Sunday, November 16, 2008

"Shantung Compound" Summaries

I am taking Honors Seminar, a class that all Southern Scholars are required to take. We read books that our teacher, Dr. McArthur, has picked out as being profound and educationally enlightening. Once a month we turn in a paper and discuss that month's book.

This past month we read Shantung Compound by Langdon Gilkey. It describes the author's experience in a Japanese Internment camp in WWII. Their experience was nothing like we frequently think of when thinking of prison camps. The prisoners were allowed to create their own community within the camp. The guards were there only to make sure they didn't escape and to provide supplies. They had to make teams to cook, teams to clean, teams to bake, teams to build, etc. Shantung Compound is derived from the author's diary of his experience and what he observed about mankind from his time there.

Here's an excerpt from my paper:
"The story of prisoners at Weihsien, an internment camp for Ally civilians who lived in China during World War II, provides an unusual look at human conduct in a rare and pure form. What happens when the unnecessary externals of a society are stripped away? How do people react and what becomes their motivating force for life? Digging deeper, we are able to see a spiritual microcosm in which sinful human behavior exists. When only the basic necessities of life are left, we see selfishness versus self-sacrificing love played out on a level playing field. These problems crystallize and define themselves when reduced to a small community. They become easier to manage, and subsequently, more applicable to our own lives."

The book is so complex, touching on so many areas of life, that when it came time to write the paper, I was at loss of where to start. So I decided to clump together what I felt Gilkey's main observations were during and after his time in the Internment camp. What follows is a mental exercise in summarization. Hopefully it will provide you with an idea of the book and some thoughts about life.

And by the way, it's a great book. I would highly recomend it.

  • Things such as intellectual ability and social status become irrelevant when the basic necessities of life are threatened. Our common humanity is finally acknowledged. This is similar to Maslow's theory of a Hierarchy of Needs. Only once basic needs are met can humanity feed their souls.
  • Mankind has an amazing ability for adaptation; the ability to change and accept a new "normal". This is how humans are able to survive in a sinful world.
  • Morality or immorality comes from the deepest spiritual center of a man. This provides for a life its final security and meaning. When this center is about self service and it becomes threatened, he is no longer able to be rational or moral. When his center is not threatened, he can be rational and moral about situations outside of himself. In other words, sinful mankind is hypocritical when issues deal with himself.
  • Work must have meaning beind it or one cannot stand it.
  • We are not defined by our work roles, there must be a core identity that supersedes all else.
  • Without moral health, a community is as helpless and lost as it is without material supplies and services.
  • Just programs are programs that, idealistic or not, can be practical and able to be enacted.
  • Law is necessary due to self-interest. It is more than simply outlining what is right versus what is wrong. It is about controlling self-interest and molding it into socially creative rather than socially destructive patterns.
  • "A democratic society can possess no stronger law than the moral character of the people within it will affirm and support."
  • Our sinful world has a paradoxical dilemma: 1.) Mankind must be moral (concerned about others over self) if human community is to be possible. 2.) Mankind (by their own power) is unable to overcome their love for self to gain this morality.
  • No matter the society or political situation, the up or downs of life, if our main meaning of life comes from service to God, then this is our constant in a continuously changing world.
Reason vs. Self
  • Reason is an affect of social harmony rather than a cause.
  • People serve self-interest first and foremost, then come up with rational and moral reasons to defend themselves.
  • When the security of self or a basic condition of one's life is threatened, objectivity ceases and morality is no longer a main concern.
  • Rational behavior (putting self aside to focus on others) is a moral achievement.
  • Wealth, if not in the hands of selfless people, is demonic.
  • "A man's moral health or unhealth depends primarily on the fundamental character, direction, and loyalty of his self as a whole."
  • Mankind is continually involved in a battle against self. (Paul's concept of our "old man")
  • Christianity should be about love for your neighbor and not "holiness" (superficial acts to be holy)
  • If self wins, religion is an instrument of sin; if God wins, religion is a possibility for good and service to others.
  • All men are religious; but to whom does their devotion lie?
Meaning of life:
  • That which motivates a man to work usually motivates his total life.
  • "Injustice to other men is the social consequence of an inward idolatry. The moral problems of selfishness, the intellectual problems of prejudice, and the social problems of dishonesty are all together the result of the deeper religious problem of finding in some partial creature the ultimate security and meaning which only the Creator can give."
  • True morality comes only when we find meaning beyond ourselves.

"The only hope in the human situation is that the 'religiousness' of men find its true center in God, and not in the many idols that appear in the course of our experience. If men are to forge themselves enough to share with each other, to be honest under pressure, and to be rational and moral enough to establish a community, they must have some center of loyalty and devotion, some source of security and meaning, beyond their own welfare.

"This center of loyalty beyond themselves cannot be a human creation, greater than the individual but still finite, such as the family, the nation, tradition, race or the church. Only the God who created all men and so represents none of them exclusively; only the God who rules all history and so is the instrument of no particular historical movement; 0nly the God who judges His faithful as well as their enemies, and loves and cares for all, can be the creative center of human existence.

"Given an ultimate security in God's eternal love, and an ultimate meaning to his own small life in God's eternal purposes, a man can forget his own welfare and for the first time look at his neighbor free from the gnawings of self-concern.

"From this we can perhaps now see what the man of real faith is like. He is the the man whose center of security and meaning lies not in his own life but in the power and love of God, a man who has surrendered an overriding concern for himsel, so that the only really significant things in his life are the will of God and his neighbor's welfare. Such faith is intimately related to love, for faith is an inward self-surrender, a loss of self-centeredness and concern which transforms a man and frees him to love."


Jonas said...

Looks to be an excellent read. Thanks for summarizing!

Have you read "To End All Wars" ? It is the story of a Scottish POW in a Japanese death camp. Although it comes at the POW story from a drastically different angle (!), it seems to draw some very similar conclusions.

It appears that there are some characteristics of society (ergo human nature) which transcend distinctions of environmental severity...

Christy said...

I'll have to see if they have that book in the library.

Interestingly enough, we had a guest discussion moderator come in from Chicago who had been a prisoner (as a child) in a similarly structured Japanese camp in the Philippines. He shared his own experience but commented on how similar the two camps were. It was neat to hear first-hand what his experiences were.

I wrote my paper on the idea that those those transcending qualities which you refer to are all Biblically founded. In fact, many of his conclusions can be found in Proverbs and demonstrated in the life of Christ. It really neat to see Biblical principles affirmed.

Christy said...

My grandfather grew up in this camp. I'm glad people can hear his story.

C. Y. Cheng said...

Christy, you gave an excellent summary of the book!

I came to know "Shantung Compound" when I searched for books on the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, the greatest American theologian in the 20th century. I believe Gilkey got his doctoral degree under Niebuhr from the Union Theological Seminary. The book's reflection on the experience in the internment camp is the most outstanding contribution to our understanding of the meaning of each person's "ultimate loyalty."

"A man may assent with his mind and lips to even the greatest truths, and practice in his acts all the rules of piety and holiness, and still keep the center of his concern fixed selfishly on his own bodily or spiritual welfare." (p. 235)

I cannot help but agree totally with Gilkey on this profound conclusion on and observation of human nature.

The more recent book by Timothy Keller, "Counterfeit gods," provides another fresh biblical perspective on self-idolatry. Of course, most intellectuals continue to prefer the shallow messages of self-centeredness as expressed by John Lennon's song "Imagine" and ignore the truth observed first hand by Langdon Gilkey in Weihsien, Shantung (Shandong Province of China) during the very bleak years of WWII.

Christy Joy said...

C.Y.Cheng - Thanks for the book recommendation. I haven't read Keller's book but it sounds like that needs to change!

You're right - it is unfortunate that the majority of intellectuals blind themselves to their own degradation by believing erroneous philosophies. Gilkey certainly had a lot of things right, that's for sure!

Anonymous said...

What I found so profound when I first read the book in the late 80's as a young seminary student was the use of moral reasoning people would use to justify their own selfish interests. It didn't matter if you were fundamentalist or modernist, some people lived to help others and others lived to help themselves (and rationalized this as moraly righteous behaviour)

Dana said...

I have been to Shantung Compound. It is now #1 Middle School, Weifang, Shandong Province. I talked to Langdon Gilkey before he died. He claimed to be a Buddhist Christian???

May I recommend David Mitchell's A Boy's War, 1988? Eric Liddel's body is now under the street. When they expanded the road, the went over his grave.--Dana Roberts

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