Some images just stay with you undimmed by time. One such memory I hold on to is of a summer’s evening now over half a century ago. Somehow I had heard that a motorcade carrying the 1960 Democratic presidential nominee, John F. Kennedy, would pass nearby on its way to a campaign rally downtown.
In eager anticipation of catching a glimpse of the young, charismatic candidate I rode my red bike several blocks over to a broad treeline boulevard, The Paseo, in my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri.
There I waited for what seemed like a very long time for a 12-year-old. The crowd along the route steadily grew as an occasional motorcycle policeman came by scouting the scene or a sound truck drove by announcing how many more minutes we would have to wait.
Finally it came, the motorcade approached fronted by a phalanx of motorcycles lights blinking and sirens wailing, followed by a string of vehicles. A rolling cheer went up heralding the arrival of the open convertible with JFK himself perched atop the edge of the back seat. He waved.
I jumped on my bicycle and tried to follow for a couple of blocks hoping to sustain the experience, be close to him for a few seconds more. The cavalcade quickly outpaced me and I turned for home. I caught sight that night not only of a soon-to-be president but also of some larger notions.
History unfolds around us. Active or passive, we play our own roles in it. Sometimes notions like love of country and devotion to its welfare can spark greater effort on the part of citizens. Patriotism often seems rooted, though, in the past, in a nostalgic yearning for some idealized era of triumphs.
Our love of country should motivate us, however, towards our collective future. President Kennedy gave the commencement address at American University in Washington, D.C. on June 10, 1963. His “peace speech” is remembered, I think, because of the vision it offered, a vision certainly needed now.
“What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children – not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women – not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”
Looking solely at the enormity of the challenges before everyone in an increasingly dangerous, darkening world, Kennedy argued, could push citizens toward the defeatist attitude that change is impossible. “It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable – that mankind is doomed – that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are man made – therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable – and we believe they can do it again.”
Though now seen as a deeply flawed individual, Kennedy as president could and still can challenge us to strive towards a better world. “When a man’s ways please the Lord,” the Scriptures tell us, “he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights – the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation – the right to breathe air as nature provided it – the right of future generations to a healthy existence?
On this coming July 1, or July 4 for our Alaskan cousins, may a patriotic fervour be rekindled, a patriotism mindful of our collective, global future.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.