Let’s Neatly Stack Anxiety’s Sweaters

Johnathan Swift’s essay, A Modest Proposal, was a brilliant satire, designed to expose and mock callous attitudes to the poor in 18th Century Ireland. [Spoiler Alert!] Swifts’ solution to abject poverty was intentionally untenable, the eating of children. Swift took aim at those who would try to offer quick-fix schemes and cure-all-solutions in the face of real economic, social predicaments, and he lambasted the commodification of the poor. 

Like Swift, we too live in age where the poor and marginalized are commodified, and devalued by those in power. Refugees are called terrorists, migrants are called very bad people, rural Americans are denounced as hicks and rednecks, people of color are dismissed as thugs, welfare recipients are declared a drain on our economy, and the LGBTQIA are decried for destroying tradition.  But when people are routinely robbed of  their value, it isn’t too long before we hear demands for  their sacrifice (and we’re okay with it). The real horror of Swift’s proposal wasn’t the graphic description of raising children as livestock. The horror was that poor children, and the marginalized, were already laying their lives down to keep the reigning aristocracy well-fed. Swift’s modest proposal was “why don’t we do the things we are already doing to the poor?” It was satire, but it laid bare the upheaval and classism of 18th Century Ireland. And it’s true for us as well. 


Joy Ladin is the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University Modest Proposal. She is the first openly transgender woman employed by an Orthodox Jewish University. Her poem Modest Proposal lacks the biting irony of Swift’s essay. She is more straight forward, in her proposal:

Let’s not kill or die today.
Let’s make angels out of yarn, men of snow, mashed potato animals
that smile as we spoon
their eyes of melted butter.

Instead of killing ourselves or one another,
let’s neatly stack anxiety’s sweaters
and scratch our itchy trigger fingers
by whittling turtles for our mothers,

or pretending to understand Heidegger,
or imagining the sexual embrace
through which time and space
first conceived of matter.

If we still aren’t over killing and dying,
we can search the stacks for library books
that haven’t circulated in generations
and savor the mold

that spores their spines
the way wine snobs savor the nose
of vintage wines bottled
between wars to end all wars.

Look, we’ve played all day
and haven’t spilled a drop of blood
apart from the occasional paper cut.
In an hour or two, when it’s very dark,

let’s make up stories out of stars,
and fill them with all the killing and dying
we didn’t do today, except in our imaginations.
Let’s pull our comforters over our heads

and sing ourselves to sleep
like good little civilizations.


From The Future Is Trying to Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow Press, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Joy Ladin. 

Ladin isn’t being ironic here. She’s exploring the “what if,” wondering, “what if we stopped wars and violence, brave sacrifices and wounding one another? What if instead we were free to play, explore, read old books—savoring their mold—, make stories out of stars, pull the covers over our heads and sing ourselves to sleep?”

It sounds idyllic and unattainable, even less plausible than Swift’s gory satire. We want peace, and celebrate the laying down of arms, provided that the other side lays theirs down first. I like Ladin’s proposal, but it is less modest than Swift’s. He told us what we were doing, she asks us to change. 

But isn’t this something we’ve read before?


The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
 They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.
Return of the Remnant of Israel and Judah
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Isaiah 11:7-10, NRSV

The predators—the wolves, the leopards, the lions, the bears, the snakes, the rich, the powerful and despot, the very bad people, the terrorists—will not bare their teeth. They will velvet their paws and stand alongside those they once victimized. Enmity and violence will be gone. Instead prey and predator alike will make angels out yarn and mash potato animals, the Little Child will lead us as we stack anxiety’s sweaters and whittle turtles for our mothers, pretend to understand Heidegger, contemplate the cosmos, We will play, explore, and dream. No more killing. No more dying.

With Ladin I am done with this serious business called war and long for the play of peace where there is no bloodshed outside the occasional paper cut. I long with Isaiah to see the day when all the violent predatory behavior cease and to have a Little Child to lead us to make stories out of stars. I will entertain no more proposals that advice me to eat the young and vulnerable. Peace is the proposal on the table. Advent says it’s coming. 

Stand Still, O Beautiful End

The second week of Advent is the time for declaring our hope for God’s peace. We cry peace, peace when there is no peace. Our journey with the poets has noted a dissonance between our anxious thoughts and war-torn world, and Advent promise. Too often what we call peace in this life, is just a diversion and distraction—a turning a blind eye to the suffering of the world. We stuff down our wounds. We comfort our souls with wine and song.

But we know that there are people struggling, hurting dying. We know about those desperate migrants who have fled the violence, economic and politic instability in Central America; the tenuous relationship between Israel and Palestine, starving children in Yemen, and we’ve heard something about escalating violence in the Philippines. All this seems so far away and abstract. We know we probably should care more than we do and that this is just the tip of the iceberg of the suffering of the world. There are so many stories we don’t know and hurts we’ve not heard about. We are aware, when we listen the anxious cry of our own hearts and though we may have some small measure of inner peace it is fleeting and we are ever aware of the ways we don’t experience it. Yet. 

Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengalese poet was the first non-western Nobel Prize for Literature laureate (1913).  Called the Bard of Bengal, he  was given a knighthood by King George V but later denounced it in protest of the British Indian Army’s Jallianwala Bagh massacre. His novels touch on the violence of Colonial powers and the violence between Hindus and Muslims in India. His poem, Peace, My Heart (part of his Gardener cycle) describes our common longing for peace:

Peace, my heart, let the time for
the parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain
into songs.
Let the flight through the sky end
in the folding of the wings over the
nest.
Let the last touch of your hands be
gentle like the flower of the night.
Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a
moment, and say your last words in
silence.
I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.

For Tagore, peace was what awaited us in death— a release from the heartache and pain of existence when we are reunited with the Cosmos. This idea is more Eastern than Western and reflects Tagore’s religious and spiritual worldview. Yet he captures what it means to be at peace, much of which is echoed in our own scriptures:

  • Not be a  death but completeness—from fragmentation to being made whole (Luke 17:19 “Your faith has made you whole”).
  • Love melting into memory and pain melting into song (Psalm 126:5, They that sow in tears will reap with songs of joy).
  • Our flight through the sky ending with us safe the nest, under the wings of a Mother bird (cf. Psalm 91:4, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”).
  • Our last touch of our hands gentle like a flower in the night (Philippians 4:5, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near”).

Qoheleth wrote that God set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Strangely anxious souls though we are, we long for and can describe a peace we know little, experientially about.  Torah written on the hearts of humanity (Romans 2:15), we all hunger for the peace of God to come.  Our heart testifies to us—we long for what none of us has, yet. 

Stand still, O beautiful end. . . .I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.

The Dejected Landscape Consorts Well with Our Shame and Bitterness

The world is not as it should be. Advent is the season for marking hope, but it is a specific hope. It is the hope that in the coming of Christ we may experience God’s peace—a peace which passes all understanding. Our piecemeal peace falls short. God’s shalom is different than these tenuous ceasefires. It is the experience of relational, spiritual, emotional, and cosmic wholeness. In God’s shalom everything is the way that it was meant to be, there is no lack, there is no anguish, there are none of the conflicts we find ourselves mired in. 

Denise Levertov’s poem In California During the Gulf War describes a world deciding not at peace. Blight-killed eucalyptus, trees and bushes rusted by Christmas frost, hills exhausted by a five-year-drought—even the promise of certain airy white blossoms inspire no hope—the dejected landscape consorts with us in our shame in bitterness:

Among the blight-killed eucalypts, among
trees and bushes rusted by Christmas frosts,
the yards and hillsides exhausted by five years of drought,

certain airy white blossoms punctually
reappeared, and dense clusters of pale pink, dark pink–
a delicate abundance. They seemed

like guests arriving joyfully on the accustomed
festival day, unaware of the year’s events, not perceiving
the sackcloth others were wearing.

To some of us, the dejected landscape consorted well
with our shame and bitterness. Skies ever-blue,
daily sunshine, disgusted us like smile-buttons.

Yet the blossoms, clinging to thin branches
more lightly than birds alert for flight,
lifted the sunken heart

even against its will.
But not
as symbols of hope: they were flimsy
as our resistance to the crimes committed

–again, again–in our name; and yes, they return,
year after year, and yes, they briefly shone with serene joy
over against the dark glare

of evil days. They are, and their presence
is quietness ineffable–and the bombings are, were,
no doubt will be; that quiet, that huge cacophony

simultaneous. No promise was being accorded, the blossoms
were not doves, there was no rainbow. And when it was claimed
the war had ended, it had not ended.

The first Gulf War was a popular war in the US, in part because of its perceived justness—Iraq had aggressively invaded Kuwait—and partly because of its brevity. Officially it lasted only 5 weeks from January 17, 1991 -February 28, 1991. American soldiers had few casualties and most of the Patriots that entered Kuwait and Iraq for the duration of the fighting were missiles.  By late February, the Iraqi military was desperately surrendering to news crews. 

I was also in California during the Gulf War, at least the start of it. I was a sophomore in high school.  My mother, an artist, and musician was invited to the NAAM Convention at the Anaheim Convention Center. She was representing  Baldwin, there to demonstrate their latest electric organ. As a teenager and budding guitarist, I spent the entire convention on the hunt for celebrity autographs and free guitar picks. We were aware of Operation Desert Storm from watching the evening news in our hotel room. It was an anxious time. War and the threat of war are never fun. But the mood inside the convention center was not dampened. Everyone was clamoring to see the latest keyboard, effects pedal, and sound system, and play new model guitars, unaffected by the bombs being dropped half a world away. 

On Sunday, my dad and I went to church at the Crystal Cathedral, the set of Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power, a weekly telecast of positive preaching which aired every Sunday morning. I am not sure if the camera panned to where my dad and I sat that day. I may have been on TV, if only briefly. 

Schuller’s sermon centered on how George W. Bush called and talked to him before declaring war on Iraq and how we should support him. Flags were waved and we prayed for our country. ‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land. God bless the USA.

Levertov’s poem proved prescient. When it was claimed the war had ended, it had not ended. This was only just another episode of violence between the US and the Gulf region. In the next decades there would be an Iraqi assassination attempt on former president Bush’s life (41), Bombing of the region by every US president, Sept. 11 and the Second Gulf War, the Hunt for Weapons of Mass Destruction, ISIS, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Saudi War in Yemen and tomorrow, who knows. No promise was being accorded, the blossoms were not doves, there was no rainbow. And when it was claimed the war had ended, it had not ended.

It’s 2018. There is more drought and exhausted hillsides, and the blight still kills eucalyptus in California, despite certain white blossoms and the distraction of celebrity sightings. We are a world not at peace. 

Even so, come Lord Jesus. 

Some Walked and Walked and Walked

Prophets and poets read the times and tell us of the world to come. Neither the poet or the prophet are readily understood. A poet is without honor in his hometown. One such polarizing prophet and poet was Daniel Berrigan, SJ (1921-2016).

A Jesuit priest, he was active in the civil rights movement, marching with Martin Luther King in Selma and visiting South Africa during Apartheid. He achieved notoriety in the Vietnam war when he traveled with Howard Zinn to Hanoi during the Tet Offensive. But it was his action on May 17, 1968, which landed him on America’s Most Wanted list, and later prison. He and 8 other Catholic activists (including his younger brother Philip, also a priest), broke into the draft office in Catonsville, Maryland. They destroyed 378 draft files in the parking lot while singing and saying the Lord’s prayer, making their prayer in the name of  the God “whose name is peace and decency and unity and love.” After this Berrigan was a fugitive of the law. He and his co-conspirators were arrested and convicted, spending three years in prison (Berrigan immortalized the trial with his play, The Trial of the  Catonsville 9, 1971).

Daniel Berrigan was passionate and willing to put his life and reputation on the line to pursue the peace of God. He was later was the Plowshares 8 in 1980, breaking into a General Electric Nuclear plant, damaging warheads and pouring blood on documents. He was also an Aids activist and opposed American intervention abroad, and capital punishment, advocating for a consistent-life ethic. 

Berrigan’s poetry intertwined with his sense of  call as prophet and priest. His poem Some is dedicated to the Plowshares 8 with love:

Some stood up once, and sat down.
Some walked a mile, and walked away.

Some stood up twice, then sat down.
“It’s too much,” they cried.
Some walked two miles, then walked away.
“I’ve had it,” they cried,

Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
they were taken for being taken in.

Some walked and walked and walked –
they walked the earth,
they walked the waters,
they walked the air.

“Why do you stand?” they were asked, and
“Why do you walk?”

“Because of the children,” they said, and
“Because of the heart, and
“Because of the bread,”

“Because the cause is
the heart’s beat, and
the children born, and
the risen bread.”

Ezekiel describes the judgment of God against false prophets of Israel that cried peace, peace when there was no peace” (Ezekiel 13:10). Ezekiel was a post-exilic prophet. He denounces both those who had given Israel and Judah a false sense of security before the nation was carried into exile and those in the midst of empire who tried to tickle the ears and tell the people what they wanted to hear.

We live in an era that should have no pretension of peace. War is in the water. Violence is everywhere. Another Berrigan poem The Earth Prison Poems, Viking Press, 1973, p, 82) describes the state of the world under empire:

When earth yielded up to our arms
the multitudinous children of her invention —
streams, starlight, storms — we were the pampered lovers then
of those who loved us, one flesh and blood, one bone.
O that embrace the state’s steel gauntlet
raced down on like a wild fire.  Wounded
in the nearest parts, part men only,
we wind, unwind our bloodied limbs
feverish, icy, swept by what sighs and tides . . .

This is where we live. Some may claim peace, a strong economy prosperity, but this is a world of violence, of suffering, of pain.

The poets and prophets tell us about the state of the world. They also tell us of the world to come. Berrigan was a faithful witness to the peace of God. When other’s walked away he walked and walked and walked. He stood. He spoke. He took pen in hand. May we also walk and write and stand and speak. 

Prayers for Veterans Day

A few miles north of me my Canadian friends observe Remembrance Day–a solemn day which honors those who have fallen in service to their country. Here in the United States, today is a day to honor the living soldiers who have served and on Memorial Day (in May) we honor our dead. However there is a certain bleed through with the two holidays. When we honor those scarred by war, we also acknowledge the reality of war, the wounds and the wounding, the death and dying. For all who have been touched by the ravages of war, Lord have mercy:

Almighty  and Living God,

    we rise with thanks for those whose sacrifice purchased our freedom,
      those who died in service of the nation, and those who have returned

        and have struggled to rebuild their lives.

Our hearts brim with gratitude and ache with sadness–

      We are grateful for all they’ve done
      We cry for all that they have suffered

Prince of Peace

    We pray for the wounds they carry–
      The horrors that haunt them,
      injuries, lost friends, PTSD.
    We cry out for your healing and full restoration
    of all whose souls are ravaged by war.

Spirit of Peace-

    provide rest for these weary souls
    and hasten the day when sword will be plowshares
    and Your Peace reigns on the earth.
    Amen.