July 4, 2018 – Independence Day need not be devoted entirely to martial marches and soldierly invocations. Even our founding parents envisioned it as a day that should be celebrated in peace.
In 1971, as an ex-GI engaged in the anti-Vietnam War movement, I was invited to address a 4th of July picnic gathering of Mennonites. “We celebrate peaceful resistance to war,” explained my friend John L. Ruth, a Mennonite historian and professor of English literature at Eastern Baptist College. As I recall, I addressed the large crowd hoarsely without a microphone and told of many returning veterans who opposed the War in Vietnam as a moral travesty and were raising their voices in the cause of peace.
I was a Baptist back then and I remember lamenting the fact that the number of Baptist pacifists could be counted on the fingers of one hand, including Walter Rauschenbusch, Edwin Dahlberg, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It appeared to me that peacemakers in other mainline denominations were virtually absent.
But I was wrong. One peace activist who rose above us all was Otto Frederick Nolde, a Lutheran academician, whose influence on international diplomacy was incalculable in the post-World War II world.
Otto Frederick Nolde died June 17, 1972, just as my career in ecumenism was beginning at the American Baptist offices in Valley Forge, Pa. I realized quickly that he was a towering figure not only in Philadelphia church circles but across the globe.
A Philadelphia Lutheran, Fred Nolde was a leader in the vanguard of human rights activists who sought to build pillars of justice amid the ashes of World War II. Nolde and other activists, including future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a Presbyterian lay leader, helped form “The Six Pillars of Peace” to prevent future wars. Among their proposals – incredibly – was a universal monetary system and currency for all nations, open borders through which all persons could freely pass, and automatic citizenship for immigrants and refugees wherever they decided to settle.
Needless to say, these idealistic and thoroughly Christian proposals were never accepted. But Dulles – who is remembered for his “brinksmanship diplomacy” that seemed to bring the U.S. close to war with the Soviet Union – spoke highly of Nolde’s contributions. According to The New York Times, Dulles wrote that Nolde was “outstanding” among the consultants, his suggestions “always sound” and many of them “bore important practical results.”
Nolde’s influence on the post-World War II world was significant. He was the author of the religious freedom section of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights and contributed to the human rights language in the United Nations charter.
Nolde was the World Council of Churches’ first director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), where he became known as an “ecumenical diplomat.” He knew and influenced post-war secretaries of state, not only his friend John Foster Dulles but his successors. There is a picture of World Council of Churches leaders from the U.S. meeting with President John F. Kennedy in the White House in 1962. Nolde, typically, is shown turning away from the President to engage in an apparently intense conversation with Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
The Times also reported that Nolde urged President Lyndon B. Johnson to bring the Vietnam War to a swift conclusion in 1966, recommending that the United States be prepared to leave South Vietnam if asked to do so by a government “as freely elected as conditions in South Vietnam permit.”
Otto Frederick Nolde was professor of Christian Education and Dean of the Graduate School at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
He was a major leader in urging nations to seek peace and justice. I was privileged to know his widow, Nancy, an ecumenical journalist, when I was a communicator for American Baptists, and I sensed the deep respect of colleagues for her advocacy of Fred’s legacy of peace.
I wish I had known Fred Nolde. He lived his life as a powerful witness for peace and I wish his name was better known within the current generation of persons of faith.
But his message still resonates mightily for all who listen. And if Lutherans were wont to honor their saints with icons and feast days, I would nominate Otto Frederick Nolde for recognition of the sainthood he has clearly attained.
A note about the Saint Fredrerick icon. Lutherans do not honor their leaders as saints with icons and feast days, but of course many Christian (and non-christian) activists are unmistakably saintly. Brother Robert Lentz has created icons of hundreds of notable leaders including Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., César Chávez, and Harvey Milk. Although I am not an artist as skilled as Brother Robert, I was inspired by his reminder that saints walk among us every day. I started drawing some saints particularly close to me – including my sainted father-in-law, San Benigno – as a project in a Lutheran Diakonia class. Once the class was over, I realized there are many more among us who deserve a loving recognition from all of us, and I’ve kept drawing.