One’s Woman’s Battle to Evolve the American Spirit: A Mother’s Day Note from Rabbi Waskow’s Shalom Center

Please read this amazing proclamation from 1870 by an amazing American woman, Julie Howe. I grew up with the Battle Hymn of the Republic ringing in my ears, played on so many patriotic occasions, and so very violent. You come to define patriotism and your national spirit by a very few cultural artifacts that are most familiar to you. But so often, digging deeper into history, it turns out that those selections had an agenda at the hands of someone who wanted to define a  country in one way, with one spirit, in this case a very militant spirit. I lost that sense of patriotism due to the bad taste that Vietnam and the Cold War left in my young mouth. But I did not have to lose patriotism, I just had to contest its formulation exclusively with ante bellum Julia Howe, and not the whole Julie Howe. We need to fight for the positive spirit of our countries and our cultures and help it evolve to where the earth needs us to go. 

Look at the very same author, and the difference between 1861 and 1870, AFTER Julia Howe has seen the unthinkable, how such a young country could murder five hundred thousand of its teenagers on the battlefield. Her insights so deep, her visionary approach to international relations way ahead of its time. 

Howe’s insights reflect some of the most important elements of a human way of thinking that evolves away from violence. Let’s analyze them:

“The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.

 Blood does not wipe out dishonor,

 Nor violence indicate possession.”

The beginning of nonviolence is the recognition that 1. the sword rarely achieves the balance of justice, and that 2. the sword always involves murder, not just justifiable war as its advocates gleefully guarantee . War never fulfills most of its promises. 

More importantly, the honor culture of blood for blood is an idol that endlessly consumes its subjects. Honor through the spilling of blood is a false god that always leads to more and more bloodshed, more and more dishonor. Finally, violence may be a way to take things, but it is not the same as possession, legal and moral possession that the world recognizes. 

We see in the visionary thinking of Julia Howe the evolution of the American spirit. But this spirit will only become part of the American character when every time the Battle Hymn of the Republic is played, these words are recited afterward. 

This sounds like a fantasy, and it is a fantasy in the near future, but I imagine the Vikings would not recognize Norway. We are the Vikings of American history, and I hope our warrior spirit will become as quaint one day as Viking clothing. 

 Mother’s Day Proclamation – 1870

[Julia Ward Howe, who in 1861 wrote the lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in 1870 issued the following Call for A MOTHERS’ DAY FOR PEACE. Year after year, Rebbetzin Eve Ilsen of Boulder Colorado has sent it out as a reminder, to members of the Jewish renewal community. The Shalom Center is happy to celebrate Mother’s Day this year by joining in Ms. Ilsen’s practice. May the day Ms Howe proclaimed soon come! — ED.]

 Arise thenwomen of this day!

 Arise, all women who have hearts!

 Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!

 Say firmly:

 We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,

 Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,

 For caresses and applause.

 Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn

 All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

 We, the women of one country,

 Will be too tender of those of another country

 To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

 From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with

 Our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm!

 The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”

 Blood does not wipe out dishonor,

 Nor violence indicate possession.

 As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil

 At the summons of war,

 Let women now leave all that may be left of home

 For a great and earnest day of counsel.

 Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

 Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means

 Whereby the great human family can live in peace…

 Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,

 But of God –

 In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask

 That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,

 May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient

 And the earliest period consistent with its objects,

 To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,

 The amicable settlement of international questions,

 The great and general interests of peace.

© Marc Gopin