Thursday, February 15, 2018

February 15 - Ben Salmon, God's Slacker, Pacifist, Prisoner

Ben Salmon's early life suggested nothing that might be considered saintly or even out of the ordinary. He was an active member of his own Roman Catholic parish and the Knights of Columbus. Further, he was active in labor unions and social justice causes but only to the extent to begin to gather attention. He married his high school sweetheart and it seemed that all was going to be typical for Ben. But, Woodrow Wilson and the United States government joined the then-current "war to end all war" and in 1917, Ben received notification that he had been drafted to serve in his country's military. This presented a particular problem for Ben who insisted that he was a pacifist and would not serve in any war regardless of who said it was a "just war" or a "good war." Ben remained convinced that Jesus did not leave open the option of war to his followers no matter how "just" it was. He applied not only for the status of conscientious objector but also to be totally removed from the military system--he was unwilling to even be a noncombatant within the military. This status was conferred upon the churches known as "peace churches" like the Quakers and the Mennonites. But the Roman Catholics were convinced that this was a "just war" and so Ben's application was dismissed as cowardice.

When asked why he refused to serve he cited his faith and insisted that he didn't have the right to wage war on those that Christ called him to love. For this, he was the object of a military court martial and sentenced to death. This sentence was later reduced to twenty-five years in prison but it cannot be forgotten or avoided that the State was willing to impose death upon somebody because of their refusal to support State-sponsored death. He was routinely moved from prison to prison because he refused to do any work that might be related to the military system or might support a war he saw as a compromise of the his Christian calling. Even after the war was ended--shortly after he was incarcerated--he was held by the State as a prisoner. For long periods of time he was held in solitary confinement, sustained on only bread and water, and forced to live in hot, small, dark cell over the the sewers. He would write why all this happened in a letter: "Far more than two years I have been illegally imprisoned because I refused to kill or help to kill."

Eventually, Ben engaged in a hunger strike with the intention of either being freed or being starved to death. He was no longer even willing to cooperate in the State's abuses that kept him alive. He wrote to a military group: "My hunger strike is not a negative program, but a positive appeal to humanity that they substitute Love for Force. If I succumb in this attempt to hold myself aloof from Militarism — organized murder — I hope that you gentlemen, who are mainly responsible for my predicament, will, with your co-murderers, make some provision for the needs of my widowed-mother, wife and child. whom you have thus far robbed of their breadwinner, and whom, in the event of my demise, will be prevented from obtaining the support that I could otherwise provide." They forced milk down his throat and did their best to keep his hunger strike secret from the public. Yet, when his hometown paper found out about it they referred to him as a "slacker" and "the man with a yellow streak down his spine as broad as a country highway." He found few friends in his quest to proclaim life and peace. He was denied the sacraments by priests, he was labeled a heretic for not supporting the State's war and suggesting that Christ called us to peace, and he was vilified and abused with regularity. Finally, though, they released him because of his hunger strike. He was free from his bonds but not from the reputation he had developed. He died shortly after his release because of his deteriorating health. He died a man who remained convinced of his early suggestions: “The justice of man cannot dethrone the justice of God” and “There is no such animal as a ‘just war.'”

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