First of all, I believe in God. I think it is possible to build a reasoned argument for the existence of God, though there are serious dangers connected with the effort. It is not on that account, however, that I believe in God but simply because I cannot not believe in him. He is given in my experience and as the ground of all my experience as surely – more surely – than this hand that I raise before my eyes, this desk that I grasp.
This does not mean that I behave consistently, as this belief requires. God had always been to me at least as much the Demand from which we try to escape – I suppose my Calvinist upbringing may account for that – as he is the Everlasting Rock upon whom we rest, the Redeemer who makes no conditions when we return to him after having tried everything else – to whom we do never turn until we have tried everything else.
Secondly, there is a noble line in the creation story in Genesis on which I have dwelt repeatedly during the years: And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. I do not think there has been a day in my conscious life when I have not had some moments in which I have been shaken and renewed and transported by some aspect of the ineffable beauty of creation. There are many days when the revelation of beauty in the face of a child or an old man, in the deep blue sky, in a poem, a dance, in the leafy tracery of a tree, is almost continuous. Some of you will know A. E. Housman’s poem about cherry blossoms:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
So I felt about spring blossoms when I was twenty and there were still innumerable years left. So I feel about them now at sixty-five when according to Houseman’s reckoning, which I do not accept, there are only five years left.
The Pursuit of Truth
Thirdly, I believe in the pursuit of knowledge, of truth, wherever it may lead. The fact that scientists prostitute their knowledge, imagination, and skill to make atomic bombs and biological weapons causes no greater revulsion in me than the suggestion that therefore there should be a moratorium on science, that “there are some things that the human mind should not pry into.” No safety or peace in any sphere of life is ever purchased by an evasion, a slurring over, a trembling at fact or truth. There are few things for which I am more grateful than for the fact that at sixty-five my curiosity is as unslaked as it was at six or sixteen. I pray God that the human mind may never lose its insatiable curiosity – which is the courage of the mind – or have it even a little dulled. The remedy for the risks which that involves is not that some ecclesiastical authority or politburo should place a clamp upon the human mind but that humanity should develop a conscience to match its mind.
Fourthly, I believe that every human being is to be loved equally – and is equally worthy of love. One of the greatest sentences ever uttered in all human history is the familiar one: Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. I think I can honestly say that I try very hard to keep this truth – this fact – that all people are to be loved equally in clear focus before my mind’s eye.
This is not to say that human beings do not perform many unlovable actions. It is not to say that every one has an equally good mind, any more than that every one’s nose is as big as mine. The law that all human beings are to share equally the love we have to give springs, for one thing, from the fact that love does not ask merit in advance from the object of its love. It is by being accepted that human beings can become acceptable, not the other way round. To every one of us the word of the apostle applies in the profoundest sense: Ye are not your own, ye were bought with a price, by parents, friends, the patient generations who have gone before us and who served us before ever we had proven to be meritorious. And the law that we must love all our fellows equally springs, in the second place, from the fact that when we see ourselves truly we know there is no one below us, no one whom we have any right to shut out.
The special love which we receive from and give to parents, lovers, children, had for its purpose to reveal the nature of love to us, its richness, the possibility of the including attitude toward others. If it fails to do this and becomes exclusive it is terribly corrupting so that in such a case Jesus can say: If a man hate not father, mother, wife, child, he cannot be my disciple.
Fifthly, God does not issue blank checks. Life does not guarantee us results. We have to work for the causes in which we believe as if everything depended upon it, not because we shall then be successful but because it is right. One way to express this law of life is of course to say that you cannot eliminate the cross from life and history. Another way to say it is that there is an element of tragedy in life and that in us, therefore, an element of hardihood and toughness is needed.
I want to bring in part of another Housman poem here, which I probably read more than once at Brookwood Labor College graduations. After referring to those who unavailingly resort to drink to meet life’s intractable and tragic aspects, he gives his own counsel:
Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
‘Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
And I will friend you, if I may
In the dark and cloudy day.
There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt,
—I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.
The Coming of the Kingdom
Finally, I believe nevertheless in the coming of the kingdom of God on Earth, in the achievement of the revolution which will bring to pass a brotherly and peaceful human society. It is a paradoxical thing to say this after what I have just been saying; and certainly that Heavenly kingdom will not come if we will work for it only on condition that its coming is guaranteed. It may seem utterly mad to assert this hope in a day when cynicism has become synonymous with sophistication and profundity, and hope is esteemed a vice rather than a virtue. Nevertheless, I do so believe.
Now my recent observation and experience in India have greatly strengthened my conviction that this true revolution can only be achieved nonviolently.
There is perhaps just one thing on which all the people who come to such a gathering as this, and whose respective primary interests are in the fields of labor, adult education, religion, civil liberties, independence of subject peoples, internationalism, or pacifism, would agree: that is the thing we call democracy – the way of life which gives a central place to respect for the human personality, its rights over against the state or any other institution; and the freedoms of speech, press, assemblage, association, and religion which the development of free spirits require.
Therefore, we are also united in regarding totalitarian communism as a menace, and in believing that it is of crucial importance to find a way to combat and stop it.
I am more than ever convinced that the future of all the causes for which we are working depends now upon immediate and unconditional abandonment of a policy of war to stop Russia, or violence to “contain” communism. If the future is one of war and civil strife, no semblance of a free economy will remain, and labor will be enslaved to the war-making state. Civil liberties will not survive the militarization of life. Subject peoples will throw off one yoke, only to have a more galling one placed upon them.
War, together with economic disruption and the social unrest which it entails, plays into the hands of the Kremlin. The communist doctrine that the goal of history can only be achieved by violence, will not be disproved but validated by counter-violence. Violence and totalitarianism are twins: so are nonviolence and democracy.
Gandhi demonstrated on a grand scale in one situation, that of India, that nonviolence is capable of scientific application to social problems. The Gandhian science of nonviolence must now be developed and applied on a world scale.
Stalin or Gandhi
The choice before us is between Stalin and Gandhi. World-shaking events, such as the communist conquest of China, occur almost daily, to drive home for those who have eyes to see the lesson that there is no other choice.
Now to say that the nonviolent revolution, the divine-human society, can be realized on Earth is to assert the possibility of miracle. That is precisely what I mean to assert. The universe, life, history are ultimately miraculous, in the sense that they can never be fully explained as effects of causes in the past. Something new emerges, is born – born in the life of individuals and of humanity out of decisions people make, out of a response they make to something ahead rather than to a shove from behind.
The ancestor from whom my first name derives, Abraham, is the great symbol here. It is said of him that he “went out not knowing whither he went.” The great eleventh chapter of Hebrews makes it clear, however, that if Abraham and men and women like him could not define their goal precisely, they did not have a direction. They were seeking a city, and not the city from which they had come. If it had been they could have returned to it as, alas, most of those who leave it tentatively and do not simply remain rooted in that which is, do.
Abraham is then the living symbol of the great historical, revolutionary, creative law that the important thing about any person, people, age, is not their past but their future – not the city from which they came but the city to which they go, by which they are irresistibly drawn, for the sake of reaching which they do not shrink from fire and sword, destitution and affliction, bonds, imprisonment, or death.
They run the risk, it is true, of getting lost, for in the nature of the case that city which they seek is not yet to be found on any map. They and their fellows have by God’s grace to bring it into being. And they may dream erratic dreams or build carelessly. But it is they alone who have a chance to find that city – who ultimately shall find, for it is written that “God himself is not ashamed of them, to be called their God.”
Thus Abraham. And if in some small measure I may continue in the years ahead to symbolize and be faithful to the mad, relentless, joyous search for that city which is to be – the city of which all true workers, all true educators throughout the ages, all true revolutionists, all true democrats, and all true people of faith have dreamed – I shall be more than content.