April 30, 2019

Levi Pennington

It was an Easter morning in April, just a few weeks ago, and families were walking down the streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka, to attend Christian worship services celebrating the Resurrection. The children in Zion Church had just completed their Sunday School lessons. One young boy, John Jesuran Jayartnam, told his mother that he was going to get a drink from the fountain. A few minutes later, the first bomb exploded and she never saw him again. 

More than 250 people were killed on Easter by a terrorist group seeking to murder Christians on the most important worship day of the year. It is hard to read the stories and view the pictures. Just yesterday, a young American man, modeling his attack on the New Zealand Mosque murders of a few weeks ago, opened fire on synagogue worshippers in San Diego County, California. One woman died and several others injured. It is impossible to read the stories of hate and violence against religious communities and other groups and not identify with its victims. At the same time, you also feel helpless to change human cultures that increasingly feel fragmented. 

Last weekend, one of our communications professors, Matt Meyer, asked if I would attend the opening of his film, Changing Time. It was 10 years in the making and I told him I would be there; I wanted to honor a very fine professor. When the film began I learned that Professor Meyer developed the film (with the help of a number of students and colleagues) to create a deeper understanding of gun violence in American schools. The sister of the main character in the film died in a school shooting. His life was completely altered by that event and, using time travel, he tries to create a different outcome on that fateful day. The film is thought-provoking and engaging. For Professor Meyer, the film is an effort to confront violence and change our cultural trajectory. I appreciate his work.

On my sabbatical I have spent time reading the letters and papers of Levi Pennington. I think, for some, history is primarily about the reconstruction of an objective understanding of our past. That may be one purpose. For me, the greater purpose is simply to understand the world through the eyes of those who lived in a particular time. Pennington’s papers tell you some things about his world, but they convey a great deal more about his character and what he believed to be important. This is particularly true when you consider what type of college he wanted to develop (or help develop). In a previous blog, I noted that he emphasized the importance of inward matters; Friends were committed to the life of the spirit of Christ that resides within us when we accept Christ as Savior.

Pennington’s letters also consistently convey his commitment to “peace.” He believed this was a deep Friends’ commitment, but he also thought that it should be the commitment of every person who followed Jesus. He let people in power know that Americans should be committed to peace. In 1947, as the Cold War began to build, Pennington wrote Oregon Senator Wayne Morse encouraging him to be a leader of the peace movement:

“You may say you have a strong feeling that we may better advance the cause of peace if we are in a strong position that if we are unprepared. I suppose you mean by a ‘strong position’ a position in which we are better able to kill and destroy; you mean, I suppose that we should be prepared to do a better, faster, more thorough job of killing than any other power . . . Someday there will be a William Wilberforce, a William Lloyd Garrison, a Wendell Phillips of the peace movement.  I wish that future fame might be a man of Oregon . . .”

Pennington expressed discouragement that the peace position was not one that united Christians everywhere. During the early stages of the Vietnam War, Friends were “isolated,” Pennington argued, because of their pacifist position. He recalled: “The pastor of the largest Presbyterian Church in the world declared that all pacifists should be taken out and shot at sunrise; (during World War II) a prominent minister associated with the YMCA said, ‘I’d be willing to go to hell myself if I could send a Hum to Hell ahead of me.’ Even the great evangelist, Billy Sunday noted that ‘I’d rather be a maggot in the heard of a dead polecat than a pacifist’ (Letter, Aug. 11, 1965). Pennington found such criticism of the Friends unconscionable. How could people who claimed they followed Jesus, the Savior who died on the cross for the sins of the world, so openly follow nationalistic impulses? He certainly believed that Christians should be the first to seek healing and to advocate for peaceful solutions to difficult problems. 

During the Vietnam War, Pennington found someone who would be, at least partially, a “Wilberforce” of the peace movement he sought – Governor Mark Hatfield. In July of 1965, he wrote to the governor and noted, “Please accept my congratulations and my commendation for your attitude and your vote on the blanket resolution of unrestrained support in the Vietnam War.” Pennington had high praise for Hatfield. “Aside from anything else, I appreciate the fact that you stand true to your convictions; that you are ready to ‘stand up and be counted,’ even if the count on your side of the difference should be just one, you. It is pleasant when a public official reaches the same decision that I do on a controversial question; but a more important thing, as I see it, is that he should earnestly seek to know the right course and when he reaches his decision as to what is the right course I can be sure that he will follow that course, whether one or a million of other people agree with him or not. ” He expressed similar praise for his friend Herbert Hoover. (Hatfield’s book, Conflict and Conscience, became one of the most important books I read as a collegian.)

One of the challenges of pacifism (in my opinion) is that you can be so convinced that you are right that you hold your position “militantly.” Some associate a pacifist position with an anti-military commitment. What I found fascinating about Pennington is that he did not. He believed that to be a person of peace you had to be a person of peace in all things, including the way you treat all people. In 1917, a young man named Harry Littlefield made a different choice regarding the World War and he want to France to serve. He told Pennington that even in war it was important to have leaders on the line. Pennington did not write an angry letter pointing out how he was wrong. Pennington’s letter to Littlefield was caring and heartfelt and reflected Pennington’s concern that his student had yet to come to know the Lord:

“I believe that this will be impossible (to be a person of influence) unless and until you have the transforming power of God that comes in acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal savior. I know that I found it impossible to exert the influence I know I ought on the right side until I accepted Him . . . I believe that you would know a joy such as you have never found, a peace such as you do not know, and a safety from the things that you wish to be guarded from, if you would only accept Christ.” 

Pennington envisioned a college where young people would come to know the heart of Christ. Once that had occurred and they had begun to let the Spirit of God speak to them, they would become the transforming agents that God created them to be. One can only know the “right” when one deeply knows the Savior and is willing to listen carefully to what he is saying. A Friends’ college is distinctive in its commitment to Christ and the inward transformation of the followers. Our world can certainly use more people who seek his heart.