A sermon by Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, delivered October 22, 1967 at Arlington Street Church, Boston, full text. Used with permission.
A hue and cry has arisen over the sixty young men who burned their draft cards in the chancel of Arlington Street Church. No matter that 280 young men took the more solemn and perilous step of turning in their draft cards for transmittal to the Justice Department. No matter that much of the hubbub was irrational and uninformed. The love and honesty human beings owe to one another require that the question be dealt with lovingly and honestly.
It may come as surprising news to some that I react very negatively to the burning of draft cards. It is too flamboyant for my taste, too theatrical, too self-indulgent. Anyone who thinks I encouraged it is wrong. But that is beside the point. I did not forbid it, and under similar circumstances I would not again. What happened here on Monday, October 16, was conceived, organized and implemented by a remarkable group of students and seminarians who, in the most serious and open-eyed manner are relinquishing their draft immunity and inviting arrest in order to disavow the American war in Vietnam. The integrity and moral depth of the young leaders of this Resistance are extraordinary. I told them how I felt about draft card burning, and they listened. But in the end they listened more to their responsibilities as democratic leaders, which is as it should be. The overwhelming majority of the Resisters neither burned their draft cards nor encouraged others to do so, but they recognized that the moral outrage felt by a minority of their fellows drove that minority to the extreme gesture of card burning, and they made orderly, respectful provision for it. Indeed the relatively few who burned their draft cards did so with such dignity and solemnity, I was almost converted. But not quite. The action of the others, the great majority, was truly awe-inspiring. One by one, some 280 of them walked up and handed their draft cards to four clergymen and a non-religious philosophy professor in the chancel. The clergymen who accepted the cards—Catholic priest Father Robert Cunnane, Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Harvard Divinity School professor George Williams, and myself—did so in full knowledge that by this symbolic act of solidarity with the students, we too were assuming the risks of civil disobedience. The cards have since been deposited at the Justice Department so that the names of all who participated are now known to the authorities.
And I must make the point again. The cards of the burners were not carried to Washington for the obvious reason that they could not be. In terms of putting a life on the line, it was not the burners who made the more passionate gesture; it was the others.
There is not really much more to be said to those who are enraged, lacerated or confounded by the draft card burning. Time and continuing dialogue will clarify perspectives. Meanwhile, there is an inevitable polarization of feeling, as illustrated by two letters which reached me. They represent remarkably well the contradictory reality with which we are dealing. The writers of these letters have similar cultural backgrounds and enjoy similar economic and social status. The first says: "Dear Dr. Mendelsohn: I have no further interest in supporting the Arlington Street Church when you as the leader have, apparently permitted and encouraged the burning of draft cards on the altar. It is unforgiveable in my estimation. I think you will find many old friends feel the same way. I am not writing this on the spur of the moment but only after many conversations, trying to prove to myself that I was wrong. Please remove my name from mailings."
This correspondent, as you now know, is right in assuming that I permitted the draft card burning, but is wrong in assuming that I encouraged it. Among the many conversations which he refers to, there was not one with me. I hope there will be, however, and I will seek it. The second letter goes as follows: "Dear Reverend Mendelsohn: I attended the service in your church On Monday, October 16. I am one of the people who hasn't been in church in years. I don't know whether I can express the feeling that I have that at that time, in that place something happened that .was sacred in any sense of the word. The hymns, the prayers, the responsive readings, the speakers and most of all, the restrained courage of the young men resisting the draft contributed to an event that I shall never forget. Thank you for so much. "
I appreciate but take no personal pride in the gratitude of this correspondent. It is the policy of our church to place in my hands final decisions about public assemblies to take place here. Of course I consult with lay leadership and staff. Of course we strive to inform, as this congregation was informed last Sunday both of the Resistance service to be held here, and of the outlook of those sponsoring it. But in the end I am responsible for the decision. I consult and listen, but I am charged with the final judgment. Most such decisions require little soul-searching, and no real sweat. In one sense this one didn't either. I knew that the overwhelming majority of the congregation would support it, even though some would disagree with the basic premises of the students, and others, like myself, would deplore the card burning, no matter how reverently done. I knew too that the institution as such would not be penalized: that for every one who opted out on a wave of exasperation there would be two or more who opted in on a wave of exultation.
But in another sense this was a very tough decision because I was so keenly and personally aware of what was involved. I am not talking now about the momentary furor over the emotional gesture of draft card burning. As the furor was easy to anticipate, so was it easy to foresee its rapid dissipation, to be replaced by the really crucial issue, that of civil disobedience against the Vietnam and Selective Service policies of our government. One does not lightly commit an institution to lend the prestige of its facilities and senior clergyman to the launching of a premeditated, long-range program of civil disobedience.
First I had to determine whether or not I could commit myself to such a program. I decided I could. Then, after consultation, I had to judge whether or not this church could constructively incorporate into its ongoing life the tension, controversy and stress inevitably to come. No other church was available. It was this one or none. There were many sympathetic Clergymen. At least a hundred participated in the service here. But none had an established milieu capable of sustaining such use of their premises.
For me, it came down to this. I had to decide that either this church could bear the pressure and grow stronger because of it, or that it could not, in which case it would have been necessary, in light of my own convictions, to support the students but resign my post here.
I made the decision I did because I was persuaded of its rightness.
But I have been wrong many, many times, and I may have been wrong again. I have no reason as yet for believing that, but time, in its inexorable fashion, will tell.
There is a tremendous amount at stake for organized religion. The second letter I read to you, described the correspondent as "one of the people who 'hasn't been in church for years.''' Only those who were fortunate enough to attend the Service of Conscience and Acceptance can fully grasp the significance of that phrase.
What was by far the service's most impressive statement was made by Harvard graduate student, Michael Ferber, who said, " ... here we all are in a church, and yet for some of us it is the first time we've been inside one for years. Here we are receiving the help of many clergymen, and yet some of us feel nothing but contempt for the organized religions that they represent. Some of us, therefore, feel a certain hypocrisy in being part of this service."
Michael confessed that it would not surprise him if many of the clergymen felt "some of the same contempt for organized religion." These clergymen, he said, "know better than we do the long and bloody history of evils committed in the name of religion, the long history of compromise and ... subservience to political power, the long history of theological hair-splitting and the burning of heretics, and they fee! more deeply than we do the hypocrisy of Sunday (or Saturday) morning.
"Perhaps," Ferber continued, "the things that made some of us leave the church are the very things that made some of them become ministers, priests, and rabbis, the very things that bring them here today. Many of them will anger their superiors or their congregations by being here but they are here anyway."
Ferber then said what many a clergyman or layman might wish to have said: "There is a great tradition within the church and synagogue which has always struggled against the conservative and worldly forces that have always been in control. It is a radical tradition, a tradition of urgent impulse to go to the root of the religious dimension of human life. This tradition in modern times has tried to recall us to the best ways of living our lives: the way of love and compassion, the way of justice and respect, the way of facing other people as human beings and not as abstract representatives of something alien and evil. It tries to recall us to the reality behind religious ceremony and symbolism, and it will change the ceremony and symbolism when the reality changes...
"The radical tradition is still alive: it is present here in this church. Those of us who disregard organized religion ...are making a mistake if they also disregard this tradition and its presence today. This tradition is something to which we can say Yes."
Last Monday, this church, as a living, vital organism, said yes to the radical religious tradition Michael Ferber so eloquently evoked; it said yes to religious dimensions of human life so urgent that they include for some the passionate compulsion to burn draft cards. Let us make no bones about it: moral passions are not, never will be, subject to complete rational control. If it is unassailable rationality we require in our morally aroused young, it would be better, believe me, to be perfectly honest about it and write the church off once and for all as a significant force in their lives. What matters in a world as close as this one to Armageddon is not a shallow distinction between the pure and the impure, but the truly searching distinction between the person whose moral feeling drives him to self-transcending political action and the person whose moral feeling leads only to a self-buttressing sense of "sinlessness." Or, as Ernest Hocking once put it, it is the distinction between those who are willing to take on the costly contaminations of genuine political involvement and those who yearn to remain stainless and chaste.
As it is for individuals, so it is for the church.
Civil disobedience is a harsh, ghastly, contaminating business. It is morally credible only when there is irredeemable disillusionment with the lawful processes of protest and dissent. Because I hover so tremblingly close to this point, I can appreciate what it means to the young to be prepared to accept the ruination of their careers, ridicule, harassment, imprisonment, death. Sadly, it seems to matter little that some of those who are now most outraged by this present group of civil disobeyers would not be here at all except for the civil disobedience of their ancestors. Or that this nation would not exist but for the civil disobedience of its founding fathers. Or that the abolition of our vile system of slavery was spurred by civil disobedience. Or that the voting franchise for women was fueled by civil disobedience.
In truth, no example of civil disobedience past, no matter how inspiring, can sanctify the awesome extremity of undertaking it anew.
Yet, given the total spectrum of possibility within which this nation might end its Vietnamese escalation and slaughter short of nuclear holocaust, given the stark reality that none of the protests, none of the appeals to conscience, none of the thousands of editorials, none of the dozens of Senate speeches, none of the petitions or NEW YORK TIMES advertisements, none of the expositions of the credibility gap, none of the documented incidents of our deliberate sabotaging of peace initiatives, none of the voluminous testimony to our folly of scholars and experts on Asian affairs—given the sickening realization that none of these, and I have hardly begun to call the roll, has reversed the escalation, or the slaughter, or the vaulting toward worldwide nuclear war, how can any sober person wonder that there are those whose moral revulsion has come at last to civil disobedience?
Has anything short of it worked? The answer is an agonized no.
Will anything short of it work? Again the agonized answer has to be that there is a moral vacuum within both of our political parties portending the bleakest of prospects.
Will civil disobedience make the kind of impact needed? Will it so shock the nation that a drastic shift in our policy will occur? Frankly, I don't know. I rather doubt it.
Why then undertake it? Because, as Robert McAfee Brown testifies in his article in a current issue of LOOK, "...there comes a time when the issues are so clear and so crucial that a man does not have the choice of waiting until all the possible consequences can be charted. There comes a time when a man must simply say, 'Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me.' There comes a time when it is important... (to) be recorded that in an era of great folly, there were at least some ... who recognized the folly for what it was and were willing, at personal cost, to stand against it. There comes a time when... one has to oppose evil even if one cannot prevent it, when one has to choose to be a victim rather than an accomplice."
When an issue of this magnitude is joined, when there are those who, having exhausted without effect every lawful means of opposing the monstrous crimes being committed in their name by their government, who cannot accept silence or inaction, and choose instead the Gethsemane of civil disobedience, how is the church to respond?
That was the question posed to this church. You know how it was answered last Monday. But the continuing answer, the one that really counts, is yours.
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Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.
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