Peace Shall Destroy Many


Canadian novelist Rudy Wiebe has written many fine books, but to my mind one of the finest is still his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many, which I re-read this weekend for the first time in many years.


Wiebe is a fine writer with a wonderful talent for description: witness, these first few sentences on the opening page of the book:

The school stood at the crossroads in the valley, its loggish face southward. Flanked by teacherage and sagging barn, it waited with its door yawning in the spring morning as the children neared on four roads cut like slashes through the bush. Reluctantly they came, listening to the spring frog-song, touching the buds on the slim poplars, snuffing the freshness. Soon the yard rang with their running shouts and tumbled hills’ re-echo.

Or again, this description of a river valley viewed in the moonlight:

They both looked at the pool and heard the frogs again, without thought, and then she rose and they returned as they had come, feet unsteady on the round rocks. “Let’s just look at the river”, he said, and pushed ahead through the tangle until they emerged on the lookout. She stood beside him, smoothing back her simply coiled hair. The clean curve of the moon hung naked at its height in the north. The long river lay dully silver, holding the island as in its arms. The wind flickered the poplars and murmured to the pine; there was no cry of a bird to nag. He knew that in this moment behind the hedges of France men lay silent under the shriek of shells, lurking; here, peace – as when only two people, and God, were on earth. But to stay here.

The book is full of passages like this, the work of an author who has obviously spent hours out in the bush himself, and has learned to paint vivid verbal pictures for the mind’s eye.

Peace Shall Destroy Many is set in 1944, in a small isolated Mennonite community in northwestern Saskatchewan. The community is led by Peter Block, whose strong personality and rigid conformity to the traditions handed down from the ancestors have shaped the lives of these refugees from Russia who have made a new home for themselves in the bush of northern Saskatchewan. The Mennonites, of course, are pacifists, and many of their young men of military age have left to go to conscientious objector work camps around the country. A few have abandoned the traditions of their ancestors and joined the military.

The novel addresses the contradiction at the heart of the life of this separated community. The Mennonites have built their lives on Christ’s command to love their enemies, and in obedience to this command they have refused to participate in the Second World War. They have also embraced the Great Commission and have sent a young missionary couple to India. But on the edge of their settlement live some Métis families, and they have refused to reach out to these families, because their language and customs are different. The main character of the novel, young Thom Wiens, tries to reach out to the Métis children, even holding a Sunday afternoon Bible class for them, but he is opposed by Peter Block. ‘Suppose they become Christians?’ Block asks; ‘Then what? What church will they join? There’s only one church in Wapiti, and it speaks German. Speaking German is one of the ways we maintain our separateness from the world. If we change, we will soon fall away from the purity of the life our ancestors have handed down to us’.

How do you follow Christ’s command to love your enemies when the food you are growing on your farm is used to feed the soldiers on the Normandy beaches? How is it possible to be a consistent pacifist, when the only way you can have the freedom to make that choice is because others are willing not to be pacifists, and in fact to fight for you – the unbeliever dying for the believer? How do you strike the balance between separating yourself from the world on the one hand, and loving your neighbour on the other? How is it possible for a way of life meant to help people love their neighbours to so easily itself become oppressive and dishonest? These are some of the issues raised in this novel.

Rudy Wiebe does not write as a rebel against Mennonite Christianity (although when the book was first published in the 1960’s it caused considerable controversy); he remains a Mennonite and a practicing member of a congregation here in Edmonton. He surely speaks his own conviction through the mouth of Joseph Dueck, one of the characters in the novel, who says, “We are spared war duty and possible death on the battlefield only because we are to be so much the better witnesses for Christ here at home”. And I would add, not only here at home. Jesus did not envision that his followers would love their enemies by hiding from them. That was not the way he lived and died.

In Peace Shall Destroy Many, Rudy Wiebe stares fearlessly into the paradox at the heart of Christian discipleship. He poses the big questions without feeling obliged to provide glib pat answers. This is a book worth reading and pondering many times. I highly recommend it.

(For more about Rudy Wiebe on the Web, look here and here).

I Heard the Owl Call My Name

Maybe it was watching Hank Williams First Nation that did it, but I found I wanted to read this novel again. It is one of the most beautiful books about First Nations people ever written in Canada. It is also one of the most realistic pictures I’ve seen of Anglican ministry in isolated First Nations communities.

My own experience was in very different settings from the Pacific northwest described in this book: the Cree of northeastern Saskatchewan, the Gwitchin and Inuit of the Northwest Territories. The specifics were different, but the atmosphere and ethos were the same as that portrayed in this book. And I suspect that over the years it’s had a great deal to do with my pastoral practice.

I seem to have a thirst for re-reading Canadian fiction right now. I think my next re-read is going to be Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many, which I haven’t read for about twenty years.

C.J. Sansom’s ‘Matthew Shardlake’ series

Christmas brought me a little gift money, and an absorbing book is always a good way to spend such gifts. I’d been eying C.J. Sansom’s latest Matthew Shardlake novel, Sovereign, for some time, so I went on down to Indigo Books and bought it. I was not disappointed; it was a wonderful read, as I had expected it to be.

The Shardlake novels are set in England during the reign of Henry VIII. Matthew Shardlake is a hunchback lawyer working out ofLincoln’s Inn in London; when the stories begin he is a member ofThomas Cromwell’s circle, and the first book in the series,Dissolution, concerns a commission Cromwell gives Shardlake to solve a brutal murder which has taken place at a monastery in the south of England. The series continues with Dark Fire, in which Shardlake is charged by Cromwell with discovering the secret of Greek Fire for the king; in this novel he meets Jack Barak, a man of action with a dubious background in the London underworld of the day. The third novel, Sovereign, sees Shardlake and Barak taking part in the Great Progress to the North of England in 1541; Shardlake has been given a commission by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to ensure the safety of a prisoner who is to be brought south for ‘questioning’ (read, ‘torturing’), but on the way he discovers the existence of documents which question the royal succession of the entire Tudor dynasty. Not surprisingly, this knowledge turns out to be extremely dangerous for Shardlake.

Sansom has done his homework well. The historical research behind these novels is sound (the history of the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor period has been a hobby of mine for years, so I think that I’m qualified to make that judgement). That Sansom was willing to wade through Diarmaid McCulloch’s massive biography of Thomas Cranmer as part of his background study for this novel is testimony to the thoroughness of his research. If you want stories that give you the authentic sights, sounds and stories of the Tudor era, you’ll find them here.

But Sansom is more than a good researcher; he’s also a mystery writer who actually knows how to write a mystery. I’ve read some of the best (P.D. James, Ellis Peters, Colin Dexter), and I’ve become quite adept at guessing ‘who dunnit’, but Sansom was too clever for me by far. The conclusions, in all three of the Shardlake novels, were unexpected – but not in a contrived or far-fetched way; when I thought them through, they made perfect sense, and I kicked myself for not having seen the truth earlier on.

When Dissolution begins Shardlake is a convinced supporter of religious and political reform, but his enthusiasm wanes as he sees the cruel and deceitful lengths to which Thomas Cromwell and others like him are prepared to go; truly, in their eyes, the end justifies the means. As an evangelical Anglican I once idealised the Anglican Reformation, but reading it through Anabaptist eyes has helped me see how coercive and top-down it really was, and also how shot-through with compromise (The King as head of the Church? Where do you find that in the teachings of Christ?). The truth is that Henry VIII was a monster, and (as this essay shows) Thomas Cranmer turned honest biblical exegesis on its head to support his desire for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, because he wanted to use the king to advance reform. Like Shardlake, I now see the protagonists on both sides as equally flawed human beings, full of ambition, fascinated with political power, and far too ready to employ torture and death in the service of the Gospel of Christ.

Sansom is a fine writer, and the Shardlake novels are historical mystery writing at its best. Treat yourself; buy them (or borrow them from the library), make yourself a substantial pot of tea, and curl up beside the fireplace with a good book. It could be a long evening…

Inflation Hits the Falcon Carol

As of January 1st, the price of my CD ‘The Falcon Carol’ is now $10.

We’ve been burning all the CDs on my home computer, buying the disks and the jewel cases. My good friend Alex Boudreau was originally printing the labels and inserts, but I’ve taken that on myself now, and the cost is beginning to be noticeable. So we’ve had to put the price up to cover our costs. Profits from the CD, over and above our costs, will still go to Habitat for Humanity.

Thanks to all those who have bought copies of the CD; we’ve given over $800 to Habitat from the sales of the disk.