Walter Brueggemann: When Will We Ever Learn?

I take the liberty of offering something of a book review; the book is published by a small press in my hometown of Traverse City, MI (Mission Point Press) and might not be much noticed. It is entitled When Truth Mattered: The Kent State Shootings 50 Years Later by Robert Giles. It is a careful report and summary of the Kent State killings as covered by the Akron’s Beacon Journal owned by Knight Newspapers, “the best newspaper chain in the nation.”

The author, Giles, was the managing editor of the Beacon Journal at the time of the killings. The book not only offers a full account of the events on the Kent campus, but is especially attentive to the work of journalists and the careful way in which they reported the happenings on campus, checked facts, and remained steadfastly objective in their reportage. With the executive editor, Ben Maidenburg, out of town, Giles was the man in charge. By the fluke of a single phone line kept open by a cooperative staff person on campus, the Beacon Journal had singular access to the events of the day and a clear claim to do firsthand reporting that was not on offer to any other paper.

From Giles’ compelling telling, we may summarize the factors that served to evoke and produce the bloody outcome of May 4, 1970 on campus:

-The framing reality of the day was the aggressive action of President Nixon in Southeast Asia amid the Vietnam War in his single-minded pursuit of “Communists,” a pursuit that was sure to inflame many students.

-Very quickly the Ohio Governor, James Rhodes, took control of the campus, pushing aside any possible leadership by campus officials. Rhodes was in hot pursuit of a Senate seat and seized the opportunity to assume a “law and order” posture and then engaged in inflammatory demagoguery to goad the process along.

-The National Guard, mobilized by Governor Rhodes, was ill-prepared for the occupation of the campus, appearing to one faculty observer “as scared to death … a bunch of summertime soldiers” (p. 117). That ill preparation led to what turned out to be an unprovoked firing on defenseless students, as many as sixty-one bullets!

-The final ingredient was the moral passion of students on campus, dismayed by the cynical violence of Nixon policy and no doubt alert to the prospect of military draft (members of the university faculty were a stabilizing force amid the confusion).

This convergence of factors, as is well known, lead to four student deaths (murders!) and derivatively to the legitimated habit of violence toward protesters.

We may notice three outcomes of that bloody failure of “law and order”:

-The Beacon Journal won a Pulitzer Prize for its quite remarkable coverage, a hard-won prize that greatly delighted Giles and his staff.

-The trial of four National Guardsmen who had fired on the students resulted in acquittal, a verdict that evoked a huge negative response.

-The university eventually established a durable memorial on campus to the students. The memorial may be taken as a specific marker for the deep scar left by the gross state violence on the campus and on the larger national community.

The “truth” about which Giles writes is the truthfulness of good journalism that then and now plays a decisive role in the democratic processes of our society, a role unintimidated by frantic charges of “fake news.”

But the naming of “truth” also refers to the truth carried by the students in their moral passion against the violent power of the state.

Giles dos not address this second level of truth because he is a journalist and not a preacher. Not surprisingly, when that “truth” meets such “power,” power will characteristically prevail through violence. Except of course that the truth of the matter persists in, through, and beyond the violence.

I would not try too hard to relate this drama of truth and power in any close way to scripture (as is my wont). But a biblical text that comes to me is the narrative of II Kings 10:18-31. In this narrative, the long-running dynasty of Omri and Ahab had been quite successful and was, perforce, full of religious compromise. An upstart, Jehu, had been anointed by Elisha to subvert the wayward dynasty and seize power in the name of radical Yahwism (II Kings 9:1-13).

“Acting with cunning” (10:19), Jehu summoned his subjects — all prophets and all worshippers of Baal — to a great ceremony of sacrifice; he required everyone to show up:

Let none be missing, for I have a great sacrifice to offer to Baal; whoever is missing shall not live (v. 19).

Jehu put on a big exhibit of religious ostentation. But then when the required assembly was all gathered and secured, Jehu acted out his real intent and ordered the massacre of all of those who had come to the liturgy:

Now Jehu had stationed eighty men outside, saying, “Whoever allows any of those to escape whom I deliver into your hands shall forfeit his life.” As soon as he had finished presenting the burnt offering, Jehu said to the guards and to the officers, “Come in and kill them; let no one escape.” So they put them to the sword (vv. 24-25).

It required only “eighty men” to implement the killing that established the rule of Jehu that lasted 28 years (10:34-36). Jehu received only a rote condemnation from the editors of the books of Kings with nothing negative said about the massacre he authorized (vv. 30-31)!

I cite this narrative because it is an account of a “pure” political vision (pure Yahwism!) that is able and willing to implement massive violence against those who resist or violate that ideology; the violence is a ready tool with which to seize and hold power. When the ideology is strong enough, it evidently justifies such violence against all who fail the pure ideology and engage in resistant conduct. Only a small number of the obediently willing is sufficient to advance the cause of the ideology and purge those who are resistant. When that small number of the obedient can act, then the beneficiaries of the ideology are secure and can prosper.

It will be clear, I assume, that my derivation from Giles’ fine book is not simply because of an historical interest in the Kent killings. Rather, as we are all aware, we are watching something of a replay of this drama in the cities of Portland and Seattle (and elsewhere) where hosts of (mostly young) protestors have been assaulted by unidentified troops that have acted at the behest of the federal government (without invitation from local officials).

These troops appear to be designed to advance a “law and order” ideology in the interest of particular political futures.

The analogue between the Kent State killings and our current situation need not be drawn too closely to see that yet again we are witnessing the truth of moral passion in the face of the power of the state that is propelled by the ideology of nationalism with unmistakably racist overtones. We can see the ingredients of Kent re-performed:

-Nixon then had “communism” and our current climate favors “nationalism” with the protection of federal property.

-Governor Rhodes was then the great demagogic leader, a role now enflamed by political rhetoric.

-Instead of an ill-prepared National Guard we had then, we now have a variety of unidentified federal troops who are equally mismatched for the task to which they are assigned.

-Now as then, we witness great moral passion expressed by protesters concerning ill-advised policy, permeated with racism, a moral passion rooted deeply in the great legacy of our national identity.

The ingredients are all present among us for a re-performance of that which Giles has so carefully reported. It will be clear to any reader that Bob Giles is not in any way implicated in my extrapolations from his important book concerning his excellence as a journalist.

Back in the days of Kent and Vietnam, Pete Seeger left us with the urgent unanswered question, “When will they ever learn?”

Where have all the flowers gone, long time in passing?...
When will they ever learn?
Where have all the young girls gone, long time in passing?...
When will they ever learn?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time in passing?...
When will they ever learn?
Where have all the young men gone, long time in passing?...
Oh, when will they ever learn?...
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Maybe now is a time for learning! That will not happen, however, without bold, intentional reliable teachers.


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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