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The Church and the Draft Resisters

Sermon delivered by Rev. Jack Mendelsohn on October 22, 1967 at Arlington Street Church, Boston. Abridged version; 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... 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... 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. ...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.

...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 unforgivable 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... 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... 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...

Harvard graduate student, Michael Ferber...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...

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...

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... 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.

...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."...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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