In his funeral homily for one of the Catonsville Nine, Tom Lewis, Father McCarthy makes the claim that the Catonsville Nine action, in which 9 members of the Catholic Left entered a draft office and burned draft files with homemade napalm, was an "original work of art." I couldn't agree more. In Behind the Lines (the book version), I called it a symbolic action that was a kind of poem. Here is the text of his homily.
HOMILY, MASS OF THE RESURRECTION
for TOM LEWIS
ST. FRANCIS XAVIER CHURCH
by Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy
APRIL 11, 2008
I have known Tom for more than twenty-five years. The last time we were together was almost six months ago when we spent a day reflecting on the Nonviolent Jesus and the implications of His Way of Nonviolent Love of friends and enemies. When I heard that Tom had died, I was surprised by my reaction. My very first thought was of Brother David Darst, a Christian Brother who was also one of the Catonsville Nine with Tom.
Over the decades—since Brother David’s death in an automobile accident soon after being convicted for his participation in the Catonsville, Maryland, draft file burning—I have often thought about him. But, to have his name be my first thought after hearing of Tom’s death was/is a mystery to be pondered by me in the time ahead.
I suppose the most obvious explanation for it is that Tom and David were one in the most powerfully symbolic Christian witness of my lifetime, the “napalming” of draft files outside of the Catonsville Selective Service Office during the mass murder operation called the Viet Nam War.
As tens upon tens of millions of Christians in the United States, including a sickening number of prelates and personages of distinction, aimlessly meandered about or hid in the maze of that spiritual pyrite named Christian Just War Theory, Tom and David and seven other human beings like us, created a means whereby to proclaim the authentic Word of God to Churches and to Christians who were in denial of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Their proclamation outshines by a hundred billion kilowatts anything a Papal Visit, a Billy Graham Crusade or a Pat Robinson and Mother Angelica national television network ever did in the name of Jesus Christ to glorify God, His Way and His Truth.
In an original work of art (Original here not meaning “novel” but rather “origin,” as in the Word “through whom all things were made,” and who “became flesh.”), that required their own suffering to create—as well as their own freedom, intelligence, empathic capacities and faith—Tom and his eight co-conspirators with Christ brought Light into a society, into Churches and into Christians of all denominations who were living in the darkness of the shadow cast by the human smoke rising from Gehenna. In a moment of history reminiscent of another moment in history—the overturning of the money changers’ tables in the Temple by Jesus—they poured napalm on draft files thereby communicating to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear and a mind to understand that “burning children was inhuman.” As one of their court statements read:
Our apologies good friends
For the fracture of good order the burning of paper
instead of children the angering of the orderlies
in the front parlor of the charnel houses.
We could not so help us God do otherwise.
For we are sick at heart our hearts
give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning
It took faith, courage and creativity to do what Tom did that May 17 in 1968. Without experiential access to the daily deluge of evil and suffering that “the best and the brightest” in government, press, military, Wall Street, academia and religion were conjuring up and pouring down upon the expendable people of Viet Nam and the United States at that time, it is difficult to appreciate the depth of faith, courage and creativity that were the sine qua non for such a radical act of anti-government, pro-Christ, prophetic performance art. Most citizens of the U.S. and certainly most employees of government in 1968 were still of the mindset of the 1950s, which was captured perfectly by the late Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York when he announced his support of the Viet Nam War by quoting Steven Decatur, “My country right or wrong, but my country.” Perhaps an even better snapshot of the state of the societal and the Church mind in which Catonsville took place can be seen by a 1966 Life Magazine pro-Viet Nam War story that contained a photo of a tough looking U.S. fighter pilot in full gear with a skull painted on his helmet saying to the interviewer:
We sure are pleased with those backroom boys at DOW. Their original product wasn’t so hot—if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding polystyrene—now it stuck like shit to a blanket. But then, if the gooks jumped underwater it stopped burning, so the boys from DOW started adding Willie Peter (WP-white phosphorous) so to make it burn better. It will even burn underwater now. And just one drop is enough, it’ll keep burning right down to the bone, so they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning.
This was acceptable thinking for most of the U.S. population at the time, if it thought at all about the horror the U.S. Government and the plutocracy behind it were creating for ordinary people 8,000 mile away. In most Churches, academic institutions and mass media markets the agony of the people of Viet Nam was at best nothing more than the “stuff” for an interminable morality debate. Then into this artificial moral confusion came Tom and his fellow followers of Jesus with that “living and effective two-edged sword, the Word of God, that penetrates even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and is able to judge the secrets emotions and thoughts of people” (Heb 4:12). And what Truth of God did their illegal napalming of paper rather than the legal napalming of children bring into Christian consciences that were supportive of or indifferent to the mass murder taking place in Viet Nam? It was an unwanted truth—but self-evident truth—that almost nobody would consider before Catonsville and few, even today, in the Churches or outside the Churches are willing to take-in with the acute moral seriousness it absolutely demands: There is no moral difference between throwing a thousand children into a fire and throwing fire from an airplane on a thousand children.
Today the same fighter pilots, who dropped napalm on children, women and the elderly, are presented to the people of the U. S. by the government and its media outlets as war heroes. But, there is no such thing as heroism in the execution of evil. A mafia hit-man taking great risk in order to kill the children of an opposing godfather is not a hero. Evil does not become a scintilla less evil because a person put his or her life in jeopardy to do it and is subsequently designated a hero. Murder decorated with a ribbon is still murder—and the burning to death of children by the thousands in an unjust war is unjust killing, whose name is murder. Authentic heroism is freely taking a grave risk in order to try to do good. What Tom did that day almost forty years was an act of heroic mercy, not an act of pseudo-heroic mercilessness. According to the truth of what is referred to as the Last Judgment passage in Matthew 25, Tom saw children being burned to death and tried to help them at a great cost to himself. He came to the aid of the burning children in the Land of the Burning Children with the same abandonment of consequences to self that he would have had in coming to the aid of his own child or to the aid of the Christ Child in similar circumstances.
In his Catonsville act of Nonviolent Civil Disobedience and in the dozens of other actions of Divine Obedience in which Tom took part over the decades, he was always trying to act out of the Spirit of God whose supreme attribute is mercy, with the Father who is “rich in mercy” and who “lets His sun shine on the righteous and the wicked,” and in obedience to the Son whose conversion command is mercy, i.e., “I want mercy, not sacrifice.” Tom’s life—whether it be in his art, his teaching, his protest, his Catholic Worker affiliations, or his everyday demeanor—was a life committed to struggling to be agent of mercy on behalf of those who are subjected to the power of the merciless. What a life! What a witness! What a road on which to return to the Source!
So maybe, the connection between David Darst and Tom in my mind at that first instance after hearing of his death is not just that they were both participants in that most prophetic event at Catonsville draft board. Maybe at a deeper level it is what is so succinctly put forward in today’s first reading from the Hymn of the Suffering Servant: “The Lord called me from birth,/ from my mother’s womb he gave me my name./ He made of me a two-edged sword./…The Lord has spoken/ who formed me as his servant from the womb.”
Over the years in thinking about David being kill in a car crash only three of weeks after being convicted of acting criminally by burning draft files, I have often reflected on whether Catonsville is what David was brought out of nothingness and given the gift of faith in Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life for? It is a Biblical truth that God is Lord of History, that Jesus is the Alpha and Omega of history. But how? It seem impossible in terms of human freedom and in terms of the little we know about reality. Yet, in terms of David’s life and death it feels self-evidently so. So also with Tom. There is a sense that before he left the womb on St. Patrick’s Day in 1940, indeed before he was conceived in his mother’s womb, his destiny was placed within him. This of course can be passed off as just the idle daydreaming of one looking at life in the rear-view mirror. But there is a Biblical basis for it in the notion of “chosen.” “Chosen” by Jesus is not chosen to be a big shot nor is it chosen for privilege but rather for service, indeed for service that entails suffering in order to love and thereby complete a task in God’s Plan for bring salvation “to the ends of the earth.”
There is a meditation of by John Henry Newman that begins:
God Has Created me
to do some definite service.
God has committed some work to me
which God has not committed to another.
I have my mission.
I may never know it in this life
but I shall be told it in the next.
I am a link in a chain
a bond of connection between persons.
God has not created me for naught.
I shall do good—I shall do God's work
I shall be an angel of peace
a preacher of truth in my own place
while not intending it,
if I do but keep the commandments.
Therefore I will trust God
whatever I am, I can never be thrown away:
if I am in sickness, my sickness may serve God;
in perplexity, my perplexity may serve God;
If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve God.
God does nothing in vain
God knows what God is about.
My friends may leave me
I may be thrown among strangers
I may feel desolate,
my spirits sink,
my future be hidden from me—still
God knows what God is about.
I have a most assured sense that whatever the work assigned by the God of love to Tom in his mother’s womb, it has been completed. May we all be as faithful to the struggle to do the work committed to us by God as was Tom. Consummatum est.
The witness of your life, Tom, is now in the hands of God to do with as He will. Requiescat in pace.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy
Thank you for posting this. Astonishing and wonderful.
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