Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy (Columbia Studies in Contemporary American History)

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In response to the massive bloodshed that defined the twentieth century, American religious radicals developed a modern form of nonviolent protest, one that combined Christian principles with new uses of mass media. Greatly influenced by the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi, these "acts of conscience" included sit-ins, boycotts, labor strikes, and conscientious objection to war.

Beginning with World War I and ending with the ascendance of Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph Kip Kosek traces the impact of A. J. Muste, Richard Gregg, and other radical Christian pacifists on American democratic theory and practice. These dissenters found little hope in the secular ideologies of Wilsonian Progressivism, revolutionary Marxism, and Cold War liberalism, all of which embraced organized killing at one time or another. The example of Jesus, they believed, demonstrated the immorality and futility of such violence under any circumstance and for any cause. Yet the theories of Christian nonviolence are anything but fixed. For decades, followers have actively reinterpreted the nonviolent tradition, keeping pace with developments in politics, technology, and culture.

Tracing the rise of militant nonviolence across a century of industrial conflict, imperialism, racial terror, and international warfare, Kosek recovers radical Christians' remarkable stance against the use of deadly force, even during World War II and other seemingly just causes. His research sheds new light on an interracial and transnational movement that posed a fundamental, and still relevant, challenge to the American political and religious mainstream.

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Joseph Kip Kosek is associate professor of American studies at George Washington University.

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Introduction

This book traces the history of a radical religious vanguard. The guiding principle of this group, which I call "Christian nonviolence," has long been dismissed as marginal, eccentric, or impossibly saintly, but I take a more sophisticated approach. For these rebels, the example of Jesus showed the immorality and futility of organized violence in any circumstance and for any cause. Yet Christian nonviolence, for them, was not a matter of fixed dogma, but rather an active process of interpreting religion in the modern world. They believed that their uniquely gruesome era required new political formations and new ways of thinking. The Christian nonviolent tradition, by putting the problem of violence at the center of its theory and practice, offers an alternative model of political action and an alternative history of the twentieth century.

"I... believe," the radical Christian pacifist A. J. Muste wrote during World War II, "... that in the degree that anybody is any good it is because he has both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in himself and somehow effects a creative synthesis of them." Muste's acute awareness of the relationship between high ideals and practical tactics suggests the multidimensional qualities of Christian nonviolent "acts of conscience," which ranged from sit-ins to conscientious objection to, sometimes, mere interracial socializing. At one level, these were extreme existential "acts" that broke sharply with the law, social convention, and even the practitio­ner's own instinct for self-preservation. In another way, though, no in­stance of nonviolent action was a solely individual affair. These acts also contained a ritual dimension that fostered camaraderie and discipline in realms removed from ordinary life. This was never more true than during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955--1956, when boycotters assembled in the sacred space of black churches to attend training workshops that simulated the experience of boarding integrated buses. Here, as they pretended to be peaceful riders or angry white supremacists, they rehearsed both their individual courage and their vision of a racially harmonious world. Those training sessions spoke as well to a third connotation of the word acts. Unlike antimodern pacifists such as the Amish, Muste and his associates turned nonviolence into a theatrical "act," a calculated performance attuned to the sympathies of audiences, especially those created by new forms of mass media. Christian nonviolent "acts of conscience," then, were not expressions of pure sainthood, nor were they shallow publicity stunts that cynically used faith as a cover for more important things. The existential, ritual, and spectacular dimensions of nonviolence all op­erated simultaneously. Acts of conscience were at once individual and social, at once sincerely spiritual and self-consciously spectacular, at once Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

The virtuosos of Christian nonviolence in this story first coalesced during World War I in an antiwar organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). The Fellowship attracted talent out of all proportion to its small size. The roster of people who were, at one time or another, leaders in the FOR reveals a hidden history of American political dissent. At the head of the list stands Muste, dubbed "the No. 1 U.S. pacifist" by Time magazine in 1939. He helped guide opposition to every major American military campaign from World War I to Vietnam, while also building industrial unionism well before the 1930s and promoting racial justice well before the 1960s. Norman Thomas, the head of the Socialist Party in the United States for decades, spent pivotal early years in the FOR, as did Reinhold Niebuhr, who later became the most important American theologian of the twentieth century and a severe critic of pacifism. Nowhere was the Fellowship's effect more crucial, though, than in the civil rights movement. March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) director James Farmer, and James Lawson, whose leadership of the 1960 Nashville sit-ins helped spark the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were all products of this effervescent Christian nonviolent culture.

Some of the Fellowship's less prominent names became important at crucial moments in history. Gordon Hirabayashi joined the group as a college student in 1940. Two years later, he refused to register for the Japanese American internment program, eventually challenging the constitutionality of internment before the Supreme Court. Richard Gregg, a Harvard-trained lawyer, abandoned his career to go to India and learn from Mohandas Gandhi; he later became the most important early theorist of militant nonviolence in the United States. After the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. cited Gregg's The Power of Non-Violence as one of his most important influences. George Houser, a theological student who went to jail rather than register for the World War II draft, helped start CORE and later led the American Committee on Africa, the most vigorous American anticolonial organization of the 1950s and 1960s. Surprisingly, the American right can also find Christian nonviolence in its political DNA. J. B. Matthews, a virulent anticommunist and adviser to Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, was the executive secretary of the FOR back in the 1930s, before his drastic political rebirth as a Red hunter. Socialism, liberalism, the labor movement, anticolonialism, civil liberties, civil rights, and even conservatism: Fellowship leaders, or former leaders, influenced the major political traditions and social movements of modern American democracy. Some of these figures eventually repudiated their pacifist inclinations entirely, yet all were shaped by their encounters with Christian nonviolence. This tradition, far from a mere affectation of the 1960s, is essential to any serious attempt to understand the nation's history and politics.

These radicals also developed a robust global outlook that reached beyond the borders of the United States. Violence, after all, was a transnational scourge. This book begins with some American war relief workers in England during the First World War and ends with A. J. Muste's 1967 visit to Hanoi at the age of eighty-two. In between, radical Christian pacifists journeyed to Nicaragua to protest American imperialism and anti-imperialist guerrilla warfare, to the Soviet Union to investigate the progress of the Communist experiment, and, most importantly, to India to evaluate the growing independence movement and its most remarkable leader, Gandhi. Certainly the Fellowship leaders paid special attention to American military action, American class conflict, and American racial terror. However, their condemnation of all organized violence and their relentless search for alternatives to it necessitated a persistent attention to the whole world, an attention far removed from the usual stereotypes of pacifism as insular and retiring. The American FOR itself was part of a global organization with branches in many countries and was connected as well to a somewhat autonomous International Fellowship of Reconciliation. These radicals tried to imagine a transnational spiritual "fellowship" that would override the more parochial demands of nation, race, and class.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation was distinctive in combining religion, absolute pacifism, and a broad field of social action. Parallel peace organizations that emerged out of the Great War, such as the War Resisters League and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, had more secular orientations and focused more specifically on the problem of international war, at least in their early years. Other groups, such as the American Friends Service Committee and the Methodist Federation for Social Service, were affiliated with specific Christian denominations. The Socialist Party, whose membership overlapped extensively with that of the FOR, never put nonviolence at the center of its program. The post--World War II peace organizations, such as the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, were all latecomers, as was the nonviolent civil rights movement and the New Left. Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker had little influence before the 1940s. The Fellowship encouraged many of these more recent efforts, but it was the original American proponent of mod­ern Christian nonviolence.

Despite pacifism's historical importance, it appears in political discourse today primarily as an epithet. Few conservatives, liberals, or radicals categorically oppose the use of violence to achieve justice or security, however much they might object to a specific war, revolution, or coup d'état. Most ethical thinking about organized violence follows some version of "just war" theory, which holds that armed force is morally legitimate under certain conditions and in accord with certain rules of conduct. This approach can hardly comprehend Muste's sweeping statement at a 1940 Quaker meeting: "If I can't love Hitler, I can't love at all." The pragmatist philosopher Sidney Hook, for one, thought that such a declaration made "a mockery of sane discourse." No wonder, then, that some political analysts have recently suggested that the threat of radical Islam demands a revival of Reinhold Niebuhr's tough-minded Cold War liberalism, with its reliance on the judicious use of armed force in the service of democracy. Violence is regrettable, these new "realists" explain, but surely it's better than a quixotic love for the terrorists.

The "fighting faith" of Niebuhr and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had its strengths, and any awareness of history would be valuable in counteracting our nation's current political myopia. However, the "tough" liberals of the mid-twentieth century and their more recent apologists ignore the Christian nonviolent tradition's most profound insight. The problem of the twentieth century, the pacifists c...

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Book Description Columbia University Press, United States, 2011. Paperback. Condition: New. Language: English. Brand new Book. In response to the massive bloodshed that defined the twentieth century, American religious radicals developed a modern form of nonviolent protest, one that combined Christian principles with new uses of mass media. Greatly influenced by the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi, these "acts of conscience" included sit-ins, boycotts, labor strikes, and conscientious objection to war. Beginning with World War I and ending with the ascendance of Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph Kip Kosek traces the impact of A. J. Muste, Richard Gregg, and other radical Christian pacifists on American democratic theory and practice. These dissenters found little hope in the secular ideologies of Wilsonian Progressivism, revolutionary Marxism, and Cold War liberalism, all of which embraced organized killing at one time or another. The example of Jesus, they believed, demonstrated the immorality and futility of such violence under any circumstance and for any cause. Yet the theories of Christian nonviolence are anything but fixed. For decades, followers have actively reinterpreted the nonviolent tradition, keeping pace with developments in politics, technology, and culture.Tracing the rise of militant nonviolence across a century of industrial conflict, imperialism, racial terror, and international warfare, Kosek recovers radical Christians' remarkable stance against the use of deadly force, even during World War II and other seemingly just causes. His research sheds new light on an interracial and transnational movement that posed a fundamental, and still relevant, challenge to the American political and religious mainstream. Seller Inventory # AAH9780231144193

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