Allow me to be autobiographical for a moment- the privilege of the elders in the clergy by common courtesy. I came into this ministry with a sense of outrage from which I have never recovered. In my youth I earned college tuition by reading meters for the East Ohio Gas Company in Cleveland, Ohio. For some ten months this underground activity did more to raise my hackles than all the diatribes of the Eighth Century prophets. I discovered the filthy realities of poverty in the industrial slums of a steel city on the shores of Lake Erie; I saw the violence of family life amongst the immigrant laborers who were the new quasi-slave labor force of the post-war corporations which found themselves in the saddle at the close of that profitable holocaust. It was an eighteen year-old’s introduction to whorehouses, saloons, cold water flats, and tarpaper shacks, which had at least one of democracy’s symbols in common- the gas meter. Amidst slime, garbage, rats and castoff clothing, I recorded the month’s consumption of the precious fuel, and discovered how men and women treat each other and their offspring when tortured by low wages, cramped quarters, exhaustion and cheap liquor with no time for anything but eating, sleep and procreation on the simplest of terms.
I have a strong stomach for outrage, toughened by those months in the gulleys of South Cleveland amidst the stench of steel mills and steaming slums. My own little private world of middle-class comfort evaporated, never to be fully recovered. Later I was to discover how secondary human welfare was for millions of my fellowmen who were pleasantly situated halfway up the hill (to use Wendell Wilkie’s unforgettable simile). Once a man has passed through such experience he never fully insulates himself again. I have read of the Ludlow Massacre, the Haymarket riots, the slaughter from the skies at Guernica, the mass incineration of the Jews at Oswiecim and Dachau, the extinction of the city of Hiroshima, but these for me are secondhand in all their horror. I have, to be sure, seen with my own eyes the poverty of Tokyo and Mexico city, and the rural degradation of the State of Maine, but nothing stays with me as vividly as do those teenage experiences of misery along the Cuyahoga River in Ohio.
It was during those late teenage years that I began to meet, as have most of you in your own way, the merciless dialogue between love and hate, as it is conducted between the interstices of our industrial civilization. You may be more privileged, but for me it is an endless and torturing dialogue which will continue to the Day of Judgment, in spite of all the advances and compromises which may mark the way.
As I reflected night after night on those shattering experiences in the ghetto of poverty-haunted Cleveland. I was confronted with words on paper, printed and bound, by men earlier immersed in the same conflicts of the flesh and the spirit. My rebellion was more English in origin than Russian, though in the present perspective it makes little difference, for the torment of modern man rejects the prejudices of nationalism. I discovered Robert Kett of England, who was hanged in 1549 for saying, “The pride of great men is now intolerable, but our condition is miserable. They abound in delights, are consumed with vain pleasures, thirst after gain, and are inflamed with the burning delights of their desires. But ourselves, we are almost killed with labor and watching, do nothing all our lives but sweat, mourn, hunger and thirst.: later I discovered Maxim Gorky and his Letter to American Intellectuals, with its savage words, “You reproach me with ‘preaching hatred’ and advise me to ‘propagate love.’ It would seem you think me capable of preaching to the workers: ‘Love the capitalists for they are devouring your kith and kin, love the capitalists for their church is holding you down in obscurity and ignorance.’ Nothing save the victory of the proletariat will be able to rid the world of hatred.” The jargon of revolutionaries may seem a cliché to Americans and slogans seem too glib, but when translated into our problems of Mexican migratory laborers or Birmingham’s black ghettos it has a devastating relevance.
Those months in 1920 which led to my decision to consider the ministry were filled with what Lewis Mumford has called “existential nausea at the many miscarriages of civilization.” And the miscarriages were not only in the dim recesses of the past, or in foreign lands; they were painfully before my eyes as I arose each morning at five to make a new sortie into those parts of my city which my schools and my neighbors had never spoken of. That nausea led me, as it has led so many before me, into desperate measures: into a year of training at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to discover the esoteric and escalating adventures of business, and then into the reverse escape through preparation for the ministry in one of our evangelical colleges in Central Ohio. The effort to escape disaster through spiritual seclusion was as abortive as such efforts usually are, because most of us, when once confronted with human tragedy in its naked form and reconfronted with it in its Protean varieties, never wholly recover.