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      Legal Studies Forum
      Volume 25, Nos. 3 & 4 (2001
      reprinted by permission Legal Studies Forum
      PERSPECTIVE FROM PRISON: 
      LANGDON GILKEY'S SHANTUNG COMPOUND
      DAVID HOSTETLER*
           In World War II, Japanese military authorities ordered two thousand
      allied civilians living in China into a civilian internment center near
      Weihsien, China, in Shantung province, where they lived for approximately
      two-and-one-half years before being liberated by American soldiers. Twenty
      years later, one of the internees, American theologian Langdon Gilkey,
      wrote Shantung Compound to recount the experience of this community of
      prisoners.1 "[I]internment camp life," writes Gilkey, "seems to reveal
      more clearly than does ordinary experience the anatomy of man's common
      social and moral problems and the bases of human communal existence. . .
      ." (ix). Gilkey not only provides an account of the events at Weihsien but
      also offers his insights on human nature, law, politics and government,
      work, religion and morality. Although Shantung Compound was originally
      published in 1966, the book remains a vivid and timeless study of human
      beings and their relationships. 
           While teaching at Yenching University near Peking in February 1943,
      Gilkey, like other foreigners, received notice of his impending detention
      at the center, where "every comfort of western culture" would be
      available. As it turned out, about the only thing "western" was the camp's
      origin as a former Presbyterian mission compound.2
           The Weihsien camp was small (about the size of a large city block)
      containing a diverse community-ethnically, economically, profession-ally,
      and spiritually. There were Americans, Brits, and Australians; singles,
      couples, and large families; and representatives from practically every
      profession-bankers, lawyers, doctors, monks, missionaries, and hookers. 
      Adapting to a New Life
        How quickly man makes his life-whatever its character may be-into what
        he can call "normal." What would have seemed a fantastic deprivation to
        a man comfortable, well fed, and serene in an easy chair
      [459]

 

        at home, had by the end of the few short months become just "Life" for
        us. (48).
      Two qualities evident in the first days at Weihsien were the internees'
      resourcefulness and ability to adjust to difficult conditions. One
      pressing problem was the need for a working hospital. Gilkey recounts the
      "astounding" ability of the medics and volunteers to set up a hospital
      within eight days, and a working laboratory within two more, using only
      broken and scattered medical equipment left over from the compound's
      former days. Within ten days, the medical teams were delivering babies.
      (13-14).
           Hygiene was another immediate problem: "We expected a disaster in
      public health every day." (13). Gilkey recounts the dilemma posed by the
      initial shortage of latrines and the consequent overflow and odor: "I
      recall clearly my relief that a providential case of constipation during
      the first ten days of camp saved me from having to test the strength of my
      stomach." (14). Although the problem was staggering, individuals stepped
      forward to serve. In this instance some priests, nuns, and
      missionaries-equipped with boots, mops, and handkerchiefs to cover their
      mouths-cleared the area.
           Gilkey describes many other instances in which individuals sacrificed
      and acted creatively for the good of the community. He does not, however,
      ignore the many examples of contrary behavior or the internees' clever
      rationalizations for such conduct. Overall, however, Gilkey celebrates the
      remarkable strength of the human spirit manifested in the many acts of
      courage, service, and perseverance at Weihsien. 
           Gilkey's observations leave readers to consider how they do or how
      they might react when deprived of daily needs, comforts, and desires--a
      power outage, a flood, a debilitating snowstorm, the loss of a loved one.
      Where or in what do we find our deepest comfort? What do our actions tell
      us about ourselves? What do we value most and what motivates us? Such
      questions permeate, at least implicitly, Gilkey's account. 
      Law, Politics, and Power
        Politics is seldom dull; in Weihsien camp it was never so. From the day
        we arrived to the end of our stay, the issues of power, law, and
        government were the most fascinating and baffling that we faced. Day in
        and day out we were confronted with many problems that most students of
        society discuss in the abstract. We, however, had to solve them in
        practice. How do you form a government? How are leaders best picked? Why
        is democratic rule preferable, if it is? How does a government generate
        enough power to rule and yet not be allowed too
      [460]

 

        much power lest it become despotic? How is the moral dimension of life
        interrelated with the role of law and force in human community? (117).
      As one of their first orders of business, camp members established a
      decision-making body. From the first decisions that were made, and just as
      importantly, from the manner of their making, a power structure emerged,
      providing Gilkey (a member of the first leadership group) with abundant
      examples of how people, even in extreme circumstances, hunger for and use
      power. 
        [The] finding of leaders constitutes the first act of the drama of
        politics. During our stay there, this problem of politics, of our own
        self-government and self-direction, remained to me the most subtle, the
        most frustrating and baffling issue we had to face. It was also the most
        fascinating, as I discovered very early. (24).
           Gilkey notes with interest the way some men cleverly jockeyed for
      positions of formal authority. There were four major internee groups
      within the community: three were geographically related, with groups from
      Peking, Tsingtau, and Tientsin, and one was religious--the Catholic monks
      and nuns. (Representatives from this last group were prohibited by their
      superiors from serving in leadership positions.) The first formal
      deliberative gatherings involved nightly meetings of approximately twenty
      representatives from these four groups, "probably picked hastily and
      arbitrarily," notes Gilkey. These meetings offered Gilkey, at Weihsien,
      his "first sight of how men behave in relation to power" as individuals
      "sought to influence, by their opinion, the decisions to be made."3 (25).
      Gilkey notes how, whenever an individual spoke about a particular problem,
      it was evident that "he was also anxious that his be the germinating mind
      that provided the resolution, and that his be the voice that ended the
      discussion." (26). Gilkey describes the "hierarchy of power" that evolved
      over time "as a few men attained a subtle but real dominance." (26-27). 
           The emerging governing authorities at the camp struggled not only to
      organize, but also to establish credibility, impose effective and
      equitable solutions to problems, and enforce their decisions. Gilkey
      expresses amazement that clearly equitable and rational decisions were
      repeatedly rebuffed by internees offering, oftentimes, very clever and
      sincerely held rationalizations (e.g., opposing the transfer of a resident
      from one crowded room of eleven to a slightly less crowded room of nine 
      [461]

 

      to even the numbers in both rooms). Based on his observations, Gilkey
      concludes: 
        First, that any stable government or system of law must seek to guide
        itself as best it can by the principles of justice and equality.

        Secondly, that in the last analysis government can rest only on the
        united moral strength of the community which it governs. But, thirdly,
        that the capacity to rule is also dependent upon the possession of
        force. . . . In the creation of legitimate governmental authority, the
        interplay between these moral and compulsive elements creates the most
        fascinating of problems. Morality can never replace force, but it must
        provide the deep basis for the creative use of force. (118-19).
           Such conclusions reflect a moral and political "realism" often
      associated with Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Gilkey acknowledges as an influence
      on his intellectual and theological development. Gilkey's observations
      about human motivations and machinations involving the acquisition and
      exercise of political power resonate, particularly in light of the recent
      American presidential election. It is not difficult to see the relevance
      of his insights, particularly the manner in which individuals seek their
      own self-interests and aggrandizement in the name of community well-being.
      Gilkey has a profound ability to sift through and identify the many
      motives of individuals and groups in the political process. What is
      missing from the Shantung experience, of course, are other elements that
      influence the exercise of political power-wealth, social and economic
      status, and party affiliation.4
      Calling, Cooperation, and Creativity 
        The other interest, besides our personal relationships, that fill our
        human days, whether we be in a city, on a farm, or in a camp, is work.
        Work and life have a strange reciprocal relationship: only if man works
        can he live, but only if the work he does seems productive and
        meaningful can he bear the life that his work makes possible. The work
        in the camp was, then, central to each of us. (52).
      Gilkey describes how everyone in the camp performed common tasks to meet
      basic needs. Former ministers, financiers, surgeons, and business-men,
      like everyone else, peeled potatoes, stoked the ovens, cleaned latrines,
      and performed other mundane tasks. In these tasks, individuals responded
      differently depending on the meaning they attached to their work. After
      several months on the housing committee, for example, Gilkey felt the need
      for physical work and volunteered for 
      [462]

 

      kitchen duty. He describes the creative and energetic crew of workers he
      joined and their long days of work to prepare meals for 300 people. At the
      end of the day, he left "tired but full of the satisfaction of one who has
      worked with his muscles all day." (53).
           Although there were "shirkers" throughout the camp who seemed to take
      no pride or find any satisfaction in their work, many others found
      significance in the most menial tasks. For those who found meaning in
      these menial tasks, there was, says Gilkey, a sense of "calling," a
      religious dimension to their work that transformed it beyond its immediate
      value to the community.
        For the man who knew nothing of divine Providence, coming to camp was an
        arbitrary fate that separated him from every familiar meaning by which
        he had lived his life. To those-and there were many-who found this new
        situation to be a strange work of Providence, however incomprehensible
        these purposes were, there could be no such loss of significance in the
        new and unexpected situation. Here, too, there could be an opportunity
        and a significant task to be performed-it might not be that of teacher
        or architect, but it could be that of stoker, cook, or master baker. A
        sense of significance that is rooted in the purposes of God cannot be
        lost in any situation. 
        * * * *
        On these two bases, therefore-the universal lordship of God and the
        universal presence of the neighbor with whom we can establish
        community-a significant vocation or task with religious roots cannot be
        removed by the ups and downs of historical fortune. (240-41).
      In these passages, Gilkey clearly casts his lot with the traditional
      Protestant understanding of calling. This view considers all morally
      acceptable work to be God-given and significant; the God who directs our
      lives also directs us, through our work, to fulfill the creation mandate
      to "subdue the earth"5 and to serve our neighbor. 
           Although Gilkey's analysis is not an extensive Christian apologetic
      for Divine providence, it does demonstrate a consistent and meaningful
      application of that principle to the material and mundane realm of work.
      It has a certain intuitive resonance because of its ennobling explanation
      of our work that ties it to divine purposes. 
      [463]

 

      Religion and Morality 
        For even saintly folk will act like sinners
        Unless they have their customary dinners. 
                -Bertholt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera
           Gilkey begins his book with this quote from The Threepenny Opera to
      introduce a dominant theme in Shantung Compound--the frailty of human
      moral nature. 
        To be sure, the people at Weihsien did not continually snarl at each
        other, nor were they obviously brutal or continually selfish. As a
        matter of fact, they remained surprisingly cheerful. We found that a
        sense of humor, incidentally, is the most pervasive and most welcome of
        men's better qualities. Good will did manifest itself in many features
        of our life. People showed a genuine consideration for others in many
        ways: helping their fellows to fix up their rooms with useful gadgets;
        making a stove for a person too old to do for himself; helping an
        invalid to make his coal bricks or to do his laundry; standing in line
        for one another. On this level, common trouble did bring out an
        admirable generosity. 
        When, however, the point at issue was not an hour's work but a basic
        condition of life-such as the space a man lived in or the amount of food
        he had to eat-then this good will tended to recede and in most cases to
        disappear. This is why in our larger society the same people who . . .
        appear to be extremely generous in their personal relations, can become
        intractable, prejudiced, and even vicious on the deep social issues of
        national security, economic privilege, housing restrictions, or racial
        justice. Here the basic conditions of life become involved, funda-mental
        securities are threatened, and we are all much more touchy and skittish
        than when merely an extra piece of pie, a church benevolence or the
        donation of some of our time is at stake. (92-93).
           Gilkey's Weihsien experience confirmed for him people's inability to
      avoid excessively self-interested conduct and the profound impact this has
      on our social relations and communities. Gilkey recounts the evolution in
      his own thinking about "moral man" and his dissatisfaction with simplistic
      explanations and solutions. 
        The most obvious dilemma had been the moral one: men must be just, fair,
        and generous if a creative and stable society is to be possible at all,
        and yet apparently this is for us a supremely difficult if not
        impossible task. How are we to understand ourselves; why does such an

        obvious necessity seem so unattainable and even unnatural to our present
        nature? As in camp, I continued to find both the humanistic and the
        rigidly pietistic answers to these questions unsatisfactory.
      [464]

 

        Those humanists who insist that men are naturally wise and good enough
        to be moral seemed to me to be continually refuted by the patent
        persistence of dangerous selfishness among people whose intentions were
        good. Those religious perfectionists who believe that pious Christians
        are holy and holy people are good were refuted by the intolerance and
        lovelessness of many of the pious. Against both, therefore, the evidence
        revealed that it is above all things difficult to be good, and that in
        all of us-the wise, the idealistic, and the religious alike-lie deep
        forces beyond our easy control which often push us seemingly in spite of
        ourselves into selfish acts. (229-30).
           For example, by the winter of 1944-45, food and other supplies were
      low, and so, consequently, was camp morale. One day, without notice,
      approximately 1500 American Red Cross crates stuffed with basic food and
      health supplies, plus many comfort items (e.g., blankets, chocolates,
      cheeses, cigarettes), arrived at the camp. Many Americans believed that
      each of them should receive seven or eight of these large crates. The
      non-American prisoners believed, however, that the crates should be
      distributed equally among all the internees regardless of their source.
      The tension between these contingents grew quickly. Gilkey quotes one
      American defiantly protesting, "Damn it, you limey, that's American stuff,
      and you lousy spongers aren't going to get a bit of it. Why doesn't your
      Red Cross take care of you?" (101). After several days, the Japanese
      authorities decided the question by authorizing the distribution of
      one-and-one-half crates to each American (200 of them) and one crate to
      each non-American. (By this time the population had decreased to about
      1500 internees.)
           This news elated all but the Americans and immediately improved camp
      morale. "It was as though everyone were living through every Christmas Eve
      of his lifetime all rolled into one." (102). The next morning, however,
      when the distribution was to occur, the camp commander posted a sign
      indicating that "due to protests from the American Community," the parcels
      would not be distributed to members of the non-American community.
      Apparently, seven Americans had persuaded the commander that he lacked
      authority to declare a broad scale distribution. Gilkey describes the
      chaos and conflict that ensued in the following ten days and surmises that
      even the prison guards must have been amazed at the gross selfishness of
      the Americans. Until then the internees had generally disregarded their
      national identities in the cause of cooperation. Now, suddenly,
      nationalistic claims surfaced to justify hording the prized parcels. Says
      Gilkey, "For the first time, I felt fundamentally humiliated at being an
      American." (104). 
           Gilkey uses this episode to discuss the general causes of national
      and international conflicts that result from disparities in wealth. "The 
      [465]

 

      American claim for all the parcels, and its devastating effects on our
      social fabric, had taught me at last the true significance of moral
      character in any human community, and I would never forget it." (106). He
      observes further that people in general, historically, act in immoral ways
      when their own interests are threatened, and yet, by their
      rationalizations, "remain at least moral enough to be hypocritical, to
      wish to seem good-even if it is beyond their capacities to attain it."
      (112).
           Gilkey's most explicit religious analysis of his Weihsien experiences
      comes near the end of the book. As he explains, his prison experience
      helped shape his perspective with respect to the balance between
      spirituality and human material pursuits. 
        A healthy spirituality . . . must affirm the material order, and concern
        itself with it-with housing, food, warmth, and comfort. At the same
        time, a healthy material order is possible only where there is enough
        moral strength to maintain a responsible integrity with regard to
        property, a just distribution with regard to goods, and as free an
        exercise of each one's creativity as is possible. (229).
      Citing theologian Paul Tillich, Gilkey concludes that our excessive
      self-love arises from fears of losing the objects that we value most and
      that provide the greatest personal security or satisfaction.
        Like the gods of primitive religion, this ultimate concern is something
        which a man worships with his whole being because it is the source of
        all value to him [and] determines in turn the decisions a man makes and
        ultimately the way in which he behaves. 
        * * * *
        When, in this sense, a man gives his ultimate devotion to his own
        welfare or to the welfare of his group, he is no longer free to be
        completely moral or rational when he finds himself under pressure.
        Whenever the security of the object of this commitment is threatened, he
        is driven by an intense anxiety to reinforce that security. (231).
      Gilkey maintains that such behavior-our excessive devotion to
      self-interest-is religious: "For religion concerns men's ultimate loyalty;
      those things, be they gods or idols, to which men give their final
      devotion and commitment." (232). Injustice toward others, he says, is a
      "social consequence" of such "idolatry." Gilkey then offers a solution to
      the problem. 
        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 forget themselves enough to
        share with each other, to be honest under pressure, and to be rational
      [466]

 

        and moral enough to establish community, they must have some center of
        loyalty and devotion . . . beyond their own welfare.
        * * * *
        Only this is certain: If a man is too sure that he has, through his
        religion, surrendered his concern for himself and achieved virtue, it is
        fairly safe to conclude that his security no longer rests in the love of
        God but in his own holiness. His life then merely re-enacts the sin of
        self-idolatry in a Christian garb. The final pinnacle of faith,
        therefore, is to recognize our continuing self-concern and thus to trust
        our inner peace to the love of God alone. In this way even our anxiety
        about our own holiness and our own salvation is surrendered. The insight
        that the man of real faith knows he is justified by a grace from beyond
        himself and never by his own works is the heart of the message of God's
        love in the New Testament. It is the deepest answer to the dilemmas of
        man's moral life . . . . (234-35).
           The reader must decide not only if Gilkey's experiences at Weihsien
      accurately reflect our common experiences and relationships but also
      whether his analysis makes sense. On one hand, some readers may find
      Gilkey's theological perspective misplaced (or overemphasized). One book
      reviewer, praising Gilkey's "fascinating, well-written, and
      thought-provoking" account, nevertheless refers to his analysis as
      "jarringly ill-conceived gibberish."6
           On the other hand, readers who share Gilkey's religious beliefs may
      question whether his explanation is thoroughly Christian or biblical. For
      instance, Gilkey presents only a part of the historically orthodox
      Christian explanation for and answer to man's moral dilemma; he clearly
      embraces the central biblical tenets of God's love and grace but discusses
      neither their relationship to God's justice nor the relevance of Christ.
      Romans 3:22-26 (NIV) offers a succinct articulation of these mutually
      related dimensions of God's character and the related work of Christ.
        [The] Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all
        who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short
        of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the
        redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice
        of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this . . . to
        demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the
        one who justifies [i.e., declares as righteous] those who have faith in
        Jesus.
      [467]

 

      Gilkey affirms aspects of the human need for and God's provision of
      forgiveness-"all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" and are
      "justified freely by [God's] grace." He excludes, however, the
      biblical-stated means of this forgiveness (i.e., that it "comes through
      faith in Jesus Christ") as well as its moral and legal basis (Christ as
      the "sacrifice of atonement" for sin). In sum, Gilkey calls for a faith in
      God's love but not in God's Christ. Whether this is deliberate and whether
      Gilkey would reject these added dimensions is unclear.
            Others may find Gilkey's analysis politically or economically
      hyper-extended. Gilkey does not explicitly endorse a socialistic or
      politically liberal politics, but he clearly implies that true morality
      requires a more generous distribution of national resources and aid from
      privileged countries to those in need. He equates the failure to do so
      with national-istic idolatry. Because he does not analyze specific
      programs or schemes, it is difficult to determine precisely what his
      political position is. He seems content to assert general moral principles
      and not get bogged down on details regarding specific political programs
      or issues.7
           Despite these possible objections, it is hard to dispute that
      Gilkey's Shantung Compound compels the reader to reflect on matters of
      profound moral and spiritual significance. 
      Free at Last
        How completely certain kinds of news-that a loved one has died, that a
        war has begun, or that a war is over-can stop one world and begin
        another! (205).
           On August 12, 1945, two-and-one-half years after entering Weihsien
      camp, news first leaked into the camp that the Japanese had surrendered.
      Shortly thereafter an American plane was spotted and seven army
      parachutists floated down near the camp. Pandemonium erupted. The
      soldiers-"godlike figures"-soon entered that camp. After several moments
      of uncertainty as to how the Japanese guards would respond when
      "split-second decisions" had to be made, the Japanese acceded to the
      American soldiers, who took charge of the camp. About these American
      soldiers, Gilkey humorously comments:
      [468]

 

        When gods come to visit the children of men, it is only to be expected
        that the men will readily obey their slightest wishes and also that the
        women will be enraptured with them. 
        * * * *
        As always, it was wonderful to have gods in your midst--unless like the
        writer and a few others, you lost a girl friend in the process.
(211-12).
      Suddenly everything changed: outsiders were allowed into the camp,
      internees were free to roam within and without, and all food rationing
      ceased.8
           Yet despite this newfound freedom, Gilkey records how quickly he and
      others found themselves, by nature, quickly losing their appreciation of
      the misery from which they were being delivered.
        It was amazing to me, however, to find how quickly one slips back into
        the old indifference. I can remember on my second trip to Weihsien city
        telling myself to wake up and enjoy myself. This was stupendous, just
        what I had long for! And yet, already I was taking it for granted and
        not feeling it at all.
        * * * *
        Now we had all of these delights in abundance; yet we continually had to
        remind ourselves of this fact in order to appreciate them. We were not
        really any happier. Our wants and desires had only become a little
        harder to satisfy. Instead of freedom we now wanted "home"; instead of
        enough to eat, we now dreamed of cocktails and seafood. Now that we had
        the necessities of life, we tended to take them for granted and look for
        the luxuries-such are the insatiable desires of the human animal.
        Ironically, it is quite true that man does not live by bread alone; as
        soon as his craw is filled, his restless appetite will yearn for cake.
        (213).
      On September 15, 1945, Gilkey and many of his fellow prisoners departed
      the camp and began their transition to normal life. Gilkey describes his
      difficulty in relating to insensitive or oblivious Americans insulated
      from deprivation. Upon Gilkey's arrival in the United States, one State
      Department official with "well-fattened jowls" questioned if Gilkey had
      allowed himself to be imprisoned to avoid fighting in the war. Gilkey
      wondered aloud how the official had chosen "diplomacy" for a career.
      (225-26). Gilkey also recounts the struggle to adapt to 
      [469]

 

      American affluence in which he "felt engulfed in food, drowned in immense
      and inexhaustible wealth, [and] stuffed and bloated with so many fats,
      calories, and vitamins." (226).
           Gilkey's comments in this regard remind us of the average American's
      insulation from real deprivation and discomfort. They recall the
      experience that many Americans have when traveling in economically
      deprived countries. Thus, they prompt us to consider the moral dimensions
      of this reality.
      Conclusion
           Over the next twenty years following his release, Gilkey had
      reflected upon and discussed his Weihsien experiences before writing
      Shantung Compound, a timeless and valuable work that will help readers not
      only understand a part of 20th Century history, but also better comprehend
      human nature and relationships.9 Although the author did not suffer
      extreme deprivation or inhumane punishment, Shantung Compound is still a
      riveting narrative of imprisonment. We are indebted to Gilkey for his
      provocative account and profound insights.
      [470]

 

      ENDNOTES
      * Director of Legal Services and Humanities Seminars, Principals'
      Executive Program, University of North Carolina. 
      1. This review is based on the first edition of Shantung Compound,
      published in 1966 by Harper & Row, San Francisco. 
      2. The compound purportedly was the birthplace of American publishing
      magnate, Henry Luce.
      3. Apparently, no women were appointed to such positions; a point on which
      Gilkey interestingly offers little substantive comment, despite his
      extensive discourses on principles of justice, equity, and democracy.
      4. Gilkey acknowledges that the Weihsien community was essentially
      classless. (24-25).
      5. Genesis, 1:28.
      6. D. Lawrence, A Fascinating Look at How Humans Behave Under Pressure,
      <http://www.amazon.com> (customer reviews visited March 8, 2001).
      7. Gilkey does provide an interesting account regarding a talk he gave to
      a women's church group in a wealthy Chicago congregation. After Gilkey
      made a case for providing United States economic aid to needy countries,
      the leader of the group patronizingly rejected this as contrary to the
      country's mission to share its "spiritual," not material wealth. (227-29).

      8. "[P]lagued by stomach upsets only because of the rich food . . . we
      could not eat a full meal without vomiting-but valiantly we kept on
      trying." (212-13).
      9. The April 24, 2000 edition of Christianity Today includes Shantung
      Compound in its list of the 100 most significantly influential American
      books of the 20th Century.

 

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