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A Few Words

by LeDayne McLeese Polaski


July 2, 2019

A Few Words


On Harry Potter’s first day at Hogwarts, shortly after he’s been sorted into Gryffindor, he witnesses this scene:

Albus Dumbledore had gotten to his feet. He was beaming at the students, his arms open wide, as if nothing could have pleased him more than seeing them all there. “Welcome!” he said. “Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Thank you.” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 123)

I’m tempted, especially now that you’ve spent the last several days being washed over by words, to do something similar and simply literally say “a few words” –

Maybe some of my favorites – Poetry! Beauty! Story! Silence!

Or some trickier ones that I need nonetheless – Nuance! Subtlety! Trauma! Rage!

If the rabbis are right (and they usually are), “words make worlds.”

Which leaves me wondering – Which words created the world in which we find ourselves? And which words might, in the image of the lyric poet Gregory Orr, author of the book Poetry as Survival, remake the world?

Hear his poem:

Let’s remake the world with words.
Not frivolously, nor
To hide from what we fear,
But with a purpose.
Let’s, As Wordsworth said, remove
“The dust of custom” so things
Shine again, each object arrayed
In its robe of original light.
And then we’ll see the world
As if for the first time.
As once we gazed at the beloved
Who was gazing at us.
Poetry as survival, indeed.

A few weeks ago, some words left me not merely speechless but quite literally breathless – “The Board of Directors of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies is pleased to inform you that you have been selected to receive [our] highest recognition, the Edwin T. Dahlberg Peace and Justice Award for your outstanding work for peace and justice.” Those words make sense to me only if I understand them communally and not individually – that is, as a recognition of the collective work of BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz and our creative and courageous partners throughout the world.

Those words led me to some new words. I never met Dr. Dahlberg – he passed away when I was still in college and as yet unacquainted with American Baptist life. Wanting to know more, I delved into the biography written by his son Keith – Edwin T. Dahlberg: Pastor, Peacemaker, Prophet. If I were to “say a few words” about a man whose colleagues called him not Dr. Dahlberg but simply “Ed” – a man who was also called “Teddy”, Dad, and Grandpa – they might be these: Love for people! Intellectual discipline! Fidelity to Christ!

Or words that some found difficult or even impossible -- Conscientious objector! Pacifist and patriot! Reconciliation and confrontation! Pastor and protestor! 

Dr. Dahlberg used words that other refused to speak, including: Apartheid, White Supremacy, Labor Rights, and ecumenical evangelism. You’ll see more of his words below – strong, robust words that indeed helped to make people, churches, the National Council of Churches, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Baptist Peace Fellowship and this denomination. He spoke powerful and provocative words that brought on accusations, like the protest sign about him that read “Atheist! Communist! Integrationist!”  [In the spoken version, the quotes were listed in the program bulletin. In this printed copy, the Dahlberg quotes are at the end.]

So what of us who share the callings of pastors, peacemakers and prophets? What words might we be called to speak? What accusations might we be called to bear? Are there indeed words to remake our world?


My daughter Kate just graduated high school. All the seniors were invited to share a quote for the yearbook. There were a lot of references from The Office and various celebrities. Kate’s quote (and this may tell you pretty much everything you need to know about our family) was from her favorite president, John Quincy Adams: “Through the experience of the past we derive instructive lessons for the future.”

No doubt one of the most popular Father’s Day gifts this year was Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough’s new book The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West which tells the story of the nation's westward expansion in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The book is a self-conscious attempt to remind us of our “better angels,” of the triumph of basic decency, hard work, and lofty ambition. Many reviewers have hailed it as “just the kind of book we need right now.” That is, a story of America at its best at this moment when we seem to be at our worst.

And yet. Not a few other reviewers have taken McCullough to task – for relegating the native occupants of the land to a marginal place in the story, refusing to reckon with the realities of anti-black racism inherent in that American ideal no just in the South but also in the Midwest and West, and saying little of “the violence, conflict, expropriation, racial subjugation, and environmental devastation that marked white settlers' westward movement.” (Quote and images throughout these two paragraphs from Neil J. Young’s review Don't buy your dad the new David McCullough book for Father's Day printed in The Week online June 9, 2019)

Though McCullough’s story is both fascinating and factual, it is hard to say that it is deeply True – not, as Kate might say, an instructive lesson for either the future or the present.

We often hear these days that one racist or xenophobic policy or another (there seem to be several to choose from each and every day) doesn’t represent the “real America.” Yet the hard truth is that racism and xenophobia have long been intertwined with American history. Just one example. In a recent episode of the podcast It's Been A Minute with Sam Sanders focused on White Nationalism, Sanders and his guest Adam Serwer trace the history of Trump’s language around immigration. They identify the three chief influencers of that language: “Jeff Sessions, who used to be his attorney general, Steve Bannon, who used to be one of his top advisers, and Stephen Miller, who is still in the White House.” Sanders plays a clip of Bannon and then Senator Sessions discussing and praising without hesitation the US Immigration Bill of 1924 which shut down immigration from Asia and Africa and severely limited it from eastern and southern Europe. As they discuss the merits of that legislation, neither acknowledges the man credited with the big ideas behind the bill, a patrician New Yorker named Madison Grant who published in 1916 a book titled The Passing Of The Great Race. That book, frequently quoted by politicians debating the bill, synthesized various strands of pseudo-scientific racism to explain why men like Grant were necessarily at the top and why the influx of non-whites was a threat to our democracy. (At that point, many people now considered obviously white – Italians, for instance -- were not considered so.) Grant was hugely influential in shaping US public discourse and was directly involved in writing the immigration bill.

And it does not end there -- Historian James Q. Whitman has written extensively of how the law Grant helped to create was studied admiringly by others impressed that the Americans had had the courage to recognize the importance of protecting inherent genetic stock. It was our laws that the Nazis studied when they were looking to create a race-based society excluding and restricting citizenship to people who had the correct genetic heritage. (Throughline, White Nationalism, May 9, 2019.)

Grant's work was embraced by proponents of the National Socialist movement in Germany and was the first non-German book ordered to be reprinted by the Nazis when they took power. Adolf Hitler himself wrote to Grant, "The book is my Bible." (Wikipedia article on Madison Grant.)

Serwer says, “in [Whitman’s] view, the Nazis reflected these American ideas back in grotesque form. And the response was that it caused the United States to completely disavow them and not only disavow those ideas, but sort of memory-hole the knowledge of the fact that we had had anything to do with inspiring them.” (Throughline, White Nationalism, May 9, 2019.)

Though most Americans would not recognize his name and though the so-called science of his approach has been thoroughly reputed, we hear direct echoes of Grant’s language of the dangers of diluting the white race – what he called race suicide -- in everything from the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto to Fox News programs and presidential tweets. (Throughline, White Nationalism, May 9, 2019.)  We have forgotten him, deliberately so, but his words and ideas remain.

Our national history is full of such memory-holes and thus telling and hearing complicated, complex, unsolvable stories is a necessary part of remaking the world.


If we are to do so, we’re going to need another word – “sin”.  Now, I am a recovering Southern Baptist so “sin” is a weaponized word I had excised from my vocabulary. The author Kathleen Norris sums up well my childhood experience of the word – “a facile and narrow view . . . that leaves people either firmly convinced of their own virtue or resigned to believing that they are beyond redemption.” (Acedia and Me, p. 34) For years, I let go of the word in an effort to let go of that constraining concept – but how now to read the headlines without it? The writer, photographer and art historian Teju Cole quotes James Baldwin: “To be black and relatively conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” And then says:  “Let me revise that: To be relatively conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage . . . but also, to be in a state of quiet sorrow . . . knowing that there are things we cannot solve. And maybe that moment of contemplation, that moment of quiet sorrow, is the anteroom to what the solution, someday, could be.” (Tegu Cole, Sitting Together in the Dark, On Being, Feb 28, 2019)

How to deal with that rage, that sorrow, that insolvability without a theology robust enough to handle it? A theology in which sin is real – not a grocery list of do’s and don’t’s, not a concern that people behave according to the rules, but a conviction that we must “see our situation clearly for what it is, and so become free from the distorting perspective that underlies all our sins.” (Simon Tugwell as quoted by Kathleen Norris, p. 135.)

Such an understanding of sin, individual and corporate, would allow us to recognize that our problems are beyond our ability to solve, and ironically, might allow us to actually move forward – in our faith, after all, acknowledging sin is not an end in itself. It is a means of making possible the grace of repentance, repair, restoration – might we say reparations? To open ourselves to recognizing sin – death-dealing, conscious-numbing, life-limiting sin is to open the path to grace. As Norris writes, “For grace to be grace it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us to places where we didn’t want to go” (Norris, p. 230). “Understood properly,” she says, “the Christian doctrine of sin is a vision of wholeness.”  (Norris, p. 204). If we truly apply our faith to our moment, we could see both the depth of the problem and the way into God’s anteroom where the solutions might begin.


We’re not the first people, of course, to struggle to find our way forward in a fraught and fearful national moment.

In the spring of 1917, Edwin Dahlberg and 14 fellow students gathered in his seminary dorm room for a communion service and a discussion of what stand they should take as the US entered the raging world war. Dahlberg, under the influence of Walter Rauschenbusch, had become convinced of the immorality of war, all war, and these friends were equally uneasy. As theological students, they were eligible for draft deferment but felt that would be sidestepping the issue. Some that night decided for chaplaincy or ambulance service. Others, including Dahlberg, felt they could not participate in the war effort in any form. In his dorm room, he experienced a community of support and understanding even as they each found diverging paths forward, but that summer, when he joined his family to work on his brother’s farm, the situation was very different. Twice, local officials stopped by to demand his draft registration. The sheriff’s visit almost ended in his arrest, but his brother defused the situation by inviting the man to dinner. When his mother learned the purpose of the sheriff’s visit, she begged in tears that he register. Another brother interceded with the lieutenant governor only to be told that prison was inevitable. His fiancée wrote with her support while making it clear she could not quite agree with him. His father sat him down one morning to talk sense into him, and Edwin later wrote of that encounter, “I shall never forget the weariness with which he got up from [me] that long-ago morning, walking away . . . with his white head bowed in sorrow and discouragement.” 

Years later, his father, dismayed by the carnage of the war, came to understand his position. But as Dahlberg took his stand in 1917, he did so realizing that he was deeply wounding those he loved. He understood that whatever path he chose, there would be something both right and wrong about it, and it took him years to shake the sense of unworthiness that caused him. In an interview decades later, though, he spoke of the significance of what he and friends had done: “Though each of us 15 chose his own method, each kept his promise not to bear arms nor to kill his fellow men . . . Though the protest wasn’t very successful, I think each of us came closer to the cross of Christ than in all the theology classes we attended. What’s more, I think we were right.” (Dahlberg, pp.29-32)

I find something deeply moving in his story, in the tensions between taking a firm and principled stand and sticking with it under extreme pressure, and all the while keeping his heart fully open to the dismay and disorientation of it. I honestly find that more compelling and encouraging than I would if he’d just charged ahead with no doubt, self-recrimination or confusion – perhaps because I feel so those emotions so often myself.

In her marvelous book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes: Tolerance for ambiguity is one of the most urgent disciplines and attitudes we can cultivate today. It is the opposite of bigotry, rigidity, and culture-bound vision. There can be no peacemaking . . . without it.  (page 117).


The final of my  “few words” is “Chaos.” It was Dr. Robin Henderson-Espinoza who first helped me to see the possibility within chaos. In their brilliant take on the creation story, they ask --  What if the chaos over which God hovers is not a force to be overcome but is, in fact, the power, the breeding ground, for creation and creativity? What if the world springs forth because of chaos and not in spite of it? (Unrecorded lecture by Dr. Robin Henderson-Espinoza)

The Buddhist philosopher of ecology Joanna Macy in a wonderful recent On Being episode titled A Wild Love for the World elaborates this theme for this moment --

I’m not insisting that we be brimming with hope. It’s OK not to be optimistic. Buddhist teachings say feeling that you have to maintain hope can wear you out. So just be present. The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present. And when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here, and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That is what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world. . . The awesome thing about the moment that you and I share is that we don’t know which is going to win out. How is the story going to end? And that seems almost orchestrated to bring forth from us the biggest moral strength, courage, and creativity,  Because when things are this unstable, a person’s determination, how they choose to invest their energy and their heart [and] mind can have much more effect on the larger picture than we’re accustomed to think. So I find it a very exciting time to be alive, if somewhat wearing emotionally.

Let me say that part again – “when things are this unstable, a person’s determination, how they choose to invest their energy and their heart [and] mind can have much more effect on the larger picture than we’re accustomed to think.” (On Being with Krista Tippett -- Joanna Macy -- A Wild Love for the World Last Updated April 25, 2019 Original Air Date, September 16, 2010)

As we seek to invest our energies, our hearts, our minds in ways that may have a far greater impact than we can imagine, let me close as we began, channeling my inner Dumbledore,  --  Nothing could please me more than seeing you all here. So -- “Welcome! Welcome to a new year in our shared story! As we end our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: History! Sin! Ambiguity! Chaos! Thank you.”

LeDayne McLeese Polaski is the 2019 recipient of the Edwin T. Dahlberg award and former executive director of BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz.

Edwin T. Dahlberg Quotes:

All quotes taken from Edwin T. Dahlberg: Pastor, Peacemaker, Prophet by Keith Dahlberg, Second Edition published by Judson Press in 2010.

“Though the protest wasn’t very successful, I think each of us came closer to the cross of Christ than in all the theology classes we attended. What’s more, I think we were right.” P.32

“Be done with spiritual procrastination . . . have no soft soap while ignoring society’s wrongs, and [do not] defer to the hereafter the things we ought to be facing now – no alibis, no lullabies, no by-and-bys.”

“[A]s ministers of Christ we are primarily responsible for a religious contribution to peace, and the development of a universal conscience in relation to the world’s chief collective sin [war].” p. 49 “People come to church asking what the gospel of Christ has to say” p. 50

“If the Christians in Germany had mixed a little politics with their religion and not left their church life in a vacuum, the Nazis would never have come into power.” P. 66

“Make no mistake about it. God stands in the midst of us with [a] plumb line. . . in every institution of society. We cannot live forever in a house that is out of line with the will of Almighty God.” P. 80

“Be humble, quiet, and modest. But be true.” P. 82

“Christian victory is never satisfied with overcoming the world by the winning of wars. It must win the enemy and abolish the enmity.”  P. 82

On non-military response to conflict” “This would involve more intelligent economic aid, technical assistance, literacy programs, as well as a more vigorous religious approach to the needs of the world.” P. 101

“Jesus did not confine himself to . . . matters of comfort, peace of mind, and family conduct, but spoke out on the public questions of the day: Samaritan segregation, the temple tax, tribute to Caesar, and Roman conscription. It was because he entered so vigorously into controversial areas that Jesus went to the cross. If he dealt only with little . . . morals, he never would have been heard of. We have a Biblical mandate to enlighten the conscience of our generation on the life and death issues of our day . . . [including] economics, race relations, peace and war, separation of Church and State.” P. 101

The main objective in conflict is not “Win the victory and eliminate the enemy” but “Win the enemy and eliminate the enmity.” P. 106

“[W]e sing ‘Whosoever Will May Come.’ Come where? To Christ? Yes! But not to the church, the school, the employment office, or the hotel. Such is the mixed up idea of our religion.” P. 112 (speaking on churches excluding people of color)

“We blunder when we identify Washington policy as the Will of God.” P. 116

“I believe that the four most important books in any Christian home are the Bible, the hymnbook, the checkbook, and the pocketbook. It is the last two that give substance to the faith proclaimed in the first two.” P. 141

“Dear Dr. Dahlberg, For weeks I have been meaning to write a few words to you to express my sincere appreciation for your consoling words that came to me in the form of a letter when I was in prison. All that you said served to give me new courage and vigor to carry on. I shall always be indebted to you for your moral support and concern.” P. 111 (part of  a letter from Martin Luther King, Jr, written after Dahlberg wrote to him while King served time in the Birmingham jail)


John Quincy Adams, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1825.

Tegu Cole, Sitting Together in the Dark, On Being with Krista Tippett, Feb 28, 2019.

Keith Dahlberg, Edwin T. Dahlberg: Pastor, Peacemaker, Prophet. Judson Press, 2010, Second Edition.

Robin Henderson-Espinoza, from an unrecorded lecture, date unknown.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009.

Joanna Macy, A Wild Love for the World, On Being with Krista Tippett, Last updated April 25, 2019, Original air date, September 16, 2010.

Kathleen Norris, Acedia and me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, Riverhead Books, 2008.

Gregory Orr, Shaping Grief With Language, On Being with Krista Tippett, May 30, 2019.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Scholastic Press, 1997.

Throughline (NPR Podcast), White Nationalism, May 9, 2019. (This was a rebroadcast of an earlier It's Been A Minute with Sam Sanders podcast but because I am using some of the Throughline introductory material, I am using that as the reference here.)

Neil J. Young, Don't buy your dad the new David McCullough book for Father's Day The Week (online edition) June 9, 2019.

Wikipedia, Madison Grant

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