Prophetic Contingency: Why Jim Douglass’s JFK Book Matters


Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

Prophetic Contingency: Why Jim Douglass’s JFK Book Matters

by Ched Myers

Hope comes from walking through the darkness of our history.

 -- James W. Douglass

This November marks the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's election. The best way to honor his legacy is to muster the courage to walk again through the "dark history" associated with his short but consequential presidency, in order to learn its lessons and discover its hope. Jim Douglass's JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters, which Touchstone is reissuing this month as a trade paperback, is a reliable guide for that demanding task.

Admittedly, walking back through this history is no small thing to ask of those who are too young to recall that contested chapter of the American story, or those who lived through it but cannot bear the burden of making sense of it. Mired in either "conspiracy fatigue" or cynicism, we as a people have yet to fully face the fact that in November 1963 the National Security State assassinated a sitting president who was challenging its hegemony. Yet the many poignant parallels between the upstart presidency of Obama and that of JFK (see Douglass's piece in this issue) urge us to reckon anew with "the Unspeakable."

The Unspeakable was an eschatological metaphor (in the Berdyaevian sense) coined by the great Trappist monk Thomas Merton in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In his 1966 book Raids on the Unspeakable, Merton described it as "the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations ... and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss. It is the void out of which Eichmann drew the punctilious exactitude of his obedience."

That void indeed characterizes contemporary history, from Truman's insistence that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were "necessary to save American lives" to George W. Bush's glib pronouncement of "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. The steady, numbing diet of lies and spin from political and corporate elites, compounded by spectacularized infotainment, wears relentlessly on our personal equilibrium and political imagination. But that only underscores the importance of Merton's search for a spiritual hope that "begins where every other hope stands frozen stiff in the face of the Unspeakable." It is this quest that Douglass has taken up and invites us into.

Douglass is no conspiracy geek. Part of the Catholic theological renaissance that emerged from Vatican II, his incisive interpretations of both politics and religion through the lens of Gandhian satyagraha have for more than forty years inspired and resourced many faith-based peace activists, myself included. His critique of the totalitarian logic of nuclear militarism led Douglass to leave a promising academic and ecclesial career to cofound the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action ( right next to the Trident submarine base in Bangor, Washington.

In the 1990s I admired Douglass's peacemaking efforts in the Balkans but was frankly puzzled (like many in the movement) at his growing preoccupation with researching and writing about the assassinations of Jack and Bobby, Martin and Malcolm. But when I read JFK and the Unspeakable (originally published by Orbis Books in 2008), the first fruits of a decade of labor, I began to fathom the profound depths this mentor is probing on our behalf.

Last year my wife and I visited Jim and Shelley at the Catholic Worker center in Birmingham, Alabama. We toured the ramshackle little house where Jim researches and writes, located beside railroad tracks where, in a previous nonviolent campaign, they tracked the nuclear "White Train." Sitting at one of the many desks overflowing with books and papers, Jim patiently yet passionately explained (yet again) why JFK's life and death matter.

The book argues that Merton's Unspeakable is pre-eminently incarnated in the CIA's doctrine of "plausible deniability," which lies behind half a century of covert operations (not least JFK's murder), and which remains a lethal threat to our democracy. Douglass's greatest contribution to the formidable corpus of JFK literature is his persuasive account of how the president, shaken by the apocalyptic implications of the Cuban Missile Crisis, slowly abandoned his Cold War worldview. Because he subsequently dared to try to end the de facto rule of bipolar politics, endgame militarism, and the National Security establishment, this "peacemaking president could not survive the warmaking State."

It is, insists Douglass, "a story that encircles the earth ... whose telling can transform a nation." If, that is, it animates us to embrace the work of nonviolent revolution that alone can secure a future. I commend this book to Tikkun's readership. It could not matter more.

Ched Myers is an activist theologian working with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in southern California ( His most recent book is Ambassadors of Reconciliation on restorative justice and peacemaking (Orbis, 2009). Learn more at  

Myers, Ched. 2010. Prophetic Contingency: Why Jim Douglass’s JFK Book Matters. Tikkun 25(6): 20

tags: Books, Reviews, War & Peace   
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