The death yesterday of former Senator Eugene McCarthy seems especially poignant in this time of suspense as the world waits to learn the fate of four international humanitarian workers held hostage in Iraq. The kidnappings and threats to murder the peace activists are further evidence of the sick and utterly degenerative nature of violence, terrorism and war — cascading horrors slashing across the superficial veneer of civilization. Shadowy, hooded figures — terrorists, prisoners, hostages — give human shape to the evil that flourishes when moral compasses spin out of control.
In another age, in a different war, Eugene McCarthy stood up to decry the utter senselessness of a national policy to wage war in order to spread democracy. The Senator from Minnesota challenged presidential authority to wage war without the consent of the people. In 1968, as the tragedy of the Vietnam war escalated, Senator McCarthy stunned the nation by challenging President Lyndon Johnson — members of the same Democratic Party, such a challenge from within the ranks was almost unthinkable.
McCarthy hit a nerve, galvanizing voters, stoking the fires of the student anti-war movement that was gaining strength in 1968. Eventually, the challenge was so clear that President Johnson declined to run for a second term. Gene McCarthy did not win, either — Richard Nixon eventually won that election after the catastropic events of 1968′s presidential election season, a year that saw the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the riots in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention that eventually nominated Hubert Humphrey, riots in Washington and other major cities. The quest for peace and justice, so elegantly and eloquently led by Dr. King and Senator Kennedy and Senator McCarthy, provoked the murder of the first two and the defeat of the third.
Advocating justice, working for peace requires courage of heroic proportions — the peace activist must know that he or she risks defeat, disdain, disgrace, even murder.
Consider the despicable treatment of Cindy Sheehan, whose couragous stance for peace after her son’s death in Iraq has been ridiculed by high governmental officials whose disdain for her effort has encouraged cruel and contemptuous attacks on her by others.
The four peace activists held hostage in Iraq are just the latest exemplars of the courage of people who are willing to risk their lives, their reputations, their comfort, in order to bring some sanity, some hope, some peace to this troubled world.
Remembering Gene McCarthy also reminds me of his late wife Abigail; they were separated for decades after the 1968 events, but both of them continued their active advocacy for peace and justice in many venues. Abigail Quigley McCarthy was a graduate of the College of St. Catherine in Minnesota, and she was a lifelong advocate of Catholic women’s colleges. She called these institutions “A Luminous Minority” in an essay she wrote about the importance of colleges devoted to women’s leadership. I had the privilege once of visiting her in her apartment on Connecticut Avenue where she often held forth on the many issues of the day — women’s rights, the peace movement, social justice, the Church. On that particular day she made a point of introducing me to other women who were very helpful to Trinity over the years. She was very fond of Trinity and a great champion for this institution.
In this Christmas season, let’s take time to remember all of the advocates for peace and justice who have sacrificed so much through the years. “Peace on Earth” is not just a song or greeting or Hallmark card phrase. Peace on Earth is the whole point of Christianity, the driving force of our faith. Let’s live it like we mean it.