Bill Wylie-Kellermann is a nonviolent community activist, retired pastor, and author living in Detroit. His most recent books are: Dying Well: The Resurrected Life of Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann (Case Community, 2018), Principalities in Particular: A Practical Theology of the Powers that Be, and Where the Waters Go Around: Beloved Detroit.
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Rooted in Exile
It’s always tempting to read without context, or to quickly presume our own. In which case this might yield a bumper sticker for urban ministry: Seek the Welfare of the City. Or some universal and individual dictum of God’s love.
But time and place are crucial to interpretation. This one, from the prophet Jeremiah, was penned in the reign of King Zedekiah, between the first Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. and the final destruction of Jerusalem and temple in 587, with a second deportation. It is a letter sent to the exiles by way of the king’s official couriers. The location of the letter is betwixt and between. Written in Jerusalem, read in Babylon. For that matter, kind of like our situation.
So, from where do we read? Equally crucial to know. William Stringfellow, in his An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, put it like this:
An Unbound Spirit
WHEN DANIEL and Philip Berrigan, A.J. Muste, John Howard Yoder, and a handful of Catholic radicals gathered in 1964 with Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky for a retreat concerning the spiritual roots of protest, the intercessions of that meeting, I am convinced, not only seeded a movement but summoned my vocation.
Four years later when Daniel and Phil Berrigan and seven others entered the draft board in Catonsville, Md., removed 1A files and burned them with homemade napalm, those ashes too would eventually anoint my pastoral calling. October marks the 50th anniversary of the trial of the Catonsville Nine. Released in February 1973 after 18 months in the federal penitentiary at Danbury, Conn., Daniel Berrigan came to New York and taught the Apocalypse of John when I was a student at Union Seminary. Full disclosure: He became to me not merely teacher, but mentor and friend.
In the year following Dan’s death (April 30, 2016), Jim Forest undertook the heroic literary effort of writing At Play in the Lions’ Den. Perhaps he had a running start. Three things of note up front. One is that Forest’s own life is inextricably tangled with Berrigan’s. He was, for example, editor of The Catholic Worker when Dan first appeared there, was part of the 1964 retreat with Merton, and responded to Catonsville by joining others in a draft board raid in Milwaukee within the year. So, like the Acts of the Apostles, there are whole sections of this book written in the first-person voice. Or betimes, Forest just peeks from behind the elegantly researched narrative to lend a knowing detail. This is a risky wire act. Don’t fall into self-aggrandizement (his genuine modesty saves him that) or the net of hagiography. And best to name this from the start, in the subtitle: “biography” and “memoir,” a difficult art Forest has mastered.
We Die Before We Live
On April 30, 2016, Catholic peacemaker and activist Daniel Berrigan entered life eternal. He was a teacher and friend to many in the Sojourners community. Read more reflections on Dan's life and legacy in the August 2016 issue.
I ONCE HAD a conversation with Dan about his death. We were talking late into the night at the Block Island hermitage that his friends William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne had built for him while he was two years in Danbury federal prison, a consequence of the 1968 Catonsville draft board action. He had by then foresworn scotch, on doctor’s orders, so I was being introduced to Manhattans dry, which were somehow allowed. The place suited the topic. On the wall above us was an exorcism poem that he’d hand-lettered in a style familiar to Catholic Worker and resistance houses across the country.
I’m certain it was I who broached the topic. When we met in the early ’70s, it was in the wake of notorious assassinations: Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo, the Panthers, Malcolm, King, the Kennedys. There was a certain youthful grandiosity in imagining that he or others who were such troublesome peacemakers would be similarly targeted. I braced my heart. I told him so. (Then he turns around and lives, thanks be, to 94!)
Bill Wylie-Kellermann responds
Thanks to Walter for this affirmation. Wink’s contribution was indeed enormous in my view and, in the end, well-received. After he was denied tenure, however, he could not find a job in the academy. I know it was a painful time for him.
Struggling to Become Human
In scholarship and life, Walter Wink sought the truth with passion.
From the Archives: April 1985
Authority Over Death
Blame for Blight: Bill Wylie-Kellerman Replies
Bill Wylie-Kellermann replies:
An Assault on Local Democracy
Michigan's "Emergency Manager" law and Detroit's future.
Walter Wink: Remembrance and Reflection
Walter Wink, 76, a world-class biblical scholar and non-violent practitioner, crossed over to God on May 10 at his home in Western Massachusetts. Following a slow decline, he had been in hospice for several weeks in the company of his beloved June and their family. (See "Confronting the Powers," Sojourners December 2010)
As a first year seminarian in New York City, more than 35 years ago, I was fortunate to have Walter as my New Testament instructor. In a seminar session on the "pearl of great price" in Matthew, I have a vivid memory of him breaking the discussion so we could go round the circle and each reply to the question: "For what would you be willing to die?" I don't so much recall my own halting answer, as the depth of the question he understood was put to us by the text. It's since become my conviction that no one should escape seminary (or baptismal preparation for that matter) without facing with that query.
Which is to say he was himself an engaged scholar, connecting the academy with the risk of the streets. While filling his first teaching post at Union Seminary in New York he was simultaneously serving on the national steering committee of Clergy and Laity Concerned about the War in Vietnam (1967-76).
He was notorious for foundation-shaking works. When I met him, Walter was a rising star in the biblical guild, on the fast track at Union. Then he published a little polemical book called The Bible in Human Transformation (1973) which made bold to declare, “Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt." It assailed the myth of scientific objectivity, the disembodied approach which kept the text at arms length and pre-empted commitment. In many respects it anticipated the contextualizing hermeneutics of feminist and liberation readings, but it didn't win him friends in the academic guild.
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