[This is a somewhat modified post I wrote just before Christmas in 2011. I will simply add my best wishes to all for a very happy holiday — and urge that we continue to hope there can be peace on earth and good will among men and women.]
Joe Hill was a labor organizer in the 1920s who wrote songs, drew posters and cartoons, and helped raise the consciousness of the working men of this country to the fact that they were being exploited by their wealthy bosses who did little actual work. Wallace Stegner wrote a biographical novel about Joe Hill that tells the story and draws the reader’s sympathies toward Joe and his cause — a cause that has echoes in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement: there are still those who are aware that there are the few in this country who exploit the many and grow wealthy off the sweat of another person’s labor.
In the novel, Joe finds himself drawn back to San Pedro, California where one of Joe’s few friends, runs a mission. The man’s name is Lund and they go way back. The difference between the two is that Lund has managed to keep his faith while Joe has lost his long ago. In fact, in one scene Joe has castigated Lund for being part of the problem: offering men solace when they should be angry and doing whatever it takes to throw off the yoke of disdain and contempt that the bosses want to keep in place. After one especially long harangue, Lund reflects on the things he wants to tell Joe — but he won’t because he knows that Joe Hill has blinders on: all issues are black and white, the poor are good and the wealthy are evil. There are no shades of gray. Lund reflects on this outlook on life:
“You apostle of hostility and rebellion, I could read you a sermon on brotherly interdependence, I could show you how you and I are both everybody’s servant and everybody’s master. I could demonstrate to you that your way of righting wrongs may cure these wrongs but will surely create others. I could be eloquent to show you that there is no way but the way of peace. You sneer at peace, but I could show you that peace is not quietude and not meekness, not weakness, not fear. It need no more accept current evils than you and your fellows in the violent crusade. It doesn’t even demand what Christianity has been demanding for centuries. It doesn’t demand love, necessarily. It demands only reasonable co-operation, for which men have a genius when they try.”
Strong sentiments, and wise words. And while there are many good and decent people on this earth, our urge to violence seems ever at the ready: quietly out of sight (for the most part) we support troops all over the world ready to engage in violence in the name of peace. Or we turn up the sound on our TVs as our President orders drone strikes against unseen and unknown enemies in the name of American “freedom.” There’s a bit of Joe Hill in many of us it seems: would that we could take a page out of Lund’s book.
Lund’s sentiments are, however, a bit pie-in-the-sky. He puts me in mind of the hero of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot who tries mightily to live a good, Christian life in a world filled with greed, deceit, and animosity. It is small wonder that idealists often becomes cynics in their old age. With this in mind, while I sincerely wish we could turn our weapons into plowshares, I recall Thomas Jefferson’s failed attempts to placate a bellicose British government while tossing our navy into the Ocean (as it were) and disbanding what there was of a national army. That didn’t work so well. Further, Stegner’s novel in the end pretty much answers Lund’s idealism by raising serious doubts as to whether the fat-cat bosses would have been willing to sit down and listen to the legitimate grievances of the workers. Nor would they today (did I hear someone mention Walmart?). Sometimes it is necessary to be ready for violence in the name of keeping the peace; however, it would be a good thing for us to commit to the notion of violence as absolutely the last resort and listen to the words of Lund urging “reasonable cooperation” — especially if we are at all serious about “peace on earth.”