“Can any war be so holy that [it] warrants the horror it brings to so many innocent people?”
Rabbi Olan courageously engaged with some of the most challenging and divisive issues of his time, and this sermon of December 11, 1966 is no exception. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom he had worked, Rabbi Olan takes up the question of the Vietnam War from a religious and moral perspective, asking “Is this a holy war?” (He will pose the question in different words in a future sermon, asking “Is this a just war?”)
Rabbi Olan is clear that “honest men disagree” about whether or not the Vietnam War is a “holy crusade” against the spread of communism in Asia, but he is equally clear that if the war is not “holy” then “it is a crime!” His personal pain is evident in the language he uses: “the agony of our moral dilemma” and “the religious communities in our country… are tortured by the awful suffering [that the war] is bringing to many innocent peoples.” He repeatedly uses the word “innocent” to describe the ordinary men, women and children of Vietnam who are being massacred by both sides.
In keeping with his consistent theme of social and economic justice, Rabbi Olan also points out that the risks of combat are run disproportionately by “deprived” and “disadvantaged” young men. Since this sermon was delivered in December, he goes on to contrast holiday-season luxury consumption with the plight of Vietnamese civilians, whose families, homes and villages are being devastated. We will be able to watch Rabbi Olan further develop his thinking about the Vietnam War in at least two future sermons, delivered on February 26 and November 12, 1967.
Written by Frances M. Olan & Lionel S. Joseph