A conversation with John Griffith

Note: Kristina Pearson, a regular contributor to KC Olive Branch, recently interviewed John Griffith, one of five people featured in a KCOB special section piece called “Spiritual Joy.” (found here) John came to Kansas City in 1970 to develop cooperative housing and went on to direct a program which trained managers of farmer cooperatives. He and his wife, Reva, a lifelong Quaker who died in 2003, became core members of Penn Valley Friends Meeting, an unprogrammed Quaker meeting where John still attends silent worship. John and Reva met at William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa, and stayed in Iowa to marry and have four boys. Though they were always active in issues of peace and social justice, John and Reva became visible campaigners against the death penalty after the murder of their oldest son in 1986 during an armed robbery.

As a young man, John was a conscientious objector during WWII, which is documented in his “Spiritual Joy” profile. For those who wish to read more about that experience, John is featured in a chapter of A Few Small Candles, edited by Larry and Lenna Mae Gara (Kent State University Press, 1999).

We invite you to listen in on some of John’s answers, if you’d like. You’ll find links to the audio throughout the text of the interview.

KCOB: When I read the chapter that you wrote about being a conscientious objector during WWII, I was struck by the clarity and resolve you had as a 20-year-old. As you look back now, what life experiences and influences informed your decision to be a conscientious objector and then gave you the courage to follow through with that?

JG (listen): As I try to look back at influences I can pinpoint, maybe the first one would be a near-death experience as a child—a drowning experience. It was a very vivid experience to me of being in the water and realizing I was fighting for my breath. I would come up, get air, go back down, come up, get air, go back down. And I realized as a child I was in a desperate situation. But then there was a shift in my consciousness, and everything was okay. There’s no way to describe that. It was like being held in divine light and it was definitely a feeling that everything is okay. All anxiety about my situation vanished. And then the next thing I remember was my father holding me upside down and beating me on my back and water coming out of my mouth. That experience had a profound influence on my life.

KCOB: How old were you when that happened?

JG: I have records that would tell me, but I would say between seven and nine. I realize that a lot of people would question the ability of a child that old to get stuff right, but I think out of that experience I gained something of a fearlessness—that no matter how bad things seem, everything is okay. I’ve had several experiences in life which have been death-threatening, and I haven’t felt fear in those instances. I attribute it to that experience. So that’s the first thing. Without formulating a philosophy, I was aware that there’s something in life a lot more sacred than our common sense tells us.

If I were going to pick a next experience it would probably be the death of my mother when I was 12 years old.

KCOB: How did the near-death experience affect that, do you think?

JG: Well, I don’t think I made a connection between that and the death of my mother. When my mother died, the only thing I was aware of was just excruciating pain. After she died, at that time I didn’t know what meditation was, but I had reflective moments, and I think I sort of pulled that experience together. Again it reminded me how precious and sacred life is. I gradually became aware that I was a better person after my mother died.

KCOB: In what way? You sensed it then?

JG: Well, to give a specific example . . . Before my mother died, I was a regular guy, you know? A regular little guy. (laughter) Our favorite play time was Tarzan, playing Tarzan. But I also had a BB gun, and we had fig trees in our yard. The birds liked to eat our figs, and I think my dad gave my brother and me a penny for each bird that we killed that was eating the figs. So I got to where I was killing a fair number of birds. I was feeling a little uneasy about it, but it was the red-blooded thing to do, you know, so I went on and did it. Also, my father hunted—quail and doves, mainly—and he bought me a 410 shotgun, the smallest shotgun made. This was before my mother died, and I was just a kid, a little kid. But I would go hunting with my dad with my 410 shotgun. Then after Mother died, I went squirrel hunting, and I saw a squirrel in a tree, and I shot the squirrel. The squirrel held onto the limb; it didn’t fall. So I shot it again, and this time the squirrel fell to the ground. I went and rolled the squirrel over, and the squirrel was obviously nursing baby squirrels. (pause) That hurts even now! So I said, that’s enough killing for me.

So let me see, we were talking about experiences, weren’t we? (laughter)

KCOB: These are the things that made you the person you were when the draft came up.

JG: I think those are the major experiences I can pinpoint. But as soon as the German army attacked Poland in 1939, I was different than most of my friends and realized this was pretty serious and that I needed to start thinking what my responsibility was going to be. So I started reading and thinking, and this was just an evolutionary process which culminated in my saying that war is insane. When we kill each other, we’re killing ourselves, and I wanted to say I’m not going to have anything to do with it.

KCOB: So when you started reading . . . With your father being a Methodist minister, it sounds like you were pretty involved in church at that time. And you mentioned Gandhi, too.

JG: Yes, I read quite a bit of Gandhi.

KCOB: How did those two things work together?

JG (listen): What struck me about Gandhi . . . I was aware that there’s violence and there’s evil that you’ve got to contend with in this life, and the traditional answer to that is violence. You meet violence, and you respond with violence. That was the way people thought. And here this Gandhi was saying there’s another way.

At that time Jesus’ teachings were also very important to me. The Sermon on the Mount I thought was just great stuff, you know? Then I made the connection between the insights that Jesus had and the insights that Gandhi had, and I said, hey, this guy is showing us another way. So that also factored into refusing to register, as a form of nonviolent non-cooperation.

KCOB: From what I’ve read about Gandhi, he was actually able to love his enemy. He sat down with them face to face, and everybody walked away changed.

JG: Well, he may have been sort of Buddhist to the extent that he didn’t recognize an enemy.

KCOB: If you love them, they’re not an enemy, are they? (laughter) So after you made your decision and were arrested, you said in your chapter that “when the jail door clanged shut” behind you, you felt “peaceful and happy.” I wondered if that was a feeling that persisted or maybe returned from time to time. Because you made other difficult decisions after that, in jail, when you decided you couldn’t cooperate with the prison system.

JG: You know, probably to a lesser degree, but not as intense as that experience was. I think it makes sense because I had spent months really trying to sort this stuff out, and then all of a sudden, bang, it got sorted out. (laughter) I expect that I had that feeling at other times, but not as forceful as that one time.

KCOB: So in what ways did following your conscience influence the unfolding of your life after that? You knew within yourself that you had done the right thing. You knew how that played out and that you had the strength to do it. And another thing that struck me was the incredible dignity and respect that you maintained even though all these older authority figures around you were not being so respectful. That must have been very influential, I would think, on how you walked back out into the world and carried on from there.

JG: What happened was, the situation forced me or led me to begin questioning all facets of life and try to understand the deeper meaning of life. That’s with me even today. Maybe the following of my conscience at that time . . . I guess I just see it as a continuum. I don’t know if I would relate it to that particular instance or if it’s just part of my life experience.

KCOB: Let’s get technical here. In terms of reducing violence and injustice in the world, what are your thoughts on changing the hearts of individual people versus changing social structures and policies?

JG (listen): Well, I tend to be on the mystical side of this question, inasmuch as I don’t think that changing the structures and policies of society changes things profoundly. It’s just surface, bubbling around. What really matters is underneath, in the heart or in our consciousness. What we are together is what is important. Activity for social change, to me, unless it’s from this deeper source, probably doesn’t do any good and sometimes can do harm. So I just don’t have very much faith in social engineering divorced from the heart.

KCOB: You say that after a lifetime of social activism.

JG: That’s right. I’ve had friends say they don’t understand how I get into so much trouble if I think that way. (laughter)

KCOB: I’ve got a quote here from Thomas Merton. He said that “the real journey of life is interior.”

JG: I agree with that.

KCOB: So as far as taking action on the outside, the inner comes first and then the outer? Or do we try to stumble along doing both at once as best we can?

JG (listen): Well, I think what happens is, you see the Iraq War is a horrible mistake, and people want to have a vigil to protest the war, and it feels right to join them in saying this is wrong. But at the same time, if I see people at a vigil who have angry feelings toward Bush or toward people who don’t like the vigil, I can see that that’s just more of the same, responding to violence with more violence. If you’re going to break the cycle you’ve got to do something different than that.

KCOB: You’ve said you believe there will eventually be an end to war. Peaceful protests did not prevent the Iraq War, but we saw protests for peace on a global level for the first time. We saw evidence that people all around the globe are ready to be part of a more peaceful world community. Was that a development like you’d hoped to see?

JG: Yes. I mean, I’ll put it in another context. I grew up in South Carolina, in which racial discrimination was very pronounced. By the end of WWII, if anyone had told me that Rosa Parks, by refusing to move, would awaken the consciousness of millions of black people, it would just have been inconceivable that that would happen. So I think that is an example of the consciousness that we share in common suddenly seeing a right course of action and doing it. And I think the time will come when human beings, as a family, will see how stupid killing each other is and stop it.

KCOB: Jane Goodall has a phrase she uses called “moral evolution.” She believes we’re in a process of moral evolution. That sounds kind of similar to what you’re saying—that this is a group thing that we’re doing.

JG: I’d like to think about that some. I do think we have a consciousness in common and that at certain times in history incidents happen that in some way connect with this so that it suddenly takes dramatic leaps forward.

KCOB: Which individuals (like writers, personal associates, world figures) have been most influential in your life?

JG (listen): Well, I would say, probably, in sequence of time, my mother and my father had very positive influences in my life. Gandhi. Among pacifists, A.J. Muste. And then for grappling with what life is fundamentally about, Gerald Heard. Gerald Heard was an English writer. He had a non-denominational religious retreat center in California, like a monastery. I spent several months there, so I knew Gerald personally, and he was easily the most brilliant mind of any human being I’ve ever met. The first book that I read of Gerald Heard was when I was in prison, and the title of it was The Source of Civilization. He’s very intelligent as far as science is concerned, and The Source of Civilization was the first time I was introduced to the idea of the singularity of creation—that from the Big Bang until now it’s a continuum in which we are all connected and that it’s an unfolding rather than separate minds, tying in the spiritual aspect of our common consciousness. That was my first introduction to that whole idea. I’ve read quite a few books of Gerald Heard.

Um . . . Aldous Huxley. I find Krishnamurti’s ideas to be challenging.

KCOB: You mentioned mysticism a little bit ago, and I’m thinking that you told me one time that you had studied mysticism. Was that at the place in California?

JG: Yes, yes. The retreat center was really a place for academic study of mysticism and for actual practice. They had a special building which was sound-proof and light-proof. When you went in there you were in total darkness with no outside sound. Part of the normal routine of the day was an hour first thing in the morning and an hour at noon and an hour in the evening and then as you felt like it, any time you wanted to go in there to experiment in meditation you could. We were to study in the morning and work four hours in the afternoon, gardening or in the washroom or something like that, and then study after supper till bedtime. It was in that context that I was introduced to the writings of Catholic mystics.

KCOB: How did that affect your spiritual journey? Were you already attending Quaker meeting at that time?

JG: I went to William Penn College in 1945, before I went to Heard’s retreat center, and we had a small Quaker meeting at the college. The place Gerald Heard had was called Trabuco, and I went to Trabuco College in the fall of 1946. I also attended Quaker meeting in Chicago in the summer of 1945, just after being released from prison.

KCOB (listen): So the Catholic mystics that you read . . . how did they influence your journey?

JG: At that time I was already involved in experimenting with what the Quakers call the inner light, and the Catholic writers just gave me sort of an academic appreciation. For example, dividing prayer into supplication, intercession, adoration, contemplation, that sort of thing. You can give names and stages. But that never took the place of knowing within oneself what the truth is. So I never found, in studying the Catholic mystics, here’s the truth.

KCOB: So do you consider yourself a mystic?

JG: Yes.

KCOB: From that time onward?

JG: Well, I would say from childhood. In the meantime, it’s just sort of trying to feel your way along.

KCOB: So can I ask you a trick question? You said that meeting Gerald Heard was part of sorting out the meaning of life. So what’s the meaning of life, John? (laughter)

JG: I don’t know. (more laughter) You know, I’m serious, in a way. I have a sense that there’s unfathomable mystery and that life is groping to reunite with that in some way. But I don’t think the grand picture has ever been painted about why. You can have the concept that God is the only reality and that we come from God and we will return to God eventually—all life will. But why was there a fall in the first place, from God to ego consciousness? I don’t know. I do think in some way if we eliminate ego consciousness that God consciousness is possible—maybe necessary if you totally eliminate ego consciousness. But I don’t have a worked-out philosophy of the fall. Why, in the first place, do we have this experiment going on? I don’t know.

KCOB: From the time when you first got introduced to Quakerism in prison when you read a book about it, how has your relationship to Quakerism changed over the years?

JG: I don’t know that my relationship to Quakerism has changed much over the years. I’ve never looked on Quakerism as “the truth,” I’ve looked on it as a society of Friends who are seeking truth. I don’t think at any time the important thing is to find out what Quakerism can tell me about truth, but it provides an environment in which I can be with other people and seek my own truth. So I don’t think that relationship has changed a lot. That’s basically the way I’ve been ever since.

KCOB: I have one last question. Obviously you did lots of work with meditation over the years, but when you started out you were the son of a Methodist minister . . .

JG: And prayer then was “Now I lay me down to sleep . . .” (laughter)

KCOB: So I’m curious about the role of prayer in your life and how it has changed.

JG: Well, I’ve pretty much continued regular meditation, prayer, quiet time—whatever you’d call it—I think maybe going back to the experience at Lake Junaluska when I had the experience of opening the hymnal.

KCOB: Remind me what it opened to. I don’t remember.

JG (listen): Well, after I was arrested I was in a county jail for two weeks before my father could come up with the bond money to get me out. Then there was a two month period between the time I was released on bond and the actual trial. Between that point when I got out of the county jail and when I was tried, my father was, for the first time, putting gentle pressure on me to register. I know he was under a lot more pressure than I was. So he and I agreed that I should go to the Methodist Retreat Center at Lake Junaluska (in North Carolina) and just wrestle with this problem: should I register or not. At the retreat center I began using meditative techniques to try to resolve this question. I was meditating alone in the chapel when I had an impulse to pick up a hymnal, and I picked it up. I had an impulse to open the hymnal, and I opened it, and it opened to “Jesus, I my cross have taken, all to leave and follow thee. Destitute, despised, forsaken, Thou from hence my all shall be.” And that shocked me because it sounded like an answer to a question. So I closed the hymnal—I put it back in the rack and sat there a minute. I had the urge again to pick this hymnal up. So I picked it up again, and it opened to the same page. I think it may have happened a third time, but I didn’t write down . . . I know it was at least twice, it may have been three times, but, anyway, the last time it happened, I said, “Okay, I know what I’m supposed to do.”

KCOB: “You don’t have to strike me with a lightening bolt. I’ll take the hymnal.” (laughter)

JG: “Yes, I got you.” (laughter) Well, I think meditation has been important in my life ever since, with some regularity.

KCOB: And as far as prayer . . . Last night I read a quote from St. Francis of Assisi saying, “When we pray to God we must be seeking nothing—nothing.” From what I understand about your process of prayer . . .

JG: I think the barrier to prayer is our ego, our sense of being a separate human being, separate from you—“I’m separate from you, and I’ve got an ego.” I think that gets in the way of realizing our oneness. And so when you approach prayer, anytime you have a technique, it’s an ego that’s applying the technique, and that presents a problem in prayer. What I’ve picked up from Krishnamurti . . . Krishnamurti refuses to say there’s any technique. (pause) I’m trying to figure out some way to make this simple. (laughter) Krishnamurti would not use the word God. He refers to “Mind.” Mind is One and is unlimited. The ego is limited and is an illusion to the extent it conceives of itself as separate. Krishnamurti would say what one needs to do is to understand one’s conditioning right now—understand what one’s conditioning is. And as you understand your conditioning, the brain becomes quiet. When the brain becomes quiet, the Mind can make contact. That’s sort of an explanation that sort of goes along with my experience.

KCOB: So is there a sense when you sit down for that quiet time . . . is there any kind of differentiation between what someone else would call prayer or what you would call prayer?

JG (listen): This morning when I had quiet time, I would guess that for maybe 20 minutes there was not a thought in my head. And to me that’s the right place to be in meditation. Reflecting on that in Quakerism . . . Quakerism tends to emphasize being “led,” which I would take as receiving some sort of a message, and to me that is not as important as simply “being.” Not being led, but just being. When one’s being is in the right place, right action naturally follows. I still use prayer as a form of recollection—to remind myself of what I’m about, I still use prayer in that sense. But real prayer for me is silence.

KCOB: Okay, can I ask you one more question? The near-death experience that you had so early on . . . the fearlessness that you’ve talked about, the peace that you’ve talked about . . . Is that at some deep level evidence of the divine?

JG: Well, I think it is.

KCOB: And that has been underlying the rest of your life?

JG: Try me again another way.

KCOB: Most of us work with fear a lot, and it sounds to me like the deep comfort you got from that sense that you were being held by something good . . . It sounds like it alleviated . . .

JG: Yes, I think that’s the effect that it had. I don’t want to give the impression that this is all that I am, because there are times when I have reactions which I know are not in that spirit. But, just generally, I think I have had a feeling that everything is going to be okay despite all this turmoil we see on the surface. That everything is going to be okay.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] January 10, 2008 at 11:17 pm · Filed under Peacemakers, Spiritual Joy Note: To read a KC Olive Branch interview with John Griffith, go here. […]

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