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Fordham seniors will dance on war ship; pacifists cry foul


Jesuit Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, president of the Jesuit university in El Salvador, told me four years before he and his colleagues were assassinated that the purpose of a Jesuit university is to promote God's reign of peace and justice, but to do that it must denounce the anti-reign of war and injustice. At Jesuit-run Fordham University in the Bronx, where I have been teaching this past semester, the goal is much lower -- and apparently the students have learned the lesson.

Fordham's senior class has chosen to hold its Senior Ball May 14 on board the USS Intrepid, a carrier-turned-museum filled with bombs and bombers, docked in the Hudson River just off Manhattan's 42nd Street. Their decision and the largely silent support of the faculty, administration and Jesuit community offer a strong symbol of the times.

A propaganda arm of the Pentagon, the Intrepid War Museum complex proudly displays nuclear missiles, attack and bomber jets, and a destroyer that shelled Vietnamese villages during the Vietnam war. It also proudly exhibits U.S. weapons used to bomb hundreds of thousands of human beings to death during the Gulf War. Its sole purpose is to glorify war.

The Intrepid exhibits an A-4 Skyhawk, a fighter jet used by the Kuwaiti military that killed many people during the Gulf War; a Tomahawk cruise missile capable of carrying nuclear weapons; the USS Growler submarine, one of the first ships to carry nuclear weapons; and in the plaza, an Army M-42 self-propelled antiaircraft artillery vehicle and M-60 Patton tank. During the Vietnam war, planes from the USS Intrepid dropped thousands of tons of bombs on the people of Vietnam and Laos.

Throughout its 15-year existence, the Intrepid War Museum has received millions of dollars in government subsidies, including hundreds of thousands of dollars from the financially strapped Board of Education, and $4.5 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, funds needed for low-income housing for the poor, were used to renovate the pier where the Intrepid is berthed.

As one of the Fordham students on the Senior Week planning committee recently admitted, the Intrepid is "a symbol of killing and death."

Yet instead of calling for its closure, the seniors plan to dance around the weapons. The scene conjures up biblical images of dancing and playing around the golden calf.

Why have Fordham seniors chosen to party at this symbol of destruction? The nine members of the Senior Week Committee acknowledge they never once considered the nature of the Intrepid Museum before they deposited $25,000 for the party. They were merely excited about dancing on a ship. In the last few weeks, heated editorials in the student newspaper and a furious discussion at an open dialogue session have shed new light on the upcoming event. Still, most seniors and faculty members believe it's only a party and not worth getting upset about.

Every Good Friday for the last 15 years, thousands of Pax Christi members have marched along 42nd Street to pray and protest the ongoing sufferings of Christ as he dies in today's wars and violence. These modern day Stations of the Cross end at the Intrepid, where some of us commit civil disobedience calling for its closure. This year, over 1,500 marched and 32 were arrested, including Jesuit Frs. Dan Berrigan and Ned Murphy, Fordham philosophy professor Jim Marsh, several Fordham graduate and undergraduate students and myself.

Most Jesuits, faculty and students, see no problem with a party at the pro-war museum. As one Jesuit theologian at Fordham put it, "We're all Niebuhrians here. Coercion and war are necessary and justifiable. Jesus' ethic can't be applied socially. He never meant it to be. So what's wrong with a party on the Intrepid?"

"My most stressful moral investigation concerning the ball is deciding on a dress," one Fordham senior wrote. "Does this make me shallow? No, just able to have a good time."

With the ROTC training students on campus to carry weapons and kill, it's easy to see why so few would care about a Senior Ball on the Intrepid. In such an environment, the Jesuit vision of "the faith that does justice" and the gospel command to "love your enemies" are easily dismissed.

A few lone voices continue to raise questions. "I hope that future Senior Committees realize that many students at Fordham have problems with death, torture and destruction in the name of military action," senior Eric Montroy wrote in the student newspaper.

"I am deeply offended, intellectually, aesthetically, morally, politically and religiously by the Senior Class' decision to hold its Senior Ball on the Intrepid, ship of death, symbol of empire and celebration of all that is most evil in the U.S. military industrial complex," Professor Jim Marsh wrote.

In the end, the seniors' selection shows not just bad taste or moral blindness, but the university's failure to educate its students in the Jesuit/Christian vision. Some Fordham undergrads now speak of holding every Senior Ball for years to come on the Intrepid.

Meanwhile, others plan to hold a vigil and carry banners on the night of the ball calling for the museum's closing, an end to war and pursuit of gospel nonviolence.

One can only ponder what the martyred Ellacuria would say. Not to mention Jesus.

Jesuit Fr. John Dear is author of Peace Behind Bars (Sheed & Ward). He will move this summer to Belfast for his Jesuit tertianship year.

National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 1997