Dr. Donald Cronkite

Dr. Cronkite began the A. J. Muste Memorial Lecture Series in 1985.

 Dr. Donald CronkiteRead Dr. Cronkite's obituary 

I Cannot Love at All: Variations on a Theme by a. j. muste

AN ESSAY BY donald cronkite

Delivered February 2, 2008

Think of this lecture as a musical composition with a theme followed by some variations. In music these variations explore many aspects of the original theme, going over the material again and again for ever deeper secrets the variations reveal. I will try to do that by exploring some of our lectures given in the last twenty-four years. It will be up to you to decide if the deeper aspects are there. 

I want to examine what force an event (the A. J. Muste Memorial Peace Lecture) might have to help shape the life of a community (Hope College). An almost yearly event at Hope College, the lecture was started in 1985, the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Abraham Johannes Muste. This is not meant primarily to be a lecture about Muste, but about the Muste Lecture, from which we will be able to learn indirectly about Muste and perhaps ourselves.

The Theme (as rendered by Milton Mayer)

It was a Sunday morning, in the summer of 1940, on the shore of the Finger Lakes in upper New York, and silent worship was going on [a Quaker meeting]. A man stood up, a long stringy man, about six feet high that you’d say had been disjointed and reassembled. He had a big sloping forehead wrinkled like the back of his pants knees, a big nose, big ears set at 45 degrees, a nice wide moth, and a nice mop of brown and gray hair. You couldn’t say how old he was; he had the seasoned skin of countrymen; it doesn’t change much.


“If I can’t love Hitler,” he said, “I can’t love at all.”

Then he sat down. 

This was 1940, remember. That theme may have been seen as the ravings of a madman, or someone out of touch, or the words of a saint or prophet. Then again you probably have to be somewhat mad to be a prophet. I encourage you to wait before deciding. Wait to hear more. I’m hoping the variations will provide some light.

Variation I 

The men assembling at the Grand Avenue Reformed Church in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on June 7, 1937, were pastors and elders of the Reformed Church in America, leaders of local organizations who gathered each year for a “General Synod,” at which matters of organization, finances and doctrine were debated and, sometimes, resolved. Among the delegates were the members of the Committee on International Justice and Goodwill, who probably arranged this speech by the controversial pastor A. J. Muste, once a Reformed Church pastor himself. After a decade of leadership of the most radical of the factions of the American labor movement, alternatively called either Trotskyite or Musteite, Muste had returned to his Christian roots, and was soon to become leader of the Presbyterian Labor Temple in New York City and of the Christian pacifist organization the Fellowship of Reconciliation, also in New York.

 The existence of Muste’s speech was barely mentioned in the minutes of the General Synod of 1937, but it was issued as a separate pamphlet printed by the Committee on International Justice and Goodwill. The speech set off a surprising direction in the first few sentences.

It is in a spirit of humility and gratitude that I accept this opportunity to address this Assembly of the church of my fathers and of my own early years. It is fitting that I should begin with a word of confession. For a number of years I definitely renounced the Christian position and adopted the Marxist-Leninist. Although during those years I acted conscientiously according to the best insight I had, it is nevertheless true that in a real sense I was an “enemy of the cross of Christ.” And that insofar as they were influenced by me I led people at important points astray.

Confessing that he had lost his way but had realized his error and returned to the fold might be seen as a thoughtful thing to do. But then he turns his attention to that audience, quoting an anti-war proclamation made by the General Synod in 1932. The delegates to Synod were about to be told in so many words that Muste expected them to apologize also to the extent that they had not adopted New Testament pacifism. He saw the pattern he had been before. Before World War I, which Muste had also rejected, many scores of pastors preached pacifism. But the day war was declared, everyone was for war.

Here are some passages from his speech to General Synod to give you a flavor of Muste’s style. 

There is opposition, sin, evil. What do we do about that? The New Testament answer is clear, is it not? God faced this problem. And his answer is, “God so loved the world—this sinful world so while we were yet sinners—that he gave his only begotten Son.” It is the very essence of the divine nature that he did not meet evil with evil . . . . He did the only thing he could do in the face of sin. He kept on loving.

If on the other hand the church today dares to believe in their way of the cross, dares to obey the commands to put up the sword, to renounce all further participation in war—that will cost something and the Church will be persecuted by Caesar and his agents in our day as was the church in the early Christian centuries. But the cost will not be nearly as great as the cost of a general war is certain to be, and into that persecuted Church the masses desperately seeking for a way out of war will flock as the masses flocked into the persecuted Church of the early centuries. If the Church is given grace to provide such leadership we shall know joy and peace “beyond all human ingenuity.” Men shall sing again and know what they mean when they sing


In the cross of Christ I glory,

towering o’er the wrecks of time.


And of us and our age it shall be said, “these are they that have come out of the great tribulation and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

I planned for this lecture to be about the Muste Lecture, but a little about the person in case you know little about the man. He came to America with his parents, Adriana and Martin Muste. Coming to Grand Rapids when he was six, he had to learn new customs, and a new language. He went to college where local young men of the Reformed Church in America went to college—Hope College (’05) and New Brunswick Seminary (’12). For a short time he was a teacher at the Northwest Classical Academy in Iowa, the predecessor of Northwestern College. When he graduated from seminary, he received a call from a small Reformed Church congregation in New York, and once again he did what any normal RCA young man would do. While he was at it, he married the daughter of a Reformed Church pastor, a woman with the safe-sounding name of Anna Huizenga.

 But then the differences between Muste and his community began to grow. Muste took courses at Union Theological Seminary while he was pursuing his studies at New Brunswick and found himself to be more liberal in how he read the scriptures than were his parishioners. With suggestions of an investigation of his orthodoxy surfacing here and there in the church, he resigned and responded to a call to a more open Congregationalist congregation in Massachusetts, starting in 1915, just in time for the Great War of 1914-1918, to which he found himself opposed. 

When Muste resigned this second pastorate, it was because he could not minister to his congregation. They had boys over there, and they supported the troops. From the year he left that congregation until his death he continued to act on his principles, principles which he had no doubt learned in the community out of which he came, Dutch and determined, but with striking differences in his understanding of what we should do about war. The relation of the Hope College community to its prodigal son began to deteriorate quickly when he resigned his position in New York. The reaction was not so much active opposition as simply stony silence. For example, one of the “official” histories of Hope College, that of Preston Stegenga, doesn’t mention Muste at all, and that of Wynand Wichers mentions his name as a member of the 1905 basketball team. A more recent history by Carol Simon and James Kennedy mentions him more fully.

Earl Curry and Larry Penrose, emeritus members of the History Department and of the Lecture committee, have repeatedly urged us not to domesticate Muste. That is important. He was an original, a radical labor organizer as far to the left as possible, then a convert (or perhaps “re-convert”) to Christianity, who publicly urged young men not to go into the armed forces at World War II. He was an active resister of the nuclear arms race, a strong influence on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an opponent of our war in Southeast Asia, and coordinator of mass demonstrations which led him to go to Hanoi to discuss ending the war with Ho Chi Minh. He died soon thereafter from complications of a lung infection.

Now that you know something about the person we honor with our lecture, it is time to tell you about the lecture and enter into some variations on that theme. As indicated already, the Muste Memorial committee (enlivened by such a title!) was formed in 1984 with the following statement of purpose: “To honor the memory of A. J. Muste by providing opportunities for Hope as an institution to support the ideals and the vision of this illustrious alumnus, and by helping maintain within the consciousness and conscience of our ever-changing campus community the unchanging values of peace, justice, active nonviolent resistance to evil, and the unity of humankind.” Early participants in the formation of the committee included Eileen Beyer, Wayne Boulton, Elton Bruins, Donald Cronkite, Earl Curry, Janie Dickie, John Cox, Robert Elder, Charles Hutta, Paul Fried, Dirk Jellema, John Cox, David Myers, Ted Neilson, Jacob Nyenhuis, Larry Penrose, and Boyd Wilson. We envisioned a lectureship and a peace room in the new library. We got a controversial sculpture in the library. Immediately we were faced with an inevitable problem: who to ask to give the lecture of 1985. We settled on an editor of a national magazine who had written a biography and also prepared a book of Muste’s essays. He seemed ideal, and I was appointed to make the contact, so I did. All was going well until I asked what honorarium he would desire. He gave me an estimate that surprised me, a young inexperienced assistant professor of biology. We talked a little more, but I went back to the committee emptyhanded. In retrospect, a committee that knew more about the world would have negotiated a sum, but we were not that committee. 

Just at that time we learned that a new biography had just been published, written by a historian at Morgan State University in Maryland, Jo Ann Ooiman Robinson. I contacted her. She was no more wise in the world’s ways than the committee, so she agreed to give the inaugural lecture, and she was a great person to start our series. She asked the question we were asking and still should be. How did the college that was Hope College play a role in developing the man that was Muste? How does our lecture series give insight into the College by way of one of its more prominent, if neglected, graduates? 

I have one more thing to say about getting speakers. I have invited all but two of the speakers for the Muste Lectures. Each time had its own special details, but certain things have been true of all the lectures arranged by the committee. We have never had enough money for our event. Our efforts each year involve asking for funds from departments and programs. Two Presidents and Provosts have been generous in their support, both monetary and otherwise, as have the chairs of departments that had a common interest with one particular speaker. As Dean for the Arts and Humanities, and no doubt in part due to his passionate interest in the history of Hope College, Elton Bruins has been more than merely helpful and deserves his own recognition. The Cultural Affairs Committee has been helpful, as have the Women’s Studies program and a number of concerned individuals. We have a small amount in the Hope College endowment as the result of the support of a few people that gives us a little cushion, but its enlargement would make it possible to bring well-recognized people every year. 

The speakers come to our attention most often as suggestions from people who care for the lecture. Some are alumni of Hope College, or residents of Holland. Some are well-known activists, such as Daniel Berrigan. Some are more scholarly, like the peace studies approach of Bing or Arendshorst. Some are directly from the trenches of controversy, like Katherine Raley, who taught non-violence at an alternative school in East St. Louis, Illinois, perhaps economically the most depressed school district in the United States, or “Tondy” Mgqnangqo, who helped political prisoners adjust to normal life after their release. A few have had an international perspective—Diets, for example, had just returned from teaching non-violent techniques to the political opposition to Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and just then, when Diets was at Hope, the dictator was overthrown. Abdulwahab is working for the WHO to rid Nigeria of polio and to help stem the HIV/AIDS epidemic throughout the continent of Africa. Others are simply good people who have something important to say with their words and their lives that is an idea we think A. J. would like.

Variation III

At this stage in my writing I suffered a setback. I didn’t like the part I was starting to write. My ambition when I was planning the lecture was to hold several of the lectures up to close scrutiny. But time is a significant factor here. It is not possible, nor would it be terribly interesting, to recite an annotated list of each Muste speaker. A lecture is an evanescent thing. It is a spoken form of communication which is uttered, falls on the ear, and is gone. If a transcript of the lecture is produced, it moves from the insubstantial to a kind of fossil giving evidence of the past. Yet even when not recorded, lectures have a power to convict, inform, motivate, discourage and even transform the people who hear them. Each of these lectures is a variation on the theme of A. J. Muste, even he is not specifically named, and each could be analyzed for its connections. The inaugural lecture delivered by Jo Ann Ooiman Robinson asked these questions about Muste: 

  1. What were his reasons for taking the unbeaten paths that he followed?
  2. What exactly was the nature of the better world which he envisioned?
  3. What was the relationship between the means he employed and the ends which he sought?
  4. What was his own final judgment about the course he had taken?

I will concentrate on answers to the fourth question, which in sum is this: did he succeed? Have his methods and the theology that underlies the methods continued to convict and empower others? 

Robinson herself said in her Muste lecture,

It is the nature of a prophet that he rarely experiences the fulfillment of his goals in his own time. Rather, his words of warning and insight burn deeply into the collective conscience of his society from where they arise as moral guides for later, better prepared and more receptive generations . . . . He believed that the crucial thing about men or societies was not where they come from but where they were going.

Our Muste speaker of last year, Tom Arendshorst, gives this analysis. Strategic peace building is Arendshorst’s word for what Muste would call non-violence. He says in response to the question: 

Strategic peace building works. Unfortunately, powerful governments invest heavily in militarism and very little in peace building. We expand our circles of concern. We include more of God’s creation as “me” and “us.” We reject simplistic approaches and answers. We respect everyone’s need and right to determine his or her own life decisions. We are being unselfish and nonviolent, non-dominating. We question and resist manipulations of power. We invest what we can of ourselves in the justice of helping people who are poor, hurting or oppressed. 

At the time of Muste’s death in February, 1967, Wednesday Chapel at Hope College served as a memorial to A. J. Muste. D. Ivan Dykstra, Professor of Philosophy, spoke. Here are some of the things he said:

Let there be, then, but a few words, but write these words large when you write them about Muste. And do not leave any of them out; they hang together. 

The first must be commitment. He more than most saw long ago that to be a Christian means to be committed, and unconditionally. And to be committed then was different from being committed now, and harder . . . no church sustained commitments then. His church talked war, but Muste spoke peace. The church’s magic word was “patriotism.” Muste’s magic word was love. When his church sold out for public respect, Muste dreamed only of radical justice. If Hiroshima and Viet Nam be wisdom, for God’s sake, let’s be fools.

And behind the commitment lay his faith. And we should let it go at that. The faith was there and that’s enough. Do not read this as an effort to rehabilitate him by proving how orthodox he was . . . but orthodox or no there was no time, really, when the faith was not a deeply religious one, for it was the belief that what was deepest in the universe was on the side of what was noblest in mankind.

And with commitment and faith, a third word, reconciliation. With that as guide, whenever there was brokenness, A. J.’s heart was there, and no amount of rationalizing could spoil or blur for him the certainty that peace was unconditionally better than war and healing better than hurting.

Variation IV

Unfortunately, there is not a nice neat computer file—or even a paper one—of past Muste lectures. Many are transcribed on tapes, some on paper, and a few are lost completely. I have reviewed what I could of the twenty speeches and I think it is fair to say that they each, in different ways, asked us to cross boundaries which conventional wisdom has told us not to. And I think it is fair to say that they each, in different ways, told us to keep going. Which brings us back to where we started. 

When Daniel Berrigan spoke here, he said that A. J. Muste was one of the people he was thinking of when he wrote the following poem. When you hear it, do you see that tall gangly man who stood and said, as the world was on the brink of yet another war, “If I cannot love Hitler, I cannot love at all”? He stood again and again. He walked and walked. Will we?



Some stood up once and then sat down,

Some walked a mile and walked away,

Some stood up twice and then sat down,

“I have had it,” they said.

Some walked to miles and walked away.

“Too much,” they cried.


Some stood and stood and stood.

They were taken for fools.

They were taken for being taken in.

Some walked and walked and walked.

They walked the earth.

They walked the waters.

They walked on air.


And they were asked, “Why do you walk?”

“Because of the children,” they said.

“And because of the heart and the bread,”

Because the cause if the heart’s beat

And the children born, and the risen bread.

 Are those of us who were standing during the Vietnam War and walking throughout the Cold War still on our feet through the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq? Are we standing to bear witness to injustice in Darfur and Kenya and Palestine? Insert any name you like—or should I say dislike—and try out Muste’s Quaker witness. Can we say, “If I cannot love Osama bin Laden, Kim Sung II, George W. Bush, I cannot love at all”? It’s a radical demand . . . and it’s quite possible that it begins with this one:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.