Friday, January 25, 2008


Milo and Friends,

Allow me to ramble a bit on two books I’ve read that you and some of your long suffering readers might appreciate, and which relate to your essay on King. The first is
The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman (2007), the second is Nonviolence: Twenty-five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Kurlansky (2006), who is better known for his cultural/culinary histories such as Salt, Cod, and The Basque History of the World. By happenstance I ended up reading these books together, which was quite a serendipity.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is the true story, written mostly from the title character’s memoirs, about the keeper of Warsaw Zoo and his wife during WWII. Jan (the zookeeper) was a member of the underground and fought in the resistance. Antonina, his wife, ran the household of course, and together they harbored hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. Had they been discovered it would have meant death for them both. Antonina was truly a noble soul, courageous, intelligent, and quick witted. Of Jan’s courage and character we have no doubt, but we understand more of Antonina. Interestingly, Jan was an atheist, while Antonina was Catholic, and I’m afraid that the Catholics, on the whole, were fairly cruel to Jews before, during, and even after the war. Still, these two different people arrived at the same conclusion on what they had to do, and for essentially the same reason – there was no other choice decent people could make. I believe that this shows that God has given us all an inherent goodness that can transcend the ideology of any particular religion, including atheism.

To those who say the same goes for the evil of the Nazis, I object, and recall a speech I heard Desmond Tutu give where he discussed his struggles with apartheid. He said he knew justice would prevail because the world recognized that apartheid was wrong, even if the world was slow to act. He was more eloquent than I of course, but you get the point. Deep inside, and across cultures we understand right from wrong; God has given us a bias towards goodness. I’d also like to believe that Jesus cares more about how we treat our neighbors than exactly what we believe. To return to The Zookeeper’s Wife, the story of these Good and Faithful Servants will make you laugh, weep, and inspire you.

Now on to Nonviolence. First, a few minor complaints. The book is quite short, given the topic, and often lacks documentation or analysis of some often quite sweeping comments. Also, while discussing the pre-Revolutionary war period in America, K was rather hard on Ben Franklin, who was actually a strong supporter of reconciliation almost to the last minute, and too easy on the Quakers, who by that period in Pennsylvania worked hard to retain their political power and avoid taxes, and quite willing to let non-Quakers do their violence for them on the frontier. That said I’ve always admired the Society of Friends, and Kurlansky gives them well deserved credit in other areas and times.

One area that works well with the Zookeeper’s Wife is that Kurlasky makes the point that violence achieves very little, other than to “justify” more violence by the other side. The Jews and Poles of Warsaw are a sad example – the uprising in the Ghetto killed a dozen or so Nazis, and gave the Nazi’s an excuse to send thousands of Jews to the gas chambers. Likewise the Resistance fighting as the Russians approached was defeated and had no military impact. I suppose that both events provided some pride and inspiration to the Jews and Poles, but if it kept their spirits alive, it killed a lot of their bodies. Martin Luther King Jr understood this – he knew that non-violence was both the most effective and the most moral way to achieve his noble goals.

Kurlansky makes many good points in his book, but in particular I refer you to the title. Non-Violence is a dangerous idea, a threat to violent persons and governments everywhere because while violence can be met with violence, they don’t know how to respond to non-violence, and can’t use it so easily to justify yet more violence on their part. Jesus was a particularly dangerous threat to the established order of his time (Roman and Jewish establishment alike) because of his inherently peaceful approach to his message and mission. Had he merely been a rebel against the Romans, or a “reformer” more interested in his power than his message, we would not know his name today. Thanks to God that we do, and thanks to King, Tutu, Jan and Antonina, a missionary in Taiwan a few years ago, and to the legion of unnamed Saints that have “fought the good fight” of peace.

- Taku

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