Blogs > HNN > Tom Cornell reviews Ira Chernus' American Nonvioloence: The History of an Idea (0rbis Books, 2004)

Oct 19, 2004 12:37 pm


Tom Cornell reviews Ira Chernus' American Nonvioloence: The History of an Idea (0rbis Books, 2004)




Tom Cornell is a veteran of the Catholic Worker Movement, former national secretary of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, a founder of Pax Christi, U.S.A., and the only Catholic living or dead who served as lieutenant to both A.J. Muste and Dorothy Day. He worked closely also with Barbara Deming, Thich Nhat Hahn, and through Andrew Young, Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives at Peter Maurin Farm, Marlboro, New York and lectures throughout the U.S. and abroad.




Ira Chernus, professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has accomplished a major work in this slender, clearly written volume, tracing a theory and practice as it has been molded, mostly by religious and some secular radicals, all of them American but Mohandas K. Gandhi.

From the Introduction: “The heritage of U.S, nonviolence thought is actually a heritage for the whole world. Its roots go back to the Anabaptist Protestants in Central Europe... and to Quakers in England. But the United States can claim credit for leading the world to a new idea: society can be permanently improved when people band together in organized groups to work actively and nonviolently for social change. ...The ideas of Tolstoy and Gandhi came back to the United States, where they inspired many others, who often did not know that ideas they ascribed to Tolstoy and Gandhi had their origins in this country.” Professor Chernus does not venture a definition of nonviolence, other than to state that his is a study of the principled sort, the nonviolence of the strong, as Gandhi put it, a principled nonviolence based on logical arguments and religious or moral conviction.

Again, from his Introduction: “The following chapters reconstruct the logical arguments expressed or implied in each individual’s or movement’s words. Each chapter explains the individual’s or group’s basic world view and values and shows how they led logically to a commitment to nonviolence... sometimes in ways the individuals or groups never quite achieved or even attempted.”

Chapters follow on the Anabaptists, Quakers, William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolitionists, Henry Davis Thoreau, the anarchists of the late 19th to mid 20th century, World War I as a turning point, Mahatma Gandhi, Reinhold Niebuhr, A.J. Muste, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barbara Deming and Thich Nhat Hahn.

The Anabaptists’ aim was personal conversion and moral perfection in a church of the saved set apart from the sinful world. Abstention from war and military service because of Jesus’ teaching of nonresistance to evil cost them persecution in country after country, including this one. Sin was personal, the cultivation of virtue the life’s work of the believer.

The early Quakers aimed at transforming the social order to advance God’s plan for human history. They hoped to influence, if not control, the nation’s political institutions. Nevertheless, as John Woolman taught, the approach to social change was to be indirect, through the conversion of hearts one at a time, overcoming the power of sin to attain spiritual perfection. However, Woolman located sin primarily in social and political institutions.

Excellent chapters follow on William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolitionist movement, the nonviolence movement addressing slavery and racism, and Garrison’s eventual abandonment of nonviolence.

Chernus notes that Henry David Thoreau did not attempt to bring about social change, in fact mistrusted those who would. He notes the irony that Thoreau may have inadvertently discovered a principle of social change, that if enough people refuse to participate in an evil system, they might “clog the machinery” and create a better society by freeing themselves from unquestioning obedience, the principle of noncooperation.

He then turns to the secular anarchist tradition, up to the mid- 20th century, clarifying a most misunderstood line of thought and practice marked by egalitarianism, freedom, direct action, mutual aid and localism. Chernus centers on Emma Goldman and Murray Bookchin. It is easy to see the link between anarchism and nonviolence, especially in the emphasis on non-coercion.

The Progressive movement has its tangled place. Although secular, it had its influence upon the Social Gospel movement, which in turn moved nonviolence adherents to greater social responsibility.

World War I gave great impetus to anti-war sentiment and gave rise to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the War Resisters League, a secular counterpart to the FOR. It also envigorated the democratic socialist movement. WW I also forced Christian pacifists to begin to ask whether a mass nonviolence movement has to be tied to religion, or to the Christian faith.

The challenge of Reinhold Niebuhr to what he saw as a sentimental and unrealistic Christian pacifism gets a sensitive and careful chapter. Niebhur had been the executive secretary of the FOR in the 1920s, but abandoned pacifism over questions of social justice, especially labor rights, claiming the need for coercive action for the redistribution of wealth. It was his project also to wean the Protestant clergy, largely influenced by the FOR, away from pacifism in the face of the Nazi-fascist threat as it gathered, toward what he called Christian realism. Chernus sees in Niebuhr’s theological work, emphasizing the darker side of human nature, especially as it is manifested in human organizations (Moral Man, Immoral Society, 1932), the logical groundwork for much of the Cold War, something Niebuhr could not have foreseen.

A.J. Muste (1885-1967) was unquestionably the pre-eminent American pacifist of the 20th century. “In the subtlety of his hard-headed political analyses, he could match any political scientist of his day.” “His true goal was to promote the practice of nonviolence by blending the personal and societal dimensions. His greatest strength as a thinker, writer and leader was his ability to explore that blend in all its subtle complexity. As a psychologist, sociologist, and political scientist of nonviolence he was probably unequaled in the U.S. tradition.” A.J had been ordained to the Dutch Reformed clergy in 1908, maintained his credentials in the New York Presbytery, and was a member of the Society of Friends, Quakers. He spent some years in the Marxist movement and returned to the church on the eve of WW II.

Chernus offers a key to A.J.’s thinking: “Muste staked his own work and his own life on one overpowering insight: ‘Life is built upon a central truth... God is love, love is of God. Love is the central thing in the universe....’ Love... is a cosmic force, which people not only sense but participate in whenever they act lovingly.... If God is love, then to have a relationship with God is to link oneself with that cosmic force.... Because God is Love, there is ‘an inexorable moral order,’ which dictates that in any endeavor good results come only from acts of love: ‘the law that evil can be overcome only by its opposite, i.e. by a dynamic, sacrificial goodness, is so basic to the structure of the universe.’”

By the end of his life, the question was unavoidable: Is this any longer an adequate basis for building a strong, enduring nonviolence movement in the United States?”

Now to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. This reviewer is too close to the subject to be objective. Hardly anyone gets the Catholic Worker right who has not spent at least a couple of years living it. Chernus fixates the movement in its formative years and supposes that Dorothy Day’s asceticism is typical of Catholic Workers. The shifts in worldwide Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council, 1963-’65 have affected the CW too. An exaggerated dualism has given way to a more incarnational theology and praxis. Dorothy’s ascesis was never the style for most of us. Dorothy’s organizational ability-- many writers allude to it-- is a myth. Dorothy could barely organize her own kitchen. She inspired others to do it. Dorothy’s craft was journalism. She practiced it almost every day of her life. She was also very close to God, and we all knew it, as cantankerous, arbitrary and headstrong as she sometimes was. We obeyed her because we loved her.

It is really a simple matter: Catholic Workers in over one hundred and fifty houses and farms around the U.S. and abroad practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in direct action, in a spirit and discipline of evangelical nonviolence, living communally and in voluntary poverty. They critique contemporary society for its materialism, its over-reliance on bureaucracy and technology, and challenge the legitimacy of governmental institutions especially in their war-waging, while remaining loyal to the Catholic Church. People of every persuasion are welcome to join in the work. An ecumenical and interfaith sensibility is strong.

Chernus credits Dorothy and the Worker with bringing Catholicism into the mainstream of American nonviolence, an enormous achievement greatly enriching the movement. Gandhi, Muste and Dorothy Day stressed a willingness to suffer, to absorb violence rather than to inflict it. Chernus finds this a stumbling block. True, the prospect of suffering is never likely to galvanize the masses, but victory in any kind of battle is never going to be cheap.

To understand Martin Luther King, Jr. and his approach to nonviolence, one has to examine a complex web of ideas. First of all, King was a preacher, and he believed in a personal God, that men are made in his image and that they are therefore free: “The essence of man is found in freedom.” Equality demands agape love, overflowing love that seeks nothing in return but to build community. King acknowledged the reality of sin and evil but insisted that human nature is essentially good. He rejected Niebuhr’s teaching that society depends upon selfishly motivated coercion. “The universe is under the control of a loving purpose,” and, “The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.” A strong line in the web of King’s thinking is the undeniable social dimension of Christianity. There is a strong revolutionary strain in King’s thinking also, in the face of an unjust social order, but the exercise of revolutionary power must always be nonviolent. His practice was largely in the way of resistance, beyond protest and noncooperation, and he had no qualms about coercive use of nonviolence.

This rich chapter ends with Chernus’s questions: How much of his influence remains in the civil rights movement that King led? Its success is widely debated because “its ultimate results are so unclear. The lasting impact of King’s nonviolence is even less clear. Did he make nonviolence an enduring force in the United States? Or did his nonviolence allow the white community to see him as harmless and therefore to ignore the radical challenge of his message? ...To what extent has the revered image eclipsed the actual man? ...It is simply too soon to tell.”

Barbara Deming is the least known of the figures in this book. She made her case for nonviolence on a completely secular and pragmatic basis. Deming had no qualm about coercive nonviolence either. She pointed to the possibility of a more broadly based nonviolence movement, and was herself convinced that “if enough people join in the experiment, we will be surprised to discover just how enormous its potential is.”

Thich Nhat Hahn is the most widely read Buddhist in the western world. His work is informed by immense scholarship, yet his writing seems so simple as to appear naive. He has pushed nonviolence to address the ecological crisis. Nhat Hahn is credited as the major proponent of socially “engaged Buddhism,” which has significant following in Asia but has yet to flower in the U.S.

This reader would like to see recognition of the broad influence of Richard Gregg, who educated WW II war resisters in the coercive use of nonviolence, and of advances in thinking in the Anabaptist tradition. John Howard Yoder does not make the bibliography, yet he has had significant impact on the wider Christian church.

Chernus mentions only Phil Berrigan/Jonah House’s Plowshares as a movement of nonviolent resistance in the present time, but might have added the ongoing work of the AFSC in on-the-site dialogue on Israel/Palestine, Christian Peacemakers (largely Anabaptist) and their work of accompaniment and advocacy in Palestine and Iraq, Voices in the Wilderness against sanctions and the Iraq occupation, and School of the Americas Watch. Nonviolence includes far more than resistance. He might have added precautionary notes about sentimentalism, adventurism and factionalism.

Chernus states more than once that reason alone will never motivate people to large scale, effective nonviolence. At the same time he strongly suggests that the nonviolence movement must drop any confessional or religious identity. Religious people may very well agree. A new spirituality will have to move people with the same power, a spirituality that recognizes and respects the truth in all religious traditions. Not syncretism, not a watering down, not a lowest common denominator, but a vibrant spirituality based upon the unity of the human family, to make Christians better Christians, Jews better Jews, Muslims better Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, the same, and secularists too.

This study is long overdue and destined, one hopes, to stimulate deepening study, discussion, understanding, and more effective practice of nonviolence.





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