“What Can Anyone Do?”‘

By A. Powell Davies D.D.
November 25, 1945

A week ago yesterday, very early in the morning, I flew from Pittsburgh to Detroit on my way to Toronto. From my seat in the airliner I looked down through the darkness and saw the twinkling lights of hundreds of streets in city after city in the industrial heart of America. Then in the slow, misty daybreak I saw the smoke rising from farms and factories, the yellow sun melting away the grayness of numberless roofs, the long shadows from the spires and towers of tall buildings. I saw America, with the dawn on its hills and valleys, its lakes and plains; America, young in the light of morning; America, bright with its golden promise…and all of it unharmed. At the end of the cruelest, most savage war in history, physically unharmed.

Something that welled up in my heart made me bow my head. I bowed my head, but I could not pray. I wanted to be grateful, but I could not be grateful. If I had been a citizen of some other nation, perhaps I could at least have rejoiced that this one land was untouched, unscathed, unscarred. But I am an American. And my guilt is poisoning my gratitude. My guilt that as an American I must share responsibility for what is daily becoming one of the most shameful betrayals of humanity know to history. A betrayal of my own and every other country. A betrayal of American ideals, American standards, American humanity. A betrayal of our national heritage. A betrayal of overseas millions upon whose roofless homes the sun never rises except to reveal a scene of utter desolation. A betrayal of multitudes–men, women and little children–who are wandering homeless and starving across the continent of Europe. These people, God pity them, still look to the United States with desperate clinging–the only source that earth affords for the alleviation of their suffering. They are the people–many of them–who helped to keep the war away from America; who helped to give us time to prepare; whose courage wore down the triumph of the tyrant; and whose countries bore the brunt of the battle. They are waiting–in vain. Millions of them will die, from disease and famine. For America is looking the other way; the people are chasing the shining bubble of prosperity, and in the halls of Congress, conscience sleeps: untroubled even by nightmare, conscience sleeps.

We kept our annual festival of Thanksgiving in this country last week. There were turkeys by the carload. We knew that in a few days rationing would be almost completely over. We thanked God for safety, for a land unscathed, for copiousness and bounty. The Department of Agriculture had told us that in 1946 we shall eat better than ever before in our history. Let me read you a part of the report: “Plentiful supplies of most foods are in prospect….More ice cream, cheese, condensed and evaporated milk, fluid cream, canned vegetables, and fresh and frozen fish….Eggs and fluid milk will continue plentiful. Chicken, turkey, fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen and dried fruits, potatoes and sweet potatoes and cereal products will continue substantially the same….Supplies of some meats and fats (other than butter) will be larger than before the war. Sugar supplies should improve…” Yes, in the year 1944, in spite of rationing, Americans on the average ate a record eleven per cent more than the highest level of prewar years. The average consumption of meat in 1946 will be 145-155 pounds; equaling and probably surpassing the record for the last thirty years–150 pounds.

Gluttony–unbridled and unlimited, while millions starve. Greed–greed of profits, greed of wages, stark ugly evil greed, while the children of the homeless waste and wither, and forsaken multitudes pine and die.

Why do we not admit openly that Christianity has departed from this land? That the great American ideals are all forsaken? That we have joined the ruthless and the pitiless? That all mercy, all compassion, all tenderness are gone?

Even our promises are half-abandoned. We pledged long ago $1,350,000,000 (one per cent of our 1943 income–much less by percentage than we gave to overseas relief after the First World War). We pledged it. Other nations have redeemed their pledges–nations which could not afford to do so. Some of their citizens are now voluntarily giving up still further portions of their meager food allowance. But our Congress postpones and delays the final part of its first pledge. It does so for a score of reasons; but not one of them is worth a moment’s thought beside the fact that while Congress talks and tarries, the starving die. Starvation does not wait for politicians. It just happens–promptly. While the well-fed dawdle and trifle, the hungry perish.

The delay in Congress down to now–the delay, that is, in appropriating money already pledged to UNRRA–has forced that organization to cancel orders for $50,000,000 worth of medical supplies–critically needed medical supplies–so that money might be spent on food–which is even more critically needed. What does this mean in human terms? It means that half-starved people who are sick will get no medicine; it means that thousands of them will die. We shall not have killed them. No, of course not. We shall merely have let them die. If I had a neighbor who was at the point of death, and if I had the medicines that would bring him back to health, if I and only I had them, and if I failed to take them to him, I would not have killed my neighbor. No. I would just have let him die. That’s all. I would just be the kind of person, the sort of human being who could do a thing like that. As a citizen of the strongest, fattest, richest country in the world, that is what I am now doing to millions of my neighbors. I am letting it be done. So are you.

Have you, dear friends of this congregation, any idea of what is really happening? Do you think you are listening to something dramatized, something exaggerated? Then read Director Lehman’s report. Or read the story in the quiet sedate New York Times. “More than 20,000,000 people”, says that grave and restrained journal, “more than 20,000,000 desperate and homeless people are now milling east and west, north and south, across the Continent [of Europe]…800,000 Poles are now living in holes in the ground and dugouts…Rumania is suffering from the worst drought in fifty years…” And so on and so on from country to country…”Tuberculosis is rife. The very young and the very old especially are beginning to die in droves as the autumn leaves fall.”

The very old, the very young. Picture it. The old and helpless. The young: babies. Do you have the courage to let yourself imagine a baby starving to death? Then close your eves and imagine it; imagine it multiplied by thousands. Or if you do not have the courage, admit yourself a coward. Then remember that we could save those babies. We could have saved them–we could still save some.

Yes, but not until we have attached conditions to our appropriations, apparently. Not until we have made sure that the American farmer makes a profit on it–all the profit on it. Not until the politicians who want American farmers’ votes have got all possible political benefit from it. Why, you have to make a profit on saving the lives of babies! You have to make political capital out of famine. You have to climb back into Congress, even if it has to be over a mountain of corpses.

I suppose it will not be long before some of the gentlemen we have elected to rule over us will be wondering how it happens that all Europe has gone Communist. I suppose they will be wondering how it is that these terrible Europeans are moving once again toward war–against us, this time. Against us! Maybe those valiant protectors of the nation’s safety, those exalted statesmen and sublime and lofty sages, the members of the Committee on un-American Activities, will investigate it. They will discover how despicable and dastardly these starving Europeans are, so spitefully withholding their cooperation from the American way of life, the American standard of living! Disloyally allowing themselves to be penniless and thus unprofitable as American customers! Allowing themselves to get desperate because they watch their children die, and therefore, for some obscure reason, unfriendly to the American policy of keeping this a land of plenty, no matter who starves in other places. I suppose they will want to investigate whoever would have befriended these dreadful people.

Well, if that Committee wants to investigate something really un-American, it has its greatest opportunity right now. For the most un-American thing this nation has ever done is to delay assistance to these desolate, famine-ridden millions. These lost and forsaken people, who are hoping against hope that we shall come to them before it is too late. Yes, the greatest heritage any nation ever had is being betrayed. The most un-American thing in its history is being perpetrated right now. In these very weeks we are closing the gates on our own future, we are condemning ourselves before the world.

I am afraid to think of the judgment of history. I am afraid to remember the providence of God. For no matter what may be your theology, this remains true: in that dread providence, no sin, whether of commission or omission, goes unpunished. Will it always be possible to look down from an airplane on an unscarred land, a land of plenty? I am afraid of the answer. I am afraid of what my knowledge of history is telling me. I am afraid of what my own conscience foresees.

Jesus once told a parable, the words of which go like this:

“The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: and he reasoned within himself saying, What shall I do, because I have not where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This I will do: I will pull down my barns and build greater; and there will I bestow all my corn and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool! This night shall thy soul be required of thee!”

Does there come a night like that for nations, too?

There is another parable of Jesus’. At a time of judgment, he says, many will claim the privileges of good people, pious people, faithful believers–but it will do them no good. For, he goes on, “I was an hungered and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked and ye clothed me not; sick and in prison and ye visited me not. Then shall they answer saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, or athirst, a stranger or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them saying, Verily, I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me.”

Just a fantasy, you say? Just an old-fashioned parable of a last judgment? Do not be too sure, dear friend. History records many judgments–judgments of men and nations. My own very deliberate opinion is that wrapped within this saying of Jesus is history’s grim and solemn truth…

There is another Biblical saying which is also not to be despised: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” A man or nation! When the halls of government have become the sepulchre of a nation’s conscience, the smell of death is already in the air.
“Soul, thou hast much goods!…take thine ease, eat, drink and be merry!” Yes. The candles burn brightly. The food is plentiful, the wine abundant. But somewhere across the world an east wind is rising. The wind that blows all candles out. And in the nighttime comes a voice that the noise of abundance cannot drown, that no merriment can silence. “This night is thy soul…thy soul…required of thee.” The soul of a nation. And the soul of this nation is being betrayed.

Is it too late, then? Already too late? I do not think so. The time is terribly short–and getting shorter–but it is not yet too late. The people are beginning to understand–some of them–to understand a little. The happiest thing that happened to me last week was that I chanced to read in Time news magazine two items. One was a protest of Senator Vandenberg’s against the attempt to impose a free press requirement on countries to which UNRRA takes assistance. “I am unable to agree,” he said, “that we should suddenly choose UNRRA, on the threshold of winter, as the vehicle for [this requirement]. The iron curtain [of censorship] is in the control of governments. It is the people in these areas who die for want of bread….It is the people–pitiful, suffering, starving millions of them facing what will probably be the blackest, cruelest winter since the age of plagues–from whom our aid would be withheld….You may say that the blame would rest upon the government which denied our requirement. But the dead would not know the difference.” I have not usually agreed with Senator Vandenberg in the past, and I do not know whether or not I shall always do so in the future. But I give him my humble thanks today for that saying. My thanks, and, if he cares to have it, a simple preacher’s heartfelt benediction. He spoke like a statesman, an American, and, best of all, like a true man–a man with a soul.

The other item I read was part of a letter from a soldier in France, an American occupation soldier. He wrote it to the editor of Stars and Stripes. These are his words: “I am getting too damned fat. With a lot of women, children, grown men…in Europe on the verge of starvation, why do they insist on fattening us up like pigs? Please bring more for folks over here who need it and less for me.”

When I read that, I felt again as I had in the airplane, that I wanted to bow my head. But this time I could pray. “O God,” I could say, “We are stirring in our sleep at last. Stab us to wakefulness, pierce us with the sharpest barbs of conscience until we are ready to give up something–and send it to those who need it.”

And that is precisely what I propose to you today. I do not in the least intend that you shall go away from this Church, after telling me that it was an acceptable sermon, or even an unacceptable sermon, or any other kind of sermon, and then do nothing. I am not interested in what you think of the sermon, of the preacher, of the Church, or anything else. I am interested only in what you are going to do.

The churches could take the lead. This Church could take the lead. As an act of penitence that we did not do it sooner. As a demonstration of sincerity that we mean the humanity we profess. As church people, as Americans, and simply as human beings. Most of all, because it is intolerable, unbearable, utterly wicked not to do something–and begin right away.

What can anyone do? I will tell you. First, you can take the full responsibility of a citizen. You can write or telegraph to the Committee chairmen in Congress, or if you live outside the District, also to your own Senators and Representatives. Do not write as sharply as you have heard me speak this morning. I am a preacher, and to speak as I have spoken is sometimes my inescapable duty. Write simply, briefly and clearly that you want the UNRRA appropriations made immediately and the subsequent ones without delay. But do more than this. Almost every person in this Church has friends and relatives in the States of the Union from which he or she has come. Write to those friends and relatives. Beg them to write–or telegraph– their Senators and Representatives–right away! Tell them why, and, if desirable, what to say. Ask them to get things going along these lines in their own communities.

Do you say there is nothing you can do. You can do this. You can do it today. You can begin to do it before you eat your next meal. **Two missing pages.** I have a daughter. I would die a thousand deaths before I would see her starve. How can I ask that any other father bear that anguish? How can I let it happen–anywhere? If I have said bitter things today out of the pain of my own conscience, the frustration of my own soul, forgive me. And may God cleanse the spirits of us all. But let us remember this, and keep remembering it: that nothing will absolve us–nothing!–if we fail to act and act with all out power.

Jesus said: A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and he fell among robbers, which both stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead by the road. And by chance a certain priest was going that way, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And in like manner a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was, and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion, and came to him, and bound up his wounds….Which of these, asked Jesus, proved neighbor unto him that fell among thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. And Jesus said….Go and do thou likewise.

Jesus is still saying it. So is your conscience. And mine.

Let us pray: O God, we are ashamed. Deepen our shame, we beseech thee, until we open the gates of conscience to the world’s misery and let it beat a pathway to our hearts. Amen.

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