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David McReynolds: He Desired a Better Country

A remembrance.

David McReynolds worked for the War Resisters League for nearly 40 years and was a rigorous, principled proponent of nonviolent social change. (Photo: David McReynolds/Socialist Party USA)

David McReynolds worked for the War Resisters League for nearly 40 years and was a rigorous, principled proponent of nonviolent social change. (Photo: David McReynolds/Socialist Party USA)

It would be a stretch to say he was a friend. More like an acquaintance in his far-flung orbit of fellow pilgrims who looked to him for light.

We corresponded off and on for more than a decade. He was generous to people he barely knew, and was known throughout his life for kindness to those with whom he disagreed.

I looked forward to his occasional posts on Facebook, with off the cuff commentary on current events. In our last correspondence, he responded to some material I wrote about Muriel Lester, who has a front row seat in my personal cloud of witnesses. David wrote to say that he drove Lester all over Southern California on one of her speaking tours many years ago.

“I must come to see you to hear those stories,” I responded. Regrettably, I never did.

Our face-to-face interaction was limited to the better part of one day. I learned he would be in Asheville when a call went out for volunteers to help prepared meals for the national meeting of the War Resisters League board. He agreed to a favor I asked; and it resulted in one of those “keeper” moments that linger for a lifetime.

According to one political scientist, David McReynolds (25 October 1929 – 17 August 2018) “defined modern pacifism in the US.”

According to one political scientist, David McReynolds (25 October 1929 – 17 August 2018) “defined modern pacifism in the US.” He was a democratic socialist who twice ran for the presidency, the first time in 1980 on the Socialist Party ticket, with a Sisters of St. Francis nun, Diane Drufenbock, as his vice presidential running mate. The first of his many arrests was in 1954 when he refused induction into the military. He was among the first anti-Vietnam War protesters who burned their draft cards—though he wasn’t arrested since he was too old for the draft. He was the first openly gay man to run for public office. He worked for the War Resisters League for nearly 40 years and was a rigorous, principled proponent of nonviolent social change.

An avid photographer, David was also a member of the Bromeliad Society, an international botanical group devoted to that family of plants which does not require soil for growth. (e.g., think Spanish moss, among many others) Beauty drew his attention, including animals of all sorts. His Facebook feed was littered with animals-acting-funny videos. But cats, in particular, were objects of special affection. Fatefully, his long-time feline companion Shaman died after David was rushed to the hospital after collapsing in his apartment.

“Nonviolence is an effort to restore a sense of ‘the beloved community.’ If it was easy to do this, then it would be no big deal. . . . Nonviolence is a search for truth—not a search for ways to prove your opponent wrong. If you are not ready, as you examine the facts, to realize you may be wrong and your opponent right, you aren't ready for nonviolence.” [See his long essay “Philosophy of Nonviolence”]

A pragmatic willingness to entertain unkindly facts tempered his political passions, which occasionally prompted disdain from sectarian leftists. (The malady is an equal-opportunity affliction, both in politics and in religion.) As one of the architects of the anti-Vietnam War movement, David was known for his ability in managing coherence in a politically diverse coalition.

Oddly enough, his skill as a public speaker was honed early in his life as part of a traveling Temperance Talking Team promoting alcohol abstinence. Among the unexpected things I learned in our one day together, he grew up, and was baptized in, a conservative Baptist congregation in Southern California.

The favor I asked shortly before his trip to Asheville was if he would be willing to speak in my congregation’s Sunday worship service.

“You do know I’m an atheist?” he asked.

He didn’t say so, but I knew he was on speaking terms with a variety of religious traditions, including frequent use of Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of the “beloved community,” a vision that is inherently transcendent since its surety cannot be verified in history’s narration.

(After this particular conversation, I vowed henceforth, whenever someone says they don’t believe in God, to respond: Tell me which God you don’t believe in; chances are good I don’t believe in that one, either.)

“He came out as a pacifist when that identity was mocked as naive, bourgeois and traitorous. He came out as a socialist when that identity was misunderstood, feared and hated. David was out; he learned to live without apology, without shame, without caveat. . . .”

“Yes, I know,” I said in answer to his puzzled question. “But the values for which you have devoted your life’s energies—the struggle for justice, the pursuit of peace, the advocacy for civil rights and human dignity, despite seemingly overwhelming odds and a meagre record of success—these are things our congregation values. We would like to hear your story, and what it is that has sustained your persistent and costly struggle. Don’t think of this as a sermon. Tell us who you are and why it matters.”

“I can do that,” he responded.

 I cannot now recall details of what he said. What I remember is the sense of being inspired and of being blessed. And then humbled, by what came next.

Following his comments, it was my turn to give the call to the table for our weekly communion ritual. Among the words of institution I spoke were phrases familiar to our congregation.

“All are welcome at this table. You don’t have to speak with our accent. You don’t have to be a member of our tribe. You may not be entirely sure what you believe about Jesus. But you do have to be hungry.”

As the line formed, my eyes focused on each individual, addressing each by name along with “this is the bread of life and the cup of joy.” Before I knew it, David was standing in front of me.

In her remembrance of David, Frida Berrigan wrote, “Every year, he called together his community to ‘the Night of the Candles.’ In the dark, he and his friends named and remembered those who had died in the past year, lighting candles and speaking their names. It is a tradition he kept for many years.”

Given that I’m already planning for All Saints’ Day, Frida’s reference is radiant. In every season of turmoil, corruption, and distress—like ours, now—the observance of All Saints’ Day is all the more important, because of its witness to perseverance, to its promise of buoyancy, to its call for indefatigable faith.

And not only to bold, sometimes controversial public action. As David once wrote,

“Let me toss in something we sometimes forget, as we ‘measure our number of arrests’—it takes more courage to bring a child into this world, care for it, love it, than it does to get arrested. The people with the most guts are parents. . . .”

In the end, whether we stand or sit or march or rock a fretful infant to sleep, we do so without insurance that our labor not be in vain. We do so only with assurance. We bet our assets on a promise that does not submit, ultimately, to empirical measurement, strategic management, or moral heroism. We are mutineers on a ship steered by navigators of alleged political “realism,” as atheists among communities professing faith in redemptive violence, as truth tellers in a culture of discourse where speech disguises private gain as public good.

“We are not among those who shrink back and so are lost,” in the eschatological language of the Book of Hebrews. We cast our lot with those “who died in faith without receiving the promise,” who have seen the beloved community from a distance, who “desire a better country” (10:39; 11:16).

“Yet, as I reflect on [David’] life,” Frida Berrigan wrote, “all I see is courage. He came out as gay when that identity was a jail sentence, a tightly shut closet and a career killer even within progressive circles. He came out as a pacifist when that identity was mocked as naive, bourgeois and traitorous. He came out as a socialist when that identity was misunderstood, feared and hated. David was out; he learned to live without apology, without shame, without caveat. . . .”

Thus endeth the lesson.

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Ken Sehested

Ken Sehested

Ken Sehested is curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action.

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