I wonder how many Catholics ever heard of Ben Salmon.
It seems to me his life would have made Christmas come alive as we welcomed the birth of the Prince of Peace.
In 1989 Torin Finney wrote Ben’s life Unsung Hero of the Great War (Paulist Press, 1989 —in my library somewhere. Maybe I lent it out. His life was inspiring. That of the official leadership, less so.
At Christmas Jack Gilroy wrote his homage to this saint.always trust the Catholic Worker to maintain pacifist New Testament principles.
Then the great Jesuit John Dear picked the story up in 2010
The story begins April 6, 1917. It was the day President Woodrow Wilson, the “peace president,” declared war on Germany, and the next day, Congress ratified the decision, bringing the United States. into World War I. Two weeks later, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, the de facto head of the U.S. Catholic church, issued a letter, to this effect: all Catholics were to support the war.
The letter was soon followed by the founding of the U.S. Bishops’ “National Catholic War Council,” which set out to mobilize Catholics for, what it called, “war work.” Peacework? Peacemaking? That was never an option. (According to historians, this War Council eventually led to the creation of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops.)As the darkness descended, on June 5, 1917, 28 year-old-Ben Salmon took up his pen. He wrote the president, saying he would refuse to fight. “Regardless of nationality,” he wrote,
all men are my brothers. God is “our father who art in heaven.” The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is unconditional and inexorable. … The lowly Nazarene taught us the doctrine of non-resistance, and so convinced was he of the soundness of that doctrine that he sealed his belief with death on the cross. 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.
A brave missive in those days. Congress, suddenly fervid for war, wasted little time getting a new law on the books. It outlawed activities “detrimental to the war effort” — public anti-war statements, anti-war literature, utterances that might encourage draft resistance — all these punishable by up to 20 years behind bars.
Under the law, the authorities arrested hundreds, harassed thousands. And when challenged, finally, the law was upheld by the Supreme Court. Necessary for “national security,” they decreed.
Salmon had voted for Wilson. Like most, he had expected the president to lead the country to peace. And when the brilliant and upright candidate came to power and unleashed war, Salmon’s disappointment burned deep. Wilson outdid even his hawkish predecessors in warmaking. (A pattern, need it be added, quite obvious today.)
Undeterred by the chill on the air, Ben rose to leadership in Denver’s “People’s Council for Democracy and Peace,” a national anti-war organization. In defiance of the law, he wrote letters, gave speeches, and distributed pamphlets. Soon, he caught the attention of The New York Times, which hotly denounced him. He had become notorious.
Meantime, the gears of war turned feverishly, with a kind of census going full tilt to unearth prospective recruits. On Christmas day, Ben’s Army registration questionnaire arrived. Ben returned it, unfilled-out, accompanied by a letter explaining why. “Let those that believe in wholesale violation of the commandment, ‘Thou Shalt not Kill’ make a profession of faith by joining the army of war. I am in the army of peace, and in this army, I intend to live and die.”
Jan. 15, 1918, Denver policemen arrived at his door. The papers hurled slander his way, all sulfur and fire. The Knights of Columbus, the prominent Catholic lay association, in a fit of indignation revoked his membership. In March he was tried and convicted. And then the sentence came down — nine months in the county jail.
Gilroy writes that he was refused a priest and the eucharist. For 135 days prison guards poured liquids down his throat to keep him alive.
No support from the hierarchy.Cardinal James Gibbons encouraged RCs to join the war effort. .Cardinal Farley of New York: “Criticism of the government irritates me, it is short of treason.”
Hello Pontius Pilate!
Salmon was sentenced to death. This was commuted to 25 years. The government begged him to take an office job. For Salmon even non-combatant service, he said, entails cooperating with an institution “antithetical to Christianity.”
The war ended but not for Ben — solitary confinement — when he refused all orders. Five months he suffered in a dark, rat-infested cell. No toilet but a pail, bread and water his only food.
Matters grew worse yet when in June, 1919, the authorities transferred him to a military prison in Utah, where sadistic guards took a dim view of conscientious objectors. The guards inflicted beatings, withheld food, and kept prisoners underdressed against the cold.
“Christ’s doctrine to overcome evil with good” is the “most effective solution for individual and society ills that has ever been formulated. It is a practical policy…My life, my family, everything is now in the hands of God. His will be done.”
Two weeks later, death loomed, and he asked to see a priest. The priest arrived, but refused to offer him Communion, hear his confession or anoint him. Two other priests arrived some days later. And, after sizing things up, one of them agreed to the request for Communion. The sacrament was done. When word made its way back to the diocese, a fury descended. The priest was sent packing. Off to minor and punitive assignments in Oregon for pitying a traitor. Another instance of church colluding with warmongering state.
Today From the ACLU archives we have the fruits of Ben’s efforts, a 200-page, single-spaced essay on the fallacy of the just war. Much of it a refutation of the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on war by Father Macksey, a Jesuit from the Gregorian University in Rome. Point by point Ben refutes the lofty scholar.
“Either Christ is a liar or war is never necessary, and very properly assuming that Christ told the truth, it follows that the State is without [in the words of Father Macksey] ‘judicial authority to determine when war is necessary,’ because it is never necessary.”
Much of Salmon’s thinking depended on the Apostle Paul. “Overcome evil with good,” admonished Paul. (Rom 12:21).
We do not attempt to overcome lying with lies; we overcome it with truth. We do not try to overcome curses with curses, but we overcome with silence or with words of friendship. Sickness is not overcome with sickness; it is overcome with health… Anger is overcome with meekness, pride by humility. And the successful way to overcome the evil of war is by the good of peace, a steadfast refuse to render evil for evil.
A sad matter when faithfulness, nonviolence, sanity, as it was in Jesus’ own day, is regarded as — insanity. Finally the well-respected Msgr. John Ryan of Catholic University got wind of the news and personally lobbied the Secretary of War.
The War Department, in a feeble way, finally relented — they would release 33 conscientious objectors. Ben would be among them. Thanksgiving 1920, he was released and, from the army he never joined, dishonorably discharged. The news made front pages across the nation.
Persona non grata thereafter, he struggled to find good work. And when the Depression set in, he and his family landed in deep poverty. His health never recovered — the forced feedings had taken their toll — and in 1932 he caught pneumonia and died.
The astonishing life and times of Ben Salmon, all but unheard of in our day and age.
John Dear’s summary of Salmon’s life:
I regard him as a saint for the ages. He took on the nation, he took on Christendom. He took them on in reverence toward the Christ of peace. He shows us what allegiance to the nonviolent Jesus looks like.
A handful of great peacemakers have been given us: Franz Jagerstatter and Dorothy Day, Philip Berrigan and Howard Zinn. Yet most bishops and priests, and following their lead, most of the laity, still cheer on state-sanctioned mass murder, especially when committed in Jesus’ name. They go along, they rock few boats.
More, among our military, a third are Catholic. Vastly more theologians than not, like Father Macksey, pursue justifications for war. I get the feeling that the bishops wish they could start a new “National Catholic War Council;” they certainly haven’t formed a “Peace Council.” And today, as in Ben’s own day, an eloquent president, elected on promises of peace, has taken warmaking to new heights. The times, Ben’s and ours, run parallel. And that being the case, one of the brightest beacons we have is Ben.
His example urges us to refuse to cooperate with the warmaking state. Is the stand costly, are the stakes high? No matter.
“Peacemaking is hard, hard almost as war,” to quote the poet,Dan Berrigan
The vocation falls to us, Christians everywhere, to follow the nonviolent Jesus.