Ted Grimsrud—Purpose vol. 44, no. 1 (January 2011), p. 28.
The film, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, recounts the life of historian Howard Zinn, author A People’s History of the United States. As a young man, Zinn fought in World War II as a fighter pilot; by the end of the war he had strong doubts about the morality of his actions.
Zinn got his first teaching job at Spellman College in Atlanta. While at Spellman, Zinn actively supported his students’ participation in the Civil Rights movement. This support alienated Spellman’s administration, leading to his dismissal.
Zinn moved to Boston University as the Vietnam War went into high gear. He spoke against the war and supported his students in their anti-war activism.
Students asked him to speak to an anti-war rally held during the meeting of the college’s board of trustees, challenging the trustees to take a stand against the war. It turned out that at the same trustees’ meeting, they were going to decide on Zinn’s request to receive tenure (denial of this request would have meant an end to Zinn’s employment, for the second time losing his job as a result of his activism).
After some consideration, Zinn decided that he would give the speech, even after he learned that he would be the only speaker. Was this a “wise” step for him to take? Zinn gave the speech and learned only later that prior to the speech the trustees had approved his tenure.
He would have insisted that even if the speech would have cost him his job, it would have been the “wise” thing to do. Why?
I think his story gives us at least three good reasons.
(1) He truly listened to his students. He understood that idealistic young people willing to stand in favor of justice and peace are incredibly smart and wise, a great source for insight and guidance.
(2) He was clear about his own moral convictions. He knew that the Vietnam War was terribly wrong and that as a citizen of the U.S.A. he had no choice but to do whatever he could to oppose it. The path to authentic wisdom must pass through keeping faith with one’s core moral convictions.
(3) He knew that love is always right. The wise decision is always one that is grounded in the fundamental law of life—love of our fellow human beings, our friends and neighbors, for sure, but also our enemies.