Building on Refusal

by Elder M. Lindahl

An important building program is now in progress at Covenant Manor, the retirement campus in Minneapolis where we live. A new structure, the Courtyard Building, which will provide 130 new apartments, is being added to the existing building that has 125 apartments. The land on which both the old and new buildings are located was originally a swamp. Basset Creek, which was straightened out and redirected to the West, once meandered through the wetland on which the Covenant Manor complex is now located. How can such an impressive complex of buildings be constructed on such a marshy spot?

By having a good foundation! And that’s a real challenge in this particular location! Bolduc, Inc., a pile driving company of Anoka, Minnesota since 1879, is in charge of driving the required sections of steel piling deep into the earth. The operators of the huge cranes rhythmically hammer long lengths of 7" piling into the soft ground until they find, in the words of one old construction worker, refusal. The piles refuse to go even one more inch. Bed rock brings them to a standstill. The depth for arriving at solid ground varies for each piling. The average depth, I’m told, is 70 feet below ground level. These pilings will be filled with concrete before the superstructure is erected.

Refusal is a significant and intriguing concept. Though it has a negative ring in a permissive and accommodating society, it serves a positive role in human life. Refusals are acts or events of refusing by rebellious individuals.

A few examples of rebels with important causes come to mind. Martin Luther protested the sale of indulgences with the posting of his 95 theses on the door of the castle church. When confronted, his point of refusal was: "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise." Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax in Concord, Massachusetts, went to jail, and wrote a definitive work on civil disobedience which influenced Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance in India as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s refusal to accept racial discrimination in America. Paul Peter Waldenström’s opposition to the theology and polity of the Swedish State church led to the formation of free Covenant churches in Sweden and America. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s firm "no" to National Socialism and to Adolph Hitler’s claim to be Master and Lord continues to have an impact on what it means to be a Christian today. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give her seat to a white man one day in December, 1955, inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott and started the modern civil rights movement. The campaign to "Just Say No" to drugs, gangs, and violence builds strong, healthy lives. MADD (Mothers-and others-Against Drunk Driving) makes our highways safer. Nelson Mandela’s refusal to accept apartheid through boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience brought democracy and equality to the black people of South Africa and beyond. Young Florida students in SWAT, an organization that strongly opposes the targeting of teenagers by the powerful tobacco companies, continue to lower the percentage of teenage smokers. The list of those who stood, and continue to stand, against injustice, discrimination, evil, oppression, and crime could go on.

One individual who stands out recently in the list of those who refused to continue in a compliant acceptance of the status quo is a youth sometimes referred to simply as "Tank Man" or "The Unknown Rebel." Wang Weilin, possibly his given name, is the 19-year-old student who stood his ground in the face of a line of 17 tanks near Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. In the early hours of the previous day, the Chinese government had massacred many of the million or so revolutionary students, workers, doctors and teachers who had encamped in Tiananmen Square in protest of communist rule and human indignity. Tank Man, clothed simply in a white shirt and dark slacks, carrying what seems to be a shopping bag, stepped out of the crowd to make a death-defying stand for freedom and peace. His moment of defiance, as he placed his body before one of the heavily armed tanks, is fixed forever in our minds. One solitary individual stood foolishly in unconditional protest before the menacing tanks, before all the Chinese leaders, and before the peoples of the watching world. When the tank swerved to the right to try to avoid him, Wang moved resolutely to the left. His point of refusal was ultimate— not one more inch. Once the lead tank stopped, Wang climbed aboard the front surface of the destructive vehicle and said to the driver, as it has come down to us, "Why are you here? My city is in chaos because of you!" Ironically, the tanks were proceeding on the Avenue of Peace when this unknown student defied and halted them.

What might we say was built on Tank Man’s refusal? As far as I know, nothing—he slipped back into anonymity once he climbed down from the tank. Nonetheless, the image of one courageous little man putting his life on the line continues to remind us that human life and human rights are nonnegotiable.