This is the first question of a longer interview that Dan McKenzie did with Wes Howard-Brook in Seattle in October. A read of the full interview is well worth it, available HERE on Dan’s blog.
Dan: You mention that between the years of 1979 and 1983, you were working in Washington as a government attorney. Then, something happened and by 1985 you were completing an M.Div. You seem to allude to a remarkable, and unexpected transformation taking place in your own life. I wonder if this is also why you emphasize some of the more mystical and experiential components of faith, not to mention things like communal readings, faith-based readings with the assistance of the Spirit, and hiking in the mountains or on trails by the waterways close to you. Your studies and your areas of focus, seem to arise from deeply personal spiritual experiences. Am I wrong it wondering about this? Could you share a bit about your personal journey and how you ended up where you are today?
Wes: Sure. I was raised in a secular Jewish home and community in Southern California. I didn’t know a practicing Christian until I was in college. Having been born within a decade of the Holocaust, I grew up feeling terrified by the idea that Christians would kill me if they knew I was Jewish. Although no one in my family was in Germany (they came from Russia and Romania in the 1880s), my cultural context understood “Christianity” as the enemy.
I was bar mitzvahed to please my kosher-keeping grandma, whom I loved dearly, and for the big party that came with it. Since my mom was a single mom and struggled to make ends meet, that party was a highlight of my childhood! But it meant nothing “religiously.” Being “Jewish” was purely a cultural identity.
While in college, I experimented with psychedelic drugs, as did so many in Berkeley in the 70s. This led to a mountain experience of what I came to call “God,” but wouldn’t have and didn’t at the time. My unlikely mystical introduction led me first through Eastern religions, via the coaxing of writers like Aldous Huxley and Fritzoj Capra (The Tao of Physics). Eventually, through a relationship with a middle-aged Roman Catholic man at the store where I worked, I learned of mystics like St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Thomas Merton. It was my first exposure to a “Christian” perspective that made any sense of my experience. I was baptized Roman Catholic in 1976, in the brief interim between college and law school.
Having resolved my spiritual identity (for the moment!), I proceeded on my plan to become an attorney, specializing in antitrust law. I worked in Washington, DC for the Federal Trade Commission and then as Counsel to the US Senate Judiciary Committee. My boss was Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, the Bernie Sanders of a previous generation. Through that experience, I learned just how DC worked: whoever has the most money wins. It was both an exciting and deeply discouraging time. Ronald Reagan had just come into office, transforming government work from “public service” akin to being in the military to faceless bureaucrats wasting hard-earned tax dollars. Further, the economic ideology of neoliberalism (via Milton Friedman) turned antitrust law from a populist vehicle to limit corporate bigness to a technical instrument of a narrowly defined “economic efficiency.” There was no future for me in that world.
I happened upon a job opening in the Washington state Attorney General’s office in Seattle, a city to which I had never been. I jumped at the opportunity get out of DC and return to the West Coast. I knew deeply at the time (in 1983) that the Attorney General job was a ticket to Seattle, where something else awaited. What that “something else” was I had no idea! I knew exactly one person in Seattle at the time.
By happenstance or grace, I found myself at the local Jesuit parish, St. Joe’s. There I was quickly immersed in a radical Catholicism that I had not previously known to exist. The archbishop, Raymond Hunthausen, was withholding 50% of his federal income tax to protest nuclear weapons. Pax Christi was organizing people into “affinity groups” who took a “vow of nonviolence” as part of a commitment to resist nuclear weapons. Young adults who had been Jesuit Volunteers were making career choices to serve the poor and reject consumerism, while having fun together. It was a whole new world! I was invited to participate in civil resistance at the Bangor Submarine Base, one of the two largest repositories of nuclear weapons in the US. Most folks are surprised to discover that “liberal” Washington is the most militarized state in the USA, thanks to a series of Democratic senators and representatives who saw military contracts as a substitute for the tradition of resource extraction that had been the base for the local economy. Once I had been “baptized” into resistance work, I could not go back.
I was invited to be part of the inaugural class at Seattle University’s new “Institute for Theological Studies,” now the School of Theology and Ministry. I had no idea what it would lead to, but enrolled to learn and immerse myself in the Christian tradition. I did an MDiv in three years; now most students do it in 6-8 years, but we didn’t know any better! Throughout that time, I continued to have no idea what “practical” outcome this course of study and reflection would lead to.
It wasn’t until I was done that a path emerged. A dear friend, long involved in nuclear resistance, had been to a retreat in Philadelphia led by a man named Ched Myers, and returned with a set of cassette tapes (!) of his talks. I was “schooled out” and declined the invitation to engage the recordings. But when the book, Binding the Strong Man, came out, I devoured it like a novel. Amid the excitement of discovering what I came to call the path of “radical discipleship,” I wondered: Is Mark’s Gospel specifically radical, or is it the reading method Ched used that exposed a latent radicality that might extend beyond Mark? As an experiment, I tried the method—which Ched called “socioliterary”—on what I saw as the most different text from Mark: the Gospel of John. The result was my first book, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Orbis 1994). While I was writing it, a group of us engaged John in community, having spent two years with Mark and BSM. That group, Galilee Circle, began what has since been a consistent practice of engaging scripture in community.
In the quarter century since, I’ve used my own method of reading, adapted from Ched’s, on Revelation and other texts, while continuing to seek ways to embody the radical gospel amid empire.