Make Ben Salmon a Saint

Does it matter whether Catholic church officials really believe that they have the power to turn dead people into magical demigods? I don’t think so. I think it matters whether large numbers of people believe that, and I think they don’t. I think making someone a saint is, at this point, just a high honor like any other high honor, and that, as long as the practice exists, we’re better off with better people, rather than worse people, being made saints, for better reasons, rather than worse reasons.

Opponents of Just War Theory should be made saints, because Just War Theory may get us all killed. A true defender of Just War Theory would not object to that characterization of it. A true believer in Just War Theory would proclaim it a good deed to get us all killed. Just War Theory originally rested fundamentally on the belief that killing someone was doing them a favor. The fact that nobody believes that anymore, even while some people call themselves religious and care who’s a saint (and war supporters proclaim war after war to be just), is why we shouldn’t worry so much about actual old-timey belief in saints. If it exists, it’s faded.

Of course, even faded shades of beliefs matter. I suspect that Just War Theory’s belief in murder as a good deed lingers on in modern war makers’ contention that, in war, murder is perfectly acceptable, whereas torture or rape or unsanitary imprisonment or bribery or looting is a “war crime.”

So, we need to hold up critics of Just War Theory, and what better way to hold them up than turning them into saints? John Kennedy said we’d have war until conscientious objectors got the respect and prestige that’s given to soldiers. Why not run that experiment and find out whether or not war goes away?

Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter was made a saint in 2007, an act that seems far less silly than a German court in 1997 “nullifying” his death sentence, even though he’d been sentenced to death two years before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and had been killed two years before the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

[CORRECTION: He was beatified, which is apparently a rung below being made a saint, which could still be done.]

If the Catholic Church is going to make conscientious objectors saints, is it going to distinguish which sides of which wars it deems worthy of conscientious objection, even though the objectors themselves have usually made clear their opposition to all war, and their support for similar objectors on the other sides of their wars? If not, then the church ought to pick out the COs whose words and deeds have set the best examples. And in that case, it can hardly do better than Ben Salmon.

Salmon wrote hundreds of pages on why he was not insane. The charge of insanity had nothing to do with his belief in magical beings or “life after death,” all of which he shared with most of the people deemed sane. His insanity was to be found in his belief that Jesus wanted him to be peaceful, rather than in the more popular belief that Jesus wanted everyone to kill Germans — or, rather, as Salmon pointed out quite eloquently, national loyalty — in the popular view during World War I — wanted Americans to kill Germans but Germans to kill Americans. Perhaps insanity is simply the reverse of whatever is passing for sanity, and not a particular neurological condition.

Salmon did not offer to “serve” in a non-combat job as Jägerstätter did. Salmon turned down a cozy desk job and life at home with his wife and new born and ailing mother. He abandoned his family as Jesus commanded. He chose 25 years in a brutal prison as a matter of principle. And he explained why. His explanation may be out of date. A new case against Just War Theory may be needed. But Salmon made the case in Catholic terms. He persuaded other Catholics. He helped — whether or not it is a good thing — to save (to lengthen) lives.

Salmon was beaten and force fed. He was released in 1920 but died of pneumonia in 1932. He had sacrificed his health for the cause of peace. We’re going to need a lot of people from all kinds of backgrounds to do that in the coming years.

There’s a petition gathering signatures to make Salmon a saint.

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