WASHINGTON — During the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands marched in protest. During the 1971 May Day demonstrations, the Nixon Administration surrounded the White House with Metro buses to protect it from hordes of hippies attempting to shut down the government. Thousands of demonstrators were arrested and temporarily held at Washington’s RFK stadium.
The melodrama of those days is long gone, but some of its aging participants are still trying to re-create the glory days.
United Church of Christ (UCC) President John Thomas, after disseminating a news release announcing his plans to be arrested outside the White House to protest the Iraq War, achieved his goal on October 10.
It was rather anti-climactic. The confrontation was scheduled for the lunch hour, perhaps to encourage an audience of office workers on their break to at least stop and watch. Not many did.
“Our pledge is not to leave the gates of the White House until our message has been received or until we are arrested,” wrote Thomas and his fellow UCC officer Linda Jaramillo, chief of “Justice and Witness Ministries.” They were planning to drop off a UCC petition signed by 60,000 demanding an immediate U.S. retreat from Iraq.
Although a UCC news release after the arrest referred to 50 UCC’ers in supportive attendance at the arrest, the crowd probably was closer to half that size. A letter from Thomas and Jaramillo addressed to President Bush and Congressional leaders nonetheless referred to the “intensity” of anti-war fervor within the UCC. That intensity seems to have been mostly confined to petition signing.
“We believe we are at a critical moment when impasse, resignation, and discouragement can easily allow failed policies to continue for months,” Thomas and Jaramillo had chimed the previous Friday in a message to be shared at Sunday church services. “Therefore, our witness will also include an urgent plea to the leaders of our own church in every setting, and to our ecumenical colleagues, to find their own way to offer visible and courageous witness for justice and peace in Iraq.”
The UCC is primarily made up of descendents of New England’s original Congregationalists. They were once fiery Calvinists not averse to military conflict. But the modern UCC has more in common with the Unitarians and pacifist Transcendentalists who intellectually displaced New England Calvinism in the 19th century. The UCC is one of America’s fastest declining denominations, having lost nearly half its membership over the last 40 years.
Apparently not very interested in reversing their church’s membership implosion, which would require preaching the old time Gospel, the UCC leadership instead concentrates on protest causes of the Left.
Thomas and Jaramillo, in their message to supporters beforehand, pledged to be “respectful of those in our churches whose views differ from ours,” while expressing hope that God’s grace will “restore this wounded earth.” Even after decades of dominance, it’s doubtful that a majority of the UCC’s one million members really support the radical Social Gospel that their officials prefer. But the UCC’s top clerics are prophetically undeterred!
“We have seen a groundswell from our churches who wanted to be a part, who wanted to have their voices heard,” enthused the Rev. Jaramillo. “We are very concerned about the continuing escalation of the war and violence.”
BEFORE HEADING OVER to the White House to get arrested, Thomas and Jaramillo swung by the U.S. Capitol to drop off their anti-war petitions with the Congressional leadership. There they were accompanied by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s president Thomas Singford, who helpfully brought along his own Unitarian anti-war petition with 10,000 signatures. Old Congregationalist divines once inveighed against the heterodoxy of Unitarianism and Universalism. No longer very divided over theology, the old adversaries can now work together amicably on more important issues.
Forcing the United States out of Iraq ranks front and center for the Religious Left as a matter of urgency. After their Capitol Hill visit, Thomas and Jaramillo stood outside the north front of the White House. Jaramillo held up boxes of petitions, having already left a box or two with U.S. House and U.S. Senate leadership offices. Thomas held up a red sign declaring: “Support the Troops: End the War.”
The earlier UCC news release had teasingly not described how Thomas and Jaramillo would provoke their arrest. Would they strip naked? Would they climb the White House fence? Would they brandish a weapon? The answer was hardly so colorful.
While other, nearby but non-UCC related protesters bleated on about homosexuality, Thomas and Jaramillo less flamboyantly stood quietly at the White House fence and declined to step back when asked by patient White House guards. No doubt to their satisfaction, the two clerics were handcuffed and led to a police van. But the kindly guards allowed for plenty of time for photographers to capture the historic moment for future generations of UCC activists.
Maybe trying to compensate for the utter lack of suspense or drama, Thomas quoted Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his small crowd of UCC supporters. “The church has been a silent partner in evil deeds,” the anti-Nazi martyr was recalled having said. “We are breaking that silence today,” the UCC president insisted, before he was arrested.
Standing naked in a prison courtyard, Bonhoeffer was shot by an SS firing squad for plotting to help kill Hitler. Thomas, in a dark suit, probably identified with the martyr as he was gingerly led away by nonchalant White House guards who are long accustomed to and likely bored by such staged arrests.
“This is a difficult time for people of faith who are opposed to the war,” Thomas courageously opined. Hopefully he and the Rev. Jaramillo got a nice meal at one of Washington’s finer restaurants before heading to Reagan National Airport.
The hundreds of thousands of youthful anti-war protesters of 35 and 40 years ago shook the nation with their radical energy. The affable and white-haired UCC clerics, looking more like well-dressed tourist grandparents, hardly shook anybody with their minor street theater. Their performance was quaint, silly, and hopefully harmless.
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