Vol. XLII No. 1 — January 1964

“His Death Was Untimely”

Conrad Hahn

The assassination of the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, last November 22 is not only an American tragedy; it is an earth-shaking event that has stunned the entire family of nations. At a time when troubled mankind is hoping to discover new avenues to understanding and peace, this horrible incident has stirred up fear and suspicion and hate.

American Freemasons abhor the cowardly murder of their President. They detest the abnormality of the human being who committed the atrocity. As speculative builders, they deplore the destructive emotions that this calamity has inevitably engendered.

At the same time, by virtue to their obligation to their country, American Freemasons pledge to the new President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson,[1] the love and loyalty they hold for their country, as well as their best efforts to work as individuals for a harmonious solution to the serious problems that beset us.

To Mr. Kennedy’s sorrowing widow and family, American Freemasons extend their sincerest sympathy and every good wish for the assuagement of their grief. The loss of a beloved member of the family is an experience most of us have shared; but its bitter poignancy is softened only by time, irradiated by love and light.

The ancients had an expression, “de mortuis nil nisi bonum,” by which they suggested that concerning the dead it is better to say only good things. As long as the powerful emotions aroused by so violent and so sudden a death as President Kennedy’s are still alive, this is healthful advice.

Furthermore, it is much too soon to attempt an evaluation of the late president’s place in history. Mr. Kennedy undoubtedly was “a controversial figure.” Opinions about him ranged from the laudatory to the extremely critical. It is too early for any man to say whether his acts and policies achieved real greatness of statesmanship. That will be determined by “the verdict of history,” which won’t be forthcoming until all the resulting circumstances have been fully worked out and until all the actors in the drama have taken their final curtain calls. Their “scripts” will have to be studied by impartial historians who were born too late to be emotionally involved in the events they will analyze.

Mr. Kennedy was not only the president of the United States, he was also the very determined leader of a large political faction. As such he enjoyed the devotion of a sometimes fanatic following, who not only believed in him with an almost idolatrous admiration, but who also adopted his ideas with a conviction bordering on zealotry. Time alone will reveal whether it was an “image” or the reality that his followers admired. Conversely, his political opponents could feel just as strongly in their detestation of his “politics” or in their antipathy to his proposals. Time alone will reveal whether it was an “image” or a reality that they shrank from with so much aversion.

One fact, however, stands out concerning the thirty-fifth president of the United States. It is a tragic fact, since it required his death to bring it fully into light. At a turning point in the history of our planet, he seems to have become a symbol to the rest of the world of the best and most promising hope of America’s willingness to help build “a brave new world.” The presence of so many chiefs of state or their representatives, all walking in sorrow behind President Kennedy’s caisson, is convincing testimony to the fact that the world sincerely mourns his death and the loss ofwhat he symbolized.

In the desire to comprehend events of such enormous tragedy, historical parallels sometimes help to put them in perspective. One of the greatest leaders in the world of antiquity was Moses, who brought the children of Israel out of the house of bondage in the land of Egypt, and led them through the wilderness to the promised land.

The 34th chapter of Deuteronomy tells the story of Moses’ tragic death. Not by violence, nor even because of the infirmities of age. At 120 “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.” But his work was finished. Those who always want a happy ending find Moses’ fate a bitter disappointment. He had literally driven a rebellious people to the frontiers of a promised land. But there, on “the top of Pisgah. . . over against Jericho,” Moses saw “all the land of Gilead unto Dan . . . and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea.”

But at that moment, with the vision of a triumph spread before his view, Moses learned that he was not to take part in it. “‘Thou shalt not go over thither.’ So Moses died there in the land of Moab. And they buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth the place of his sepulcher unto this day.” (Deuteronomy 34:6)

Moses needed no monuments to assure his fame. His place in history was already secure in the hearts of the people he had welded into a nation. Down through the ages his name would be a blessing forever. He was a leader beloved by his people.

“And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days.” Their leader was dead. The man who had encouraged them, the man who had exhorted them, the man who had scolded them and cursed them for their disobedience, the man who had taught them how to worship the one true God, the man who had worked miracles for them, the man who had wept for them, the man who had driven them to be men, the man who had loved them — he was taken away from them.

And so they mourned him for thirty days. It was good that they wept for him, for their sorrow taught them what to value. But even better, “the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended.” There was work to do. The promised land was right before them. The Jordan had to be crossed. The test of Jericho was at hand.

The days of mourning for our fallen president are now ended. And that too is good for the nation. Life is for the living, and there is work to do. “Sighs too deep for words” will continue, but those are a part of the breath of the Spirit of God. They should help us to cherish the real values of our way of life as we go forward, since this nation also has a Jordan to cross. Another Jericho looms up before us.

The bitterest realization that stays with us as a result of Mr. Kennedy’s untimely death is the assassin’s denial of the fundamental moral law of freedom, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Our founding fathers were opposed to tyranny because despotic systems give the power of life and death to individuals, a power that no individual is capable of exercising. Sooner or later an absolute ruler kills merely to enhance or to maintain his power. President Kennedy’s assassin was a tyrant, because he believed he had the right to kill an individual who symbolized those things to which he was opposed. It was the ultimate falsehood of a megalomaniac insistence on the rights of the individual instead of his responsibilities.

But this wretch was educated in “the land of freedom.” To what avail? Both his formal classroom instruction and his experiences as a mature citizen seem to have taught him very little about the moral requirements by which free men must govern themselves if they are to remain free. He dared to kill, to be a tyrant, instead of to educate, to persuade, to vote, to work for the common weal. “To subdue my passions” has a much broader educational significance than its use in Masonry.

This is really what our leaders should be troubled over. Hate there has been; hate undoubtedly will occur again. But the practice of accusing one another of hate, whether it be on the “Left” or on the “Right,” is a futile masking of the face of death. This violent death suggests that too many Americans have made morality an exercise in dialectics instead of controlling standards of conduct. Truly moral men may hate evil, but not people. It is moral men we lack in “the sickness of these times.”

A nation that can view the Cosa Nostra exposures with an indifferent shrug of the shoulders is encouraging the tyrant who stops all honest competition with a pistol or a sawed-off shotgun. Violence has become an accepted “way of life.”

A people who applaud sneers against the sincerely held convictions of those who disagree with them, praising the innuendoes as “semantic triumphs in the war for men’s minds,” are encouraging a tyranny of words to erode the fundamental rights of free speech, a free press, and the freedom of assemblage. To believe that “obligations should not be undertaken unless one is in a position to honor them” may be labeled “a Puritan ethic”; but to pronounce it sneeringly, as if Puritan ethics were all worthless and bad, is to practice the tyranny of words to seduce men into shouting the “dernier cri.” Just why did such an ethic develop? Clever jeering has become an accepted substitute for truth; yet without all facets of every truth, freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression must perish. Freedom can never be the product of dragooned conformity.

Freedoms are being denied in many an organization that seeks power to influence or even to control our legislative assemblies. Dissenters and objectors are isolated, exiled, or beaten up by “goon squads.” Freedom of discussion and debate are denied in many a meeting of “a democratic organization.” The election of officers is regularly “rigged” to insure a “proper” outcome. Self-government, as envisioned by the authors of our liberties, is feared in many areas of our community activity, because the democratic process, purely applied, requires “accommodation,” sharing, and the harmonizing of conflicting interests and desires. There’s got to be a winning side, not a successful community. And so the denial of liberty becomes an accepted modus operandi.

In fact, it has become increasingly difficult for individuals to contribute anything constructive to the “great debate” which must be carried on continually, if a society of free men is to govern itself freely. “Bigness” is one of the causes of the difficulty. "You mustn’t rock the boat” if “our organization” is to prevail. “You want us to win, don’t you?” In some quarters, to question the value of the winnings is to become guilty of indecent thoughts. And so the pernicious spirit of factionalism, against which Brother George Washington warned this nation, breeds its ugly offspring.

We cherish our antipathies. We remain blind to the opportunities for understanding each other. We’ve got to have “politics as usual.” We know that “they’re” not going to change. We’d better “fix” them first before they “get” us. For a “Christian nation” we reveal an astounding ignorance of the Apostle Paul’s great teachings about liberty and law in the Epistle to the Romans.

This is the ultimate source of the despicable forces that killed President Kennedy. We have sold our birthright — morality and brotherhood — for a mess of pottage compounded of greed and lust and indifference to the needs of the whole community.

And that points out to Freemasons the Jordan they must ever seek and cross — to teach men the eternal necessity of “subduing their passions,” and by a clear and persuasive exemplification of the great tenets of their profession, brotherly love, relief, and truth, to demonstrate the real freedom of the individual who recognizes his responsibility to work for harmony, to help the unfortunate, and to reveal all the facets of the truth — from whatever source they may come.

Ignorance and indifference are the walls that protect the Jericho of harmful passions and unproductive attitudes. Those walls must fall, as fell the walls of ancient Jericho when a new leader guided the children of Israel across the River Jordan.

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  1. President Johnson was initiated, an Entered Apprentice, on October 30, 1937, in Johnson City Lodge No. 561, Johnson City, Texas.

The Masonic Service Association of North America