In 1959, a Chicago Methodist minister mocked Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s claims to be a “champion of peace” as an “ironic and ludicrous spectacle.” (Imagine an icon of liberalism being brought to task from the pulpit in some of today’s churches?) The Soviet leader never mentions human values, the minister complained, warning against any US weakness towards communism. [“Nikita’s Role for Peace Hit by Minister”, Chicago Daily Defender (September 21, 1959) Page A8]. Today’s liberals…another nice sounding name for communists …encourage the taking of unborn human life and rarely do we hear anything about it from the pulpit. Recently returned from Russia, Bishop Gerald Kennedy similarly derided Khrushchev’s idea of co-existence: “We are in a tough fight, and one of us must win, for either God is or he is not. Either men are of worth in themselves or they have value only as pawns of the state.” The bishop concluded: “The victory demands unselfish commitment, sacrifice and faith.” [“Coexistence Can’t Work, Bishop Kennedy Says”, Los Angeles Times (October 7, 1959) Page B32]. Very few pastors exist today who have the fortitude to make such a statement. A New York pastor chided the “childishness” of Soviet scientist who boasted that Russian rockets had found no evidence of God in space. Of course they didn’t…”rockets can never find supernatural beings or other detectable evidences of God because, as Jesus said,’God is spirit and those who worship must worship in Spirit and Truth'”. [“Russians Are Chided”, New York Times (January 26, 1959) Page 52]. There is just one part of the pastor’s commentary I must disagree with. I can look up into the night sky and see ‘volumes’ of evidences of God. We can never become so snug in our existence that we forget to see miracles all around us…a blade of grass.
After returning from a visit in 1960, Bishop Kennedy reported that US prestige was in “great shape” in Europe compared to Russia. Kennedy was worried about communist influence in France and Italy and warned that if President Charles De Gaulle lost power in France, “the gang organized to take over there is Communistic, well organized and united.” He cited the Soviets as proof that “collectivity doesn’t work,” while “individual incentive” and “reward” are needed. “I think in the long run God made man for freedom,” the bishop said. “It seems to me that’s His plan, and ultimately the system either political or religious that accepts that will be closest to His plan and so to the real situation”. [“Bishop Finds Europe Likes US Over Soviet”, Los Angeles Times (October 23, 1960) Page H16]. Nothing political in these comments?! In a public letter to President Eisenhower, Bishop Kennedy surmised:”I do not believe that war is inevitable. But I do not believe, either, that these two systems can live side by side without one going down. For the first time in history, we are facing a terrible enemy who denies the very basis of our life.” [“Khrushchev Questions Suggested by Bishop”, Los Angeles Times (January 9, 1960) Page B2].
In their episcopal address to the 1960 General Conference, the bishops urged “mobilizing Christian opinion within our connection in behalf of mutual disarmament, the prohibition of nuclear testing, and the peaceful use of atomic energy”. (Maybe they could put the information on something like a ‘voter guide’…oh, but wait, voter guides don’t belong in church.) Delegates responded by calling for the “abolition of the use of war by nations” and “complete disarmament, involving both nuclear and conventional weapons, down to levels required for internal policing.” (Why could they not have had this idea prior to WW II? I’m sure Hitler and Tojo would have gone along with it.) They asserted that the United Nations could enforce such a dictate. As they reiterated opposition to compulsory military service and denounced “militarism” while admitting that Christians disagree over individual participation in war but must not “gloss over the sinfulness of war.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Church (1960) Pages 699-705)].
Considering the world’s current experience with communism we still had Methodist pastors who were trying to make communism not look so bad. In 1960, a Methodist minister returned from Cuba, where communism under Fidel Castro had seized power the year before. Bemoaning the dictatorship as a “terrifying and tragic alternative” to Christianity, he still told a New York congregation:”We must not look down on the revolution and say that it is awful.” Instead, he suggested :”We must ask, ‘Have we failed?'” A Methodist National Conference in 1961 rejected a proposal from a committee chaired by Bishop W. Ralph Ward of Syracuse that deplored US “military intervention, direct or indirect, in the internal affairs of Cuba” and urges US diplomatic recognition of Castro’s regime. [“Cuban Plank Stalls Methodist Action”, Washington Post (April 29, 1961)]. It’s sort of like putting out the welcome sign for cancer. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the bishops of Methodism’s segregated Central Jurisdiction shared their “concern and prayers” for President Kennedy’s “great responsibilities in world affairs” and expressing hope he could “avoid military conflict.” [“Bishops Wire JFK on Cuba, Meredith”, Afro-American (November 17, 1962) Page 20]. At the same time Iowa Bishop Gerald Ensley blamed the Catholic Church for having facilitated communist revolution in Cuba by failing to improve economic conditions. [“Methodists Raps Catholics Over Cuba Going Red”, Chicago Daily Tribune (November 6, 1962) Page 11]. Meanwhile a Cuban Methodist minister in Miami helped organize exiles plotting Castro’s overthrow. “We expect internal action in Cuba very soon”, he promised in 1963. [“Tell Campaign to Infiltrate Castro Regime”, Chicago Tribune (April 14, 1963) Page 3]. Sometimes the Christian option is to break the silence and turn talk into action. Evil triumphs when good men are silent.
By the mid 1960’s, official Methodism was becoming increasingly less focused on communism and the Cold War, except for the continued call on global disarmament. In its place a continuing trend that actually began earlier in the 1950’s. More and more Methodists were focused on domestic social justice, especially the emerging Civil Rights movement. Too bad the church didn’t pick up focus on the gay movement and the abortion industry. Next week we will take a look at a different politic the Methodist Church adopted. It was a worthy focus and one that was long overdue. Back then worrying about offending was not a major concern. Many in church leadership had to step out of their ‘comfort zone’.
– Bob Munsey
“The time is always right to do what is right” Martin Luther King Jr.