During her senior year at Smith College, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite M.Div.’74, Ph.D.’80 and other students were meeting in an auditorium discussing whether to go on strike in protest against the Vietnam War, when a student ran down the center aisle frantically screaming: “They’re shooting students at Kent State!”
In that moment, Thistlethwaite’s fear of being kicked out of college because of the proposed strike “paled before the fear of the National Guard shooting students.” The planned strike suddenly had the potential to become a life-or-death confrontation.
Fortunately, the strike was both peaceful and successful.
“We actually shut down the school,” Thistlethwaite says in a tone that reveals the long-term influence of her early activism. After classes were suspended, sympathetic professors taught in a “strike school” that she helped organize.
“The success of this nonviolent direct action has empowered me from that day to this,” she says. “I regard it as the most important learning of my life. I learned that I could resist in a nonviolent way and, in partnership with others, help bring a horrible conflict to an end.”
Today, Thistlethwaite, 58, has made her position as president of Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) a platform for writing and speaking out against war, an institution she calls “one of the greatest moral evils on the face of the earth.”
One of just a handful of women in the United States heading a major seminary, Thistlethwaite grew up keenly aware of the consequences of war.
Her grandfather, Earl Jenkins, was seriously debilitated by mustard gas in World War I, and her father, Richard H. Brooks, became “very emotionally withdrawn” and “often very angry” after service in World War II.
“My father dropped dead of a heart attack at age 55,” she says. “My grandfather would just wake up in the middle of the night screaming. Sometimes he thought that shells were falling around him.”
In River Edge, N.J., a suburb tucked in the shadow of Manhattan, Thistlethwaite knew boys from River Dell High who never returned from Vietnam, and others who came back “shell-shocked.” As an adult, Thistlethwaite concluded that “War is just the farthest away from God you can get. People who experience war, even if they live through it, are never the same.”