Fifty years have passed since President John F. Kennedy was killed on November 22, 1963. He traveled to Dallas to heal a split in the Democratic party and lost his life when he was shot in an open-air limousine. A well-intentioned mission ended in death, and the world changed forever.
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.
Not everyone will agree that good came out of JFK’s assassination, just as there is no unanimity about the value of Christ’s death. 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.
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.
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.
Image courtesy of Cliff.