The Life of A.J. Muste and Trying To Be a Better Christian

David Blankenhorn, Deseret News, 12/25/2015

I'm not a very good Christian, but I wish I was a better one, and toward that end I've been studying the life of A.J. Muste. I never met him—he died in 1967—and I don't ultimately share his left-wing, pacifist views, but my admiration for him continues to grow.

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Subjects: By IAV Leaders and Staff, Polarization

More by: David Blankenhorn

I'm not a very good Christian, but I wish I was a better one, and toward that end I've been studying the life of A.J. Muste. I never met him – he died in 1967 – and I don't ultimately share his left-wing, pacifist views, but my admiration for him continues to grow.

He was born in the Netherlands in 1885. Six years later his family immigrated to Grand Rapids, Michigan, which had a thriving Dutch community anchored in the Calvinist traditions of the Dutch Reformed Church. When young Abraham Johannes Muste first set foot on U.S. soil at Ellis Island, in the New York Harbor, a hospital attendant who could speak no Dutch affectionately referred to him as "Abraham Lincoln." The Dutch-speaking child at first thought that "Abraham Lincoln" might be a town, but soon enough he began, as he put it, "to read everything by and about Lincoln that I could lay my hands on," such that his feeling for Lincoln eventually became "a part of my inmost being."

In 1909 he was ordained as a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, but 10 years later, radicalized by his opposition to the First World War and by his involvement with striking textile workers that year in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Muste left the church and Christianity. Through the mid-1930s, he was active in labor organizing and in radical politics. In 1936, he re-embraced his Christian faith. Over time Muste's journey led him to the Society of Friends (the Quakers) and to ministerial posts in Congregational and Presbyterian churches. But Muste's truest Christian witness, both within the church and in the larger society, expressed itself in struggles for social justice, nonviolence and peace.

Tall, lean and frugal, Muste had simple tastes, avoided bank accounts, and admitted to "a strong aversion to money-making." In "Peace Agitator," Nat Hentoff's terrific biography, Hentoff reports that Muste "gives the impression of owning only one suit."

Many people who knew him describe him as serene under pressure and, astonishingly for a political radical, almost never given to zealotry or self-righteousness. Quiet and soft-spoken, he avoided the limelight and usually did more listening than talking, even when he was in charge. He laughed often, including at himself. He was a Christian mystic who was fiercely intellectual and read constantly.

Partly owing to his study of Mohandas Gandhi, Muste in his work as a peace activist became America's foremost early 20th century exemplar of the philosophy and tactics of nonviolent resistance. In 1949, a young student at Crozier Theological Seminary, Martin Luther King Jr., was first exposed to these ideas when he heard Muste give a lecture on the topic. The two men became collaborators. Years later, at the height of the sit-ins and other nonviolent protests of the U.S. civil rights movement, Dr. King said: "I would say unequivocally that the current emphasis on nonviolent direct action in the race relations field is due more to A.J. than to anyone else in the country."

For most of five decades, Muste was a leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a nondenominational organization committed to nonviolence, conscientious objection to war and military service, and international understanding. In this work, Muste had great empathy and listened to everyone. He built bridges. He did not end relationships.

For example, though he was a strong anti-communist, he kept reaching out to U.S. communists, one of whom said in the 1950s, shortly after he'd left the party: "I say this as an atheist, but if I were to be asked if I've ever known a saint, I'd have to say Muste comes close." Asked about his approach, Muste said: "One has to be both a resister and a reconciler. ... You have to be sure that when you're reconciling, you're also resisting any tendency to gloss things over; and when you're primarily resisting, you have to be careful not to hate, not to win victories over human beings. You want to change people, but you don't want to defeat them."

Part of Muste's genius is that he never succumbed to the belief that he spoke truth and that his opponents spoke error. He said: "You always assume there is some element of truth in the position of the other person, and you respect your opponent for hanging on to an idea as long as he believes it to be true. On the other hand, you must try very hard to see what truth actually does exist in his idea, and seize on it to make him realize what you consider to be a larger truth." Muste believed that Jesus taught that "the worst sin is the denial of brotherhood by drawing lines that shut some people in and others out."

A.J. Muste is not in the famous "Who's Who." But he's certainly in mine.

This article originally appeared here.

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