“At Westminster Abbey”

Poem by Yorifumi Yaguchi [A Mennonite Christian Poet]* Commentary by David Alleman

“I can’t help imagining those enslaved colonials carrying

Burdens with their slender legs stepping heavily

Deep into burning sand, whipped mercilessly and moaning

And you have done it in the name of Christ,

The lord of love and peace.”

“At Westminster Abbey” reminded me of an experience six or eight years ago.  My wife, Julia,  was taking a class with a Christian mission program which was recruiting missionaries and promoting interest in missions.  I scanned/read through the book of readings.  There was theological, psychological, sociological and anthropological material in it.  The latter had information on learn about a new culture and how to adapt to a new culture.

Since the subject of peace was of special interest to me, I looked for articles on how to live at peace with people of other cultures.  Also, I wondered if there were articles about how United States and British militarism (and colonialism) would affect mission work.  There was almost nothing about the effect of these on the community of nations.

Finding nothing on the effect of war on missions, I wrote to a local leader of a mission agency listed in the handbook of readings. His organization was part of a denomination that  taught peace and nonresistance.  I inquired whether the planners and managers of the program would be open to including in these sessions some information about the church as a world-wide community of believers or the effect of colonialism, war, and preparation for war on mission efforts (I do not have a copy of the letter from six to eight years ago—I hope my memory is accurate). His response was that he thought the leaders of the local or international group would not want to add material of this nature to the packet of readings.  They would feel that it challenged their patriotism.  I didn’t feel this individual would take further action with the organization, so did not follow up on this interest.

Then I thought about a conversation many years earlier with a student who worked with me. He told me he was thinking of becoming a missionary.  When discussing war, I asked him, how could I say to someone that I have accepted as a brother or sister in Christ, “I love you, but if my government tells me to bomb you, I will do it?”  He replied. “What about the ones not yet believers?”  So, this poem revived that line of thought, Christians killing Christians.  Christians killing those they wanted to be Christians.

I was reading the poem for a class I was auditing.*   The assignment included looking at the poet’s technique.  Flipping through the book to this poem, I was struck with how different “Westminster Abbey” is from the Yamaguchi’s other poems. The lines are long. I believe the form is rooted in the English setting.  The text-like shape of the lines feels like formal English.  The heaviness of the meaning of the words is carried by the weight of the length of the lines even as the sentence/thoughts gain weight running over from one line to the next.  I felt a tension between the formal text and the pain and suffering.

In the book just mentioned, several pages later is the poem, “Just war”***. The last lines are:

“We bombard you for our country

As you bombard us for your country.

Both in the name of our God. Hallelujah!”**

I was reminded of the discussion with a student I mentioned above. The poem comes out of real experience (by one not too different from some of the people referenced in the Westminster Abbey poem). It reflects, in a brief and pointed way, the conflict war brought between Yaguchi’s patriotism and Christian pacifism.

*”Ways of War and Peace”, Martha Eads, Instructor.  (Eastern Mennonite University through Virginia Retirement Community)

Yorifumi Yaguchi. The poetry of Yorifumi Yaguchi : a Japanese voice in English. Good Books, 2006. Edited  by Wilbur J Birky. **p. 125. ***p.135