Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Reflections on JFK's Assassination, the Unthinkable, and the Reliable

Some tragic events are of such magnitude for us that their details chisel themselves into our memories, collective and individual.

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, were that for my parents and grandparents.

More recently, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have brought such memories to all of us alive on that day.

But today is the anniversary of another such event, the assassination of President John Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

I remember that it was a pleasant, uncommonly warm November day in my hometown of Columbus. I was in the fifth grade at Westgate Elementary School. Our regular teacher, Mrs. Cleo Goldsberry, was not with us that day. Her substitute, Mrs. Shrum, the grandmother of one of my classmates, Cindy Smith, was a retired teacher and the class, as was obligatory with substitutes, gave her a hard time all day long.

Like most of my classmates, I walked home for lunch each day and returned for the afternoon session. I did that day too, and then tried to pay attention as I digested my food and looked out the window at the sunny day.

At about two o'clock that afternoon, the familiar voice of Dr. Harold Eibling, the superintendent of the Columbus Public Schools, broke in on the school P.A. system, carrying the signal of WCBE, the school system's radio station. He announced that President Kennedy had just been assassinated, that it was a sad day for our country, and that our classes would be dismissed.

I'll never forget the look of horror that crossed Mrs. Shrum's face. Her reaction was emblematic of the sentiments of many pundits and ordinary Americans in the days following the assassination. Of course, there had been several U.S. presidents assassinated in our history, the last being William McKinley sixty-two years earlier.

More recently, the divisive and megalomaniacal Senator and Governor Huey Long had been gunned down in Louisiana in the 1930s. There had been an attempt on the life of Franklin Roosevelt just prior to his inauguaration in 1933 and Puerto Rican separatists had been foiled in their plot to kill Harry Truman in the 1940s.

But we had the notion that in the modern, sophisticated 1960s, America had become too civilized for such things, too advanced. Something like this, we thought, was foreign to America.

Tragically, Kennedy's death seemed to be the opening act in a long killing season. Within a few years, Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy would all be felled by assassins' bullets. Alabama Governor George Wallace, running for the Democratic nomination for President in 1972, would be shot by a would-be assassin; Wallace remained paralyzed the rest of his life.

Many people say that America lost its innocence on November 22, 1963. I don't know if we did or not. But I can say that for the first time in my young life, what had previously seemed unthinkable no longer seemed so. Illusions about the certainties in this life were shown to be naive.

I'm sure that Kennedy's assassination, along with the flood of violence in the 1960s, the turmoil of the War in Vietnam, the struggle for civil rights, the riots in our cities, and the supposed certainties of science, with its unintended appeal to my adolescent ego, all had a role in my becoming an atheist in the early-1970s. No doubt this was born of the naivete that the reliability of God was somehow tied to the reliability of human beings or the functioning of a natural world burdened by the effects of human sin.

But I'm also certain that all these cataclysmic events played a part in my coming back to faith in the God made plain in Jesus Christ, the solid center, the Rock on Whom we can rely even in the midst of uncertainty and chaos.

Jesus has said that heaven and earth will pass away, but His Word, the same Word uttered to create the cosmos and that He later spoke to declare repentant sinners free and call dead men back to life, will never pass away.

"Thy Word is our great heritage," Martin Luther declares in one of his great hymns.

"Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path," one of the Old Testament psalms says.

A short time after the September 11 attacks, a woman told me that they had driven the last vestiges of faith from her. I told her that for me, they had driven me closer to God. More certain than ever that while we human beings have our parts to play in fighting evil, we can't face life's uncertainties without God's help, I had called out to God and felt His consoling presence in His Word, in my times of prayer, and in the fellowship of others seeking to follow Him.

If the cataclysmic events of today cause us to lose our confidence in the human race or in the clockwork-like functioning of nature, that's a good thing. It's only when we divest ourselves of the illusions of self-sufficiency or of the ultimate reliability of leaders, systems, or nature, that we become open to calling out to the God we know in Christ. The Bible promises that all who do so, will have Him in their lives...for good and forever.

ALSO: Charlie Lehardy had similar reflections on the assassination of President Kennedy.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

1 comment:

Charlie said...

We may be the same age, but time has been kinder to your youthful good looks!

I'm glad you mentioned MLK, Robert Kennedy and the others. I remember feeling during that time that the world had gone crazy. I think many people our age felt the same way, and reacted as you did initially by turning away from God. Perhaps that's one of the causes for boomers being so famously into grow-your-own spirituality -- they gave up on God.

Great post, Mark.