Above: Icon of Ben Salmon
Image in the Public Domain
BENJAMIN JOSEPH SALMON (OCTOBER 15, 1889-FEBRUARY 15, 1932)
Roman Catholic Pacifist and Conscientious Objector
War is the health of the state.
–Randolph Bourne (1886-1918), 1918
It is dangerous to be right in matters about which the established authorities are wrong.
–Francois-Marie Arouet, a.k.a. Voltaire (1694-1778)
I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
–Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1868-1956); frequently attributed to Voltaire erroneously
To refuse to commit or be complicit in violence when one’s government encourages violences can be dangerous and fraught with legal difficulty.
Consider, O reader, the case of Ben Salmon, born in Denver, Colorado, on October 15, 1889. He grew up in a desert and working-class Roman Catholic family. Our saint became involved in leftist social justice movements, in particular, with labor unionism. According to some, he was even an agitator. Salmon, who attended Mass frequently, married his longtime sweetheart in 1917. Shortly thereafter, due to U.S. involvement in World War I and official intolerance of antiwar activism, his life changed for the worse.
President Woodrow Wilson, about whom I harbor mixed and mostly negative opinions, had predicted prior to April 1917 that, if the U.S.A. were to enter World War I, many Americans would forget that there was no such thing as tolerance. He was correct. He also led the charge of intolerance. In 1917 and 1918 state and federal laws incarcerated peaceful opponents of that war. The U.S. Government even treated Amish (yes, Amish!) conscientious objectors harshly. Authorities, suspecting Amish and Mennonites of being pro-German, kept them under surveillance. (For details, O reader, consult Steven M. Nolt, A History of the Amish, Revised and Updated Edition, 2003, pages 266-273.) Laws in some states targeted those who worshiped in a language other than English, so populations ranging from Dutch-psalm-singing members of the Christian Reformed Church to Lutherans who worshiped in Danish or German felt pressure (sometimes in the form of vandalism) to assimilate.
The Amish had been pacifists since their founding, centuries prior to World War I, yet they were not safe from the assaults of the U.S. military over their refusal to fight in a war. Neither was Salmon, whose pacifism, rooted in Roman Catholicism, put him at odds with the American bishops of his own church. He responded to the draft by applying for conscientious objector status. The Army refused to grant him that status, but offered non combatant status instead. Even that constituted a violation of Salmon’s conscience. In 1918 the military police arrested our saint. In short order he had gone through a court-martial and received a guilty verdict and a death sentence, reduced to a term of 25 years. For more than two years Salmon suffered as he refused to cooperate with his persecutors and oppressors, who retaliated by treating him inhumanely–including with much solitary confinement, sometimes in a vermin-infested cell above the prison sewer. When, in 1920, our saint started a hunger strike, guards force-fed him. Then the Army, arguing that he was not only a criminal but an insane person, had him committed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington, D.C. The new American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) defended Salmon and other war resisters, sent to prison.
In prison Salmon, consulting only the Catholic Encyclopedia and the Bible, composed a 200-page refutation of just war theory. No modern war, he argued, can fit that theory. Furthermore, our saint insisted, militarism had become the new idolatry. Such arguments did not convert many enemies into allies at a time when the “rally around the flag” mentality turned into jingoism, vigilantism, and religious intolerance–all in the name of national security.
President Warren G. Harding, of whom I also harbor mostly negative opinions, at least pardoned Salmon and other war resisters in late 1920. The Army issued our saint a Dishonorable Discharge, however. Salmon returned to his wife, with whom he had three children. His prison experiences had broken his health. He died, aged 42 years, at Chicago, Illinois, on February 15, 1932.
I have attempted and failed to be a pacifist. Nevertheless, I have concluded that most violence is both avoidable and wrong. I have also concluded that the mistreatment of pacifists is always wrong. I have decided to place the persecutors and oppressors of Salmon in the same category as the Puritans who hanged Quakers in New England in the late 1600s: evildoers who reacted out of fear.
National security is an invalid excuse for trampling the rights of people, in this case, a man who simply refused to commit violence or to be complicit in it. As Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) stated,
Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Or at least a jingoist.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
DECEMBER 4, 2016 COMMON ERA
THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT, YEAR A
THE FEAST OF SAINTS JOHN OF DAMASCUS AND COSMAS OF MAIUMA, THEOLOGIANS AND HYMNODISTS
THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN CALABRIA, FOUNDER OF THE CONGREGATION OF THE POOR SERVANTS AND THE POOR WOMEN SERVANTS OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE
THE FEAST OF JOSEPH MOHR, AUSTRIAN ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST AND HYMN WRITER
THE FEAST OF THOMAS COTTERILL, ENGLISH PRIEST, HYMN WRITER, AND LITURGIST
Almighty God, whose prophets taught us righteousness in the care of your poor:
By the guidance of your Holy Spirit, grant that we may
do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in your sight;
through Jesus Christ our Judge and Redeemer, who lives and reigns
with you and the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Psalm 2:1-2, 10-12
Acts 14:14-17, 21-23
—Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 736