There were lots of Star Wars jokes this week about “May the fourth be with us,” but in a time that seems like a galaxy far far away the fourth of May has a more somber meaning. Forty-eight years ago four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by National Guardsmen sent there to control anti-war protests.
I was a student in 1970 at a liberal seminary 120 miles from Kent. Most of us at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio were opposed to the Viet Nam War; so we felt the pain of that tragedy from a particular point of view. Like many campuses our school was shut down after the shootings. The difference at Methesco, as we called it then, was that classes weren’t cancelled because of student protests. The Administration and faculty did it and called us all together to pray and discuss what we might do to respond to this tragedy and the animosity and anger dividing our nation.
It was a time not much different than our own where America was divided over a war that had dragged on far longer and cost more lives than was acceptable. Two presidents had promised to end the war and failed, and two prominent peace advocates had been assassinated just two years before. The move that set that fatal May day into action was President Nixon’s decision to secretly expand the war by invading Cambodia. Campuses all over the country erupted in violent protests and civic and college leaders at all levels struggled with how to restore order. Tragically people died at Kent State and 10 days later at Jackson State in Mississippi where two were killed and 12 wounded. The latter never received enough publicity. Some say it was racism because those students were black, but whatever the reason the loss of life added to the whole tragedy of that decade.
I want to emphasize that no one I knew blamed the guardsmen for the Kent State deaths. Those young men were about the same age as the protesters, which means they were my age; and I know I would have been scared to death in their shoes. If there’s blame to be had it belongs to President Nixon and Governor Rhoades and the Ohio state leaders who put the guard in that untenable position. But the blame game was of no use, and I’m grateful to my mentors at Methesco who helped us learn that lesson but instead helped us brainstorm more constructive responses.
It’s hard to find silver linings to some clouds, but if there were any benefits from the blood shed on those two campuses one would certainly be that those deaths forced the nation to a deeper examination of why we were in Southeast Asia. I believe May 4, 1970 was a turning point in the court of public opinion that brought our involvement in that war to an end sooner than it would have happened otherwise.
On a personal level that week had a profound impact on me and my ministry. The way our seminary community came together and how we responded put practical flesh and bones on the lessons we had learned academically about the imperative of the church to be engaged in social justice ministry. It was thing to study commandment to “do justice” (Micah 6:8); pleas for “justice (to) roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24); visions of “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks…and not learning war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4); or Jesus saying peacemakers are blessed (Matthew 5:9) and warning that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) but quite another to apply those idealistic teachings to the nitty gritty of life and death issues.
After a good deal of discussion our seminary community decided on a two-prong approach to that May 4th. Knowing that there was deep division both within the church and the political community about the war we decided to try and address both. The decision was made that a delegation from Methesco would contact a nearby seminary with a much more conservative approach to theological and social issues to see if a dialogue between the two schools could help us both understand the other’s point of view. I was not part of that group so I don’t remember any particulars of what came from that discussion.
The other approach was for a group of us to travel to Washington DC and see if we could meet with Congressional representatives to express our concern and desire for peaceful resolutions of differences both within our nation and in the international community. We were young and poor then and full of energy; so three of us decided to save time and money we would drive straight through that night to DC, meet with whomever we could during the next day and then turn around and drive home the next night. I can’t even imagine doing that today, but it turned out to be one of the best bonding moments of my seminary career. The two guys I shared that 24-hour adventure with are still two of my best friends 48 years later.
We did meet with some representatives but came away feeling those men were much more concerned about protecting campus property and establishing law and order than they were about the human costs of the war or the issues the protesters were trying to raise. That too was a good lesson in patience and practical theology. Change and solutions to complex social issues do not happen overnight. Prophetic social justice ministry requires persistence. The issues change in each generation, but the need for people of faith to engage in relevant, messy, controversial issues never changes. There is always a need for the church to speak truth to power because the haves very rarely are willing to share their power with the have nots.
The three of us who were punchy and sleep-deprived when we completed our 24-hour marathon those many years ago are still active in retirement trying to discern God’s word for our day and trying as best we can to address social justice issues. May the force of truth and justice always be with us.