Sandburg on a Sunday Morning: Iron

I’m sitting at the Wild Goose Meeting House, a downtown coffeehouse, surrounded by a lot of faces, old, young, some buried in their phones or their books. Some talking about whatever late October concerns they are carrying.

Some have their earbuds in, or their Beats. Some are waiting for church down the street. Some are talking to the baristas. Some are eating apples and some are typing into them.

It’s that time of year when some are wearing jackets and some are wearing shorts.

A lot of faces. Plenty of tattoos.

I probably could get lost in the books next to me. Chuck Klosterman is next to Peter Rollins, who visited our little town half a year ago and spread his love for pyrotheology. He is out to bring a little mysticism, a little deconstruction to the church. It’s pretty clear he has read his Bonhoeffer.

Note 72, for example, from the Peter Rollins book next to me: The Fidelity of Betrayal. “For instance, in recent times we recall thinkers such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Jacque Ellul, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Daniel Berrigan, and Gustavo Gutierrez, to name but a few.”

His point in the book that got this footnote numbered 72:

Christianity affirms an idea of truth that transcends any system, and thus the Christian is one who is, in the moment of being a Christian (i.e. standing in a particular tradition), also the one who rejects it (remembering the prophets of old who warned us about how any tradition could become idolatrous)—betraying it is an act of deep fidelity. It is for this reason that the authentic believer can be descried as a non-Christian in the Christian sense of that term.

Carl Sandburg’s poem Iron from his Chicago Poems (1916) calls us to consider the cost of worshipping the war God that is the source, author, and goal of adoration in the America cult. The sailors sing and chant their war songs, young sailors, tanned, strong and flexible, laughing the whole time through. They clamber over the guns, long and polished, pointed from the war ships in the name of the war god. It is all loving ritual by beautiful strong people to a god that is unworthy of adoration.

The poem ends with a sharp contrast to the beloved gun which was described in great detail: The simple shovel, broad and effective, scooping out an oblong burial site.

Sandburg asks for a witness:
I ask you to witness—
The shovel is brother to the gun.

My friend Mike Martin literally turns guns into shovels and hoes and plowshares. He’s the founder of RawTools and a Mennonite and an all around good guy.

He does it in response to the writings in Isaiah and Micah in the Hebrew scriptures:

“He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.  Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree.  No one shall make them afraid.”

Mike is literally inviting us to walk away from worship of the war god to the God of peace and life. Mike asks us to consider the cost of war, the gun, the violence that is consuming us right now.

Just a month ago, 600 were shot in Las Vegas, and nothing has changed in terms of our gun debate. 222 out of our 239 years, America has been at war. Mike is asking us to consider the cost of such violence.

Sandburg does so by simply reminding us of the human cost of this addiction to war and the worship of the war god. Every battle with a gun is going to lead to more shoveling of graves. Sandburg asks us to think of the shovels involved in the pursuit of war.

We have to come to a place that invites us to a new image of God, as so many of us have been raised with the idea that the God of Jesus blesses war, blesses us as we go to war, and hates our enemies.

Jesus over and over again invites us to love our enemies, break bread with them, and to turn away from violence.

We have replaced the God of peace with the war god. It is bad theology and it begins with our image of God, one that blesses our violence and hates our enemies as we do. And it will take a lot of hard work to deconstruct that image of God.

Peter Rollins in that same book, The Fidelity of Betrayal, sitting next to me on the shelf at the Wild Goose, points the way towards how we can even begin the project:
Rather than thinking that we are ignorant of God before God arrives on the scene, we can thus say that true ignorance of God occurs with the incoming of God. In our lives we have been exposed to so many images and ideas about God, many of which have been deeply embedded within us from childhood, that we have an abundant reservoir of understanding. Then, in the moment of revelation, the tranquility of this reservoir is disturbed.

For too many of us, the God of our childhood was image after image of confirming our biases and prejudices and sanctioning our love of the war god.

A new revelation of the God of peace is awaiting birth. But first, we must confront the cost of worshipping the god of war and the death that it brings.
Sandburg’s Iron paints the picture of the cost of worshipping the god of war. Death and deconstruction, tear after tear. The shiny gun gives way to the broad, efficient shovel digging graves.

Carl Sandburg

Long, steel guns,
Pointed from the war ships
In the name of the war god.
Straight, shining, polished guns,
Clambered over with jackies in white blouses,
Glory of tan faces, tousled hair, white teeth,
Laughing, lithe jackies in white blouses,
Sitting on the guns singing war songs, war chanties.

Broad, iron shovels,
Scooping out oblong vaults,
Loosening turf and leveling sod.

I ask you
To witness—
The shovel is brother to the gun.


Why a blog on Carl Sandburg?

It is the right time for the poetry of Carl Sandburg. We need his voice again. We need his sensibility. We need his vision.

Why a blog on Carl Sandburg?

First, he viewed humanity as a sacrament, as a holy thing to approach with awe and wonder and humor. Maybe he’d object to such lofty language. Humans are mystery and beauty and power in his poems. We need to remind ourselves, in this time, what we are seeing when we see a human face, a neighbor, a group of immigrants and their keg. He lifted up the low and the meek and gave them stories and features and showed us their dignity and their worth. So many attempts right now to divide us one against the other. Sandburg won’t have it.

Second, he viewed the arrogant and the exclusivists and the haughty with suspicion and mockery. There is no poem more needed right now than his wonderful poem: To a Contemporary Bunkshooter. It just says it all. We have so many Billy Sundays in our time. We would do well to re-read that poem, again and again, in 2017. So many hucksters.

Third, he loved the land. The prairie gave him a slogan and a song. The land is also under threat. His love letters to the land are worth further exploration. I grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, where Sandburg was born in 1878. For a time, he attended Lombard College, founded by the Universalists.

Fourth, his anti-war poems are much needed. We are in a state of perpetual warfare in the United States. His poems bring a fresh voice to the costs of war. We will explore that here, for sure.

Finally, let’s get back to the people. Sandburg wrote that the head of the library in St. Louis once conducted a survey, asking who reads Sandburg? Here is how he describes this in the Atlantic:  “there were policemen, taxi drivers, stenographers, beauty-parlor workers, machinists , and a wide range of plain people who could not afford to buy books but were regularly drawing out “the Sandburg poetry books” from the public library and finding in those books something close to their lives, something that sang to them.”

Sandburg sings to me. This is my blog exploring his life and his poetry.