As the Catholic Church in the US ponders questions of conscience, it might be helpful to recall the example of Ben Salmon, US Catholic pacifist, World War I conscientious objector, husband and father, who died eighty years ago on February 15, 1932.
Ben Salmon grew up in a working class Catholic family in Denver, only studying until the eighth grade. He was active in the church, a member of the Knights of Columbus, as well as in union organizing. He had a strong commitment to social justice and lived it.
He was a “doer of the word and not a hearer only,” to recall today’s lectionary reading from the first chapter of the Letter of James.
When World War I started, he refused to serve, claiming that cooperation with war was a violation of his conscience. But the US would not recognize a Catholic pacifist and so he was arrested in 1918, court-martialed, and imprisoned, sentenced for twenty-five years in prison.
The end of the war did not bring his release. After a hunger strike he was released in 1920.
He may have felt alone in his witness, as prison chaplains tried to convince him that he was opposing the pope; some priests actually refused him the sacraments, seeing his pacifism as heresy.
But he persisted, and even wrote a two hundred page manuscript critiquing the just war theory in justification of his nonviolence.
He took a stand for life and suffered for it. This was not easy, but with a deep faith he persevered. His quiet witness has only recently come to light, especially in a 1989 biography by Torin R. T. Finney, Unsung Hero of the Great War.
The root of his simple, straightforward pacifism are clear from this quotation:
“I believe it is clear that, if we are going to show our love for our neighbor, we must adopt some other means besides tattooing his body with a Lewis machine gun. If you love me, I really prefer that you show your love in some other way besides massaging me with a bayonet. . . .
“Love, of course, is like everything else, relative. Christ does not expect me to love a stranger as much as I love my mother. But even though love is relative, it never reaches a level so low as to warrant an injury. The opposite of love is hate, and the amount of hate that finds an expression in every war, of which we found an appalling example in the recent conflict, warrants the conclusion that war is hate [and] peace is love.”