Tackling the Unspeakable

On Jan. 20, the United States of America inaugurates its first African-American president and first Catholic vice president. As a nation—and as an ideal—America has reached a watershed point, a kairos moment.

Barack Obama’s election symbolizes a resurgence of what some theologians call a “passion for the possible.” It’s essentially a spiritual experience—even if those to whom it’s happening don’t understand it in those terms. The church calls it “hope.”

However, genuine hope often incites a backlash. If we take seriously Paul’s description of the fallen “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6), then palpable, prophetic, authentic hope will provoke a response from “the spiritual forces of wickedness,” evil, or “the Unspeakable,” as Trappist monk Thomas Merton phrased it.

In a groundbreaking 2008 book, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, Catholic theologian and nonviolence leader Jim Douglass probes the role of the principalities and powers in the assassination of John Kennedy, the first Catholic president. JFK is the story of how President Kennedy nearly started a nuclear war, then turned toward peace with the enemy who almost started it with him—and why that turning got him murdered. It’s an old story of prophets, kings, and consequences.

Douglass’ years of meticulous scholarship, including fresh interviews and access to White House memos only released in the mid-1990s, prompted Gaeton Fonzi, former staff investigator for the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations, to write that JFK and the Unspeakable is “by far the most important book yet written on the subject.” Douglass tells the story that, until now, America has not had ears to hear.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2009
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