To the Editor:
The article by Dorothy Rabinowitz [“The Activist Cleric,” September], full of implicit assumptions and a barely disguised tone of mockery, seems to me to be more than merely an offense against “good taste.” Moreover, my distress has little to do with the fact that the objects of this “put-down” are clergymen. What offends me is the totally superficial treatment of behavior of the most serious intent without any hint that there could be more to the matter than is here presented. Why certain American clergy might at this point in history have decided to behave as they are doing is alluded to only in the most indirect fashion.
Clearly one (and I stress that it is just one) of the causes of their behavior is the war which continues in Indochina (one can unfortunately no longer say merely Vietnam). If one refuses to take the suffering of the Indochinese seriously (as well as that of the American soldiers sent to fight in this impossible war), then no doubt a great deal of contemporary American behavior must seem peculiar and even “unbalanced.” If one does take it seriously, then important issues can be raised: Have we reached the point where no moral or political purpose is served by accepting a jail sentence meted out for civil disobedience or rebellion against the war? Are the clergy (and others) right in concentrating their concern and attention on the young at the expense of the middle-aged and the elderly? Is there a contradiction between being a “man of the cloth” and a political activist? Has nonviolent resistance proven itself futile?
But none of these issues is presented here as worthy of sustained attention. Indeed the tone of the article reminds me only too painfully of the attitude expressed by certain government spokesmen when confronted with strong moral protests against the war. To paraphrase: “We will not be affected by a few crazy monks and Quakers who burned themselves to death. Obviously they were mentally disturbed.” The latter statement, to be sure, is true though not in the sense in which those spokesmen intended it. The same cavalier attitude has been adopted, of course, toward those who have mounted less “extreme” protests—a fact not unrelated to the current outbreak of terroristic activities. (Concerning the matter of terror—which ought not, however, to be equated with disruption—the following note I recently sent to the Steering Committee of Resist should make my own position clear: “While I recognize that Resist has supported and continues to support groups and activities performing essential and positive functions in the transformation of American society, I believe that Resist has also at least indirectly [morally] given support to the terroristic actions which are currently so much a part of the resistance. I personally must reject these actions both on pragmatic and on principled grounds. I cannot agree that if the United States is to cease to be ‘a terror in the politics of nations’ [a phrase taken from “A New Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority”] that will best be accomplished by turning the New Left into a terror within the life of this nation. Accordingly, I shall henceforth give the small amout I am able to contribute monthly to the resistance movement directly to those activist groups whose principles seem more nearly congruent with my own.”)
In the face of such calculated callousness as Miss Rabinowitz displays I suppose it must seem a bit strange that some clergy retain a capacity for gaiety. Yet if they did not, it is doubtful whether they could continue to carry on their resistance. In any case, the contemporary scene provides examples of “inappropriate” behavior that are far more worrisome; e.g., the empty “wisecracking” of some American GI’s and airmen while engaged in dropping napalm or wiping whole villages off the map (though this behavior, too, which also constitutes a way of enabling men to carry on, can be comprehended, if not applauded).
It seems to me that one of the functions of a serious journal should be to provide some deeper understanding of the behavior of men, of the forces that move them and the moral issues that agitate them. Thus at a time when the substance of human thought and action is subject to trivialization on all sides, it is sad to find COMMENTARY (in this instance anyway), aiding and abetting this process.
To the Editor:
“The Activist Cleric” is the best article on “inside” the clergyman since J. F. Powers.
Andrew M. Greeley
University of Chicago
Dorothy Rabinowitz writes:
I am sorry for Miss Woodward’s distress. Still, those of us who suspect that it is not the times which subject human thought and action to trivialization, but the trivial people who abound so proudly in these times, have cause for yet more sorrow, if being outnumbered is cause for sorrow.
The charge that, unless one has taken up those “important issues” of Miss Woodward’s selection, one has refused to take the suffering of the Indochinese seriously, comes as no surprise to me. It is no less emblematic of the security of the intellectual left than any of the other casual sophistries by which they have laid claim to our attention these long years. Taking counsel from Miss Woodward, one moves without comment from her issues to her note, in which she explains herself to the Steering Committee of Resist, which should certainly put those worthies on notice that, not only have they lost a customer, but that the price of sponsorship is prose. Possibly the more cynical among them may consider it a fair exchange.
For oneself one might have hoped that Miss Woodward had included in that note her instructive distinction between disruption and violence. One would certainly like to hear more about that. One might have wished even more that Miss Woodward had applied her capacity for refined distinctions to seeing the difference between the martyred monks and Quakers and the clerical celebrities of our time; between the situation of those tweedy “certain American clergy” and the Bonhoeffers of the world. No doubt one asks too much. The inflation of trivia by a grateful constituency of the benighted, the ambitious, and those whose lives are now permanently consecrated to cant, will have its consequences to the spirit, not the least appalling of which will be our degraded notion of what it is to be a brave man.