March 18, 2011

Peaceable Living

I met Karl Meyers on Sunday--Catholic atheist, radical pacifist, and avid gardener. He lives in northwest Nashville and he's got a story worth telling.

Some would say that he's a little coo coo for cocoa puffs, but I think they need the whole story before going that far. He's a man of conviction. They do have reason to speculate, though: he constructed a van in the 1970's as a Peace-mobile and drove it around the country for six years trying to convince people to withhold paying income tax because most of our taxes go toward war. He spent two years in jail and was locked up another 20 times. He's been interviewed, jailed and castigated for his radial protests, beliefs, and lifestyles. You can read more here, here, and here. Those articles should cover some of those issues. One of his friends was Dorothy Day. They even wrote letters to each other. When I went to his house last Sunday, he mentioned reading through Dorothy's letters again. All in all, he's a stud and maybe a little coo coo.

I love meeting people like Karl because they are like a diamond in the rough that you happen upon unexpectantly. I met him through a series of loosely connected, seemingly random relationships--I had a friend, who knew a friend, who knew a friend, who knew a friend, who knew him. The friend who introduced me to him is one of Karl's tenants at the Nashville Greenlands, a non-sectarian community from the Catholic Worker Movement located near Fisk University and Tennessee State. He founded the community. The girl who introduced me to him is Grace. I met her Sunday afternoon when her roommate, Sarah, told me to just come over to check out the community. I met Sarah at a Saturday morning breakfast at Keith's house, whom I met from one of my best friends from high school, Isaac. Somehow I found myself walking up to Karl's house through that tangled web I wove. I felt I was playing a character in some play that was written for me. Surreal.

Here's why I even went to the community in the first place: I have been wanting to practice communal living with Christians in a way that embodies the kingdom of God. Too often, I find myself living out my own individualistic, pietistic religion, ignoring my brothers' and sisters' and the world's need for relationship and love. That kind of religiosity is becoming more and more disappointing and empty to me. When I live self-absorbed, I'm living outside of reality, and God wants so much more for his creation than a disembodied, individualistic spirituality. He wants his kingdom come to earth; he doesn't want us to wait on his kingdom come for when we're long gone, pushing up daisies. He's got a plan for creation--it's called redemption. For these reasons, I've been asking the question, What does a radical follower of Christ do in the Bible belt where everyone has a taste of Christ? Some have a bitter taste left in their mouth, some haven't swallowed yet, and some have tasted that he is good. I ask this question, now, because I think Karl clarified the answer for me this Sunday. He spoke truth and it hit me square in the face.

Grace, one of Karl's tenants, led Nate (my friend) and I up to Karl's house around three o'clock that afternoon. He came out, shook my hand, and invited us in through his backdoor. We stepped into his home which he purchased 14 years ago for $18,000. The previous owner sold it because the house was run-down, taken over by overgrown plants, and located in a poor neighborhood. He could have bought a nicer house on the same street, but he wanted this one. It needed redemption. He spent seven months repairing it. Now, fourteen years later, he's still rockin it hard, living in the same house.

I immediately realized that I was in for an experience when he offered Nate and I some tea. (You know you're gonna stay for a while when someone offers you tea.) He put the water in the microwave. We caught him in the middle of his midday snack of two slices of ciabatta bread. On one slice, he put dijon mustard and green olives; on the other, peanut butter and green olives. We took the tea into the dinning room and sat down at the table.

He began to tell us about his community--the history, the communal meals, the values--and we listened. He's still talking about the things for which he was arrested forty years ago:

"Gas is one of the most violent things we do in the world today," he said. This conviction stopped him from driving the Peace-mobile around in the country in the Seventies. (He still has it on the side of his house--it tooks terrible.) He told us his opinion like it was the new idea he was toying around. He didn't really care too much that we had just met; it was time to talk about what matters, so I let him set the tone of the conversation. He spoke with calculation--each word, question, and topic was important to him--and I liked it. I trusted him.

"Did Sarah tell you? I'm a Catholic atheist," he said.

"No, she didn't, actually."

"Oh, I thought.... We'll, I don't pray or any of that stuff. I was very devout as a young man, but I'm not anymore."

He spoke with a matter-of-fact tone like he had come to terms with his identity when he was young and never changed. The conversation moved from his protesting days, to Dorothy day, to the communal meal they have every week there at the Nashville Greenlands. Every Tuesday the 17 residents share a meal together. Rent is only $100 per month, but he asks everyone to put in 20 hours of work into the garden every month. Did I mention he lives off a $7,000 annual income? He doesn't pay taxes, remember.

The conversation easily moved to the topic of God in whom he doesn't believe. I brought him up, and he asked the questions. I blame him cause I didn't really want a conflict the first time I met him. He's a legend around there. I don't want to make a bad impression on the celeb and my potential landlord one day. I decided I would use the word "God" in our conversation and he jumped on it:

"We'll what does God have to do with it?" he said (or something like that).

"God intended us to live different lives. We're living in a broken world, and it needs to be redeemed."

"The world is messed up. People are abusing resources, consuming and using everthing like it's limitless," he seemed to agree. He brought up gas again and I mentioned how I agree that we are using up what God gave us. He was mad that the governmental officials just sit around all day talking and not doing anything useful in the world, like growing things from the ground (he's a vegetarian btdub).

We talked a while about the nation of America and the kindom of God. I said that Jesus, as the king, set up a new way to be, a way that is different and alternative to the American way of life.

"That's really interesting," I said, "we've come to similar conclusions, just from different ways." This time, I was trying to reel him in.

"Oh really?" he said. "What convinced you of these things?"

"It's been my study of Jesus and the New Testament." This was somewhat shocking to him, it seemed. I told me that Jesus' kingdom was different.

"Jesus never claimed to be king."

"Well," I said, "that's not true. He actually he did claim to be a king." At this point, I knew I was opening a can of worms.


"In the gospel of John: when Jesus was talking with Pilate, he told him that he was a king."

"Well, we don't know what he actually said. We only know what the translations tell us."

I rehearsed the dialogue from the gospel of John, and he doubted me. So he got up and returned with three large Bibles. Opening the KJV he had to John 18 where Jesus talks with Pilate, he read passage including the line where Jesus says, "Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice." He closed the Bible with slight indignation and a humble demeanor. I was excited that he wanted to talk about the nature of Jesus. Not many people will go there on your first meet. We moved to various topics about kingdom, Christ, and community, and then he turned away from the historical Jesus toward Christians today.

He said, "So many Christians do not follow Christ. They can't even get along with each other. And they kill instead of make peace."

"And I would not rightly call them Christians because they don't follow Christ," I interrupted.

"So few Christians actually follow Christ's teachings," he said.

In a moment of inspiration, I asked him a pointed question: "Well, what do you want to see Christians do?"

He paused and said, "Live peaceably together."

I have hope for you, Karl, and for peaceable living. You are not far from the kingdom of God, my friend. Not far at all.

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