The same year Nelson Mandela was released from prison — 1990 — Wendell Berry published a book of essays called What Are People For?. Not long after, John Prine released an album called The Missing Years. This week — twenty-three years later — I picked up the book at the two days after Nelson Mandela died and the morning after seeing John Prine in concert. Mandela and Berry are longtime heroes; my abiding love and respect for John Prine’s songwriting is certainly no secret, and give me a chance to play and sing and I will get to “Angel from Montgomery” before the evening is done.
make me an angel that flies from montgomery
make me a poster of an old rodeo
just give me one thing I can hold on to
to believe in this living is just a hard way to go
Some time ago, a friend asked asked me what I found in a song so full of despair and I answered his willingness to name the despair gave me hope. I thought of that conversation as I turned to one of Berry’s essays entitled “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” which analyzes Hayden Carruth’s poem, “On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam.”
Well I have and in fact
more than one and I’ll
tell you this too
I wrote one against
Algeria that nightmare
and another against
Korea and another
against the one
I was in
and I don’t remember
how many against
when I was a boy
Abyssinia Spain and
and not one
breath was restored
mans womans or childs
not one not
but death went on and on
never looking aside
except now and then
with a furtive half-smile
to make sure I was noticing.
Berry responds to the poem by saying,
The problem that the poet appears to be replying to is this: Why do something that you suspect, with reason, will do no good? And the poem appears to give, or to be, a negative reply: There is no use in doing it. . . . But after this refusal is given, the completed poem begins to imply another, more important and more formidable, question: What is the use of saying “There is no use”? The use, I think, depends on to whom and on how this denial is given.
Then he says:
[T]he distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence. There is a world of difference between the person who, believing there is no use, says so to himself or to no one, and the person who says it aloud to someone else. A person who marks his trail into despair remembers hope — and thus has hope, even if only a little. (59)
I’ll bet Hayden Carruth had John Prine records.
For the last twenty-three Advents, I have walked down the center aisle of the churches where Ginger pastored singing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell and then offering the prophecy that is the lectionary passage for each Sunday. It is one of my favorite things to do each year. The passage today was Isaiah 11:1-10 about the wolf and the lamb laying down together and the cow and bear sharing lunch. After I had done my part, I stood in the back of the church and wondered if Isaiah had any idea what he was talking about, other than knowing he was saying something important. He didn’t know Jesus was coming. He didn’t know how to see beyond the despair of his days other than to trust his hope in God was more resilient and tenacious than the destruction he saw around him.
How did Mandela last twenty-six years in a room that was hardly twenty-six square feet? How did he emerge with more hope than hatred? Why wasn’t there a bloodbath in South Africa? He knew what Carruth knew and what Berry says out loud:
We are living in the most destructive and, hence, the most stupid period of our species. The list of undeniable abominations is long and hardly bearable. And these abominations are not balanced or compensated or atoned for by the list, endlessly reiterated, of our scientific achievements. Some people are moved, now and again, to deplore one abomination or another. Others — and Hayden Carruth is one — deplore the whole list and its causes. Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirt that would be destroyed by acquiescence. (61-2)
I think Wendell Berry listens to John Prine as well.
One of the most powerful things about Jesus’ birth is that it is an act of such insignificance. God tiptoed into the world in the baby born in Bethlehem, with all the power of a couple of people picketing in front of the Bank of America building in Charlotte. Jesus’ ministry as an adult was informed by the same kind of hope Berry described. He dealt with individuals, raged against the machine, and did what he came to do — namely, love the poor and unwanted — knowing it would get him killed. To read the Beatitudes is to hear Jesus call us to the kind of hope that refuses to be destroyed by acquiescence. I feel the resonance of Mandela, and then King and those who sat at lunch counters and walked in protest and sang, “We Shall Not Be Moved.” The birth we are anticipating changes nothing and yet changes everything because we are reminded again that God has called us to faithfulness not acquiescence. In the chorus of his song “Donald and Lydia,” a rather bleak picture of two lonely people trying to survive their lives, Prine sings:
but dreaming just comes natural
like the first breath of a baby
like sunshine feeding daisies
like the love hidden deep in your heart
Here is what it means to be human: we were created to thrive, to hope, to be faithful. Jesus didn’t come into the world to be successful or be powerful; when it get right down to it, he came into the world to come into the world, to be here and incarnate the love of God so we would have one thing to hold on to. So we would not acquiesce.