Thursday, May 2, 2013

"Get To The Root"
Reflections On Peace While Pulling Weeds



Despite the title of this blog, John Howard Yoder was not my first introduction to the Mennonite faith and/or the idea that Christian discipleship might entail non-violence. I was reminded of this today, while pulling garlic mustard at Frautschi Point with the Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. "Don't just pull 'em," Marcia told me. Marcia is a regular at these volunteer days, and had kindly taken some time to give me the lay of the land. Now we turned our attention to the task at hand. "Don't just pull 'em. Be sure you get the root!" I nodded dutifully as she gave me my gloves and weeder. Off I went.

Later, I overhead one of my colleagues - a fellow first-time volunteer - muttering to Marcia, "You do this every year? It doesn't end? I guess it gives us the illusion of making a difference." 

In truth, it makes a huge difference. Because volunteers in years past committed to digging up garlic mustard, none of the plants I pulled today were more than two years old. That's good news because, by year three, the plants are capable of dispersing five-hundred seeds each, completely overwhelming and shading out the native vegetation of the nature preserve.

"Be sure you get to the root!" Marcia said. And then my honest colleague's observation that of course we couldn't get to the root, in the biggest sense. Someone will be doing this forever. Marcia has been doing this for more than fourteen years.

Gradually, my mind wandered back to my undergraduate days as a strikingly handsome student of Economics at Wheaton College. One day, one of my favorite Econ profs, Jim Halteman, asked us about the coming war in Iraq and the nuclear game of hide and seek that was to eventually legitimize America's military action in that region. On the one hand, said Halteman - who was a Mennonite and a pacifist - getting to the root of the problem will be used to justify military force. On the other hand, what is the problem? 

If the problem, he said, is securing the safety of people by ensuring that Iraq's nuclear capabilities never develop into serious threats against those people, then years of seemingly futile U.N. inspections may not be - in terms of larger objective - futile at all, exactly to the extent that constantly disassembling and relocating one's nuclear facilities in order to hide them from inspectors on a monthly basis effectively prevents the development of those resources. "Why," he asked, "is this solution viewed as less satisfactory than military intervention?"

Dr. Halteman's point was that at least part of our military instinct is less about securing objectives than insisting that those objectives be achieved on our terms.(1) But that our objectives could also be obtained on terms we choose to reject for other reasons challenges us to be honest about ourselves and our objectives. To choose war over peace where peace means the international equivalent of pulling weeds that will surely grow back is an act of impatience, not security. 

To be sure, I have since learned from Yoder (and Hauerwas) that Christian non-violence is imaginable even where security is not as easily imagined. Indeed, security is not the end-game for either of those prophetic voices. But what Dr. Halteman named for me was the need to examine why I find living in the messy middle - in the absence of tidy resolution - so unappealing. Getting up every morning knowing that the weeds will require tending, and will 'til the end of time, is painstaking, frustrating, and patient work. It is also faithful work. God knows, it is the work of those who follow the crucified and risen Christ. 

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(1) Only somewhat relatedly, Dr. Halteman once asked the class whether we thought we should give the homeless money if we knew they would spend it on beer. "What is your objective in giving the person money?" he asked. He went on to observe, without telling us what our objective should be, that if our objective was increasing the short-term happiness of the recipient, and if booze would increase that happiness the most in the short-term, we might hope that the person use the unexpected windfall to buy a brew. Maximize utility. (And this at a college where we did not drink.)

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