Colossians 1:13-14, 19-20
Kennedy's assassination is rooted in our denial of our nation's crimes in World War II that began the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. As a growing precedent to JFK's assassination by his own national security state, we U.S. citizens supported our government when it destroyed whole cities (Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki), when it protected our Cold War security by world-destructive weapons, and when it carried out the covert murders of foreign leaders with 'plausible deniability' in a way that was obvious to critical observers. By avoiding our responsibility for the escalating crimes of state done for our security, we who failed to confront the Unspeakable opened the door to JFK's assassination and its cover-up.
Jim Douglass, JFK And The Unspeakable (2008)
This year, on the cusp of this final weekend before Advent, we pause to remember the 50th Anniversary of the tragic death of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. In timely fashion, the lectionary prods us with a New Testament passage that reminds us of a rather peculiar God who somehow makes peace through the blood of an execution. Perhaps we can make sense of this strange hope by reading the deaths of both Christ and Kennedy bifocally.
Throughout the Christian centuries, believers have grappled with what to make of the ignominous death of their Lord and Savior. There is, of course, consensus that it meant far more than the end of the life of an marvelous and unique leader. The resurrection directs us towards more than just the vindication of the life and teachings of Jesus: it guides us into the future when death will be defeated and all of God's creation will be liberated from decay.
But consensus over the crucifixion has consistently flowed into an intramural competition, as diverse Christian communities narrate competing claims about the implications of Jesus' death for our lives now. On the one hand, there are those communities who view the cross primarily through the lens of atonement, conferring upon believers a status that ushers them into the presence of God.
The death of Jesus, for these Christians, is a once-and-for-all sacrifice that cleanses humanity of sin, ushering believers into the gates of heaven when they die. As these atonement-oriented Christians read Colossians this week they will be comforted: How is peace made through the blood of the cross? A just God needed violence in order to be pacified!
On the other hand, there are those communities who primarily comprehend the cross as the direct result of the teachings that Jesus lived out and called us to pledge allegiance to as well. As Ched Myers & Elaine Enns write in Ambassadors of Reconciliation (2008):
…the significance of Christ’s cross must always first be grounded in history: Jesus was executed as a dissident by the Roman Empire. The primary meaning of ‘Jesus died for our sins’ is that he was killed because of sinful humanity…the inevitable consequence of prophetic practice in a world of violence and injustice.
These followers of Jesus aren't so much concerned with the atoning benefits of his death, but instead, with the task of replicating the nonviolent adventure of his life (which, in its most radical manifestations, has often lead to an early death). This, in fact, is how the Truth sets us free. Indeed, the Apostle Paul goes on to proclaim in the letter to Colosse that Jesus' execution was, paradoxically, a victory because it exposed the corruption & violence of the public institutions that sent him to the cross:
He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
As these adventure-seeking Christians read Colossians this week, they will be confronted and converted: How is peace made through the blood of the cross? A just God exposes violence in order to recruit pacifists!
What does this theological rivalry have to do with JFK?
As the media nostagically hype the airwaves with references to conspiracy and Camelot, the Catholic peace activist and author Jim Douglass, like a lonely, prophetic voice in the wilderness, reminds us that there are more compelling ways to understand the assassination of Kennedy.
Five years ago, Douglass exposed a U.S. government cover-up over the death of Kennedy, who was in the process of taking significant steps towards a peaceful end to the Cold War. The result of exhaustive research, JFK And The Unspeakable (2008) details a series of events during his time in office, climaxing in a June 1963 speech at American University, that culminated in Kennedy's death at the hands of American Cold Warriors drunk with power.
President Kennedy, while making standard anti-Communist statements to the public, was working behind the scenes, corresponding with the Soviet premier Khruschev and the Indonesian President Sukarno. At one point, in 1962, he invited into the White House six Quaker peace activists who, according to Douglass, planted the seed within the President (based on the teachings of Jesus) to sell surplus grain to the starving populations of "the enemies" (Soviets and Chinese).
Like Jesus' prophetic predictions to his disciples concerning his impending death, Kennedy confided with his brother Robert that forces were colluding to kill him. And like Jesus, he knew full well that the more he impeded the agenda of the powermongers, the more likely it was that he would die for the cause. Kennedy became more and more compelled that this would be the rugged route that world peace demanded. In the words of Douglass:
If we go as far as we can into the darkness, regardless of the consequences, I believe a midnight truth will free us from our bondage to violence and bring us to the light of peace.
There are basically three ways to approach the tragedy of Kennedy's death: (1) an indifferent default setting that is saddened and confused by the actions of "a crazed gunmen;" (2) an intriguing conspiracy option obsessed with tales of who-done-it; or (3) a recognition of the intevitable consequence of those courageous enough to confront violence & corruption in our world (from Jeremiah to John the Baptist to Jesus to Kennedy to King to Romero). Embracing this Third Way requires eyes to see below the surface of things towards a deeper analysis of power, privilege and prestige.
Kennedy once said, "Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." We all want to make sense of senseless violence and this leads too many folks down the road of indifference or intrigue while comfortably clinging to public opinion. The road to true life must wind down the dark valley that hides history's firm Fact: those intoxicated by power will do anything to keep it, even if it takes extinguishing the life of the innocent. Collateral damage ensues and plausible deniability silences it away. The lies and deception must be ruthlessly and nonviolently exposed and confronted by both our words and actions. Only then can we find comfort in the bold and hopeful proclamation: Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.
Note: Douglass' masterpiece is 400 pages long. For those who lack the time or energy, check out these more accessible resources:
Rose Berger's 15-minute Video Interview with Douglass
John Dear's recent piece on Douglass and Kennedy
Douglass' Audio Interview with America Magazine
Douglass' Speech to the Council on Presidential Assassinations
For those interested in further implementing the commitment to nonviolence that Douglass is advocating, check out the life of Art Laffin who leads up a prayer vigil in front of the White House every Friday at noon, and who, just last month, offered a specific prayer:
that the Pentagon would one day be converted and that each of the five sides of the building be transformed into: a center for nonviolent conflict resolution training; a center for developing and providing alternative and renewable energy sources; a medical treatment center; a daycare center; and a bakery.