As we honor our veterans today, I call your attention to 28 war heroes whose song is not unsung but rather, sung so softly that it might not be heard by all.
What do you do
when a child’s on fire?
What do you do?
We saw children on fire.
What do you do
when a child’s on fire
in a war that’s a mistake?
What do you do, write a letter?
-Rev. Michael Doyle
The Camden 28 are 28 peace activists who planned to destroy records in a military draft board in August of 1971 as a non-violent act of civil disobedience in opposition the Vietnam War. Among them were 7 Catholic priests (including Fr. Doyle,) a Lutheran pastor and 20 Catholic lay people. The members were male, female, married and single. One was as young as 20, and the oldest was over 40 years old. If they were brought to trial and found guilty, they faced a myriad of unimaginable consequences, including imprisonment, fines and the life long stigma of a criminal record.
As the group spent weeks surveilling the location, one member became an informant to the FBI. The group successfully raided the draft board and subsequently arrested. They were brought to trial by jury and for the most part, waived their right to counsel. The jury exonnerrated every party brought to trial. If this happened today, I would consider it a miracle.
The story of the Camden 28 intrigues me because the group could have lost everything in a single act of resistance. The three youngest members, Sarah, Joan Jayma, were only 20 years old. I engaged in a lot of risky behaviors when I was around the same age (remember, I stopped drinking around the age of 21) but nothing as bold as this. I wonder, if these were my friends, would I have been brave enough to move the operation forward? Would I have been courageous enough to accept a prison sentence for my Christian convictions? Would I have been strong enough to act against a common ideology so pervasive that most of the Church was reluctant to voice its objection? Or would I have simply turned informant, like Bob Hardy?
During the late 80’s and 90’s, some of my Catholic school teachers still felt free to impart the spirit of the Catholic left. They taught us that war is usually not the answer, that we should seek peace and stand up for our conscience, even when the law tells us to sit. Teachers who were passionate about particular areas of Catholic social teaching would say things like, “what’s right isn’t always what’s popular,” and “being a Christian is hard sometimes.” And then something happened.
Somewhere around 2001, our national self-esteem became threatened. We grieved the unanticpated the loss of friends, family, children, parents and spouses in a massive unsolicited terror attack. Our nation responded by shipping our sons and daughters to the other side of the world. The unquenchable desire for peace that was instilled during my childhood became an unpatriotic malady. At the beginning of the second millenium, any perceived opposition to military action within the Church was deemed un-patriotic, insensitive and thoroughly un-Christian.
Wait. What? Aren’t you the same people who told me to give my playground bullies my tunic when they demand my cloak? Didn’t Jesus have a large mountain-side discourse where he referenced that peacemakers would be called Children of God? What ever happened to loving so big that you lay down your life?
The Camden 28 are veterans of a different kind. They are combat veterans of action to confront the complacency of the status quo.
As we hail our military veterans today, let us also remember the veterans of peace.
So what do you do when a child’s on fire?
End note: Fr. Doyle is the pastor of a parish in the Camden diocese. I haven’t met him yet. I feel proud to serve a diocese where someone like him is revered as a local hero.