John Swomley, long time pacifist, dead at 95

John Swomley, an old friend, pacificist, and long time NCR supporter died Aug. 16 at the age of 95.

A couple years back, I was asked to write a tribute to this gentle souled, radical. The following tribute appeared in The Human Quest magazine:

'Pacificism builds on commitment to a free society'

By Thomas Fox

The perpetually restless and rebellious John M. Swomley, theology student turned pacifist turned author, social ethicist and radical activist, eventually found a home as chairperson of the Board of Directors of The Human Quest journal (see story, page XX), a fearless publication where no social force or authority was too large to take on in the name of human freedom.

In his late career, Swomley carried the title of professor – and later professor emeritus - of social ethics at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, but frankly, no single title can ever adequately capture the far reach of his mind, concerns, activities and writings. Swomley, now 94, has a Ph.D. in political science, a tribute to his scholarship, but it has been scholarship always with a purpose. That purpose compelled him into such roles as chairperson of American Civil Liberties Union’s Church-State Committee and catalyst member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Indeed, Swomley crafted a rich and varied professional career as lasting and effective as any other American progressive in the 20th century.

Edd Doerr, past president of the American Humanist Association, once caught some of the flavor and importance of Swomley on the American scene, writing that his life and work have supported “the proposition that there is a core of democratic and ethical values that transcends theological differences, that brings together men and women of disparate traditions, theist and humanist, Christian and Jewish and other, liberal and conservative, in the service of common concerns and in the face of common challenges.”

I first encountered Swomley in the early 1980s after joining the Kansas City, Missouri-based lay-run National Catholic Reporter as editor. What I quickly learned was that he had come to the defense of NCR years before, at a moment of great need. As he enjoyed telling the story, he came to Kansas City in 1960 to teach social ethics at Saint Paul School of Theology. Not long afterward he began collaboration with my predecessor, Robert G. Hoyt, NCR’s founding editor.

It was in 1968 that Bishop Charles Helmsing of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese publicly condemned NCR after it had written in an editorial that Pope Paul VI was mistaken in his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, to uphold the ban on artificial birth control. At the time it was highly unusual for a Catholic publication to take on the pope, especially on a matter as important to all Catholics as birth control.

NCR had been founded four years earlier, in 1964, and it was young and adventurous, ready to hold Catholic authorities accountable as no other U.S. Catholic publication ever had. The fit was right; Swomley had long been critical of what he saw as the abusive moral power of the Catholic hierarchy, especially when it crossed into matters such as birth control, which was bound to have an impact on world population numbers.

Swomley took up the NCR cause, writing a four-paragraph statement that he sent to leading Protestant clergy in Kansas City, asking for signatures of support. It read, in part: we express “our appreciation for and support of a free religious press just as we support and defend freedom of the secular press. … The National Catholic Reporter, instead of undermining our respect for the Catholic Church, has enhanced it by its devotion to freedom of expression, its irenic and objective handling of controversy, and its creative reporting of the continuing renewal of the Church.”

Fifty of Kansas City’s leading Protestant clergy signed the statement, which Swomley quickly sent to Hoyt, Helmsing and the Catholic Press Association, which, in turn, issued a supportive statement of its own. It was a major turning point for NCR and helped the publication through one of its first encounters with the Catholic hierarchy, helping to allow NCR to remain a watchdog in the Catholic Church until the current time.

This, of course, was vintage Swomley, coming to the aid of a distinct underdog; he was always willing - and some would say relished - the role of being the David against the proverbial Goliath. His actions on behalf of the weak, vulnerable and needy, calling for their rights as human beings, helping them in their causes on behalf of freedom of expression and action, were always timely and thoughtfully precise.

Swomley’s own Christian tradition was Methodist. His work with progressive Catholics began in earnest following the Second Vatican Council, a three-year event in the mid-1960s that aimed to modernize the Catholic Church, a move Swomley clearly supported. Quickly, keeping with new winds of inter-religious dialogue blowing through the church in the wake of the Council,
Swomley became a gadfly, prodding on the efforts. Meanwhile, one of his life-long passions was to maintain the separation of church and state.

Swomley and I worked together in a series of common interest efforts beginning in the 1980s. One of our first was a collaboration to draw greater attention to the threat of the growing U.S. nuclear arsenal and the immorality of the U.S. nuclear deterrent system. Some of our most active collaborations involved organizing against the U.S. wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador and in the sanctuary movement. At one point we worked together to form the Kansas City regional committee on Central America.

To be honest, much of our work together was the result of Swomley’s persistent prodding. He took the initiative. Again, this is, as people who know Swomley can attest, typical of his style. He didn’t wait around to let things happen. He was ready to take the helm.

Few people I have known have been as quick to spot injustice or to mount a campaign to eradicate it. And whatever organization he was part of, religious or otherwise, he was always ready to hold it accountable as well.

In Confronting Systems of Violence: Memoirs of a Peace Activist, he recounts how he formed his thinking early on, developing his religious and political convictions after he finished college at Dickinson in Carlisle, Pa. It was then that some Central Pennsylvania pastors, who were not happy with the National Council of Methodist Youth, asked him to go to its meeting in the summer of 1937 to change it. Instead, it was he who was changed, leaving behind what he calls his “racist, militarist and nationalist” past. Then, after much reading, he became a pacifist and went on to study at Boston School of Theology, where he became increasingly politically active.

During his first year in theology school, Swomley, the organizer, began to emerge. He took five avowed pacifists and four sympathizers into a small group that met regularly. In time the group changed the political climate of the school, eventually ending the practice of not allowing black students and foreign students to room with whites. By his senior year, his small group had grown to some 55 pacifists.

Although he learned much from his years as a theology student, he says he learned at least as much during those years from his involvement in political and social movements of the time.

Meanwhile, his pacifist ties were growing. It was in Boston that his deeper and lasting social, political and religious convictions began to mature. This was happening as the clouds of World War II darkened over Europe. “My opposition to that war was not simply a desire to avoid American involvement in Europe's wars, but was based on a growing religious conviction that the essence of all ethical religion and all good politics was respect for the personality of others,” Swomley says. This was to be the founding principle of his peacemaking and reconciliation efforts for decades to come.

Swomley writes that his understanding of pacifism involves a total commitment to peacemaking, putting so much energy into it so as to leave no time or energy for violence in any form. This form of pacifism, he says, “rejects not only the violence of war and armed revolution, but also the systematic violence of imperialism, racism, economic exploitation, poverty and the denial of equal rights to women, labor, political and religious minorities.” Swomley found himself becoming an advocate of Gandhian nonviolence.

Meanwhile, he was rejecting the liberalism of the time because its agenda of modest reforms simply did not go far enough. He had emerged as a “radical” and one committed to radical action. He writes that he found himself moving over time from a kind of religious pacifism into the field of politics – but not conventional partisan politics. The politics Swomley professed came out of the Greek word polis, meaning a concern for the welfare of the whole community. He once wrote that the purpose of political action is not to get elected or gather power; it is, rather, to begin to contribute to a process of liberation, work on behalf of building a free society. Swomley concludes, reflecting on his sense of the purpose of political action: “Instead of seeking control over history, we participate in creating the conditions in which the work of liberation moves forward cooperatively.”

The history of any 20th century U.S. peace or liberation movement must consider Swomley’s contributions, and will be deeply indebted to his path-finding, mind-expanding efforts.

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