Review: Water at the Roots

Water at the Roots

Water at the Roots, Philip Britts (edited by Jennifer Harries, foreword by David Kline). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: The collected poems and essays of Philip Britts, a farmer and pastoral leader of a Bruderhof community in Paraguay, where he died in 1949 at the age of 31.

Philip Britts lived a short and obscure life, dying in Paraguay in 1949 of a deadly tropical fungal disease. He was born in Devon, England in 1917. The first poem in this collection was written in 1934, and expresses both his search for and awareness of God and a theme that would run through all his poetry of observing carefully the book of creation, and discerning in this the character and presence of the creator. He graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in horticulture in 1939 and married Joan that June. In 1936, he had joined the Peace Pledge Union, and as England rushed toward war, Britts more deeply embraced pacifist convictions. Eventually, he learned of a Christian pacifist agricultural community in the Cotswolds known as the Bruderhof.

He gave himself to the work, told stories to the children, and his poetry began to reflect his life in the agricultural community. A sung version of one of these. “The Song of the Hedgers and the Diggers” may be heard on the trailer for this book. Eventually, the community either needed to give up its German members or emigrate. When the opportunity came to go to Paraguay, they took it, establishing a community they called Primavera. Quickly he became one of the most astute agriculturalists in the area, and was called upon increasingly in consultations. During one trip to Brasil, he apparently contracted a deadly tropical fungus, that first manifested a couple years later with painful mouth sores, and would eventually claim his life. In his last year, he became a pastor to the community and even as his energies waned, he reflected and wrote and taught on everything from care of the land, to the fundamental choice he believed faced every human between the spirit of the beast and the Spirit of Love. He wrote:

“This spirit alone can bring that peace which is in absolute opposition to war and death and destruction. Peace which is born of love and filled with love is the only true peace. It is not just a cessation of war, a shaking of the ripe fruit while the tree goes on growing to bear again in due season. Peace can only arise when the tree is cut down and rooted out. In this mighty work, love uses weapons which are in absolute opposition to the weapons of the beast. Instead of the Good Man, the poor in spirit; instead of the confidence in the progress of man, the sorrowful recognition of the helpfulness of man; instead of self-satisfaction, the hungering and thirsting for righteousness; instead of judgement, mercy; instead of the doctrine of many paths, singleness and pureness of heart; instead of coercion, reconciliation; instead of success, persecution for righteousness sake.”

So much of his work is characterized by a seamless connection between the practice of farming and the practice of faith. The title of this work comes from one of his last essays where he writes of faith as being like “water at the roots” that sustains us in the heat of life. He draws the connection between our dependence upon the grace of God for faith, even as we depend upon the grace of God for rain.

A poem, “Quicken the Seed” reflects a similar connection between farming and faith:

Quicken the seed
In the dark, damp earth.
Nourish our need,
God of all birth.
Thou art the seed
That we bury now.
Thou art our need,
God of the plough.
Bury the spark
Of our own desire
Deep in the dark,
God of the fire.
After the night
When the fight is won,
Thou art the light,
God of the sun.

EASTER 1948

I am not much of a critic of poetry. My hunch is that most of the poetry here is good but not great. What makes this work great is the seamless integrity between poetry, essays and the life of the man. He has been called a “British Wendell Berry.” In many ways, he embraced a far more difficult life than Berry–a costly affirmation of pacifism in wartime Britain, a communal existence, emigration, and establishing a viable community under primitive conditions, an integrity of living with the land, and suffering that came from his embrace of that land. What comes through is the wonder of living in this creation with all its challenges, a sense of the tragedy of a world at war with itself when the Prince of Peace beckons, and a life permeated by the grace of God. Like Berry, he awakens us to what it is to live in harmony with the land one farms. Like Berry, he recognizes the treasure of life in a place, and in a community. Like Berry, he reminds us of the deep, pervasive presence of the grace of God in all of creation. The God whose grace waters us at the roots, sustaining our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Nonviolent Action

nonviolent actionNonviolent Action by Ron Sider. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015.

Summary: Ron Sider argues from a number of instances over the past seventy-five years that nonviolent action can work and bring about political change.

“I ain’t gonna study war no more”

Ronald J. Sider thinks we have spent far too long and far too much studying war. It is time, particularly for persons of faith, to devote ourselves and our money and our lives to study peace: the use of nonviolent means of protest and resistance in the pursuit of peace and a just order. He argues that both pacifists and just war advocates actually have much in common in advocating the use of nonviolent efforts as much as possible, with the only difference being between war never being a resort and war being a last resort.

Sider builds his case by recounting the numerous instances of nonviolent resistance over the past seventy-five years beginning with Ghandhi’s effort to secure Indian independence from the British empire. The first part of the book recounts Ghandhi’s, and India’s, long road to freedom and Ghandhi’s persistent and principled decision to renounce violence. Following chapters recount Martin Luther King, Jr’s leadership of the civil rights movement and commitment to loving, nonviolent resistance, seen most vividly at the Edmund Pettus Bridge as chronicled in the recent Selma. He tells the story of his own involvement with Witness for Peace’s work in Nicaragua standing between invading Contras backed by the U.S. and the Nicaraguan people. And he tells the story of the peaceful People Power resistance to the Marcos regime in the Phillipines including the instance when a wheelchair was more powerful than a tank:

    Cardinal Sin tells the story of bedridden, eighty-one year-old Mrs. Monzon, owner of Arrelano University. Everywhere she went, she used a wheelchair. But Mrs. Monzon insisted on joining the people in the streets in front of the camps. When the tanks came, she wheeled in front of the advancing war vehicles. Armed with a crucifix, she called out to the soldiers, “Stop. I am an old woman. You can kill me, but you shouldn’t kill your fellow Filipinos.” Overcome, a soldier jumped off the tank, and embraced the bold nonviolent resister. “I cannot kill you,” he told her, “you are just like my mother.” She stayed in the street in her wheelchair.

    The marines finally withdrew without firing a shot.

Part Two of the book focuses on two instances of nonviolent resistance in the defeat of the Soviet empire. First he tells the story of a Polish pope and a ship yard worker, Lech Walesa, who led the Solidarity Movement, which over ten years, brought an end to the Communist leadership in Poland. Then he turns to the Revolution of Candles in East Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall and eventual reunification of Germany.

Recent developments are the focus of Part Three. He begins by describing how Leymah Gbowee led a movement of prayer among Liberian women pursuing peace and justice for the women and children of Liberia during the dictatorship of Charles Taylor. He recounts the nonviolent efforts in the Arab Spring, including the wonderful shalom moment of a ring of Christians forming a protective circle around Muslims at prayer. He ends this section by talking of the work of Peacemaker Teams and similar groups in many parts of the world including in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He concludes the book with the contention that it is time to devote serious attention to nonviolent action. We spend billions on military defense and military academies but virtually nothing for nonviolent resistance and peace academies. He argues that pacifism that engages in nonviolent action is in fact as courageous as armed resistance because it also is willing to die in the pursuit of just and peaceful conflict resolution. He further contends the following:

  1. Nonviolence often accomplishes its aims with far less loss of life.
  2. Nonviolence accomplishes its aims more often than violence.
  3. Nonviolence is more likely to lead to democratic institutions.

One of the sobering implications of all this is the willingness to die without killing. One of the questions Sider left unanswered for me was whether there are circumstances where one should not pursue nonviolent resistance, where force must be met with force. I think particularly of instances when a regime has determined a course of genocide. Here, the evidence seems to be that armed peacekeeping forces have been both necessary and successful in places like Kosovo and South Sudan in stopping genocidal regimes.

Perhaps what this points up is the necessity of what Sider argues. Many nonviolent efforts have been spontaneous and sometimes undisciplined. It is time for rigorous studies and the devotion of resources that inform and make possible disciplined and strategic action. War calls for these things as well as courage. It just makes sense that the pursuit of peace requires no less.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”