Book Review: Gandhi’s List of Social Sins: Lessons in Truth

From the May 2012 PNL #814

Dave Pasinski

St. Lucy’s Church had rarely seen a funeral like it. Over 500 people spilled out onto the sidewalk on the scorching morning of July 9, 2011, to commend Frank Woolever, beloved justice-seeker and peacemaker, to God and to the ages. Frank had accomplished much in his vocations as priest, husband, and father. All the while he was involved in countless struggles (inner city and interracial justice issues, the Citizen Review Board, nonviolent protests, pastoral counseling, working at L’Arche, etc.), and he wrote faith-filled reflections that touched thousands. His untimely death left this book as a work in progress and its final editing was completed by his wife, Meme, and his daughter, Heidi Woolever Daly, with assistance from all of the family.

Frank had read Gandhi throughout his life and been profoundly influenced by him. He notes that it was during his months-long incarceration at Canaan Federal Prison camp for his “crossing the line” at Fort Benning during the School of the Americas (a.k.a. WHISC, a US military school notorious for its ties to right wing dictatorships in Central and Latin America) protest in November, 2005, that he wished to saturate himself in the writings of this iconic leader who had spent over six years of his life imprisoned for nonviolent protest. While there are many excellent books on Gandhi, what makes Frank’s unique is not just that he is Syracuse’s own, but that a systematic reflection on the notion of the “social sins” has rarely been as thoroughly treated.

Gandhi’s “ahimsa”—freedom from every form of domination and aggression— and “satyagraha”— a Gandhian neologism best translated as “truth force” or “soul force”—was the basis in virtue to which this list of vices or sins is the antithesis. According to Frank, Gandhi recognized his struggle with these “sins” as a fellow journeyman and did not present these concepts judgmentally about others as if he himself were without fault. Likewise, the value of this book is not only in its explanation of Gandhi’s thought and history, but in Frank’s integration of his own story and illustrations relating to each of these seven areas.

For example, in the first cited entry, “wealth without work,” not only is there a valuable presentation of Gandhi’s reasoning and an appreciation of his own commitment to spin cotton to keep himself centered in the manual labor aspects of life, but Frank also reflects on his own work, including his work in the prison setting. He cites in the next chapter, “pleasure without conscience”, Gandhi’s own struggles around his self- imposed celibacy and his admitted insensitivity—and sometimes worse—to his wife, Kasturba. Frank’s inclusion of his time with Cesar Chavez, the great labor and civil rights leader, provides a personal illustration of this struggle.

Throughout the other reflections on “social sins”—conscience without morality, science without humanity, knowledge without character, worship without sacrifice, and politics without principle—his meditations increased my knowledge of Gandhi and, paradoxically, made him both less saintly and more remarkable at the same time. Frank captures that tension with personal and homey stories that invite the reader to ponder, “How would I deal with that?”, and we are seduced by these ageless but very contemporary challenges. Frank particularly highlights Gandhi’s emphasis on the value of the written word and his numerous writings as he straddled both an activist and contemplative lifestyle. This is complemented by Frank’s referencing some of his over 100 letters to the editor of local newspapers throughout his life on many interrelated subjects. These both celebrated the good done by the many and presented challenges to address these social temptations with which Gandhi grappled. In his “Forward,” Jerry Berrigan quotes Gandhi’s admonition, “If you want something important to be done, you must not just satisfy the reason. You must satisfy the heart also. The penetration of the heart comes from suffering, which opens the inner understanding of men and women...” This is what I believe Frank hoped for in his book as well—to speak not only to our intellectual appreciation of Gandhi, but to let our hearts be inspired for appropriate actions in the face of our encounters with these social sins. This book serves as a fine catalyst for head, heart, and action in the example of both Gandhi and Frank Woolever.

David E. Pasinski is one of Frank’s many friends.