Pacifism in America, part seven: A pacifist agenda

Ted Grimsrud—June 19, 2019

Escaping war’s long shadow

Past American wars, especially World War II and its long shadow, have played a central role in the expansion and hegemony of our National Security State. The domination of the institutions of militarism and the ideology of necessary violence seem nearly irresistible. The strength of the current moving the American nation state toward the abyss of self-destruction seems overwhelmingly powerful (see Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy).

Until we actually reach the abyss, people who hope for genuine peace on earth will (must!) always hope that the current may be slowed enough that it may be redirected. Such people will devote their best energies to such a redirection. However, I see very little hope that the current toward the abyss will be redirected. This is our paradoxical, almost unbearable, situation: We must redirect our culture (American culture, for sure, but truly all other dominant cultures throughout the world) away from the abyss toward which institutionalized redemptive violence pushes us. But we actually have very little hope of doing so—at least on a large scale.

Creating space to be human

The movement in Central Europe that in the 1970s and 1980s resisted Soviet totalitarianism gives us a crucial image. Activists recognized that large-scale, top-down reform seemed impossible. Violent resistance against the systemic domination of the Communist regimes tended strictly actually to empower the sword-wielding state. So thoughtful resisters, recognizing that acquiescing to the System was intolerable while overthrowing it through direct resistance was impossible, articulated their hopes is exceedingly modest terms.

They spoke simply of creating spaces to be human. In doing so, they self-consciously rejected the story of reality told by the System, but they did not devote their energies to reforming it or ever to overthrowing it through violent direct action. More so, they focused on establishing relatively small spaces where they could build communities, express creativity, and patiently chip away at the portrayal of reality that filled the official media.

As it turned out, these small acts of resistance and counter-culture formation coincided with large-scale crises of legitimacy at the top of the Soviet empire. The System crumbled and major changes happened—though sadly the changes did not go as far as hoped in enabling self-determination and disarmament (for example, the U.S.-led militarization of Western alliances through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization absorbed several of the former Soviet-bloc nations who provided large markets for military hardware).

However, this emphasis on creating spaces to be human remains instructive and inspirational. If it is the case that a top-down transformation for peace is impossible in our current militarized national milieu, the possibilities for small-scale spaces for “being human” in peaceable ways do exist. And we never know what impact cultivating those spaces might have on the bigger picture. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part seven: A pacifist agenda”

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. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part six: Peacebuilding and civil society”

Pacifism in America, part five: Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War

Ted Grimsrud—June 12, 2019

Pacifists in the United States in the mid-20th century sought to influence the world toward a more peaceable future following the massive destruction of World War II. We saw in Part Four of this series how this work took the form of widespread service work. In this post, we will look at a few large-scale efforts to resist war.

The initial response to nuclear weapons

Except for the small handful of people involved in its creation, the advent of nuclear weaponry with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 came as a shock to everyone. Overall, the American public strongly affirmed the use of these bombs. Those few who had opposed the War itself responded to Hiroshima and Nagasaki with unqualified horror. Selling out to warfare, they argued, has led to the possibility that now we can bring an end to human life itself. However, at first the pacifists offered a somewhat muted outcry in that they tended to see the nuclear bombs, terrible as they were, mainly as the logical outworking of the war spirit, just one more step toward the abyss, but not necessarily something qualitatively new.

For a brief time, some “prowar liberals” expressed opposition to nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons seemed to go beyond what was necessary. Lewis Mumford, a leading liberal pro-war advocate, stated, “our methods of fighting have become totalitarian; that is, we have placed no limits upon our capacity to exterminate or destroy. The result was moral nihilism, the social counterpart of the atomic bomb.” A report called “Atomic Warfare and the Christian Faith” prepared by liberal Protestant leaders came out in 1946 and expressed opposition to the use of nuclear bombs on Japan.

The other main expression of dissent about bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from within the very community that had created these terrible weapons (see Lawrence Wittner, One World or None: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement Through 1953). The one scientist who left the top secret Manhattan Project over moral objections was Joseph Rotblat. “When it became evident, toward the end of 1944, that the Germans had abandoned their bomb project,” Rotblat wrote, “the whole purpose of my being in Los Alamos ceased to be, and I asked for permission to leave and return to Britain.” Rotblat helped found the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. As part of the Pugwash organization, he won the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part five: Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War”

Pacifism in America, part four: Pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement

Ted Grimsrud—June 7, 2019

The 20th century has accurately been called the century of total war. The massive death and destruction visited upon the people of the world especially in the first half of that century (with the constant threat of exponentially more death and destruction with the possibility of nuclear war) obliterated the basic human belief in the preciousness of life. One of the pillars of authentic human civilization is organizing society in light of the belief in the preciousness of life. That is why we put so many resources into, for example, healthcare, education, sanitation, and agriculture. We seek to make it possible for human life to thrive.

Powerfully countering all this momentum toward enhancing life, war and the preparation for war treats human life as shockingly expendable. The best and most creative resources of western civilization are focused on killing, not on enhancing life. Yet we still face profound injustices. One of the major justifications for war is the assertion that war is necessary as a means to resist evil. Are there alternative ways to resist evil without relying on violence?

As historian Joseph Kip Kosek wrote, “the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of violence. It was not, as such, Fascism, Communism, economic inequality, or the color line, though all of these were deeply implicated. It was, above all, the fact of human beings killing one another with extraordinary ferocity and effectiveness”(Joseph Kip Kosek, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy, 5).

The massive resources the United States devoted to resisting fascism and communism in World War II did in fact not result in enhanced human wellbeing. Those efforts did not recognize as fundamental the profound problem of violence. By using violence to counter those twin ideologies over the past seventy years, the U.S. found itself on a rapid descent toward militaristic self-destruction. We do have one example, though, of significant progress in overcoming injustice without extreme violence.

The Civil Rights Movement

The American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in important respects, reflected an attempt to keep the problem of violence at the forefront and to challenge a devastating social problem in light of the centrality of the problem of violence. By refusing to subordinate the problem of violence to some other problem, for a brief but extraordinarily fruitful moment, the American Civil Rights movement actually made enormous progress in genuine social transformation. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part four: Pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement”

Pacifism in America, part three: Making peace through service

Ted Grimsrud—June 5, 2019

 The resilient response to World War II by those few who retained their pacifist commitments insured that when the war finally ended, there would be peacemakers to devote themselves to overcoming the effects of the massive violence. As we will see, these efforts often took the shape of nonviolent direct action for social change. However, the experience of a world at war also greatly stimulated expanded works of service from pacifist groups.

The Civil Rights and nuclear disarmament movements sought directly to transform American culture through social activism. They were ad hoc uprisings made up of a variety of citizens whose energies ebbed and flowed over the time of the movements’ activities. Their significance lies in their quest, at times remarkably successful, for genuine democracy from the bottom up, based not on coercive force but on the exercise of self-determination.

Alongside these transformation-seeking movements, we should also be attentive to several long-term efforts, largely motivated by pacifist sensibilities, to work for self-determination and disarmament through acts of service. The first of these “service committees” was the American Friends Service Committee. I will also discuss two other quite different but parallel service-oriented groups, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Catholic Worker.

American Friends Service Committee

AFSC established a presence in numerous international locations during the inter-war years, but also invested significant time and money in working inside the U.S. in relief and development work during the Great Depression. AFSC leaders worked skillfully with government officials—even to the point that long-time AFSC director Clarence Pickett developed a strong working relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and through her had significant contact with President Roosevelt himself.

AFSC had links with numerous Quaker centers throughout Western Europe that had begun with the post-World War I relief work. With the rise of Nazism, these Quakers, with support from AFSC, sought to facilitate the emigration of beleaguered Jews. They met with resistance from the American and British governments, so were unable to help nearly as many people as they wanted to. But they helped some, they sounded the alarm (too seldom heeded) about the increasing danger faced by Jews, and they challenged (not successfully enough) the political structures in the U.S. to respond to this crisis. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part three: Making peace through service”

Pacifism in America, part two: Refusing the “good war”

Ted Grimsrud—June 3, 2019

In the aftermath of the First World War, called at the time “the Great War” (but only briefly, since it was eclipsed by the war that soon followed), pacifism (as in the principled opposition to war) emerged with unprecedented prominence. Five new pacifist organizations were founded. Their influence remained small in the big picture of American society, but at the end of the 20th century each one remained active and fruitful.

Interwar pacifism

These five organizations—American Friends Service Committee, Catholic Worker, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Mennonite Central Committee, and War Resisters League—represented distinct streams of philosophy and practice. They do not exhaust the varieties of pacifism, but did reflect a wide spectrum—from the explicitly Christian and confessional character of the CW and MCC to the explicitly non-religious WRL with the more ecumenical AFSC and FOR somewhere in between.

Even with their diversity, these five pacifist streams shared important characteristics. Each of them, in its own way, rejected the assumption that the only two options in response to evildoing are to fight or to flee. At the heart of the appeal of America’s warist policymakers to their country’s citizens has been an implicit assumption that military force is the first-choice option for dealing with international conflicts. All too often it was the only option considered. The other part of the appeal for support and participation in warfare has been the articulation of high ideals for democracy and civilization and self-determination. These ideals provided the motivational bases for engaging in warfare—and tend to be linked with an assumption that military force is necessary to achieve those ideals.

Our pacifist groups challenged those war-supporting assumptions on several levels. They generally agreed with the ideals of democracy that underwrote the propaganda in favor of American participation in World War II. However, they rejected the assumptions of “fight or flee” in response to wrongdoing and of the necessity of using war in order to achieve the ideals of self-determination and disarmament. In fact, these pacifists argued that war is incompatible with democracy. They believed the ways democracy had been achieved in the past several centuries had been in spite of warfare, not because of it. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part two: Refusing the “good war””

Pacifism in America, part one: The roots of war resistance

Ted Grimsrud—May 31, 2019

The United States has an extraordinarily ambivalent legacy when it comes to war and violence. On the one hand, we originated, in the view of many, as the victor in a war of rebellion against the British Empire; we have engaged in war and after war throughout our history; we are the only country ever to drop a nuclear weapon on another country; and now we are the world’s one “superpower” that spends more on its military than virtually all the other countries in the world combined.

Yet, on the other hand the United States has a long legacy of peace movements, acceptance of the rights of conscientious objectors, and the development of philosophies of nonviolent social action. The US from its early years provided a home for members of the “historic peace churches” and provided them a largely persecution free home in contrast to many other places in the world that had driven pacifists out.

I recently listened to an interesting series of podcasts on the history of nonviolence that reminded me of much of the peace legacy in the US. The third season of “The Thread” focused on the history of nonviolence. In six episodes, the series discussed key figures in that “thread,” moving backwards from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Bayard Rustin to Mohandas Gandhi to Leo Tolstoy to William Lloyd Garrison. There are many details in this series that I could nitpick about, but overall I found it interesting and inspiring—and I would recommend it.

One inspiration that emerged for me was to post some things I have learned about this history. I will share some thoughts in several installments about the history of pacifism in America, starting today with background to the emergence of pacifist opposition to World War II—opposition that obviously had little impact on the execution of that war but that planted seeds for a number of significant efforts to oppose war and injustice nonviolently in the decades that followed. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part one: The roots of war resistance”

Is Christian pacifism a thing?

Ted Grimsrud—May 20, 2019

I can imagine several ways that the question I ask in the title of this post could go, so I want to start by explaining what I mean. By pacifism, I have in mind the principled unwillingness to support or participate in warfare or other forms of lethal violence (though I will say a bit more below that will define pacifism in more detail). For the purposes of what I write here, I assume the validity of pacifism. My question has to do with whether there is a type of pacifism that is uniquely Christian—that is, in effect, only available to Christians.

To make this more personal, I can rephrase the question: (1) Am I a pacifist because I am a Christian? Or, (2) Am I a Christian because I am a pacifist? Which comes first? Which is more essential? Now, of course, most Christians are not pacifists. And surely many pacifists are not Christians. As I have thought about this lately, I have come to conclude that though my self-awareness of having an explicitly pacifist commitment came at a time when I would have believed #1 (that I was a pacifist because I was a Christian), I now think that #2 is true for me (that is, to the extent I would see myself as a Christian it is because I am a pacifist and I know of a kind of Christianity that affirms pacifism). I should also say before I go further that I recognize that so much of this kind of discussion depends on how we define our terms. I will try to do that with care as I move along—but I request of the reader some tolerance with the limits of our language. I offer these reflections more as a kind of thought experiment than pretending to present anything definitive. Continue reading “Is Christian pacifism a thing?”

“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part two]

Ted Grimsrud—April 10, 2019

The purpose of this “thought experiment,” as I see it, is to reflect on how “Anabaptist” might work better than “Christian” or “Mennonite” as a descriptor of the radical faith that offers the best possibilities for responding creatively to the challenges of life in North America in the early 21st century. In Part One I described why I have problems with the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” ways of interpreting the Bible and our world and our faith. In what follows, I will describe more what I mean by “Anabaptist” as an alternative way of interpreting.

A way to think about Anabaptism

I believe that in approaching the topic of “Anabaptism” we should be straightforward about the kinds of questions we have in mind in approaching it as well as recognizing the need to be as accurate as possible in discussing the 16th century phenomena themselves. My questions have most of all to do with what resources might we find in the story of the original Anabaptists that might inform our lives today. I also wonder whether we might discern an Anabaptist approach to faith that could serve as a corrective to the interpretive angles we find in what I call the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” approaches.

A key theme for me in taking up this project of discernment is how these various angles relate to how we read the Bible. A central criterion for me is how helpful, accurate, and authentic the angles are to the message of the Bible. In fact, though the 16th century is of great interest in evaluating the Anabaptist take on faith, what matters even more is the first-century in that the truly normative “vision” that followers of Jesus should be concerned with is the one presented in the New Testament (and the Old Testament read in relation to the New). Is it possible that the Anabaptist angle gets us closer to Jesus’s take on things than the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” angles?

I have taken a cue from studies of Jesus for how I want to approach the Anabaptists—and seek for a sense of coherence among the diverse expressions of radical Christianity in the 16th century. It is common among historians of the Jesus movement to suggest that maybe the central question to ask for understanding what happened back then is this: Why was Jesus executed by the Romans? This is the version I ask of the Anabaptists: Why did they get into trouble? One thing that seems clear is that in their various iterations, just about all the Anabaptists got into trouble, and in their various locations they died by the thousands.

I suggest that we do find a sense of commonality when we ask this question. I think we may see four broad themes that were key reasons the large majority of them got into trouble—most of these themes are present in most of the Anabaptist communities, diverse as they might otherwise be. Continue reading ““Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part two]”

A Civil War Question: Can One Hate Both Slavery and War Equally?

Ted Grimsrud—January 7, 2019

I have long been interested in a quite challenging moral issue: How can we overcome evil without adding to the evil? This issue is central to the philosophy of nonviolence, and I think it should be central to any sense of ethical truthfulness. This is a good way to get at the heart of Gandhi’s philosophy as well as that of Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the big problems idealistic human beings have struggled with is the problem of working for social change or working to resist injustice and finding oneself actually contributing to making things worse.

Of course, our wider culture in North America (and presumably elsewhere) is not all that interested in this question. We Americans tend to take a pretty narrow and superficial view of social dynamics, constantly barraged as we are by American exceptionalism and corporate feel-goodism in our mass media. So, we have to stop and turn away in order to get a sense of what we actually face in terms of systemic brokenness and cycles of injustice.

But when we do pay attention, we realize that warism, racism, economic inequality, sexism, and many other problems remain all too present and each has a long history of intractability. Gandhi sought, with only partial success, to break a spiral that is all too apparent in liberation movements of responding to violence with violence in ways that have only led to more centralized power and continued injustice.

This moral question about evil lays at the heart of my energized interest in the American Civil War. This is how I would characterize the conventional wisdom in our society as I have encountered it: The Civil War was indeed a terrible thing with a lot of death and destruction. But slavery was an unacceptable evil that had to be stopped. It was costly, but ultimately worth the cost, to end that plague in our land. So, one of the lessons to be learned is that war can be a force to defeat evil. It is sad that it is necessary because it certainly is destructive. But sometimes war is our only option. Another lesson, then, that follows is that we have to prepare for such possibilities of a necessary war by maintaining the readiness of our military.

Questioning conventional wisdom

As a pacifist (one who denies the moral validity of war under any circumstances and who also rejects the preparation for war), I question this “wisdom” that accepts the acceptability of the Civil War. But I think anyone who desires to take a morally serious view towards war should also question that “wisdom”—even if they might not be as sure as I am about a negative assessment of the Civil War. The just war tradition at times has made the important claim (not taken nearly seriously enough) that humanity’s benefit of the doubt is against any particular war—in part simply because of the enormous destruction that each war causes. In thinking about any war—past, present, or future—according to this claim we have an obligation to assess its cost and to insist on a clear rationale for why that cost is worthy of being borne. If the costs are not worthy of being borne, almost certainly the war will once again be a matter of a response to evil that only adds to the net moral dynamics of evil. Continue reading “A Civil War Question: Can One Hate Both Slavery and War Equally?”