Today sees the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in Dallas, Texas. Others can comment more informatively than me on its impact in the United States. There is however among Michael Ramsey’s writings a little window into the impact it had in the UK: a sermon that Ramsey preached at a memorial service for Kennedy at St Paul’s cathedral on 1st December 1963. It was published in a now scarce volume of collected sermons and papers, his Canterbury Essays and Addresses (1964).
As one might expect, there is much in it that would have been appropriate in a funeral sermon for any murder victim. ‘In a moment of madness the man was done to death’; what reason could there be for such waste, Ramsey asked ? ‘Men of faith, of every faith and none, find that question piercing them like a knife.’ The answer even to such evil lay for Ramsey in the cross and resurrection of Christ, where ‘God can turn suffering into a triumph of love and sacrifice’.
But this wasn’t just any funeral or any murder victim; and Ramsey’s tribute to Kennedy’s particular life reveals something of his own political and ethical priorities. Kennedy had ‘touched something universal in the human heart’. A war hero, tenacious in the pursuit of a cause yet patient with those who disagreed, youthful beyond his age and surrounded by an apparently happy and settled family life: there was much in Ramsey’s idea of Kennedy that he found appealing. But it was the causes that JFK espoused that were close to Ramsey’s own: ‘peace, freedom, the service of prosperous nations to nations where there is poverty and hunger, the partnership of every race in civil rights.’
Later historians have critically examined Kennedy’s real record in all these areas. For Ramsey in December 1963, speaking from within the same sorrow he intuited in the hearts of his hearers, JFK modelled a liberal Christian politics that matched his own.