Pacifism in America, part six: Peacebuilding and civil society

Ted Grimsrud—June 17, 2019

Efforts to resist racism and nuclearism show how deeply entrenched these problems are in the U.S. Powerful efforts that mobilized thousands upon thousands of people who sought change brought only grudging and fragile improvements. In the case of both sets of issues, the gains sadly were followed by losses and our situation today remains one of peril and injustice.

Only grudging progress

World War II marked a bit of progress in racial justice. Yet many black soldiers left the military frustrated by facing racism even as they answered their country’s call to serve. More so, they encountered oppression as they returned to a profoundly racist country that continued to treat these veterans as second-class citizens. They not only returned to the same old same old in terms of on-going discrimination, they also found themselves deprived of many of the benefits white veterans received due to their service.

Out of these experiences, many blacks deepened their resolve to work for change. So the Civil Rights movement that emerged in force in the second half of the 1950s owed some of its energy to the common experience of the contradictions in American culture where the demand for military service for the sake of “freedom” was accomplished by the denial of basic freedoms to those who served.

The nuclear threat directly arose from World War II. The U.S. was not capable of turning away from the use of these weapons nor from attempting to develop them and to seek a monopoly on their possession. As Garry Wills argues, this willingness by American policy makers to devote such extraordinary amounts of resources to the weapons of death drastically undermined American democracy as well as placed the entire world in enormous peril (see Garry Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State). Then, after the American “victory” in the arms race in the early 1990s, the country proved unable to end the pouring its treasure into systems of destruction.

Nonetheless, despite the seeming intractability of these problems, movements to overcome them contain important lessons for the future of humanity. The violent legacy of World War II has been challenged, effectively. And the challenges to this legacy have created momentum toward change—even if this momentum may not always be obviously discernable. Rosa Parks’ initiating the sit-in in December 1955, and the emergence of an international mass movement opposing nuclear weapons when American policy makers pursued the hydrogen bomb, marked key moments of resistance to the trajectory toward more and more violence.

Resisting the spiral of violence

The various social movements that resisted the spiral of violence have shared a couple of key characteristics. An important start is simply to step out of the pro-violence consensus. Certainly one of the most powerful legacies of World War II was the basic assumption that violence worked well to defeat the enemies of our country. With this came the assumption that the institutions that emerged as the managers of this violence should be trusted as necessary and appropriate at the heart of our federal government. However, the movements for social change have had at their core a rejection of that necessary-violence narrative.

This stepping out from the narrative of necessary violence as the basis for security reflects a central tenet in Gandhian political philosophy. Gandhi argued that the ability of governing elites to manage their societies depends upon the consent of the people being governed. Recognizing this law of social reality provides those who seek social change with a crucial strategic principle. To bring about social change, the change agents must focus on consent. If the consent of enough people will be withheld, the ability of the governing elite to work their will is certain to be profoundly undermined (see Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Struggle).

The key moments of genuine change—the integration of the American South, the creation of the first arms limitation treaties, the withdrawal of forward-based nuclear weapons from Western Europe, the disintegration of the Iron Curtain (we could also include the remarkably nonviolent dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa)—all had at their core various levels of consent to the status quo structures being withheld.

As people step out of the pro-violence consensus created and sustained by the power elites in Western societies, significant numbers, at times with powerful effectiveness, take the next step and band together in communities devoted to creating change. The “beloved community” of the American Civil Rights movements, the mass movement of protest against the American/Soviet nuclear madness, and others, have found ways (sadly rarely sustainable) to create sufficient critical mass to move society in more peaceable directions.

Bringing people together reinforces the moves many make to disbelieve the power elites’ narrative concerning necessary violence. Many people may have doubts about the necessary-violence narrative, but finding others of like mind will reinforce those questions and provide possibilities for effective dissenting action. One key element in the ending of the Soviet empire was the gradual emergence of various communities that provided confirmation and support for the increasing numbers who sought a different kind of world. We see parallel dynamics in the American Civil Rights movement.

Alternative narratives

An important step in going beyond simple protest is the construction of alternative narratives to the standard violence-is-necessary-for-security story. These movements of protest and emergence of communities of resistance in important ways challenge the standard story. However, they often have not been accompanied by thoroughgoing articulations of different views of how society might be structured based on peaceable values.

The pioneering work of Gandhi has played an important role in the gradual development of alternative social narratives. Martin Luther King brought together Gandhian influences, insights drawn from biblical sources, and reframing the American struggle for democracy as the story of a quest for genuine freedom rather than as a quest for world domination. The anti-nuclear movement included elements of thought and advocacy that have worked at imagining the actual parameters of a non-nuclear world.

While these movements did achieve important advances, perhaps their most important contribution was simply to stimulate the gradual emergence of social developments that have moved humanity closer to what social thinker Jonathan Schell has called the “unconquerable world” (Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People). Schell traces the emergence in the twentieth century of the inexorable drive that human societies have for self-determination. The collapse of the great empires of the early twentieth-century (and the collapse of the British, German, Japanese, and Soviet empires that emerged later in the twentieth century) made possible the realistic option of more political self-determination.

The disastrous insistence by several “democracies” after World War II to resist the ending of their empires (for example, France in Vietnam and Algeria, the Netherlands in Indonesia, and Great Britain in Kenya) led to several “peoples wars” that left untold numbers of casualties. Numerous of these “peoples wars” did end external domination, but even the successful ones often resulted in the imposition of authoritarian post-revolutionary governments.

However, Schell argues that in most cases the key factors leading to the defeat of the external forces were not their military firepower so much as the revolutionaries’ ability to undermine the consent of the governed. It was not military might but the political success of the movements that drove the occupation forces out.

Gandhi’s work in India and then the late 20th-century movements in Central and Eastern Europe and in South Africa made it clear that the revolutionary task may actually be achieved largely through nonviolent means—as did the largely nonviolent transition in Latin America from a region of dictatorships toward authentic democracies (see Sharon Erickson Nepstad, Nonviolent Revolutions). Such a possibility rose again in Northern Africa in 2010-11. Schell sees growing clarity about how movements for self-determination might be based on nonviolence along with a sense of the actual impotence of nuclear weaponry and all-out warfare. These dynamics, even in the face of the continued militarization of American foreign policy, make genuine peace a greater possibility in the world.

Schell summarizes: “The power that flows upward from the consent, support, and nonviolent activity of the people is not the same as the power that flows downward from the state by virtue of its command of the instruments of force, and yet the two kinds of power contend in the same world for the upper hand, and the seemingly weaker one can, it turns out, defeat the seemingly stronger….It is indeed a frequent mistake of the powers that be to imagine that they can accomplish or prevent by force what a Luther, Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, or a [Vaclav] Havel can inspire by example. The prosperous and mighty of our day still live at a dizzying height above the wretched of the earth, yet the latter have made their will felt in ways that have already changed history, and can change it more.”

Civil society

In the present, the awareness of instruments of self-determination that make up what is called “civil society” (see Mary Kaldor, Global Civil Society: An Answer to War) and the emergence of global forums that provide voice for those outside the power elite offer genuine hope for a more peaceful world. These instruments stand directly on the shoulders of the Civil Rights and the anti-nuclear movements that emerged in the 1950s as direct responses (ad hoc and fragmented as they were) to the failure of World War II to live up to its promise as an agent for creating self-determination and disarmament through violence.

If the 20th century saw unprecedented levels of destructive war making, it also saw the emergence of numerous strategies to overcome the curse of warfare. The mass movements inspired by Gandhi, Civil Rights activism, resistance to nuclear weaponry and the Vietnam War, and the emergence of widespread development and relief work by organizations such as American Friends Service Committee and Mennonite Central Committee all witnessed to unprecedented levels of creative peacemaking.

In the latter part of the century, promising alternatives to ever-spiraling militarism and violent responses to conflicts emerged, often linked under the rubric “civil society.” Mary Kaldor, one of the field’s more prominent thinkers, defines “civil society” as “the process through which individuals negotiate, argue, struggle, against or agree with each other and with the centers of political and economic authority.” These “individuals” address their concerns “through voluntary associations, movements, parties, [and] unions”(see Mary Kaldor, Human Security).

Widespread use of the term arose in the 1970s and 1980s in resistance movements that brought change—mostly without violence—in Central and Eastern Europe and in Latin America. Both regions were dominated by militarized governments, and in both cases dictatorships ended and political cultures changed due to the success of largely nonviolent resistance. People from these two regions, although they faced similar problems and approached them in similar ways at roughly the same time, had little if any direct interaction. Kaldor suggests that they failed to collaborate because the Latin American movement emerged from the political left and included numerous Marxists while the European movement was self-consciously anti-Marxist.

Despite the lack of synergy between these two efforts, civil society became a global movement. Latin Americans during the 1970s and 1980s forged important ties with North American human rights activists, and the central and eastern Europeans linked closely with those in western Europe who worked for peace and human rights. The various movements all sought to utilize their respective countries’ formal acceptance of international human rights legislation.

We may understand “civil society,” in a broad sense, as efforts to construct and cultivate alternatives to military-centered concepts of social ordering. Certainly these well-known efforts at social change in Europe and Latin America are important examples, as is the work in South Africa to end apartheid. On a much smaller scale, illuminating a “servanthood approach,” we may consider Mennonite contributions to civil society.

The emergence of Mennonite peacebuilding

For Mennonites, World War II and the Vietnam War both became times of creativity. In World War II, Mennonites played a major role in negotiations with the government, leading to the establishment of Civilian Public Service. Less than other groups of conscientious objectors, Mennonites did not find CPS to be an unacceptable case of government control over dissent. Mennonites, by and large, were happy with their experience in finding freedom to express their unwillingness to participate in the War and with their opportunity to find outlets for their service concerns. Mennonites were ready when the War ended to devote creative efforts to war relief and international development, mostly under the auspices of the Mennonite Central Committee.

Unlike World War II, when no Mennonite COs refused to cooperate with the draft, during Vietnam numerous Mennonites were non-cooperators. Some went to prison and others moved to Canada. A number of other Mennonites who did cooperate with Selective Service actually performed their alternative service in Southeast Asia and ended up playing a role in educating legislators and the broader American public about the actual events on the ground in the war areas (see Earl S. Martin, Reaching the Other Side: The Journal of an American Who Stayed to Witness Vietnam’s Transition).

In part to facilitate the witness in the U.S. of their personnel who served in Southeast Asia, MCC established a formal presence in Washington, DC. MCC’s Washington Office also spoke to governmental officials on other issues and reported on federal policies to Mennonite communities. This presence in Washington signaled important shifts in Mennonite understandings of the shape of their tradition’s convictions about peace (see Keith Graber Miller, Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves: American Mennonites Engage Washington).

Increasing numbers of Mennonites sought to exert a more direct influence on their wider political culture. They were no longer as content with a separatist pacifism. Although this new development did involve Mennonites in political advocacy centered on trying to influence governmental leaders, Mennonites also sought to find other avenues as well for their social concerns. Interest in these other avenues led to Mennonites seeking alternatives to warfare and violence that linked with the civil society movement. The basic rubric that by the beginning of the 21st century emerged as the overall term for these efforts was “peacebuilding.”

The roots of the Mennonite involvement in peacebuilding go back at least to the years shortly after World War II. As soon as possible after the War, American Mennonites spread around the world as personnel with MCC. They encountered first hand the devastation of the War, offering the help they could (help that indeed meant the difference between life and death for many people). While glad for the opportunity to serve in these ways, numerous MCCers saw that more than relief was needed. One relief worker told how she was challenged in a way typical to many others: “What you’re doing here is fine,” she was told. “But it’s Band-Aid work. You came after the war, after the damage was done. Why don’t you go home and work for peace and get at the root causes of evil and war?” (see Cynthia Sampson and John Paul Lederach, eds., From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to International Peacebuilding).

Many took this challenge to heart and decided to address issues that led to international violence. Even with this catalyst to stimulate Mennonite efforts to broaden their practice of peacemaking, it took another couple of decades after the War and the trauma of the Vietnam War for clear and distinct efforts to emerge. Specifically, I will mention conflict resolution, restorative justice, and direct intervention in places of conflict around the world.

New approaches

Robert Kreider (himself a World War II CO) accurately sketched in a June 9, 1975 memo developments to come: “We sense there may be need and receptivity for the services of a panel of persons on tap to intervene, mediate, and provide consultative services in crisis situations—including a variety of conflict skills such as assessment, strategizing, organizing, coalition-formation, negotiation, empowerment, etc. This could open avenues for peacemaking that go beyond the traditional roles of making statements on issues of war and peace.”

A few years later, MCC hired a full-time staff person to begin Mennonite Conciliation Services. Mennonites found conciliation and mediation attractive options that provided a possibility for peacemaking activity that would stand in the middle ground between protest and civil disobedience, on the one hand, and traditional quietism, on the other. This kind of peacemaking activity was considered more socially engaging and less radical.

As conciliation work evolved among Mennonites, it naturally spread to include taking peacebuilding expertise to various conflicts around the world where Mennonite conciliators made important contributions—for example, Northern Ireland, Somalia, and Nicaragua. MCC began a new effort, the International Conciliation Services. A graduate program in peacebuilding was established at Eastern Mennonite University in the mid-1990s, and the program’s founding professor, John Paul Lederach, became an international authority (see John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies). One of the most influential efforts of this peacebuilding program was its Summer Peacebuilding Institute that every year attracts hundreds of students from dozens of countries, many of whom return home and play leadership roles in their nation’s social life, especially in conflict resolution work on all levels.

About the same time Mennonites established MCS, an independent effort also emerged that drew on many of the same cultural and convictional resources from Mennonite communities. This work in the newly emerging arena of restorative justice—efforts in the criminal justice field to reduce violence and increase possibilities for reconciliation between victims and offenders—also gained MCC support.

Mennonites established some of the first Victim-Offender Reconciliation Programs in the 1970s and MCC established a Criminal Justice Office in 1977. This office was staffed by Howard Zehr, who became an international leader in the restorative justice movement. Zehr’s book Changing Lenses provided philosophical and theological bases for approaching criminal justice with a focus more on bringing healing to victims, offenders, and their communities than on retributive and punitive policies that tend to only heighten the spiral of violence.

This emphasis has gained quite a bit of traction in various segments of the criminal justice system. It has also, especially as presented by Zehr, other Mennonites (see Paul Redekop, Changing Paradigms: Punishment and Restorative Discipline and Jarem Sawatsky, Justpeace Ethics: A Guide to Restorative Justice and Peacebuilding), and allies (see Christopher Marshall’s two books: Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Crime, Justice, and Punishment and Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime, and Restorative Justice), provided perspectives for a broader philosophy of dealing with conflict and wrong-doing.

Mennonites have continued to have deep concerns about overt resistance to warfare itself. Militancy in war resistance that grew in segments of the broader society during the Vietnam War had parallels in Mennonite communities. In the years following the end of that war, Mennonites and likeminded pacifists worked to establish a nonviolent peacekeeping force that began in 1986 called Christian Peacemaker Teams (see Kathleen Kern, In Harm’s Way: A History of Christian Peacemaker Teams). CPT activists visited various hot spots around the world (e.g., Israel/Palestine, Colombia, Iraq, the Chiapas region in Mexico) seeking both to “get in the way of war” and to observe and provide first-hand reports on these various conflicts.

These examples (conflict mediation, restorative justice, and peacemaker teams) reflect the fruitfulness of Mennonite “servanthood” that sought to find concrete ways both to address the roots of war and to aid in actual conflict situations. All are examples of “civil society” work as defined by those in the 1980s who reinvigorated that concept in face of intractable authoritarian and totalitarian governments. As such, these efforts stand in contradistinction with the spiral toward ever-dominant militarism that followed has World War II. Their weight is tiny, but they point to what is likely the only way out of the “iron cage” of the national security state.

[This post is part of a series of posts on the history of pacifism in the United States adapted from the third section (“Alternatives”) of Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy (Cascade Books, 2014). Here is a list of the posts in the series:

  1. The roots of war resistance
  2. Pacifism in face of the “good war”
  3. Making peace through service
  4. The role of pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement
  5. Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War
  6. Civil society and peacebuilding
  7. A pacifist agenda

Check out this link for more on that book: The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters.]

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