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Call It Courage

david-batzka-summer-1964

David Batzka (r.) with a co-volunteer during Freedom Summer 1964 in Clarksdale, Mississippi

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

To ourselves

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;

Their truth

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