Monday, January 28, 2013
Now that he's gone, you can't help but wonder what might happen to his tribe of followers, his disciples, his family, those who still live at Trickle Creek. Maybe they'll hang on for a while, but most charismatic leaders, whether they run a church or a family or a commune, do far better at making disciples than they do at reproducing themselves. Maybe I'm wrong about Wiebo Ludwig. Maybe among his eleven kids there's yet another John Brown.
Because he was. Even today, 150 years and more later, the name John Brown lives in infamy. Some still consider him the saint he must have seemed to those who created what has become a national anthemn, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Brown and his abolitionists simply would not drop their torches. When others used violence against them, they retaliated, violently, in the name of the Lord. So did Wiebo Ludwig, a man some would call "mad" and others would and will make into something of a saint.
In the northwest corner of Iowa, Wiebo Ludwig's name will be forever maligned because of what he did to his in-laws, the Reverend B. J. Haan and his wife, Deborah, gracious people who are themselves sainted as powerful religious leaders of the community, B. J., the godfather of Dordt College. When Wiebo married the Haan's daughter Mamie, as the Bible instructs, he took her away from her parents and family, some would say pummeled her into disowning them. All ties between them were severed, even violently. Around here, among those who remember, true stories about Wiebo stretch beyond belief but are still told.
But way up north in Alberta, where big oil reigns, Wiebo's war began when, years ago, sour gas led both children and animals to abort, or so he claimed. There's little doubt that he was, in fact, a victim, a little man taking on a multi-national. But he did, violently, as if he were John Brown.
Such driven single-mindedness has its own rewards, but it also often triggers horrors, and it did in Wiebo's snowy northern Alberta world when a gang of carrousing teenagers drove on his compound late one night to harrass them, spinning donuts on the grass late one night. When they left, one of them was dead, shot by a bullet--a girl, Karman Willis, just 16 years old.
My wife and I watched Wiebo's War last night, a stirring and memorable documentary by David York, who talked his way into the family and got respectful cooperation for their work. It's a remarkable film, and, especially to those who knew the family story here in Siouxland, unforgettable.
York is right in going to the heart of Wiebo's cosmology when he goes back Trickle Creek to ask a question he'd asked before about the death of Karman Willis. Wiebo had told him, on tape, that God himself had let him know that very night that he shouldn't concern himself with that death, and that midnight revelation created his defense. He simply stone-walled. Someone shot at that joyriding truck, someone from inside the compound. Was it him? Was it someone else? One of his children, perhaps? One of his daughters? Does it matter? Someone from the family took out a gun and shot at the spinning truck, and the bullet killed the girl and wounded one of the boys.
Wiebo says that very night he was visited by a revelation from the Lord, a comforting vision of his own blessed forgiveness, you might say. That revelation came over him like visions often do, absolving the righteous and bringing absolute peace. Only God can forgive with that kind of intensity--it had to be Him.
What that revelation also did was flout the law. God himself gave Wiebo permission to stonewall. Even today, the death of Karman Willis remains a mystery. If you believe Wiebo, God himself wanted it just that way.
At the heart of every prophet, finally, there lies a vision of his or her own intimacy with the creator and sustainer of the universe. God speaks to them. Most believers don't feel such intimacy or buy into such revelations, but many do.
Was Wiebo exonerated by God's own voice? He believed he was. God himself spoke to him. Today, he's gone. Cancer took him quickly. He's buried above ground, in a cement vault on the compound at Trickle Creek.
David York knew that the only way to understand Wiebo Ludwig or his family if you don't was to know how intimately they viewed their God-given tasks. Wiebo undoubtedly felt himself privileged to be in God's own most intimate circle. Like any of a dozen Old Testament prophets, Wiebo heard the voice of God. And he listened. And God's voice kept him safe.
Believe that, and he's a saint. Don't believe it, and he's a madman, at least an accessory to murder.
What a man. What a story. And something of it, at least, started right here.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:40 AM