Orbis Books, 2020, by Jim Forest
Reviewed by Ron Dart
I first met Jim Forest in the mid-1980s when he was still general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) and I was on staff with Amnesty International. We met, initially, the old fashioned way (letter writing). Jim and I have stayed in touch since then. Jim and I, working for two different Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) in the area of peace and human rights, indeed, know what it means to be “Beggar-in Chief” (a chapter in Writing Straight with Crooked Lines). We are often expected to run like race horses yet fed like beggars. But, to the book. The mid-1980s signaled a significant shift in the Cold War, March 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party in the former USSR. Who would have guessed the changes in the USSR and religion in Russia (an important topic and life changer for Jim and his wife Nancy) with Gorbachev coming to power? Many are the chapters in this Memoir of Jim’s trips to Russia, Orthodoxy and Russian literature. Jim and I have had some lovely email correspondence recently of Boris Pasternak and Dr. Zhivago, 2020 being the 60th anniversary of Pasternak’s death. Interestingly, as Jim noted in his missive, when Nancy Reagan was in Russia with her husband, Ronald Reagan, she took the time to go to Pasternak’s grave. Jim sent Nancy Reagan a photograph of the grave and Nancy Reagan replied in a letter of gratitude. History is, indeed, replete with those small and often ignored acts of transcending the tribalism of ideological culture and political wars.
Writing Straight with Crooked Lines, in the birthing chapters, dealt with Jim’s parents, parents immersed in Marxist thought and communism and in McCarthy era America, knowing the paid price for such commitments. There is a poignant sense that Jim was gifted with parents who knew the cost of standing by convictions, convictions perhaps naïve and misguided, yet faithful to a vision. It was this underlying experience that, perhaps, partially, explains Jim’s turn, post naval job, to a form of public Christian faith that was also very much about faithfulness to Christian convictions (Jim’s father and mother, although Marxist, were not anti-religious or anti-Christian). The turn by Jim in the early 1960s to work with the Catholic Worker and Dorothy Day certainly had left of centre tendencies, tendencies inherited from his parental past. Many of the initial chapters in A Memoir deal with Jim’s meandering journey (crooked yet moving in a discernable direction) to an Anglican then Roman Catholic ecclesiology with an engaged peace focus to it. Dorothy Day pointed the way, in time, to Thomas Merton (both significant models and mentors for Jim). Each of the insightful, fast-paced and anecdotal chapters in the autobiography are both a journey with Jim as he moves through time and history but also an overview of the terrain of the time, war and peace ever at odds.
I might add that most of the black-white photographs in the book are keepers not to miss.
The 1960s-1980s brought Jim into contact with some of those most committed to peace but peace in a just manner: Dan and Phil Berrigan, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, A.J. Muste, Joan Baez, Al Hassler, Jim Douglass, Adolfo Perez Esquival, Martin Luther King Jr. and many other women and men on the just peace train. The larger public and political issues of peace and unity, so the crooked lines go, took Jim to a variety of marriages that were not about peace but more discord and disunity, separations troubling and painful. It was the meeting with Nancy that brought, for Jim, solid and straight lines, a path to deeper life and love that shines clean and clear in A Memoir, in time, Nancy offering her kidney so Jim’s body could be more at peace.
The almost 70 short yet riveting chapters in this must-read of a beauty are more than worthy of multiple reads. Much is learned, of course, about Jim’s journey (and many of those he interacted with) but also the cost of being someone concerned for peace and acting on it. The transition of Jim-Nancy to the Orthodox church (given their trips to Russia in the Russian thaw) make for a window into the glasnost-perestroika years and, perhaps more importantly, dukhovnost (spiritual life of the people). It would have been interesting to hear Jim’s thoughts on Putin and the state of the Russian Orthodox Church these days. It was somewhat interesting how, in many ways, Henri Nouwen was a healing shepherd to Jim as he was living through a painful marriage crisis, and yet, when Jim/Nancy turned to the Orthodox Tradition, Nouwen found such a move problematic. Jim’s reflections on this fuller ecclesiology are included in the autobiography with an oft-quoted passage by Merton on uniting the Eastern and Western forms of Christianity.
Writing Straight with Crooked Lines comes to an apt and fitting close with Jim tipping his grateful hat (replete with photographs) to his mentors: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, Daniel Berrigan, Henri Nouwen and Al Hassler-Joan Baez (certainly high level worthies of the 20th-21st centuries peace movements and various types of activism). The final photo (peace fingers held in a joyful way and full face smiles) is fittingly of Jim and Nancy (his decades-long wife who has brought him much peace and many a straight line) on, appropriately, the feast of St. Martha.
Please click on: Writing Straight