Louis Agassiz was, at his death in 1873, the most famous scientist in North America. Professor of Geology and Zoology at Harvard, he was the founder and Director of the University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. The Museum’s web site calls him “a great systematist, paleontologist and renowned teacher of natural history”. Agassiz was also a white surpremacist widely known for defending slavery in the U.S. and what he considered to be the “natural” status of slaves of African origin.
Throughout his scientific career, the Swiss immigrant Agassiz lent his weight to the pro slavery theory of “polygenism”. This theory hypothesizes that different races of humankind have different origins. Most advocates would further view the biblical account of Adam and Eve’s creation as solely describing the origin of the white race. A summary of his views on the U.C. Berkeley web site reads, “Agassiz could not accept that all groups of humans belonged to the same species, and he argued vehemently for the inferiority of non-white human groups”. Several researchers have noted the influence of Agassiz and other polygenists on the Nazi racial theories and policies.
Darwin’s findings and development of the theory of evolution contributed significantly to the theory’s rejection. More recently, Stephen Jay Gould’s “devastating” account of the Agassiz position in the 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man consigns polygenism to the dustbin of other discredited scientific theories. A historian in Agassiz’s Swiss homeland began in 2007 a “Bring Down Agassiz Campaign” to shed light on the repugnant aspects of their famous compatriot’s legacy.
In 2002, a public elementary school in Cambridge just north of Harvard’s campus took off the Agassiz name from the school to honor an African-American principal instead. Other schools and institutions have removed or are in the process of considering the removal of the scientist’s name. Stanford’s Department of Psychology has requested the University remove his statue from their building’s façade. In a recent court case, however, Harvard has taken a position that seems intent on protecting the Agassiz legacy.
In the case, a descendant of slaves has demanded the University return to her family photos taken on a South Carolina plantation that were commissioned by Louis Agassiz. The photos depict “Papa Renty” Taylor at about age 65 and his daughter Delia as evidence in an Agassiz collection to support his racist theories. Lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against Harvard, Tamara Lanier heard many tales of Papa Renty from her mother and is motivated by a two fold aim in bringing the suit. She explained, “I know that this is something that should be in the public domain, and Harvard should not be profiting from the use of these images.” She continued, “Beyond that, it’s a matter of dignity and restoring the dignity to Renty.”
This year, 43 descendants of Louis Agassiz have signed a letter to Harvard in support of Ms. Lanier’s lawsuit. The family members note in the letter, “For Harvard to give the daguerreotypes to Ms. Lanier and her family would begin to make amends for its use of the photos as exhibits for the white supremacist theory Agassiz espoused”. They then appeal to the University’s humane principles, “It is time for Harvard to recognize Renty and Delia as people. The daguerreotypes are, as Ms. Lanier has said, family photos.”
I consider the legacy of Agassiz as important to us for two reasons. First, he is an outstanding example of how the social, economic and political context for doing science can affect the practitioner’s supposed “value-free” work and findings. We have ample evidence of this in our own age when a world economy built on fossil fuel consumption has influenced a coterie of dissident scientists to dispute the effect of the looming climate catastrophe. Second, the support for white supremacy brought by Louis Agassiz reminds us of the pervasive reach of such views, their public respectability until recently and of the vaunted origin of such views in this country. Harvard’s determination to hold on to the photos of Tamara Lanier’s ancestors, protecting the Agassiz collection in effect, is another indication of the scope and array of challenges U.S. “anti-racists” must grapple with.
For some people in the U.S. it is cause for anxiety and even fear, but we all seem to agree on one fact about the pandemic. This nation will not return to what was “normal” before the world virus crossed our borders. For many of us the “normal” set the stage for the division and social conflict that have attended our virus response. Rather than solidarity and mutual support joined by radically different people as during recent hurricane recoveries, in the pandemic response we’ve experienced highly visible signs of disagreement, resistance to mask wearing being the most common.
Aside from the toxic, inhumane immigration policies and grotesque economic inequality that have plagued the country and represent the “normal” we lived with prior to this crisis, we all have suffered for years from a lack of courage on the part of our political leaders and representatives. This lack of courage is manifest in the sycophantic response to an inept and self centered chief executive but also in our failure to address what in our system has enabled, even called for, the rampant greed and selfishness.
While veteran spokespersons for President Trump’s Republican party have all failed to counter the administration’s blunders, with the tepid exception of Mitt Romney, the opposition Democrats have little grounds for boasting. A majority of Democrats in the U.S. Senate approved President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, including Sen. Hilary Clinton. The 2016 Democratic Party candidate for President seemed to take her election for granted, with a campaign notably lacking in proposals for substantive change. Notably lacking were programs to deal with the rising economic inequality and stagnant working and middle class wages relative to the gains by the wealthy.
It will take courage on the part of citizens and politicians for substantive change to a more humane “normal”. We all feel discomfort and even fear when the levees break, the waters rise, homes are lost and health imperiled. Like those launching their rowboats for rescue operations in a flood or the one who enters the burning house, courage will be demanded for a robust pandemic recovery and the repair of our democracy. So during the social distancing and isolation I’ve been led to think again about a person who helped me deal with change in my own life.
The costly and courageous witness against the Vietnam War of David Batzka has been a profile in courage for me for over fifty years. David was a seminary student in New York City with a coveted 4-D deferment from his draft board. It was a safe bet that so long as he stayed in seminary and proceeded to become a minister he would never lose his deferment. But David informed his Indiana draft board that he refused his classification and opposed their right to draft anyone to fight the unjust, immoral War. In a demonstration on the steps of the Indiana State Capitol building, the neatly groomed seminarian burned his draft card.
As a result, David’s home church in Indiana rejected sponsoring him for ordination as a pastor. Only the stalwart support of his denomination’s Church and Society office kept him from being arrested and sent to prison. Although he was eventually approved for ordination, in spite of his home church’s opposition, David never served as a church’s pastor.
His resistance to the Vietnam draft was not the first time he had demonstrated great courage. Prior to graduation from college, David’s courage and his faith had been tested by involvement in the struggle for Black civil rights. Between his junior and senior years, he spent 6 weeks registering African-Americans to vote. Before he left home that summer of 1964 two white civil rights volunteers had disappeared in the same State of Mississippi. Before their maimed bodies were found, David was quoted in The Indianapolis Star, “I’m more determined to go ahead. This proves something must be done.” Asked what motivated him, he replied, “Christians should be involved in civil rights work.”
David remained steadfast in his faith as a Christian. His resistance of the draft and subsequent organizing helped lead the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to take an anti-War position at its national conventions. Invited to speak on the War at churches he always wore the attire and short hair customary for a minister in that time. “His somewhat formal appearance disarmed lots of people” his wife Vickie Batzka wrote about David’s public speaking.
David Batzka laid the path for my own opposition to the Vietnam War and subsequent resistance of the draft. As a white American male today, contemplating my response to the multiple crises plaguing my community and nation, David’s work for love and justice represents a primary resource. In my July 4 Independence Day celebration, as I thought about the change required for our post-pandemic “normal” to be a better world for all, I wrote the following poem. It’s my belated tribute to David, who died after a surgery in 2002, and his place in the life of someone who never met him.
Call it Courage
July 4, 2020
We know truth by the cost
Or to those we love
Without knowing what
The real price will be.
Life’s heroes weave our days
The thread always
We call it courage
Binds up the love
Splendid in a dreamed time.
They did not choose;
Gripped then chose them:
To cherish life,
Its dignity, its sanctity in crisis.
Of this comes change and its cost
Known more now
Than its outcome so opaque:
Always more love,
More life, more courage, more thanks
It is remarkable how the recent deaths of African-Americans at the hands of officers of law and order in the U.S. have sparked massive protests worldwide. Responding to the intensity and number of protests across their country, the Belgian Parliament just formed a “truth and reconciliation commission” to revisit their country’s colonial history. And sixty years after their vast colony of Congo achieved self rule, the Belgian King Phillippe has expressed “deepest regrets for these wounds” suffered by the Congolese people. The time has come to embark on the path of “research, truth and memory” focusing on their colonial legacy in the words of the current Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Willems.
Many Parliament members and Belgian citizens will feel obligated to defend and whitewash their rule in Africa. King Philippe’s younger brother Prince Laurent soon disputed his brother’s words of contrition. In defense of the source of much of his royal family’s wealth, the system of resource extraction costing an estimated ten million Congolese lives, Prince Laurent pointed out that King Leopold II had never set foot in Africa.
Ten years before Leopold II was forced to cede his Congo Free State personal rule and create the colonial administration, Conrad’s narrator in the 1898 novella The Heart of Darkness condemned colonialism in general. He emphasized features characterizing other European colonies in Africa:
“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”
Anti-racist protestors have succeeded in removing statues honoring King Leopold in Belgium but their call for reparations for the Congo will meet stout opposition. As in the United States, there is profound discomfort and sensitivity among whites of all political leanings when faced with the truth of their complicity with and benefit from racism in their society.
Thanks to the continued protests there is however serious scrutiny for the first time of how even avowedly anti-racist whites participate in preserving their country’s structures of racism in the U.S. and in Europe. Responding to the protests, movies, books, podcasts, etc. are challenging whites to consider previously neglected personal traits of “white fragility” and “white privilege”. Widespread recognition of deeply rooted injustice in the U.S. criminal justice system promises significant change.
Whether continued calls for reparations to address the vast gulf between black and white families’ wealth and income will lead to a U.S. “truth and reconciliation commission” is more open to question. Progressive U.S. religious leaders, notably Dr. King among them, have for years declared the nation faces a moral and spiritual crisis, a struggle to heal the soul of America. Michelle Alexander whose book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness explores the racism of the U.S. criminal justice system, agrees with Dr. King’s analysis:
“I think that racial justice in this country will remain a distant dream as long as we think that it can be achieved through rational policy discussions….I think we’ll just keep tinkering and tinkering and fail to realize that all of these issues really have more to do with who we are individually and collectively, and what we believe we owe one another, and how we ought to treat one another as human beings. These are philosophical questions, moral questions, theological questions, as much as they are questions about the costs and benefits of using one system of punishment or policing practice over another.”
My Old Testament professor in seminary was drafted into the German army in the closing days of World War II. At age 15 following an abbreviated training he found himself on the front line of the forces defending his homeland. As he hunkered down, terrified in his trench, the ground shook with Allied bombs falling all around him.
By the time he told us this story, in the second semester of the year long course, his fierce passion for the ancient text had already been displayed. Woe to the students seated in the front row of the class. He leaned into their faces, eyes blazed and the words thundered down in a thick German accent. Until the day he relived for us his survival as a teen ager of the Allied bombings, we had little idea of the origin of that fire within the man.
His life-shattering story was his way of introducing us to the prophecies of Amos. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible revealed to him the only way he could make sense of his experience of war and how it could fit into crafting a fruitful life. And the prophet Amos stood out for him among their ranks. There, in the 8th century BC prophecies of a herder and tree trimmer, he had found the words essential to making sense of the terrors of the Nazi humiliation and defeat.
“Is not the day of the Lord
darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?” Am 5:20 (NRSV)
Rolf Knierim’s message to us could not have been clearer. Would-be ministers should never treat the prophets casually; handle with caution or use at your own risk remained for me his teaching of the prophets, and his lesson for us on Amos especially. Not just you yourself but your congregation had to be prepared to really hear the prophets’ word for our day.
So when I heard Rev. Dr. William Barber choose Amos 5 as the text to preach from Washington’s National Cathedral Sunday June 14, my first thought was of Rolf Knierim. God’s fury that Rolf had lived and taught about for thirty years helped me take the measure of the anguish that grips this nation at this time.
Barber’s sermon surprised me by its tone. He seemed restrained in his denunciations and soft in his anger. Now as I write this it occurs to me that the fierce prophecy had already been accomplished with the suffering of George Floyd, the cruel pursuit of Ahmaud Arberry, the death of so many other men and women of color at the hands of a system built on white supremacy while professing that all human beings are created equal. The comfortable had already been afflicted and the afflicted already comforted by the truth telling of the brutal videos followed by massive protests in solidarity worldwide.
What remained to be done, Rev. Barber had decided, was to proclaim that God is at work in making us uncomfortable, disturbed, distraught by the recent events. And that the words of the prophet Amos spoken long ago would help guide us in finding our way as persons and as a nation in helping create a world more like our Creator intended. The prophet’s words would help us grow into the image we were created to be as they had helped grow Rolf Knierim and so many others devoted to the truth and beauty of life as a human being.
“Take away from me the noise of your songs:
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
(Amos 5:23-24, NRSV trans.)
To listen to Rev. Barber’s sermon go to: https://cathedral.org/sermons/sermon-the-rev-dr-william-j-barber-ii-2/
The murders of Ahmaud Arberry and George Floyd in a southern rural town and a major urban center in the North have awakened us to how the American dream has excluded many U.S. residents for a long time. We knew that Article I of the U.S. Constitution counted black slaves as only three fifths of a person. We knew that the freeing of slaves in 1863 was followed by discrimination, degradation and lynching of black citizens in the country. We might have been awakened by the reversal of provisions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act by the Shelby v. Holder decision of the Supreme Court in 2013. We might have known how systematic exclusion of blacks and other persons of color from the American dream drove the campaign that elected Donald Trump as President of the country.
As a student in an integrated, half African-American high school in Indianapolis, I should have learned that the nation’s founding principle in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” still has not been embraced by all our citizens. Since I didn’t learn it in high school, I should have learned it from what occurred at the 50th Reunion of my Class in 2014. Our class had seen the School make significant strides toward racial harmony and cooperation in the school and city.
When my brother graduated from Shortridge High School in 1959, fewer than five per cent of the students were black. Five years later when I graduated, there had been significant integration of black students at the School. Our class was at least half African-American. We had elected a black girl as Junior Prom Queen for the first time. A black group was finally selected to participate in the school’s Junior Vaudeville fund raiser. As Shortridge’s 100th class to study where writer Kurt Vonnegut, former Sen. Richard Lugar and other community leaders had also studied we could take pride in helping prepare the School for continuing its role in the city’s growth.
But whatever contributions we had made to the School’s healthy transition in racial composition and racial harmony was ignored at the 50th reunion. No mention was made of our struggle with racial issues and the outbreaks of conflict. I had gone to the reunion to celebrate how we had contributed some signs of progress in the easing of tensions. That none of the speakers nor any part of the program made reference to the example in race relations our class had set disappointed and finally baffled me.
The murders by police of the past month and the post-Obama era retreat from pursuit of racial justice and healing highlights that the vision of this country as championing “all men are created equal” has again been countered by political developments of recent years. One of the two major political parties has developed strategies of gaining and maintaining power by restricting the right to vote, restricting the path to citizenship, and packing the judicial system with appointees devoted to preserving rule by the minority of whites that continues to wield economic power.
The most significant change in the nation’s recoil from the dream of equal rights for all is the fact that there is now a knee on the neck of many more people of color in the U.S. Blacks are now joined by increasing numbers of immigrants from south of the U.S. border who are dominated by a system that excludes them from acceptance as U.S. citizens while benefiting from their low cost labor. It has become clearer that the Party controlling most state legislatures, the Senate and the Presidency has deliberately prevented reform of immigration laws as essential to keeping their hold on political power. It is widely recognized that overwhelming Latinx support for the election of Barack Obama helped put the first African-American in the Presidency.
So now in 2020 it is not only white acceptance of African-Americans as full citizens of the U.S. with equal rights that will signal advance in making real the country’s best version of itself. It is white acceptance of the Spanish speaker, the Asian immigrant and their children, and Arab Americans that is demanded of us all, the whites who also immigrated here and the Africans forcibly brought to these shores. Our youth know this. Our youth who are now marching in protest far out number the young citizens whose minds and souls have been poisoned with the old myths of racial superiority. The protesting youth are bent on moving the country’s reality closer to its dream.
People of all ages are now marching and demonstrating in defiance of the global pandemic and in defiance of the pandemic that has afflicted the country since its founding. The language and the myths of white superiority have been our original sin and our greatest weakness since the nation’s founding. Efforts to counter the systemic racism are being led by persons with global roots. A young Latinx labor organizer friend summed up his work as helping save the nation from itself. The police, politicians and their supporters determined to keep their knees on the necks of people of color in the U.S. perpetuate the country’s death wish. I believe they are vastly outnumbered by the persons marching in the streets and their supporters who are crying out for the breath and long life of the dream that could make this nation a great one. I hope and pray that our democracy has survived the attacks, past and future, on the voting rights of its citizens and that the November election results will reflect the marchers’ demands for real change in this nation.
Former President of the U.S. Jimmy Carter called the U.S. “the most warlike nation in the history of the world”. In his Sunday School lesson at his home church in rural Georgia last spring Carter observed that his country had experienced only 16 years in its 242 year history when it was not at war. The country that spends more on its “defense” than the next ten nations in the world combined is also the world’s number one exporter of arms and military equipment. It comes as no great surprise then that the protests against police brutality sweeping this country in recent days have been met with police forces armed for intimidation and repression of dissent as we have never seen before.
More than thirty years ago the U.S. Congress approved the 1033 program which enables the Pentagon to transfer military hardware and equipment to local police forces in the country. Since it began, this program has seen 533 planes and helicopters and over 423 “Ambush-resistant” vehicles transferred to civilian forces assigned to protect and defend us. Two years after President Obama suspended the 1033 program following the Michael Brown killing by police in Ferguson, MO President Trump reinstated it.
There has been an escalation of violence in the urban streets of our world today beyond what we experienced in the turbulent 60’s. Protestors of the U.S. War on Vietnam sat down or kneeled in front of police on horseback wielding wooden batons; today, police with guns that can fire 10 bullets per second meet demonstrators in the streets of U.S. cities. The 1033 program favored by Trump has provided local police with 93,000 machine guns.
Militarization of the police in other nations is a feature of U.S. “security aid” to some of our closest allies. Over half of our foreign aid to El Salvador in 2017 supported improving security and law and order which followed many millions in direct military and police aid during that country’s Civil War in the 70’s and 80’s. The country with the highest murder rate in the Western Hemisphere, Honduras, in 2017 received 44 percent of its aid for security compared to 30 percent for antipoverty programs. U.S. security aid for Brazil reached a height during the period of military rule in the 60’s and 70’s. Now the authoritarian rule of Jair Bolsonaro counts on violent repression to quell protests and dissent of Brazil’s citizens.
The popular view of the U.S. image around the world in my lifetime has descended from champion of those struggling for independence from colonialism post WW II to the leading ally and supplier of dictatorships stifling dissent and democracy. In the view of the current U.S. administration, our best friends among the world’s nations today are the most authoritarian, anti-democratic rulers in the world today.
The economic inequality and exploitation of people alongside the degradation of the natural environment by the global economic order has led to unprecedented human migration and public protests in many nations. It seems evident that the leader of this economic order has chosen to respond to the protests and demands for change with violence and the force of advanced weaponry. As Rev. William Barber of the Poor Peoples Campaign observes, the War on Poverty of the 1960’s in the U.S. has become a war on the poor. But not just war on the poor in the U.S. We train and equip the police and military for brutal repression of the poor, Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth”, around the world.
A.J. Muste’s theology and beliefs were shaped by the “agonizing reappraisal of my beliefs” forced on him by U.S. entry into WW I. His unwavering commitment to living out a Christianity as a “prophetic religion” emerged from his immersion in the imagery and testimony of the prophet Isaiah’s “suffering servant” and the “Way of the Cross” of Jesus. Contrary to most persons’ grim reaction to these passages and the life journey extolled in them, Muste lived with a joy few could fathom. At age 81, on the way to a Saigon jail during the Ky dictatorship, he smiled and said to a companion in the paddy wagon, “It’s a great life, isn’t it?”
Muste on Theology and Religion:
“My religion is Jewish-Christian Prophetism….From this point of view there is no such thing as a Jewish religion and then another Christian religion. There is just one basic prophetic outlook on life and history.”
“We must become revolutionary out of a religious philosophy.”
“Though the religious dimension of life is not the same as the political dimension it is nonetheless true that God created both dimensions and place us in a world where we need to build community that interweaves these two together.”
“Pacifism, the rejection of violence, the emphasis upon the method of suffering love is integral to…..prophetic religion.”
“A dead man on a cross against the atomic bomb….there is no other way.”
“There is no one who has experienced the miracle of grace ….who can believe there is any limit to what the divine power and grace can accomplish.”
“Personally, I always have a certain suspicion of alleged saintliness which lacks the tone of buoyancy and effervescence.”
In an introduction to a 1965 essay titled “Who Has the Spiritual Atom Bomb?” Muste concluded with the words, “Long ago I heard someone – I cannot remember whom – say: ‘A man may be right in a situation, but that does not make him more righteous.’ I was deeply impressed. I do not consider myself more righteous than those with whom I am in disagreement on the matters dealt with in this essay.”
On Pacifism and Non-Violent Civil Disobedience
Unlike Gandhi, Muste wrote very little on the theory and practice of non violent civil disobedience. Although he was deemed a brilliant tactician in the application of civil disobedience to oppose growing militarization of the U.S. foreign policy and economy, he largely devoted his writing to exposing the roots and likely results of particular U.S. policies. What is consistent in Muste’s tactical response is his radical, absolutist position. From advocacy of non-cooperation and disobedience of Selective Service requirements to tax resistance, from arguing for unilateral disarmament of nuclear weaponry by the U.S. to immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Vietnam he saw compromise as perpetuating the murder of innocents wherever armed force was the policy.
From Muste’s “Sketches for an Autobiography” 1957
“Spiritual forces are as real as physical or military….the trouble is mainly that we want to have both. We want to trust God and have plenty of H-bombs too, just in case. The fact is, we can’t have it both ways. We have to choose on what level, with what weapons, we shall wage the battle, and accept the risks and consequences involved. There are risks either way.”
“Nonviolence in a broader sense is not our weakness. It is our strength. Violence in a profound sense is the evil, the temptation of our time. Nonviolence –‘gentleness’ as a leader of the French resistance put it in a meeting which I attended in 1947 – is what the victims of war and all makind cry out for now. Nonviolence is in fact ‘weak’ partly because we waver in our own allegiance to it. It is ‘weak’ in practice because our practice of it is sentimental, dogmatic, abstract, and not imaginative, creative and revolutionary. But for nonviolent revolutionaries, it is equally imperative to be nonviolent and revolutionary, to be revolutionary and nonviolent.”
Political and Social Analysis Of the U.S. Context
Following the burning of their draft cards in 1965 by five young men in New York City, as a speaker at the protest Muste was summoned to testify at a Grand Jury investigation. A portion of his statement there follows:
“I am unable to cooperate in the Grand Jury inquisition into my belief and actions because it is an element, though perhaps a minor one, in the prosecution of the Vietnamese war and in the militarization of this country.” He went on in his statement to the Grand Jury, “Demanding conformity and penalizing dissent is a pattern on which all governments tend to operate in wartime…..To have dissent and opposition in wartime may create a problem for a democratic government, but if it does not have citizens who refuse to be coerced and regimented, it is no longer democratic.”
In Muste’s view, the “neo-orthodox” theology of Reinhold Neibuhr and Karl Barth with its emphasis on human sinfulness helped enable the State in the West to become the “operative religion” for most Christians, especially in the U.S.. He feared that the ultimate result would be greater repression of dissent and enforced loyalty of its citizens by the State. Again, it was his experience during the prelude and after U.S. entry into WWI that shaped his analysis of the “crisis” and his response as a Christian.
It was during WW I, Muste noted, that customs were introduced “of having people rise to sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’”, the organizing of “military parades” and “salutes and pledges to the flag were introduced in schools.” WW I was also the time when churches began to place the U.S. flag near the altar or the pulpit. This was accompanied by many professed Christians calling those who opposed the War “pro-German” as well as participating in persecuting U.S. citizens of German descent. The sacralization of the State continues today and has contributed mightily to public support for decades of warfare on the Middle East led by this nation’s colossal war machine.
At the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and China in 1957, Muste wrote in his “Sketches for an Autobiography”, “All but the smallest wars today are fought for global objectives and for ‘causes’ or ideologies regarded as absolute – ‘better no world than a Communist world,’ etc. – and therefore take on the character of crusades. The instruments with which war is waged have a similar, ‘ultimate-weapons’ character.”
Muste’s prophecies regarding the corrosive effects on democracy of our spiraling militarism remain pertinent and will be until the American public demands a change in our policy making and expenditures. The 1965 essay “Who Has the Spiritual Atom Bomb?” warns “The American tendency to self-satisfaction, to be convinced that it is always the other people who are violent and make trouble, is indeed very powerful and in my opinion is one of the greatest obstacles to peace in the world today. The worst sin, according to a great scripture, is that of the Pharisee who dared to stand in the presence of God and say: ‘God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are, or even as this publican.’
And what is the “spiritual atom bomb” Muste refers to in the 1965 essay of that title? The key paragraph reads, “Now if a power like the United States voluntarily withdraws from the arms race and makes the changes in its own social structure which this entails, this would constitute ‘intervention’ of historic dimensions. It would be a revolutionary development comparable in one sense to the Russian and Chinese revolutions themselves. It would, to use Marshal Lin’s phrase, be ‘a spiritual atom bomb….far more powerful and useful than the physical atom bomb.’ The United States would be able to address itself and to devote its vast resources, human and technological, to aiding the impoverished and exploited masses to lift themselves to independence, to human dignity and to a life where the simple human needs of food, clothing, shelter and beauty would be met. Moreover, the spell of conflict might then be broken, as somehow it has to be before long if the human race is to survive.”
As A.J. Muste’s most widely quoted saying put it, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”
In the 1930’s, theologian Reinhold Neibuhr wrote of A.J. Muste, “Muste was interested in redressing all balances of justice, of championing the interests of workers against employers, of Negroes against the white majority, of India against the British empire.” Having abandoned his own pacifist position Neibuhr maintained a grudging respect for the leading U.S. radical pacifist writing after Muste’s death in 1967, “Perhaps an estimate of rigorous, inconsistent, idealists is beyond the capacity of mere academic critics (himself included here, ed.), who are obsessed with logical consistency, but who also never dared an interview with Ho Chi Minh.” Unlike Neibuhr, for Muste “the term ‘religion’ and the term ‘revolution’ were totally synonymous” in the words of Sidney Lens, his co-editor with Liberation magazine.
Muste’s biographer JoAnn Robinson, herself a leader in the Montgomery bus boycott, gives precedence to his Christian faith as the grounding for his radical politics. “A. J. Muste became “Number One U.S. Pacifist” by virtue of his keen insight into the nature of violence and his unquenchable faith in the power of love. His reputation for political acuity and non-conformist activism revolved around his insight. But the prime and sustaining factor was his faith.” This faith he once described this way, “The true God is the God of love who can and does redeem men. This God is revealed in Jesus Christ. The true church is the ‘ecclesia of those redeemed by infinite love. It must seek to redeem the world without which there is no salvation and that to it are entrusted the ‘keys of the Kingdom of Heaven”.
A French intelligence agent in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov could have been thinking of the radical pacifist and socialist when he said, “We are not, in fact, afraid of all these socialists, anarchists, atheists, and revolutionaries.” The agent then goes on to say, “But there are some special people among them, although not many: these are believers in God and Christians, and at the same time socialists. They are the ones we are most afraid of; they are terrible people! A socialist Christian is more dangerous than a socialist atheist.”
In the mid-twentieth century, Muste did threaten the U.S. political system and the economic system that feeds as well as depends on its militarism, racism and support for exploitation of oppressed peoples. But he also threatened and “afflicted the comfortable” among the Church’s leaders, most of whom had adopted some variant of the “neo-orthodox” realism Neibuhr developed in his theological writing.
It is curious that Neibuhr would imply criticism of Muste being “inconsistent” in his thought when it is precisely the inconsistency of Christian “realism” that must perplex thoughtful truth seekers in the U.S. and the world. How account for even the most progressive American Christian denominations’ support for the Vietnam War in the early years of the fighting? How explain the relative silence of the followers of the “Prince of Peace” in the face of the grotesque spiraling of U.S. arms buildup by the military and now by individuals in the country?
Once Muste left the Trotskyite party he helped found in the mid-30’s to lead the opposition to an armed response to Naziism, he was committed to strengthening the pacifist roots of the Church as the holders of the keys to the “kingdom of heaven”. The struggle for peace, however, was not narrow and single-minded but encompassed early support for the cause of African-American civil rights and the right to self rule of Third World peoples. Post WW II Muste helped found and/or led several pacifist or anti-war organizations but he also devoted himself to many causes that represented “the things that make for peace”.
Shortly Before assuming his transformative leadership of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Muste wrote in 1939 that the “True International” was not to be found in any anti-capitalist political party but in the Church. “Since all are one in Christ” he professed there is “neither Aryan, Negro, Slav. Japanese, or Malay.” In the same article he lamented that to that date “all of its branches including those called ‘catholic’ have been in effect national, state-worshipping or picayune provincial sects”.
Muste’s pacifism grew from his grounding in Jesus Christ’s boundless and border-less love for all people and the belief and hope in the Church as universal, the “true International”. His application of pacifism and development of strategies of civil disobedience for the American struggle relied on Gandhi and insights into the interaction of “means and ends”. When human beings resort to means that undermine the ends they hope to achieve they are bound to fail. War begets more war. Violence begets more violence is the practical distillation of Muste’s thought. Only the love that seeks to find reconciliation with the “enemy” will fulfill and liberate both those who suffer the attacks and the perpetrators.
The scriptures of the Judeo-Christian faith and recent world history both confirm the truth that those who seek to live out a radical love for other people will be considered “dangerous”. U.S. military solutions to conflicts in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere confirm the truth that, in Martin Luther King’s words, “we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live”. It is the “dangerous” people like A.J. Muste who shepherd humanity in the preservation of the ends of life and the preservation of life itself in these perilous times.
He introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to the theory and practice of non violent civil disobedience.
In 1947 he organized the “Journey of Reconciliation” during which blacks and whites sat together on Greyhound buses traveling through the South. That “Journey” served as the model for the civil rights movement’s “Freedom Rides” in 1961.
He was lead organizer of the first mass protest against the Vietnam War. The march from Central Park to the United Nations on Tax Day, April 15, 1967 was at the time the largest demonstration in U.S. history.
He served as spokesperson for the mostly immigrant workers during the historic Lawrence, MS textile mill strike of 1919.
Following the gains made by the Lawrence workers, he served as the first head of the Amalgamated Textile Workers Union until 1921. In the position, he supported organizing nearly weekly strikes at mills across the U.S.
He trained union organizers as education director of the Brookwood Labor College from 1921 to 1933.
When he died in 1967, obituaries referred to him as the “American Gandhi”.
If you haven’t named who “he” is you are not alone. Few people in churches, or outside them, in the U.S. know about the contributions of Abraham Johannes Muste to the labor and peacemaking movements in the U.S. Yet Muste would be a candidate for sainthood if there were saints in Protestant Christianity. He served the Church as a clergy member in four different U.S. Protestant denominations but his call eventually led him to leadership in the labor and peace movements of his adopted country. Until his death in 1967, Muste remained a radical practitioner of the theology of the “Social Gospel”.
In the first congregation he served, he opposed U.S. entry into the First World War and, against the wishes of many in the congregation, resigned. From the crucible of the WW I era to the end of his life, he helped organize mass actions of civil disobedience in resistance to U.S. warfare and militarism. Muste was the first to declare, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way”. Another Muste saying, often attributed to others, he coined as an early protestor of the Vietnam War. During a White House vigil in a rain storm, someone asked him if he really thought he was going to change U.S. policy that way, he responded, “I’m not out here to change U.S. policies. I’m here to make sure they don’t change me.”
Like no other American Christian of the 20th Century AJ Muste lived out his faith in the nation’s public sphere. In his work and writing, he adhered to the values of the Sermon on the Mount and chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew. His radical pacifism grew out of his devotion to living by the roots of the Christian faith. Muste believed that as Christians we are all called to be “Saints for This Age”. While he based this conviction on the lives of the first Christians as reported in The New Testament, his passion for social change was also fired by the horrors of 20th Century militarism and by the example of radical leftists in the labor movement.
In the 1962 essay titled “Saints for This Age”, Muste wrote “It was on the Left – and here the ‘Communists of the period cannot be excluded – that one found people who were truly ‘religious’ in the sense that they were completely committed, they were betting their lives on the cause they embraced. Often they gave up ordinary comforts, security, life itself, with a burning devotion which few Christians display toward the Christ whom they profess as Lord and incarnation of God.” In the next paragraph, he contrasts the “liberal” Christians who professed the “Social Gospel” with these non-Christian radical leftists.
“The Left had the vision, the dream, of a classless and warless world, as the hackneyed phrase goes…..Here was the fellowship drawn together and drawn forward by the Judeo-Christian prophetic vision of a ‘new earth in which righteousness dwelleth’. The now generally despised Christian liberals had had this vision. The liberal Christians were never, in my opinion, wrong in cherishing the vision. Their mistake, and in a sense, their crime, was not to see that it was revolutionary in character and demanded revolutionary living and action of those who claimed to be its votaries.”
Christian faith, and the first Christians who modeled faith for AJ Muste, was profoundly counter-cultural. “I spoke of the early Christians as having ‘broken loose’. They understood that for all its size, seeming stability and power, the ‘world’, the ‘age’ in which they lived was ephemeral, weak, doomed…..They had therefore turned their backs on it, did not give it their ultimate allegiance, were not intimidated by what it could do to them, and did not seek satisfaction and security within its structure, under its standards. They were loose – not tied to ‘business as usual’.” Muste himself was not “tied to ‘business as usual’” and will serve Christianity and humanity as a “saint” for this and for ages to come.
“We represent a growing number of evangelical Christians who are unwilling to support mission events led by American evangelist Franklin Graham. We find it hard to reconcile his public and partisan statements on such issues as immigration, poverty, gun control and Israel with our understanding of the teaching and values of Jesus Christ.”
These words began a February 7 letter to The Guardian newspaper written by seventeen “evangelical Christian” pastors who oppose Franklin Graham’s upcoming tour of the U.K. The leaders serving parishes across England and Wales wrote in support of the action of eight commercial venues which recently cancelled the Graham team’s booking of their space. The Guardian reported that in justifying the cancellation, many of the venues had indicated that statements by Graham “were incompatible with their values, and that his appearance would be “divisive, could be disruptive or lead to a breach of the peace.”
Opposition to the Graham tour has come from a variety of civil society groups and jurisdictions. The newspaper referred to “protests by LGBTQ+ activists, petitions and requests from local councils”. Contributing to the ardent opposition is widespread dismay among some of the most prominent Christians in the U.K. over Graham’s outspoken support for Donald Trump’s policies. Liverpool’s Bishop Paul Bayes has said ‘If people want to support rightwing populism anywhere in the world they are free to do so. The question is how are they going to relate that to their Christian faith?”
Without naming Franklin Graham, Bishop Bayes singled out “self-styled evangelicals” in the U.S. for criticism, “Some of the things that have been said by religious leaders seem to collude with a system that marginalises the poor, a system which builds walls instead of bridges, a system which says people on the margins of society should be excluded, a system which says we’re not welcoming people any more into our country.” Bayes’ statements at the end of 2017 coincided with implied rebuke of Trump in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas Day message the same year. In a remark widely interpreted as aimed at Trump, Archbishop Justin Welby denounced “populist leaders that deceive”.
Franklin Graham’s endorsement of Trump came as no surprise to those who knew of the Southern Baptist preacher’s fervent support for the War in Iraq,
blanket condemnation of the Muslim religion, and his ongoing denunciation of homosexuals. His characterization of Islam as an “evil and wicked religion” soon after the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks helped build the case for the invasion of Iraq two years later. He is a leading advocate of “conversion therapy” and has compared the conversion of individuals from ‘gay’ to ‘straight’ with the experience of conversion to the Christian faith.
For U.S. citizens in a presidential election year, the perception of U.K. Christians that Graham’s positions sow discord and division within the culture should be especially troubling. If a leader and spokesperson for “evangelical Christians” in the U.S. is deemed capable of “disturbing the peace” in U.K. communities, we are led to question what has been the high profile pastor’s effect on communities in his own country. Some of us find it disturbing that notice of the cancellations and opposition to the tour in the U.K. appeared in a British-based newspaper and in none of the leading U.S. news outlets. In contrast to non-coverage of the British Christians’ response to Graham, an Oct. 5, 2019 article in the Los Angeles Times reported on Graham lauding Trump during a tour of several U.S. cities in the midst of the House impeachment inquiry.
When the columnist covering Religion for the left-leaning Atlantic magazine in the U.S. chooses to describe Franklin Graham as representing “the best impulses of Christianity” (Emma Green in The Atlantic May 21, 2017), one has to wonder if journalists in the U.S. have opted for “kid glove” coverage of Billy Graham’s son’s public pronouncements and actions. One also has to wonder if the high profile Christian leader’s ill-informed, thoughtless positions on present day social issues make it much harder for U.S. young adults to feel they belong in a Christian community or claim the Christian faith as their own.