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.”