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NONVIOLENT ACTIVIST: The Magazine of the War Resisters League

May-June 2005:
Building Counter-Recruitment
Raytheon, Merchant of Death
Caterpillar in Palestine
Argentina’s Recovered Factories
Elmer Maas, War Resister

War Resisters League
The Nonviolent Activist

Elmer Maas, War Resister
1935 - 2005

By Anna Brown

As the dark of night blossomed into dawn on May 8, Elmer Maas died peacefully in his sleep. Maas, who had been a long-time member of both the War Resisters League’s Executive Committee and the Board of Directors at the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute, was 69 years old. He was on retreat with the Atlantic Life Community at the Voluntown, CT, facility that once housed the Community for Nonviolent Action.

Elmer and Plowshares movement co-founder, poet-priest Dan Berrigan, at a vigil at New York City’s Union Square after September 11, 2001. (At right: former WRL National Office Director Melissa Jameson.) Photo: Ed Hedemann

When the news of his death roared through the peace community, I turned immediately to the writings of Etty Hillesum. Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who was interned in Westerbork and gassed in Auschwitz, wrote that while in Westerbork, she was determined to be the “thinking heart of the barracks.” It struck me that Elmer had plowed the same hard ground as Etty: He was the thinking heart of our time, a time tortured by war and made insane by a penchant for nuclear weapons.

Maas, a Kansas City native, was a brilliant student of music, philosophy and physics who earned advanced degrees from the University of Chicago and New York University. His days as a college professor commenced at Kendall College in Evanston, IL, and continued, from 1962 until 1968, at Pennsylvania’s Juniata College. In a 1963 interview in the Juniata student newspaper, Elmer conveyed what many who met him later in life quickly discerned about the genius of his mind: That the best student is one who plumbs the depths of multiple disciplines and is able to make connections between disparate fields of knowledge. His intellectual affinity for the broadly based was incarnated in his Great Epochs course, in which one exam question asked: “To what extent could the capacity for creative expression constitute a requisite for heroism?”

In T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” an epic poem that Elmer delighted in contemplating with his students, one line has the potential to shatter the confines of human comfort and complacency: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Far from “measuring out his life with coffee spoons” like Eliot’s protagonist, Elmer allowed his academic studies to be interrupted constantly by the claims of those who suffered grievously in the world—and then he acted on these claims whole-heartedly.

Deeply moved by the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, he co-founded the Student Committee on Racial Equality, which confronted racial and economic disparity; organized students and participated in the Selma march and Montgomery voter registration drives; and began his life-long commitment to protest all forms of warfare. In 1966, a photograph of Elmer carefully cradling the head of a comrade who had been beaten badly in a civil rights march was published in The New York Times and in Life magazine. It was a picture that captured the hearts of many but also exacted the cost of conscience and commitment: His professorial appointment was not renewed at Juniata following the spring semester of 1968. (This past March, however, Elmer joyfully attended a reunion at Juniata celebrating 40 years of resistance to racism.)

As Elmer’s good friend Anne Montgomery recalled after his death, “The civil rights marches of the ’60s taught him the price that the powerless pay for freedom and justice. He never turned back from that struggle, which led him from the security of college teaching to part-time jobs and full-time peace work. The short list of involvements included the Peoples’ Voice Café in New York City, the War Resisters League [and] the Kairos and Atlantic Life Communities.”

In the decade after 1968, Elmer’s steadfast engagement in nonviolence and resistance deepened to a radical point of no return, which is to say “no return” to a world in the grip of nuclear madness. In the words of poet-priest Daniel Berrigan, “[T]his was the decade [the 1970s] of the Long and Lugubrious Sleep” for most—but also when resistance communities “kept watch, were alert to the signs of the times, were arrested numerous times and maintained a presence at the Pentagon and the Blight House.”

Elmer’s radical resistance incarnated itself in the first Plowshares action at the General Electric weapons plant in King of Prussia, PA, in 1980. He joined seven others who were committed to make manifest the imperative of the prophets Isaiah and Micah: to beat swords into plowshares. For the act of hammering on a Mark 12A nuclear warhead and pouring blood on documents, the Plowshares Eight spent 18 months in prison. Elmer’s participation in the Plowshares movement instantiated itself in two more direct actions, in 1982 and 1989, at a Trident submarine in Groton, CT; beyond those actions, he spent countless hours preparing others for a full two decades and counting of Plowshares actions. In addition, those three decades found Elmer placing his body on the line and spending many a night in jail for acts of resistance sponsored by the Jonah House, Kairos, Atlantic Life Peace communities and the War Resisters League—and yes, there were the three days he spent in a Honduran jail for an action at a military base in that country.

Despite Elmer’s full engagement in acts of political resistance, his radiance and richness never exhausted themselves in those efforts,far-reaching as they were. When he was directing the Kairos-Plowshares New York office on 138th Street, his loving hospitality and gourmet meals were gratefully accepted by many. While feasting on such a meal, guests would often be treated to the sublime sound of Elmer’s piano playing. A talented composer, Elmer was also a former member of the Peoples’ Voice Café and the People’s Music Network. He wrote the score for a musical comedy, “The Insurance Company,” and for an opera, “Dusk Leaves.” He served as the choir director at the Valley Lodge, a retirement community on New York’s Upper West Side, but what remains embedded in the hearts of many folks there is the fact that he often worked one-on-one with aspiring musicians after each weekly rehearsal and rarely turned down a request to perform at a wedding or funeral.

In the last years of his life, Elmer worked full-tilt in an effort to offer the first classes of a curriculum in nonviolence that would take seven years for students to complete. (After all, how could they master the thousands of books, videos and musical scores that Elmer had already integrated in his own mind!) Art Laffin, a fellow Plowshares activist, describes the “curriculum project” as “an interdisciplinary curriculum focusing on three areas designed to [reveal] the roots of the U.S. empire and its roots in previous historical periods; to unmask the web of unrestrained power, violence and secrecy of the national/nuclear state; and to trace the movements of liberation and acts of conscience and nonviolent resistance that represent the hopes of freeing ourselves from the bondage of empire.”

Those who were intimidated by the project’s magnitude needed only to meet Elmer once. Upon such a meeting, they would be instantly disarmed by his wit and wisdom; would be enveloped within his deep capacity for comradeship and friendship; and would be carried aloft by his remarkable ability to delight and affirm whomever he met along the path of peacemaking. And so, to Elmer Mass, our radiant light, our thinking heart and our noble maker of peace, I proclaim in gratitude: ¡Presente!

There was a funeral mass for Elmer at the Catholic Worker’s Mary House in New York City on May 14. At press time, the Kairos Community was planning a memorial service for late this summer or early fall; for information, call (201)264-4424.

Anna Brown is assistant professor of political science and director of the social justice program at Saint Peter’s College and a member of the Kairos community.


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