Abraham Johannes Muste of the War Resisters League, known to millions as A.J., died on February 11th at three o'clock in the afternoon at St. Luke's hospital, in New York. He had not been ill a day. That morning he had woken up suffering pains in the back, and his doctor had urged him to go to St. Luke's. Soon after he entered the hospital he lapsed into unconsciousness and died most peacefully. His had been a long and a happy life of work for brotherhood and peace.
Muste had given us the story of his early life in an uncompleted autobiography which is included in a volume called The Essays of A.J. Muste, edited by Nat Hentoff and published by Bobbs-Merrill. He was born in a small Dutch town of so little importance that its name was treated with derision, as Bohunk is here, or Wigan Pier is in England. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" comes to mind. His father was a coachman for a rich family who lived in what seemed to him a palace. His own family lived in one room, with alcoves for beds. He remembers having the job of fetching the morning porridge from a community kitchen for the employer's big family, and how heavy the kettle was in the cold and dark of early morning. He was five or six then. He doesn't mention being hungry ever, so perhaps his mother, who was gay and smiling (she played the part of Santa Claus at Christmas time) fed him before he set out.
When on the insistence of his mother's brothers, and with the offer of a loan for passage in steerage, the whole family spent two weeks at sea in midwinter with their own provisions, and the mother became ill and had to be hospitalized, the father easily substituted for her, and there is no mention of hardship because of the mother's absence. Indeed, the father took the children to a window on deck where they could greet their mother and see her smiling face. Because of her illness, they had to stay on Ellis Island for a month, and they used to play through the halls, with never a rebuke, because they were well-behaved children. Indeed, one senses that the Dutch were welcome guests in this new land, diligent and Protestant as they were.
One always thinks of the Calvinists as a dour people, but Muste's reminiscences are happy ones. At the first sound of the church bells on Sunday, a "jubilant" announcement, he calls it, the way to church and the time in church "are a delight, and the entrance into it, an entering into another world, the real world, the feeling which later I found conveyed in one of the New Testament Epistles, that one had come to the city of the living God."
He did not despise the "little way," the small incident. He tells of only one, and there must have been many, but he was not setting out to write a spiritual autobiography. The story he tells is of the mischievous boy he was, putting out his foot and tripping up a bully, older and larger than he, who had been called up for reprimand to the teacher's desk. The stumbling was taken as further horseplay arid the boy was reprimanded twice over. The rest of the day the young A.J. knew that there would be an encounter when they got out of sight of the school, and he does not say that he was not afraid. When the meeting took place and the other boy's opening words were, "You tripped me," he looked his adversary in the eye and admitted it. Strangely enough, the larger boy turned on his heel and the anticipated retribution did not take place. Muste saw this incident as important; he had learned to face up to an adversary, look him in the eye, to admit the truth and not try to justify himself, and, most important of all, to overcome fear. I am sure that the "gentleness" that Pere Régamey extols was present in his eye and speech, as it always was, and no hint of making judgment of a person, only of a way of acting.
That is one of the things I always felt about A.J., and one of the reasons the young trusted him and listened to him. There was little question of age difference. They were on the same side, and they trusted him in spite of his age. There was no malice in him, and so he found no malice in others. I am not saying that he did not make moral judgments. His whole life was testimony to that. On the one side was life, and on the other death, and he chose life. He kept the commandments, and Jesus promised, to those who loved God and their brother, "Do this and thou shalt live."
The first school A.J. went to back in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was a religious school, and in first grade he was put to memorizing the 119th Psalm (which happens to be my own favorite). His sister started school when he was ready for second grade, and from then on all the children of the Muste family went to public schools. They could not afford the religious school run by the Dutch Reformed Church. After all, his father had begun his work in this country at six dollars for a sixty-hour week.
A.J. tells us little of his private life. He mentions that when he graduated from the seminary in Holland, Michigan, he spent a year in the ministry in a small town in Iowa, where he met the young woman who was to be his wife. He fell in love at first sight, married young and had a happy married life for the next forty-five years. He got degrees from New Brunswick Theological Seminary and from Union Theological Seminary in New York, and served in New York churches, one of them on Second Avenue and Seventh Street. He became acquainted with the narrow streets of the lower East Side, with the poor of every nationality clustered there.
He gave up his first full-time assignment to a church in the suburbs of Boston when the United States entered the First World War, began working in Providence with Quakers, and was accepted by them in their ministry some time later. (It was as a Quaker minister that he married my only sister's only daughter, Sue Spier, to Mikio Miyake, a young Japanese scientist, born in Hiroshima and now working at the University of Washington.)
The Textile Strikes
Loving Emerson as he did, and following in Thoreau's footsteps in his espousal of civil disobedience (he called it "holy disobedience"), he enjoyed living in New England. Together with a number of other clergymen he participated in 1919 in the second big Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike, and took a leading part. It was only the first of many labor situations he became involved in, an involvement so deep that it took him for a time into the Trotskyist movement and led to a visit with Trotsky in Norway, at the invitation of that exponent of perpetual revolution. As secretary of the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America, Muste participated and led many strikes in the textile field and gained a thorough knowledge of the labor movement.
Peter Maurin was the first one of our Catholic Worker family to meet A.J. He had heard of him in Union Square as a Trotskyite, and when A.J. became head of the Presbyterian Labor Temple on Second Avenue and Fourteenth Street, he sought him out there for discussion. Peter talked at length and with animation, and I can see A.J., who respected all men, listening carefully, because Peter's accent was hard to get used to, and he was accustomed to talking until he felt he had made his point. Then he would wait for the other man to make his. Peter's idea of a good conversation was one between two people, with other listeners to the dialogue, provided they did not butt in. Such a conversation could go on for a long time, because A.J. knew how to listen, and since he listened with respect for the one who was speaking to him, he made others respect that other also, and try to understand his point of view.
Peter had read us Berdyaev's Christianity and Class War, and it was Muste's essay, "Pacifism and Class War," which had first interested him in Muste. The essays, "Trade Unions and the Revolution" and "Return to Pacifism," written in 1935 and 1936, clearly show what attracted Peter to Muste's meetings. Reading Muste's essays, as I am doing now, I am refreshed and stimulated and happy indeed that there is this record left of the life of a great and good man whose influence will long be felt. It is a great heavy book and weighs a ton, and I'm hoping that it will soon be in paperback so that we will see young people reading it on picket lines, sit-ins and in courts while they await sentencing for the witness they are giving to their faith in the ideas that A.J. set forth so brilliantly for so long.
Years ago, when we were having a conference of peace leaders at the Catholic Worker Farm in Newburgh one winter, one quality in A.J. struck me forcibly, and that is that there was no aggression in his speech or demeanor. While the Catholics felt called upon to express themselves vehemently, one might almost say aggressively, A.J. kept a peaceful calm that could not help but permeate the rather hectic atmosphere. There was a quality of silence about him that everyone remarked at the meetings which were held after his death, and he was not impatient to be heard, or to get his word in. He enjoyed listening to others, one felt, and was not just waiting to have his say, to be heard. And he had plenty to say. He could sum things up succinctly enough at a small gathering, but when he was invited to speak at a meeting he spoke at length, with no gesturing, no "eloquence." You listened to what he had to say, not to how he said it.
But the last time I "heard" him speak, I did not hear him speak, because I was behind the platform set up at Union Square, and the microphones carried his voice across the square even to the opposition that was picketing on the other side. The two of us were there, both of us speaking, to uphold the young men who were about to burn their draft cards in order to dramatize most seriously their opposition to the war in Vietnam, and to conscription, which forced eighteen-year-olds into an army which was committing such atrocities against women and children with their napalm and lazy dog bombs, a war in which every condition for a just war was being violated. There was a terrible threat of violence that day in the air, in the crowd before us as well as in the pickets in the distance. And that there was hostility in this crowd was shown by the man who had a fire extinguisher under his coat and turned it on the draft-card burners. Cries rang out—"Why not acid instead of water?" The water was sprayed over A.J. and me too, and it put out the flames of the draft cards but he stood there calmly as the counter-demonstrators shouted, "Burn yourselves, not your draft cards!" A.J. had spoken about the death of Norman Morrison, the Quaker who had immolated himself in front of the Pentagon not long before, and of Alice Herz, the Jewish refugee who was the first person in the United States to offer her life in a flaming protest against what men of her adopted country were doing to each other at the other end of the world. It was two or three days after that noon rally in Union Square that Roger LaPorte set fire to himself in front of the United Nations.
I CANNOT CLOSE this little obituary without quoting a few lines from a book I am reading now. The Two-Edged Sword, by Father John L. McKenzie, S.J., written back in 1955, an interpretation of the Old Testament. Father McKenzie writes, "We must not underestimate the creative powers of the human genius . . . What makes the history of the human race differ from the history of the anthropoid ape is the rare but recurring emergence of men who can break out of the framework of their times and initiate a new departure." I could not help but think of A.J. Muste and how in a new era of violence, he has epitomized the concept of non-violence, in correlating the material and the spiritual, in this secular age.
[For more of Dorothy Day's writings from Commonweal, see our full collection.]
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