Scott Russell Sanders follows numerous paths in his new book, all of which begin with a faith that is focused on Christ’s message of peace, love, and justice.
He leads us along several trails, bit by bit, to develop his story: he chronicles his upbringing and romance with his wife more than 40 years ago; he describes the tragic decline of his elderly mother; he rejoices in his baby granddaughter as he writes the book; and he shares his growing concerns for the earth, social injustices, and war. Best of all, he subtly goads his readers into forming their own reactions to the issues he obsesses about. His themes and stories merge and diverge, but we keep turning the pages, engrossed by his love of life, humanity, family, and peace.
The development of his religious beliefs is certainly a highlight of the book. The religion that he was raised in, which focuses on personal salvation, was empty for him. He grew to accept, instead, Christ’s teachings about compassion for the poor and helpless, a love for others, and a passion for peace.
One of the more engrossing passages in the book was his attempt to find acceptable counsel from three different members of the clergy—Anglican, Methodist, and Baptist—in Cambridge, England, while he was studying there in 1969. He was agonizing about how to respond to the growing war in Vietnam. Should he declare himself as a conscientious objector? All three clergymen advised that he should respect the needs of the state to conduct a just war. The Baptist minister suggested that the “thou shall not kill” commandment only applied in peacetime, not during wars. Sanders rebelled against this counsel and found a spirit much closer to his own at a Quaker meeting.
A gripping theme in the book was his agony about the alcoholism of his father. The older man had drunk a lot while Scott was growing up, though he suddenly gave it up in 1960. But on the day he retired, in 1978, he started drinking again. The climax of the story occurred during Christmas of 1980 when Scott, his wife, and their two children visited his parents over the holidays.
Scott encountered his father in the garage, drunk, and he became angry. His anger and their confrontation nearly brought them to blows. Scott raised his fists, ready to hit his own father, though a physical fight never broke out. The young family left first thing the next morning to avoid any more conflict over the drinking. His father died six weeks later.
Though Sanders’ beliefs in nonviolence had grown out of his reading of King, Thoreau, and the bible, it is not clear how much, or if, he had conditioned himself to effectively avoid violence. Was he then—is he now—a peaceful person? Readers are left to ponder, and, by extension, to reflect about their own peacefulness. None of this is to suggest, of course, that Sanders was or is a violent person. But he is candid enough to let the reader know that violence nearly surfaced, at least that once.
Sanders does not give pat answers to the problems that have pestered him. He tells us the choices he has made, but we are left unclear about some subjects. He inspires us to look inward, to see how peaceful we really are, but what he leaves out can be as challenging as what he includes.
He tells us that he graduated from college determined “to help create a more just and peaceful society (p.306),” but by the end of the book we have not really learned how successful he has been in that quest. Despite his own fervently anti-Vietnam War beliefs, his was clearly a lone voice for peace within his extended families. His brother-in-law was involved in the Vietnam War machine, and other members of the family supported militaristic American goals. Apparently they were all hostile toward his anti-war stance.
Did his own children adopt his opposition to warfare and injustice? Has he, by personal example and through his teaching skills, successfully reached out to others and begun building a peaceful community either at Indiana University, where he is on the faculty, or in the city of Bloomington? Have any of his students adopted his peace ideas and continued to live them afterwards? It would be fascinating to find out, in a future book, how he has dealt with the difficulties of forming “a more just and peaceful society” over the years since he formulated that goal.
His beautiful narrative of the birth of his daughter closes a wonderful book. He gives us a shining epilogue that ties together his love for his daughter and, thirty years later, his granddaughter. Whatever else he may have done during his life, he has certainly helped form a more peaceful world by showing how he cherishes children.
Sanders, Scott Russell. 2006. A Private History of Awe. New York: North Point Press