Pastor: JFK’s death, like that of Jesus, was all for the best

November 24, 2013 • 9:50 am

The Washington Post’s “On Faith” column is, for atheists, a mixed bag.  They do publish some good stuff by unbelievers like Susan Jacoby, but it’s mixed with religious nonsense ranging from the mildly irritating to the outright disturbing. Tuesday’s column, “True believers: What JFK’s death did,” by Henry G. Brinton, is in the last category.  (Brinton is described as “pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia and author of “The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.“)

While he takes pains to distinguish JFK from Jesus (the former, after all, was an adulterer), Brinton nevertheless tries to pry some good out of what was a tragedy—and he does this by comparing JFK’s death to that of Jesus. In the end, he practices theodicy: evil exists because it creates net good.  But let us hear from Brinton:

The assassination was a hinge in history, on par with Pearl Harbor and 9-11. It pivoted America from the calm of the 1950s to the upheaval of the 1960s.

But terribly shocking tragedies can have unexpectedly good results. Christians understand this, which is why we put crosses in our churches and around our necks. The cross of Jesus Christ is a reminder of a horrible death that had beneficial results.

Now JFK was no Christ-figure — far from it. Christians believe that Jesus was sinless, while JFK had deep personal flaws that undermined his reputation. But his death, like the death of Jesus, changed history for the better.

Initially, reaction to Kennedy’s assassination was nationwide shock and sorrow. Then the American people rallied around his vision of putting a man on the moon by supporting the Apollo program. JFK’s call for civil rights was amplified by his successor Lyndon Johnson, who invoked Kennedy’s memory as he advocated for the Civil Rights Act.

In the end, the death of JFK was not only a tragedy but a catalyst. I believe that it led to advances that might have become bogged down, or not occurred at all, if Kennedy had served two full terms during the chaos and conflict of the 1960s.

Well, the Apollo program was in place beforehand, and was partly proposed to make up for JFK’s failure with the Bay of Pigs invasion: a way to challenge the Soviets in space instead of in Cuba.  And although Johnson sometimes invoked JFK when pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in truth that was almost entirely Johnson’s own initiative, and he leveraged it using many machinations besides JFK’s death (see Robert Caro’s latest volume of Johnson’s biography, The Passage of Power). To be sure, Johnson may not have been electable had Kennedy not been killed, and so while the Civil Rights act was inevitable, it was probably speeded up considerably by JFK’s death.

But why try to find good at all in something that was a tragedy? Would Brinton say the world is actually better off because JFK was killed? If not, what is his point? After all, there are far more tragedies on this planet that have no good side at all, like the many people who die in natural disasters or the children who die from infections and cancer.

The point, of course, is to highlight the good that came from Jesus’s death. But scripture tells us that Jesus’s death was not really a tragedy, for it wasn’t the action of a disaffected killer but the deliberate plan of a benevolent God to save humanity. Dragging Jesus into the JFK assassination is a completely unnecessary way to push Brinton’s religious delusions on us. Nevertheless, he can’t help himself:

To find a benefit in tragedy seems counterintuitive, perhaps even scandalous.

But the followers of Jesus Christ now make up the world’s largest religious group, with more than 2 billion adherents. They accept the tragic death of Jesus as part of their religious history, and understand — in a variety of ways — that the evil that was done to him eventually resulted in great good.

On a practical level, Christians are motivated to fight injustice because it was a completely innocent Jesus who was nailed to a cross with criminals on either side of him. Across the country, for example, people are now working with the Innocence Project to exonerate wrongly convicted individuals.

The “evil” that was done to Jesus was planned by an loving God to give us a way out of Original Sin. It is nothing like the assassination of JFK, which was not planned to save humanity. Further, I know the people who founded the Innocence Project, and they aren’t Christians but secular Jewish atheists.  They are not in the least motivated by religion, much less Jesus: they’re motivated by secular reason, a knowledge of forensics, and a secular morality.

Infected by the religious virus, Brinton goes on:

Religiously-motivated movements can have national implications — as significant as the Civil Rights Act and moon landing that followed Kennedy’s death. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, which allowed victims and perpetrators to speak in public hearings and move toward reconciliation. Such a Christian focus on forgiveness comes from what Jesus said about his killers from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Could such good have been done without a violent death? Perhaps. But the assassination of JFK, like the crucifixion of Jesus, is both a shock and a stimulus. One death motivated the American people to work for progress, while the other continues to inspire Christians to fight injustice and do the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Of course Brinton neglects the religiously motivated movements that have had horrible consequences, including the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the eternal wars between Shiites and Sunnis, the downing of the World Trade Center. What good came from those tragedies? Did the violent deaths of 3,000 people in Manhattan, and the thousands more, guilty and innocent, who died in the resulting war in Afghanistan, have a silver lining? If there is one, I can’t see it. Brinton comes perilously close here to saying that JFK’s death was, in the main, a good thing. He forgets about the wife deprived of a husband, a family deprived of a brother or son, and the children deprived of a father.

He closes with this:

The anniversary of JFK’s death is a sign, like a cross in a church. It points us toward the possibility that death is not the end, and that good can come out of evil.

Yes, good can come of evil: Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded by a mother whose child was killed by such a driver.  But good doesn’t always come from evil or tragedy—in fact, the vast majority of the time it doesn’t. The rest is just the senseless and unrequited misery and death inevitable in a material world containing immoral people. And a lot of that evil can, according to Pastor Brinton’s lights, be laid at God’s doorstep.

If God really was good, he would have brought about the Civil Rights Act by softening JFK’s heart and getting him to work more closely with LBJ—not by allowing JFK to be assassinated. God could have deflected Oswald’s bullets. Or was it His plan that the assassination take place so that we could have a Moon landing and civil rights? I’d love to ask Brinton this: if God is good, why do most horrible deaths not have beneficial results? And aren’t there other ways to get those results without suffering?

Finally, to compare eternal life with the Civil Rights Act is simply invidious.  One is a tangible and beneficial change in morality; the other a religious fiction.

h/t: Diane G

39 thoughts on “Pastor: JFK’s death, like that of Jesus, was all for the best

  1. What on Earth does it mean to be sinless? It almost sounds like: If Jesus does it, it’s not a sin. Where have I heard that before…?

    1. And muslims believe that Muhammed was sinless, because anything he did was because god told him. So any founder is supposed to be sinlessby their followers, but their compititors will nearly alwys claim they were sinful imposters.

  2. Oh god, how sick: “evil exists because it creates net good.”

    God’s ways are so mysterious they are sick. That’s a complete 180.

  3. I like this bit: “Further, I know the people who founded the Innocence Project, and they aren’t Christians but secular Jewish atheists.”

    It’s Jerry’s Lloyd Bentsen moment (“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”)

    1. Yes, I was going to call out that line too. It’s the reason WEIT is the only atheist website I still read every day. Not only does Jerry regularly call out the religionistas on their BS, he has the credibility to back up everything he says. He also suffered so that we might be spared, e.g. by embarking on the Bible and Sophisticated Theology projects. Oh wait, that makes Jerry sound like someone else!

    2. Indeed. Further, as a law student, Son of Hempenstein (not a secular Jew) was involved with the Innocence Project, and now that he has passed the Pennsylvania bar, he hopes to get involved with them again. None of this has been motivated out of any religious impetus.

  4. The Rev. writes: “Christians are motivated to fight injustice because it was a completely innocent Jesus who was nailed to a cross…”

    Why not fight injustice simply because injustice is wrong? And if Jesus had not been an innocent who was wrongly punished, does that mean that Christians wouldn’t bother to fight injustice?

  5. Pastors, when opining on subjects philosophical, rarely have anything helpful to contribute. Should we ever expect something more?

    1. Occasionally. I went to a Unitarian church last month because the website promoted the pastor as a Zen Buddhist Master and I am in my second year of a woo-less meditation practice. I couldn’t help but check it out as my curiosity factor was off the charts. He was impressive. My ears were tuned for delusion speak, but there was none. It was exclusively about what Walter Kaufman suggested religion could be at its best: promoting aspirations to live better. I think I will go back but with higher expectations.

  6. Did God really want JFK to die horribly with a bullet through his neck? Also, I wonder whether the US would have avoided involvement in the Viet Nam war had Kennedy not been killed.

  7. What do you mean by “JFK’s failure with the Bay of Pigs invasion”? Was it not initiated by a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group Brigade 2506 (rogue faction of the CIA), and Kennedy subsequently did not allow a second air strike? Was it not basically Eisenhower’s CIA campaign to train and equip a guerilla army of Cuban exiles? I don’t see where Kennedy failed.

    1. JFK authorized it to proceed, and was later mature enough to take responsibility for it.

      “Shortly after his inauguration, in February 1961, President Kennedy authorized the invasion plan.” from

      JFK:”But I will say to you, Mr. Vanocur, that I have said as much as I feel can be usefully said by me in regard to the events of the past few days. Further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I’m the responsible officer of the Government–and that is quite obvious-but merely because I do not believe that such a discussion would benefit us during the present difficult situation.”

      1. That looks like a “the buck stops with me” statement, but was he actually informed of the plan?

        But he did refuse to authorize a second air raid, did he not?

        Shortly after his inauguration… had he had enough time to study the whole plan among all the other things he had to study upon acceding to the post?

        1. You seem to be confusing “responsible” and “solely responsible”.

          Indeed, JFK felt he’d been misled by the CIA and the generals and came to regret his authorization, but he understood that he’d been in a unique position to avert a fiasco and the fact that he had failed to do so was a black mark on his presidency.

          And in an era of “Mistakes were made” and “No one could have anticipated” and ünknown unknowns” BS excuses, I wouldn’t be so dismissive of “Buck stops here” statements of accountability.

          1. I wasn’t at all being dismissive of “buck stop here” statements of accountability. It seems to be a case of “responsible but not guilty” sort of situation.

            He did ultimately prevent a fiasco and possibly much, much worse when he didn’t authorize a second air raid. By that time, I think he had had time to take full measure of the implications and likely unintended consequences, so the black mark seems pretty grey to me. 🙂

            1. We’re talking about the attempted overthrow of the government of another country at a cost of many human lives, I think if “implications and likely unintended consequences” isn’t part of the pre-work, then the President f*cked up.

              Not sure why you’re more defensive about this than JFK himself was. He understood that he blew it on this one.

            2. Per historian Robert Dalleck, JFK remarked to aides regarding the Bay of Pigs fiasco, “How could I have been so stupid!?” (As to listen to the CIA, military)

              If I correctly recall, in the above-referenced press conference JFK quoted the old saw, “Success has a hundred(?) fathers; Failure is an orphan.”

  8. But terribly shocking tragedies can have unexpectedly good results.

    One of the big problems with comparing Jesus’ death to Kennedy’s assassination — and blending them together into a theodicy apologetic — is that one of them justifies doing evil before the fact and the other rationalizes finding good after the fact. That’s a critical distinction.

    Looking for a silver lining in a big dark cloud is not just human nature but a perfectly reasonable way to adjust and improve a bad situation. Ok, shit happened. Now what? How can we move ahead from this? Look for hidden benefits, or new opportunities, or perhaps lessons learned. How might it have been worse? How can we prevent it in the future? Focus on the positive.

    Nothing wrong with doing this — in fact, it’s actually very wise from a psychological and social point of view. Make lemonade out of lemons and all that …

    But a theodicy isn’t an after-the-fact attempt to deal with a bad situation. It’s a rationalization for why the situation was CHOSEN ON PURPOSE for the best possible result by a wise and loving Parent. We may not like the Tough Love, but by God it was necessary for the greater good in the long run. It cleared out a toxin, it forced a benefit, it made us stronger, and — if nothing else — it gives the faithful an opportunity to strengthen their faith through an invincible attitude of humble and abject Thy-Will-Be-Done submission.

    Make excuses for your abuser and all that…

    Those two approaches are not the same sort of thing. Once again the religious are co-opting the true-but-trivial common sense behind finding or creating some good after a tragedy and confusing it with the extraordinary-but-false habit of assuming that the tragedy had to happen for the purpose of our doing this. Sneaky and creepy at the same time.

    1. Precisely – if bad things have to happen so that good can occur, then it would make more sense that those that do evil were never born – maybe prevented through contraception or abortion (what would they say to that?) or even better, god would imbue their soul with kindness so they were born good.

      And what of all the people in Afghanistan and other religiously totalitarian regimes who suffer day by day? Why should they and their children suffer? Why should African babies suffer from wars, famine and disease?

      I read this article last weekend that profoundly captures the desperation of boat people trying to come to Australia. I am so thankful for having the luck to be born in a secular nation.

  9. Further, I know the people who founded the Innocence Project,

    Brinton is lying for his gods. Also this:

    “But the followers of Jesus Christ now make up the world’s largest religious group, with more than 2 billion adherents.”

    If you want to lump, but then Abrahamists are the largest group. [ ]

    But if you want to split, and consider major groups within historically more than 36 000 different christianist sects, nominal catholics are beaten by seculars. [Ibid]

    In actuality many of the nominal religious are actually seculars, but the religious keeps their statistics rigged. So the difference is even larger.

    1. “But the followers of Jesus Christ now make up the world’s largest religious group, with more than 2 billion adherents.” -Brinton conveniently neglects to mention that Christians only make up a third of the total.

  10. Brinton’s article sounds not fully thought out. However, I think he’s right (in the sense stopped clocks are) that Kennedy’s death did allow quicker passage of more extensive civil rights acts, for two reasons. First, and perhaps less importantly, many people tended to rally around Kennedy and ideas that could be attributed to him. Secondly, master politician Johnson was now president, able to apply political force and rewards better than Kennedy ever could.

  11. Brighton is a masterful theodist: at the drop of a hat he’s able to make shit up and simultaneously appear perfectly rational to the average Joe (or Jolene if you like) walkin’ about the countryside w/o a straight jacket.

  12. Every year at this time we are treated to yet another barrage of establishment “history” trying to fit the square peg in the round hole: There was only one assassin, and he was Lee Harvey Oswald. The fact that over 60% of the public still does not believe that doesn’t seem to matter to the moulders of thought. This year, being the 50th anniversary of the assassination, the b.s. storm was thicker than usual. One of the first articles debunking the lone gunman theory was Mark Lane’s pamphlet, “Was Oswald Innocent: A Lawyer’s Brief for Oswald,” published in 1963 by the National Guardian. It still resonates with truth after these five decades.

    1. Oh, God – not this again. Far more than 60% of the American public believes in God – do you therefore conclude that God exists?

  13. One prominent example of a person who did not leverage a tragedy into a cause well is law commentator Nancy Grace.

    Her fiance was tragically shot and the perpetrator let off easy on a technicality, which inspired Ms. Grace to become first a prosecutor and then a legal reporter. Her career has been marked by a whole series of incidents of supreme unprofessionalism characterized by an inability to control and/or channel her vindictive rage.

    I’m a bit tempted to say that without the Kennedy assassination we would have been spared Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Kennedy”.

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