Nonviolence, Peace Spirituality

When bishops said ‘yes’ to war, Ben Salmon said ‘no’

by James Dearie, National Catholic Reporter

Clad in oversized goggles, with grotesque face coverings under otherworldly gasmasks, soldiers in the trenches of the First World War seemed fully mechanized, fully dehumanized, in their attempt to survive the world’s first employment of chemical warfare on a large scale.  The industrial revolution, and the technology that it ushered in, had finally been turned from their original home in industry, to the art of war itself.

You can see the fear-inspiring uniforms the soldiers wore, along with life-size images of men in them, at the National World War I Memorial and Museum, just a few miles from NCR’s headquarters in Kansas City. In this year, the centennial anniversary of the war’s end, that old technology serves as a ghastly reminder of the ways in which warfare evolved in the 20th century. While World War I changed what war itself could be, it also began a change in how the church, both leadership and laity, thought about war, the United States, and Catholics’ role in both.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XV, who reigned from September of 1914 until his death in early 1922, pled the cause of peace, issuing an encyclical decrying war in November and calling for a Christmas truce in December. As the conflict raged on, he continued calling for an end to hostilities and even presented a plan to end the war, although his pronouncements were largely disregarded by the belligerents.

In the U.S., which stayed out of the European conflict until April of 1917, the bishops pledged the support of American Catholics for the war effort as soon as it was underway.

“Moved to the very depths of our hearts by the stirring appeal of the President of the United States, and by the action of our national Congress, we accept whole-heartedly and unreservedly the decree of that legislative authority proclaiming this country to be in a state of war,” the bishops wrote to President Woodrow Wilson after the declaration of war.

Although the U.S. reaction to the war undermined the papal position at the time, it was hardly unique. “French Catholics saw the war as a chance to unite France; German Catholics (persecuted by the state in the 19th century) participated wholeheartedly,” historian and former dean of the University of Notre Dame College of Arts and Letters John T. McGreevy told NCR.  “And the same was true for Italian, Belgian Catholics etc. This all made it challenging for the Vatican to manage tensions, especially when Benedict XV offered his own peace plan, and was then challenged by the peace plan offered by Woodrow Wilson.”

While many American Catholics shared their bishops’ sentiments and served in the war wholeheartedly, some did not.  One example was Denver resident Ben Salmon, who refused to go to Europe after being drafted in 1917. Despite the pronouncements of the leadership of his church, Salmon cited his religious convictions in a letter to the president, stating, “The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is unconditional and inexorable … When human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army.”

At the time, it seemed that there may be “no space for someone like Ben Salmon in the Catholic Church,” Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International told NCR. “While in other traditions … there was an agreed upon root for a conscientious objector. That simply didn’t exist in the Catholic Church.”

The church had long relied on the Just War Theory to determine the morality of participation in such conflict, “which had been useful but didn’t stretch the thinking very much beyond that, which was very notable in the United States,” Dennis added…

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Nonviolence, Peace Spirituality

“Ain’t no such thing as a just war,” Ben Salmon, WWI resister

by Kathy Kelly, Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace

Several days a week, Laurie Hasbrook arrives at the Voices office here in Chicago. She often takes off her bicycle helmet, unpins her pant leg, settles into an office chair and then leans back to give us an update on family and neighborhood news. Laurie’s two youngest sons are teenagers, and because they are black teenagers in Chicago they are at risk of being assaulted and killed simply for being young black men. Laurie has deep empathy for families trapped in war zones. She also firmly believes in silencing all guns.

Lately, we’ve been learning about the extraordinary determination shown by Ben Salmon, a conscientious objector during World War I who went to prison rather than enlist in the U.S. military. Salmon is buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Carmel Cemetery, on the outskirts of Chicago.

In June, 2017, a small group organized by “Friends of Franz and Ben” gathered at Salmon’s gravesite to commemorate his life.

Mark Scibilla Carver and Jack Gilroy had driven to Chicago from Upstate NY, carrying with them a life size icon bearing an image of Salmon, standing alone in what appeared to be desert sands, wearing a prison-issue uniform that bore his official prison number. Next to the icon was a tall, bare, wooden cross. Rev. Bernie Survil, who organized the vigil at Salmon’s grave, implanted a vigil candle in the ground next to the icon. Salmon’s grand-niece had come from Moab, Utah, to represent the Salmon family. Facing our group, she said that her family deeply admired Salmon’s refusal to cooperate with war. She acknowledged that he had been imprisoned, threatened with execution, sent for a psychiatric evaluation, sentenced to 25 years in prison, a sentence which was eventually commuted, and unable to return to his home in Denver for fear of being killed by antagonists. Charlotte Mates expressed her own determination to try and follow in his footsteps, believing we all have a personal responsibility not to cooperate with wars.

Bernie Survil invited anyone in the circle to step forward with a reflection. Mike Bremer, a carpenter who has spent three months in prison for conscientious objection to nuclear weapons, pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket and stepped forward to read from an article by Rev. John Dear, written several years ago, in which Dear notes that Ben Salmon made his brave stance before the world had ever heard of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, or Mohandas Gandhi. There was no Catholic Worker, no Pax Christi, and no War Resisters League to support him. He acted alone, and yet he remains connected to a vast network of people who recognize his courage and will continue telling his story to future generations…

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Nonviolence

My personal story as a Catholic conscientious objector

by Tony Magliano

As I was trying to discern what God wanted me to write about, I walked into my 16-year-old son’s bedroom to discover a military calendar hanging on the wall. It highlighted young men and women in combat fatigues, fighter jets, an aircraft carrier battle group and plenty of American flags.

I knew from personal experience and deep soul-searching that hidden behind this calendar of military glitter was centuries of death and destruction. And as I removed this calendar, I knew exactly what God wanted me to write on.

Many years ago as young man in my 20’s I found myself in the midst of U.S. military basic combat training at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

While firing my M-16 weapon at life-like pop-up targets, it occurred to me the army was not training me to hit pop-up targets, but was training me to kill some poor guy like me in a far off country who got caught up in the propaganda of his own country’s war machine.

I came to realize this was all wrong. And I knew that in my desire to imitate the nonviolent Jesus, I could kill no one. …

Read the rest of this column online here.