretty successfully fought off Obama-fever for the past two years. He was my second choice early on, then my first, but I had not felt the thrill running up my leg like Chris Matthews did. Seeing him on television or hearing him on the radio, I found myself saying, "Yes, that's right" and agreeing with most of what he said, but it was more like watching a comedy movie and saying, "That was funny" rather than laughing out loud. Though I approved, I hadn't connected emotionally with him or his campaign, even on election night.

But it got me today. Lovely Wife and I listened to the concert at the Lincoln Memorial on the radio and then drove out to Costco (of all places) because we needed a pallet of pasta, a barrel of olive oil, or a side of beef or something. We enjoyed the music, but some of the readings seemed a little melodramatic and some of the music too show-bizzy for our tastes. Obama's speech was a good one, though, when it ended as we exited I-394 near the store.

Then Bruce Springsteen came on for the closing number and as he was talking we heard one unmistakable twang of a banjo and immediately knew that he was introducing Pete Seeger. (Isn't it funny how some musicians you can recognize after a single note?)

We'd heard Pete was attending the concert, but knowing that his voice is nearly gone we weren't sure he'd be performing. But then Bruce introduced him. (What did he call him? The grandfather? godfather? Father of American folk music?) and Pete rasped, "I'll say the words and you sing 'em" and then started, "As I was walking that ribbon of highway. . . ."

That's when the tears came.

Pete Seeger, 89 years old, who I first heard about when some right-wing Lutherans tried to keep him from singing at a Walther League convention in 1964 or so, who I first heard live at the Capitol in May 1971 singing Last Train to Nuremberg, who was blacklisted from radio and television but who nevertheless taught a generation -- nay, three or four generations -- to sing, song by song, campus by campus, demonstration by demonstration, during times of deep political and social darkness now singing with his grandson and a children's chorus and a half-million people at the inauguration of the President of the United States. We were just stunned with joy.

But what topped it off was that he didn't just sing the familiar four verses of This Land is Your Land that we all learned in grade school. He actually skipped a couple of those but did sing two verses Woody wrote that weren't printed in the school song books because they added a bit of social criticism to his otherwise safely patriotic song:

In the square of the city, in the shadow of the steeple,
Near the relief office, I saw my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistlin',*
This land was made for you and me.

A great high wall there tried to stop me.
A great big sign there said "Private Property."*
On the other side, it didn't say nothin'.
That side was made for you and me
* As sung. Woody's published lines are a little different.

That's when I really lost it and just sat there and wept. In the Costco parking lot, for heaven's sake. I felt gratitude for Pete Seeger -- and many others like him -- who for years were plugging away, little by little, sometimes with little to show for it, but persevering in spite of it all. God Bless the Grass indeed.

I finally felt, for the first time, really, some measure of hope for this country. Not because Barak Obama is any kind of all-wise and powerful superman who will make everything all right, but because the nation that managed to elect him as its president has some redeeming virtue left in it after all. As he said during the campaign, it wasn't about him, it was about us. I felt like calling to volunteer.

UPDATE: Thanks to Peggy & Songbird and finally figuring how how to embed a You-Tube file, here's Pete and Tao and Bruce and their fellow countrymen.

Friday, January 09, 2009

A faith of power or cheap moralism?

I just learned that Richard John Neuhaus died through this story in by Michael Sean Winters. (NPR reported the story as I am typing this.)

I didn't know Neuhaus well, but followed his career at a distance from when he was a Lutheran pastor in Brooklyn and helped found what was then called Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam in 1966 or '67. An African-American friend of mine from college days adored him and she credited him with making sure that she went to college.

He was not a conventional liberal, however. He was a Christian, first and foremost, and he gradually found a more congenial home on the political right, and eventually in the Roman Catholic Church. His New York Times obituary is here and more comprehensive and much more sympathetic information is here.

What struck me was the following paragraph from the story. I think it summaries my concerns about why the radical secularization of much of contemporary liberal Quakerism has weakened the power of our social testimonies. (The emphasis is mine.)

When religion is reduced to ethics, the church is permitted to enter the public square under the guise of a moral authority. But once you sever the link between the central animating dogmas of faith and the moral teachings that flow from there, you invite a cheap moralism, a religion of external conformity to prescribed norms rather than an internal assent of faith. You are a Christian if you believe certain things about events on a hillside in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. It is that belief that has inspired believers and generated culture. Just last September, Pope Benedict XVI said that Christianity "is not a new philosophy or a new form of morality. We are only Christians if we encounter Christ."
I've long thought that the message that Quakers have been given to proclaim isn't that war is bad or that you should tell the truth no matter what or that you should not live ostentatiously. I think most everyone knows this already, and it is indeed cheap moralism for us to add to the scolding. What people don't know is how to live this way, how to find the courage to accept the suffering that comes from, for example, being conquered by an enemy rather than resisting with violence.

The unique contribution of the Quakers was to show the same God who shows the way to live and how I fall short of that way also offers me the power to follow that more excellent path; I am not inherently doomed to falling short of the goal as was the central premise of the protestant churches in England.

Whether or not Neuhaus was right or wrong about politics in the latter half of his life, I am certain that he was on the right track in insisting that the religious commitment precedes and informs everything else.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Hello babies. Welcome to earth. . .

It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you have about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of– God damn it, babies, you’ve got to be kind.-- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in God Bless you Mr. Rosewater or Pearls before Swine.

So here they are, Edward (Teddy) Louis & Quinn John, born Saturday, January 3, 2009, in New York, not too far from where the author of this quote lived in mid-Manhattan. They, and their beloved mother and their worthy-of-her father are doing well, considering. They hope to go home to their fourth-floor walkup (!) in Brooklyn on Wednesday morning. Their uncommonly youthful grandfather will visit them in mid-February after a board meeting in Philadelphia. He can hardly wait

We were visiting Lovely Wife's family in Indianapolis when the word came -- via text message from their dad a lá Obama at 6 am that only Only Son could receive since we're too cheap to accept text messages -- on Saturday when we were leaving to visit daughter #2 in Dearborn, MI. On the way there, we discovered that Dearborn is closer to New York than it is to Minneapolis, and for several exciting hours we considered driving to New York the next day (Sunday) to see the two little lads.

But alas, saner and much less romantic heads prevailed ("What would we do without them?" our clerk asks) and we drove home on Sunday.

On the way home, we almost collided with a van that sped past our car in the early-morning darkness east of Jackson and began to fishtail on the glare ice on the roadway and then spin two or three 360s in front of us before it plunged off the side of the road into a ditch. All I could do was take my foot off the gas and plan for a diversionary maneuver if necessary, which it fortunately wasn't. We were shaken, to say the least, but otherwise undamaged, other than re-running the mental tape repeatedly.

* * * * *

So much more has been happening here than I can say. In October, I was happy to share a dinner and conversation with Brooklyn Quaker while in New York visiting my daughter. The day I returned home, I was notified (not unexpectedly) that my position was going to be eliminated on Dec. 1 and I have been enjoying a paid sabbatical ever since. The paid part will continue for a few months while I try to find new work, for which I am grateful.

I'm working at finding new remunerative employment, but I feel a little like St Augustine who said, "Give me chastity and continence, but not yet." I'm already as chaste and as self-restrained as I care to be, but I would like a little more time before I must abandon sloth . . . . *

* I happily note that none of the seven cardinal virtues -- humility, liberality, brotherly love, meekness, chastity, temperance, and diligence -- necessarily includes anything like toil or ambition. Whew.