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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.
We should also notice that the ways of creating spaces to be human practiced in the Central European freedom movement were not at all separated from an awareness of issues on national, social policy levels. The activists did not require “seats at the table of power” to embark on their transformative practices—but they were ready and willing to participate in the larger arena when opportunities arose. And in many instances, at least, they participated in ways that remained faithful to their core convictions.
Likewise for peacemakers today. Our ways of making peace, our practices of resistance, and our creating of alternatives do not depend upon getting “seats at the table.” To be effective over the long term we likely need self-consciously to resist extensive compromise in order to gain approval of political and corporate power elites. And yet, what the world needs are large solutions and alternatives. So peacemakers need to be thinking in ways that allow for exercise of effective influence on as wide a scale as possible (while remaining faithful to their core values).
A three-pronged approach
We may think of three broad elements of peacemaking where each plays an essential role in our imaging a healthy future. The first is resistance, the second is transformation, and the third is service.
Resistance. Activists recognized, for example, the evils of the nuclear arms race and the U.S. war on Vietnam. In both cases, mass movements arose that sought to turn the nation back from those misguided and terribly destructive policies. In both cases, the movements fell far short of their goals. The arms race continued until one side (the Soviet Union) surrendered leaving the U.S. the unchallenged victor—a victor that nonetheless continues the race. The Vietnam War did finally grind to a close, with the American withdrawal and the victory of the anti-imperialist forces. But it was in many was a pyrrhic victory by the time it came given the extraordinary level of destruction the American forces visited on that small nation.
However, these movements of resistance did create restraints that slowed the policies of death a bit. They also energized masses of activists and stimulated peacemaking activities that ripple down to the present. Other resistance movements (e.g., opposition to wars on Central American and Iraq and the current effort to resist policies that exacerbate climate change) have arisen in the years since Vietnam, inspired and guided by the experiences of that pioneering effort to, through mass resistance, slow down and even stop a war that is in progress.
In all of these resistance movements, education has played a major role. Partly, to learn more about the various archaeologies of the social ills strengthens the attraction to and the ability to act in resistance. Partly, the process of education has unveiled many of the undemocratic, authoritarian ways that the American power elite has pursued such destructive policies.
So resistance remains essential—even if one of the main lessons from these past mass efforts to resist has been just how intransigent the System actually has been.
Transformation. The most instructive movement to effect social transformation in the U.S. since World War II has been the Civil Rights movement. I believe we still have a great deal to learn from the effectiveness and limitations of that movement. One of our main lessons, that we still need to grapple with, is the power of coherent, organized, self-consciously nonviolent mass action.
The accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement were enormous. It is hard to imagine that someone who lived in the American South during the early part of the 1950s could have envisioned how widespread the changes that were about to come would be—and how little violence would actually be required to effect these changes. However, we all know that the U.S. still falls terribly short of the required eradication of dehumanizing racism and discrimination. Perhaps part of the reason the transformation sought by the Civil Rights Movement did not fully happen was the slide away from nonviolence.
Regardless, strategies and organized movements to effect social transformation remain a necessary part of peacemaking work, along with widespread resistance. Peacemakers learn about the systemic violence of the status quo and about strategies and policies that power elite follow to prevent that systemic violence being rooted out. This learning leads to saying no, to disillusionment, to acts of resistance. And, peacemakers come together to organize movements that seek positive transformation away from the systems of violence toward what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the “beloved community.”
Service. The service aspect is often left out of discussions of social change. However, the efforts directly to meet the needs of the needy, to provide food and water to the hungry and thirsty, to aid in enhancing the power for self-determination for vulnerable people around the world are part of the work of peacemaking along with resisting the National Security State and direct action for social transformation.
Works of service to help meet immediate human needs and, by doing so, provide possibilities for better futures. They also provide the possibilities for constructive work even in face of severe limitations and hostile reactions that hinder efforts of resistance and transformation. The work of American conscientious objectors who served in Civilian Public Service illustrates this possibility. The state essentially stifled and even crushed dissent and repressed efforts at constructive intervention that might have provided alternatives to war making in addressing international problems.
The one avenue that remained open for peacemakers was doing works of service, such as caring for America’s forests and farmlands and providing much-needed assistance for people institutionalized with mental illnesses. These acts were of value in themselves, but the performing of alternative service also provided contexts for future more interventionist peacemaking work, including leadership in Civil Rights and anti-nuclear efforts and a great expansion of humanitarian aid offered throughout the world after the War by organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee and Mennonite Central Committee.
Reversing warism
Reversing the American warist legacy will create space to be human—work that is not dependent upon the state, an institution in our current setting that seems unalterably wed to the dynamics of the National Security State.

We may start by naming our past, often-glorified wars for what they actually were. In particular, World War II was not a necessary war, certainly not a good war, for the United States (again, Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t). It did not serve the role of protecting America from invasion, of saving Jews in the midst of genocide, or of resisting tyranny and furthering actual democracy around the world. It was an exercise in extraordinary and largely out of control violence that transformed the United States into a militarized global hegemon and severely undermined American democracy.
As we name World War II for what it was—an exercise in mass killing and unleashed militarism—we might also resolve to use the Just War philosophy that many people claim to honor in a way that has teeth. One of the assumptions of this philosophy has commonly been that we apply the philosophy in order to identify and reject unjust wars. Should we actually apply criteria such as just cause, non-combatant immunity, and proportionality to the events of America’s involvement in World War II, we will likely conclude that the American war effort did not satisfactorily meet those criteria and hence that World War II was an unjust war.
If indeed that war was unjust, we should name it as such and resolve never again to participate in such a war. To take this point a step further, many people agree that World War II was the most “just” or “necessary” war the United States has ever fought in. Part of the power of this myth of a necessary war has been to make it much, much easier to justify preparing for future wars. However, if we recognize that World War II was an unjust war and that adherence to the Just War philosophy requires us to say no to unjust wars, we quite likely will be led to conclude that the U.S. is almost certainly never going to participate in a just war. Hence, we will refuse to support the preparation for what would almost certainly be unjust wars.
One of the main outcomes of the War for the U.S. was the permanent expansion and entrenchment of what we may call the U.S. as National Security State. Key elements that directly emerged from the War were the nuclear weapons program, the Pentagon and greatly enlarged military establishment, and the CIA. Application of Just War philosophy would lead to a repudiation of this arrangement. If we understand that human needs-oriented states should be founded on and have the responsibility to seek “justice for all,” we will recognize that these institutions that emerged from the War are antithetical to what the U.S. government should be like.
The purpose statements that emerged to explain to the public the reasons why the U.S. entered and fought World War II actually cohere pretty well with the values of authentic democracy and the Just War philosophy—especially the quest for self-determination and disarmament everywhere on earth. What was lacking during the War and in the generations since has been a steadfast effort to hold the democratically elected government of the U.S. to those stated ideals. One way to reverse the moral legacy of World War II is to insist on holding states to such ideals—and withholding consent when those ideals are ignored or violated.
Like many others, I believe that Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of the best presidents the United States has ever had. Perhaps the title of H.W. Brands’s fine biography of FDR is a bit hyperbolic: A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, especially the use of the word “radical.” Still, Roosevelt’s New Deal, with all its limitations, moved the American state in a humane direction more than just about any other presidency before and since. Nonetheless, Roosevelt probably more than any other person set in motion the dynamics that led to total war leading to Cold War leading to war on terrorism leading to the abyss. Our lesson should be one of intense skepticism toward people in power. We should always assume the worst about what those in office say and do—things are almost always worse than they seem. We should never give people in power the benefit of the doubt, but treat what they say critically and require strong evidence of actual peaceable action before offering support.
The flip side of skepticism toward people in power and the refusal to give consent to the National Security State is the need to cultivate communities of resistance. The work of creating space to be human generally is work that requires a critical mass of people to sustain the work in face of hostility from the System. Back in World War II, the people in the U.S. who most consistently said no to the War and most steadfastly refused to support the war effort were communities of Mennonites. Though these communities had little political awareness and did not see themselves as directly challenging the policies of their government, they did sustain their resistance to participation in the War through consistent education of community members concerning their core convictions, through material support for those who performed alternative service at great financial cost to themselves, and through clear communication to the government and outside world that they would not compromise on their priorities regardless of the cost.
The best answer to the standard “what about Hitler” question that is commonly thrown at peacemakers is surely to say that what is needed is work to prevent a Hitler from coming into power again. The idea that the best response to the Hitler question is to prepare militarily is to ignore the past seven decades where we have seen a gradual expansion of the spirit of militarism (one of the main elements of Nazism) in the name of stopping the next Hitler. This gives Hitler a posthumous victory. Instead, the best lesson to learn from World War II is that the conditions that made Hitler possible must be prevented through self-determination and disarmament. Perhaps the Atlantic Charter was mainly a cynical exercise in wartime propaganda and self-righteousness, but the ideals it expressed nonetheless provide one of our best blueprints for preventing the need for such exercises in cynical propaganda—that is, for preventing the quest for “peace” through total war.
Finally, we should resolve never to minimize the conviction that all of life is precious. Perhaps the greatest moral legacy of American wars is the practical repudiation of that conviction. The biggest cost of such wars has been the loss of the sense of human solidarity, that we are all together precious beings who should be treated with respect and care. As a direct consequence of our past wars, the U.S. has embarked on a still accelerating process of diminishing the value of human beings by creating and deploying weapons of unimaginable mass destruction and seeking domination around the world at the cost of millions upon millions of direct deaths that result from America’s wars—all fought for unjust causes using unjust means. An unwavering commitment to the preciousness of all life provides a powerful interpretive key for understanding and responding to America’s National Security State with clarity, conviction, and resolve.

 
[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:

The roots of war resistance
Pacifism in face of the “good war”
Making peace through service
The role of pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement
Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War
Civil society and peacebuilding
A pacifist agenda

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

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

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:

The roots of war resistance
Pacifism in face of the “good war”
Making peace through service
The role of pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement
Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War
Civil society and peacebuilding
A pacifist agenda

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

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

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.
The emergence of opposition
By 1954, the numbers of people around the world who were uneasy about the growth of nuclear weaponry began to reach a critical mass that would lead to more significant expressions of resistance. Their urgency was intensified as the hydrogen bomb was developed—a weapon 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. “Deeply disturbed by this turn of events, many of the early critics of the Bomb renewed their calls for nuclear arms control and disarmament—measures which appealed to ever larger sections of the public” (Lawrence Wittner, Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954-1970).
Through the rest of the 1950s, this movement grew steadily. In many place around the world, anti-nuclear activists created some of the largest protests their countries had seen for years, if ever. The movement found its greatest support in the “West” (North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australasia) where earlier peace movements had been established. These protests mobilized as many as half a million people simultaneously for street demonstrations and other popular manifestations against the Bomb in dozens of nations.
The anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s and 1960s fell far short of its aspirations. Activists galvanized support around a simple demand: Ban the Bomb. Decision-making elite in the nuclear-armed nations well understood that to pursue this straightforward path would require major changes in national security policies. These elite were somewhat responsive to the popular outpouring of sentiment in favor of disarmament, but also worked strenuously, and by and large successfully, to minimize genuine change.
Even so, the movement did have an impact. As historian Lawrence Wittner summarizes: “In the face of bitter opposition from many government leaders, it had helped to end atmospheric testing, secure the world’s first nuclear arms control agreements, and lessen the possibilities of nuclear war. It unleashed a new wave of dynamic social forces—most notably movements among students, women, and intellectuals—as agencies of social change. Even as they put aside nuclear concerns, they took up other issues of great moment, including the Vietnam War, environmental protection, women’s liberation, and assorted campaigns for social justice. Often they drew on the movement’s innovative techniques, including mass marches and nonviolent resistance.”
The anti-nuclear movement reached its peak around 1960. Various factors, including implementation of the ban on atmospheric testing as well as the emergence of a more immediate concern in the growing war in Vietnam, led to an eclipse of widespread anti-nuclear activism. Nonetheless, several pro-disarmament organizations that emerged in the 1950s survived, ready to be revived when the times allowed such.
The actual impact of the positive moves that resulted from the 1954-64 peace movement was more than matched by major moves in the other direction. As has been typical for American militarists ever since World War II, acceptance of modest limitations masked efforts greatly to expand the arsenal in general. Along with the effort by the American militarists to avoid letting this new arms control regime actually challenge their core agenda, in the 1960s the Soviets, for probably the only time during the Cold War, actually took major strides in challenging the U.S. dominance.
The humiliation the Soviets faced in the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s led to the removal of Nikita Khrushchev from leadership and a renewed effort greatly to expand the Soviet arsenal in order to approach something like genuine parity with the United States. As a consequence, the global threat of nuclear destruction significantly increased following the arms control measures Khrushchev and John Kennedy achieved. Yet, partly due to being placated by the positive gains the movement did achieve and partly due to having its energy turned to the more immediate problem of America’s greatly expanded war on Vietnam, the anti-nuclear movement became a greatly diminished force by the end of the 1960s and remained such throughout most of the 1970s.
Antiwar activism
In the 1960s, peace activists turned their energies in another direction. The expansion of the American war effort in Southeast Asia gradually met with resistance (see Charles DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era). As with the anti-nuclear movement, the antiwar effort never coalesced into a large, unified force—and, as with the anti-nuclear movement, the antiwar effort did not succeed in gaining its core goals. Yet, also as with the anti-nuclear movement, the antiwar effort did accomplish a gargantuan task in the face of an intransigent state committed to expanded militarism: it helped prevent the worst case scenario from occurring.
Organized opposition to the Vietnam War began in the early 1960s with the witness of many of the pacifist organizations we have met already—the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Catholic Worker, the War Resisters League, and the American Friends Service Committee (with its allied organization, the Friends Committee on National Legislation). In time, war opposition expanded greatly and in many ways departed from its pacifist roots.
The basic stance of most of these pacifist organizations in the early 1960s was one of principled opposition to Cold War militarism and to an American foreign policy that tended to respond to the efforts of formerly colonized peoples to gain self-determination with military interventions. The anti-nuclear weapons movement provided the foundation for the emergence of the anti-Vietnam War movement that succeeded it in the mid-1960s.
The critique that emerged focused on four concerns. First, critics argued that the American military intervention was immoral. By this time, Americans were beginning to implement “scorched earth” policies such as the use of napalm, highly toxic chemical defoliants, and the forced relocation of peasants. Second, critics strongly doubted whether it would ever be possible, especially through the method of massive military violence, for the US to cultivate a genuinely independent, anti-communist South Vietnam (the stated goal of the intervention). Third, this intervention quite likely would endanger rather than enhance, regional and global political stability. Finally, expanding this war in the face of domestic dissent would lead to a stifling of this dissent with disastrous consequences for American democracy.
These four points remained at the heart of the antiwar argument for the next decade. The pacifist elements of the movement especially focused on the moral critique. They articulated persuasive arguments—but the broader antiwar movement tended to focus on the pragmatic parts of the critique. As the war’s lack of success became more apparent, even in the face of the Johnson administration’s dramatic expansion, opposition widened. But with the widening of the movement, many pacifist concerns were marginalized.
A particularly important fruit of the activists’ antiwar work was the development of an alternative narrative to the government’s pro-war propaganda. For example, the journal Liberation, largely founded and sustained by the War Resisters League, provided an outlet for thorough and sophisticated examinations of American policies and their consequences. The Friends and Mennonites, among others, provided an important resource by sending young people, often conscientious objectors performing alternative service, to Vietnam to engage in relief and development service. These on-the-ground participants supplied first person witness to the devastating consequences of the American intervention (see Keith Graber Miller, Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves: American Mennonites Engage Washington ).
The Catholic Worker peace witness provided a powerful catalyst for what came to be some of the most widespread and influential expressions of Christian antiwar activity. Several young Catholic pacifists, including James Douglass, who as a graduate student in Rome had consulted with several bishops on peace issues during Vatican II, and Tom Cornell, who first burned his draft card in 1960, joined with the prominent Catholic writer-monk Thomas Merton to form the Catholic Peace Fellowship (CFP) in 1964. CFP members Daniel Berrigan and his fellow priest brother Phil, became prominent antiwar activists during the Vietnam years. Both brothers sustained their radical pacifist witness in the decades following.
Nixon’s hostility
Though Richard Nixon defeated Johnson’s vice-president Hubert Humphrey in the closely contested 1968 presidential election by claiming to have a “secret plan” for peace, he came into office planning to squash the anti-war movement. “For Nixon, antiwar activists were not communists. They were worse. They were Americans whose attack on the creed of global toughness represented an irresolution which for the president was the Achilles’ heal of democracy” (DeBenedetti). With this attitude, Nixon followed Johnson’s approach in trying to discredit war opponents at anti-American with the help of often illegal activities by the CIA and FBI.
In the fall of 1969, the antiwar movement organized its largest protests, the October Moratorium. At this point, a clear majority of American people polled identified themselves as “doves” (55%) rather than “hawks” (31%) and about 80% were “fed up and tired of the war.” Yet, fewer than half of those polled supported the Moratorium action and about 60% agreed with Nixon’s contention that “antiwar demonstrations aided the enemy.”
The antiwar movement gained strength by 1971 from an influx of veterans who, with great credibility, spoke against the war. Another element that increased its influence was the draft resistance movement, and the willingness of potential draftees to seek conscientious objector status. By 1971, the Selective Service System had become overwhelmed with protests and appeals for reclassification and reached the point of collapse, leading the Nixon Administration to end the draft in 1972.
For almost certainly the first time in world history, a massive protest movement opposing a nation’s war arose in the midst of the war being fought. The antiwar movement clearly restrained the war-making proclivities of the American government—during the Vietnam War and in the years since. In the end, even after Nixon’s resignation in disgrace as a result of his illegal efforts to undermine the antiwar movement, the American government’s support for the war could well have continued indefinitely had not Congress finally pulled the plug on funding—due largely to the impact of the antiwar movement. After thirty years of continuously conscripting young Americans into the military, widespread resistance to the draft brought it, seemingly permanently, to an end.
And yet, the antiwar movement did not turn the tide against American militarism. Those responsible for the U.S. entering and prosecuting this terrible and self-destructive war suffered few repercussions. American militarism survived this period more or less intact, ready for reinvigoration in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan’s contra war in Central American and expansion of nuclear weapons programs. In the years after 9/11/2001 with the “war on terror,” militarism expanded yet more. This sustenance of militarist dynamics even in the face of such a major failure as Vietnam stands as witness to the transformation wrought by the creation and sustenance of the American National Security State directly as a consequence of the nation’s investment in total war during World War II.
The key element of the story of the opposition to the Vietnam War indeed may not be the movement’s ineffectiveness nearly so much as the intransigence of the American federal government. Key policy makers realized after Lyndon Johnson’s decision to expand the American military intervention that the war was unwinnable already in the mid-1960s. The realization eventually spread to the highest levels (e.g., Johnson’s defense secretary Robert McNamera and eventually Johnson himself). Yet the U.S. continued to visit tremendous destruction upon this small corner of the world for nearly a decade more—mainly for the purpose of international appearances. Sustaining this war profoundly damaged American democracy despite the extraordinary efforts of the antiwar movement.
Renewed opposition to nuclear weapons
After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, activists turned the focus of their concern back on the arms race. They gained hope from the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, a victory in part based on Carter campaigning as a peace candidate. He entered office with sincere hopes to help stem the momentum toward an accelerated arms race. He early challenged the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to reduce America’s nuclear arsenal significantly; rather than being satisfied with “arms control,” Carter hoped to achieve “disarmament.”
According to James Carroll, Carter “grasped that the initiative in the arms race had more or less consistently belonged to the United States: the Soviet buildups in the late 1940s, the early 1950s, the early to mid-1960s, and the 1970s had followed in each case America’s initiative to enhance its arsenal. America deployed its atomic bomb in 1945; Moscow did it in 1949. America’s intercontinental bomber came in 1948, Moscow’s in 1955. America’s hydrogen bomb in 1952, Moscow’s in 1955. America’s submarine-launched ballistic missile in 1960, Moscow’s in 1968. America’s multiple-warhead missile in 1964, Moscow’s in 1973. And now America was ahead on the long-range cruise missile. If America could take the lead on the way up the arms ladder, why not on the way down?” (James Carroll, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power).
As it turned out, Carter was not up to the challenge. He did not find a way to exercise his authority effectively in face of the intransigence of the American war system, both inside the Pentagon and outside the official government. By the end of his one term in office, Carter had actually initiated major increases in military spending.
At the urging of the American government in 1979 (with Carter in office), the nations that were part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) announced a decision to expand significantly nuclear weaponry stationed in western and southern Europe. In response, anti-nuclear activists in Europe issued a widely endorsed statement in opposition to the deployment of NATO’s new nuclear weapons and to the presence of nuclear weapons at all in Western Europe. This statement, the “European Nuclear Disarmament Appeal” (END), was issued in hopes of stimulating a widespread disarmament movement. That hope was fulfilled over the course of the next several years (see Lawrence S. Wittner, Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement 1971 to the Present).
The END movement organized massive demonstrations throughout Western Europe. The emergence of the END movement helped stimulate a major revival of the work of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), a British organization that had been active during the 1950s/1960s movement but had become mostly moribund by the mid-1970s. The membership of CND grew rapidly, jumping from 4,000 to 100,000 between 1979 and 1984. The success of the European anti-nuclear movement was seen in NATO’s decision 1987 to withdraw the nuclear weapons whose deployment in 1980 had triggered the rebirth of the movement.
The attempt to “freeze” nuclear weapon development
Parallel with the emergence of this mass movement in Europe, in the United States anti-nuclear activism also was re-energized. Two key expressions of this activism were the Freeze movement that gained great traction and the Plowshares movement, a much smaller, intense effort to raise public awareness of the problems with nuclear weaponry.
The formal nuclear freeze campaign began with a conference in Washington, DC, only two months after Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration. This campaign did not succeed in fully achieving its goals. However, its challenge to Reagan’s militarism from the very beginning of his presidency prevented the arms race causing even more damage. The freeze campaign gained wide support from its beginning, quickly becoming perhaps the most successful American grassroots movement of the twentieth century. Within a couple of months of the initial conference, hundreds of city councils and state legislatures around the country passed versions of the freeze resolution. Official bodies in 43 states passed the resolution. More than a million people signed freeze petitions a few weeks. Two out of three congressional districts across the country had freeze chapters.
In a somewhat desperate but masterful and ultimately successful shift of rhetoric, Reagan came out in 1983 as a seeming advocate of disarmament. This followed the victory of the freeze resolution in the House of Representatives in March 1983. Reagan started talking about doing away with nuclear weapons altogether. This idea of the abolition of nuclear weapons became something Reagan could suggest because of the emergence of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—a fanciful program that allegedly could obliterate incoming nuclear weapons. The SDI was never viable, mostly serving as an immense boondoggle funneling billions of dollars to the arms industry. But it worked rhetorically for Reagan. His new talk about abolishing nuclear weapons helped defuse the freeze movement just as it moved to the brink of actual legislative accomplishment.
Simultaneously with the popular and widely embraced freeze movement, another group of peace activists took a more radical stance. The leaders of this “Plowshares movement,” Daniel and Philip Berrigan, with close colleagues, practiced the public symbolic act, gaining their first wide exposure following their destruction of draft files with homemade napalm in 1968, the case of the “Catonsville Nine.” They eventually served several prison terms for their activism, and Philip left the priesthood while still devoting his life to antiwar activism.
Between 1980 and the end of the millennium, Plowshares activists performed about one hundred public actions (see Arthur J. Laffin and Ann Montgomery, eds., Swords Into Plowshares: Nonviolent Direct Action for Disarmament, Peace, Social Justice). The Plowshares movement was more about witness than social transformation. On the other hand, the Freeze movement, working in the mainstream of American society, had sought social transformation, but ended up in many ways being outflanked by Reagan’s devious use of the SDI, actually a program to escalate the arms race, to underwrite his effective use of the rhetoric of nuclear abolition.
Lawrence Wittner concludes, at the end of his authoritative three volumes on the anti-nuclear movements from 1945 to 2003, that the leaders of the great powers, with a couple of exceptions, never intended truly to achieve disarmament. These important exceptions (Olof Palme of Sweden, Andreas Papandreou of Greece, Rajiv Gandhi of India, and Mikhail Gorbachev) were happy with the emergence of the antinuclear movement.
“But most officials had a more negative view of the nuclear disarmament campaign, for it challenged their reliance upon nuclear weapons to foster national security. And yet they could not ignore the movement, either, particularly when it reached high tide. Confronted by a vast wave of popular resistance, they concluded, reluctantly, that compromise had become the price of political survival. Consequently, they began to adapt their rhetoric and policies to the movement’s program. Within a relatively short time, they replaced ambitious plans to build, deploy, and use nuclear weapons with policies of nuclear disarmament and nuclear restraint. Most of this was accomplished, it should be noted, before the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Thereafter, when the antinuclear movement waned, the nuclear arms race resumed.”
[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:

The roots of war resistance
Pacifism in face of the “good war”
Making peace through service
The role of pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement
Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War
Civil society and peacebuilding

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

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

Wednesday Miscellany: Proselytism, Parasitic Morality, and a Punch in the Mouth

I sat in on an attempted proselytism the other day. It was in the chapel at the jail. One of the young women had been pontificating about how she didn’t really believe in God, but she figured there was probably a higher power that was orchestrating things down here. Life was mostly about merging with the energy of the universe and nature and discovering how everything’s connected and all religions basically say the same thing and that it’s all about love and peace (she said this after introducing the word “perping” to my lexicon and talking about how sometimes it’s just so much fun!). She was, in other words, a well-tutored member of the burgeoning SBNR (spiritual but not religious) category of the post-Christian West.
At any rate, another young woman was quite concerned to correct her views on these matters. She wanted to talk to her about Jesus, about reading the bible more, about salvation, about freedom. There was a lot of talking past one another and generalizing assumptions and no small amount of squirming for those listening in. I generally agreed with the girl who wanted to talk about Jesus, but I, too, found the scene uncomfortable. No, don’t say it like that… Ah, that’s going to be a dead end… Maybe you should soften or modify that a bit? On and on it went. I suspect there are few pastors less comfortable with proselytism than I am.
I went home and opened Facebook later that day. I saw a pretty much unending stream of proselytism—everything from specific ways of understanding and advocating for indigenous justice to the moral urgency of embracing climate change to the evils of anti-vaxxers to the immorality of understanding sexuality and identity in the wrong ways to the perils of being the wrong kind of soccer parent to how my leadership style might be failing the church to the wearisome binary antagonisms that pass for political discourse. In each case, there was meaning andwere sinners being condemned and good news being offered. There was one right way to think and there was outer darkness for those who did not conform.
Perhaps proselytism shouldn’t make me so uncomfortable. Everyone else seems cool with it…
(I say all this partially tongue-in-cheek. The world of social media—and particularly those who go to war over ideas there—is, obviously, not exactly a representative sample.)
***
A few weeks ago, CBC’s Ideas ran an interview with Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith about his new book Atheist Overreach. Smith points out the irony of a cultural moment where some of the most stridently moralistic discourse often emerges from those who claim to be atheists. They certainly don’t have a monopoly on moralizing—this is well traveled terrain for right wing religious folks, too—but the often-atheistic progressive left trades in moral absolutes just as eagerly as those whose views they despise. Smith isn’t convinced that this works very well. The question isn’t, “Can atheists be moral?” (of course they can!) but are their moral convictions and their beliefs that these are not just their own private opinions but public truth coherent? Can anything like an “inherent human right” be produced by naturalistic philosophy? Can a moral imperative be read off of nature? Can an unencumbered “is” ever produce a binding “ought?”
At one point, Smith pointed out an interesting and very timely conundrum. Those who are often most keen to (quite rightly, in my view) criticize and protest against the strong-man politics of leaders like Donald Trump have the fewest (coherent) moral resources from which to draw in their protest. If one is an atheist, what consistent moral responses are there to someone who, in essence, says, “Who cares about your moral convictions? You can have your opinions, certainly, but I don’t have to share them. I happen to think it’s fine to make fun of disabled people and express casual disdain for immigrants and trample recklessly over norms of truth and decency at will. And I have the power, so bugger off, thank you very much.”
In other words, what happens when someone acts like Nietzsche was right—that without God, it really does all reduce to power games? We can talk about inherent human rights and dignity, we can talk about the centrality of truth and the moral duty of civility, we can express our conviction that the vulnerable and the poor and the weak ought to receive special care and attention, rather than being scapegoated. We can and we do, in fact, do all of these things, across the spectrum from morally zealous atheism to morally zealous religious belief. And this is good and necessary. Pushing back against people like Trump with incoherent moral resources is certainly far preferable to not pushing back at all.
But we should at least be honest that absent a robust conception of an Absolute Truth to lend normative force to these convictions, we are mostly just parasitically (and selectively) feeding off of religious morality.
***
Early in her career, Flannery O’Connor wrote a story called “The Barber.” It is, among other things, a parable about moral and political discourse. The main character, Rayber, is a college professor and a liberal who finds himself in a barbershop full of racist conservatives in the deep south. He sits there and endures an endless stream of vitriol and stupidity and insecurities and fears masquerading as arguments. Inwardly he fumes. He tries to push back here and there, but his responses are halting and ineffective, easily overwhelmed by ignorant bravado.
The barber tells Rayber to come back in a week with his best arguments to see if he can convince him that all the “Mother Hubbards” are right. Rayber takes him up on it. For a week, he crafts his best arguments, he writes them down, he practices them on his wife. He comes back to the barber shop armed with reason and eloquence, braced to do his moral duty.
The barber has almost forgotten about the whole thing. Rayber has to jog his memory about their deal even to get a hearing. The barber and the other patrons laugh and agree to listen to his “speech.” Rayber protests that it’s not really a “speech” as much as an opportunity for dialogue, to “discuss things sanely.” The men just guffaw and tell him to get on with things. He offers his speech. It feels like less than he had hoped it would be. It’s met with mockery and laughter—“I’ll be the first to vote for Boy Blue tomorrow morning!” Rayber seethes, particularly when he looks at George, the “colored boy” who cleans the floor and the basins of the barber shop.
The story ends with Rayber punching the barber in the mouth and the barber staring uncomprehendingly at his enraged customer. I don’t know what you gotta get so excited about… I said it was a fine speech.
I turned over the last page of the story, grimly chuckled, and thought “Well, that’s a good analogy for about 90% of the moralizing proselytism we see on Facebook every day. We yell and and mock and fume and seethe, each one of us flogged on by our moral absolutes, wherever we derive them from and however coherently we do so. And then, we do the equivalent of punch each other in the mouth and stare bewilderedly at those who can’t or won’t see what seems so obvious to us.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Christians and politics – a deep devastation or glorious triumph?

Just over a week ago was election day in Australia. After being behind in the polls for years, the Government was returned with a small majority. This was seen by most pundits as an important election, charting a course for Australia’s future. Christians seemed to be more active than in any previous election that I … Continue reading Christians and politics – a deep devastation or glorious triumph?
Syndicated from the Way?

On Innovation

A few months ago, I did something I don’t often do. I attended a candidates’ forum during a provincial election campaign. I don’t tend to expect much from politics or politicians, and my low expectations were barely met during this event. There were plenty of platitudes and evasive non-answers, plenty of posturing and sniping, plenty of “questions” from the audience that seemed like either lightly informed speeches masquerading as a queries or fastballs down the middle of the plate for a preferred candidate. This is, it seems, what passes for political discourse these days.
But there was one question that stuck with me long after the forum and the election had passed. The question was put to a specific candidate and it went something like this: “Do you consider yourself an innovator? What innovative practices and policies would you implement if elected?” The candidate’s response was awkward, inarticulate, and uncomfortable, but the basic gist of it was, “I don’t really see myself as an innovator. My strengths lie elsewhere so I leave the innovation to others.” I had little doubt that this was true. I also had little doubt that this was the wrong answer. To out yourself as “not an innovator” in the quest for public office is tantamount to political suicide. Not surprisingly, the candidate didn’t come close to being elected.
I’ve been thinking since that night about how I would answer a question like that. Many people’s expectations of their religious leaders are very similar to that of politicians—It’s your job to fix the problems and get us moving toward a better future! How would I have responded if asked a similar question? Well, I might have been able to dress it up in better language, but I would have said essentially the same thing. Innovation isn’t really my thing. My strengths lie elsewhere. I’m not really the guy to come up with new visions, new programs, new hooks to attract disgruntled customers. I’m much more comfortable working within existing structures and systems, sometimes pushing against the edges, sometimes reminding us of their value and why we need them. I’m not really much of an innovator.
The problem is, our cultural moment seems, to many, to demand innovation on the part of the church and its leaders. People are leaving the church in droves. The forms are thought to be stifling and unimaginative. The presentation lacking, in a world where we are never more than a click away from a better option. The theology is deemed to be oppressive, archaic, irrelevant, unfashionable, unpopular. We need innovators to reimagine, rebrand, remarket, repackage! This what the data produced by the sociologists says, but most pastors don’t need a sociologist to tell them this. We see this every week in our pews and in conversations inside and outside the church. Unless something changes, it seems, the church is in trouble. So step up, all you innovators and catalysts for change! We need you, now more than ever. It’s all enough to make a non-innovator cringe with dread.
I spent some time in this world when I was younger. People were convinced that the church needed newer music, better music, cooler coffee shops, spruced up presentations of rigid and confining understandings of Jesus, funnier dramas, “seeker sensitive” extravaganzas with bells and whistles and barbecues and balloons—the list went on and on and on. Innovation was an imperative. Jesus demanded it, for the sake of all the lost. It was exhausting. And mostly ineffective. I’m at a place in life now where I hunger for simpler things. The reading of Scripture, prayer, a few good words, some liturgies that have stood the test of time, bread and wine. These are the things that sustain me and which give me hope, even in the post-Christian wilderness.
I’ve been pondering this week’s gospel text from the gospel of John all morning as I prepare for this Sunday’s sermon (sermons themselves could use some innovation, according to many… the mode is outdated… we need something more interactive and engaging than dreary monologues from religious professionals! I’m not entirely unsympathetic to such views, even as I cling to the idea that these, too, can be redeemed…). It’s a short text, but it hits hard:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

There’s nothing particularly innovative about the command to love. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it goes at least as far back as the Torah. Jesus gives it some fresh impetus and expands it to the category of “enemy.” And in this context, the “as I have loved you” bit points to a foot washing, self-emptying, sacrificial, kenotic kind of love that was and remains revolutionary. But in the end, Jesus is reframing a very ancient commandment. How will the world know who my followers are? They will be the ones who love one another well.
It has been good for me to sit with these words today. They remind me that the church is not a marketing strategy and that faith is not a technique. Jesus does not send his disciples out as salesman with a pitch, but as those who have been loved into a different way of understanding and being in the world. He is looking for innovators, certainly, but only in when it comes to the ways in which Christ-like love will make its way in the world.
 

Syndicated from Rumblings

On Elections and Empathy

After a volatile and rancorous six weeks or so of campaigning (both by the candidates themselves and by their devoted and faithful supporters), it’s election day here in Alberta. There has been seemingly endless mud-slinging and accusations and labelling and self-serving platitudes. The UCP has mostly tried to frame this election as an overdue corrective for a staggering economy. The NDP has mostly tried to cast it as a referendum on progressive social policies. A friend commented this morning that this election might simply reveal what’s more sacred to us, sex or money. Probably not far from the truth.  At any rate, I did my duty on the way to work this morning. I sighed, and I voted.
Readers of this blog will know that I am no champion of partisan politics. I have voted across the political spectrum over my twenty-five years or so of voting, both provincially and federally. I try to stay informed, to weigh priorities, to vote for the local candidate that I think will do the most good (or the least harm). But my expectations are usually fairly low. My allegiance is to another king and a different kingdom (as I’ve written about before) and I am regularly puzzled by Christians who seem to think that politics is the primary way in which this kingdom comes.
I am also increasingly troubled by the nature of our political discourse. We are losing, it seems to me, anything like a conception that we share a common life with our fellow citizens. The realm of politics is becoming inherently adversarial. For me, this was illustrated by a relatively innocuous meme that I saw earlier in this interminable election cycle. It said something to the effect of, “Millennials, you now outnumber the boomers. Get out there and vote.” In other words, “You can defeat all of those ignorant, regressive old people with your vote. Get out there and win!” There are interesting assumptions at work here. There is no notion that millennials might share a common life with their elders or that they might have overlapping interests or that—gasp!—they might occasionally have something to learn from them. No, they are simply competitors, full stop. These kinds of assumptions abound on both sides of an increasingly polarized political sphere.
I find this trend deeply problematic. People who vote and think differently than me are no longer fellow citizens who have different views and who might calibrate priorities differently, they are very bad, very stupid people. They are enemies of all that is good and decent in the world. They are ____phobes and _____ists. They exist to be defeated by right-thinking people like me. Perhaps someday they will come to see the light like I do, but until then, they must be defanged, contained, mocked and belittled. This is the state of our political discourse these days.
I think that whatever else might be said about the above, at the very least it represents a failure of empathy, of the ability to try to see something from a perspective beyond your own. Over the weekend, I listened to an episode from NPR’s Invisibilia called “The End of Empathy.” It’s not about politics, per se, but it does paint a picture of our cultural moment that extends into the political sphere and well beyond. It contrasted the approaches of two reporters, both women, one middle-aged, one younger, who were given the task of telling the story of a recovering “incel” (about the most odious category of young men that you might imagine these days). The middle-aged reporter was more inclined to try to humanize the young man, to try to understand what could produce such a view of women and the world, and to even consider the possibility of a something like a redemption narrative in the way his story was unfolding. The younger reporter was not. The young man simply represented a category of humanity that was beyond the pale. His sins were too many and too great. There was no way back for him and it would be immoral to make it seem like there was.
It seemed to me, as I listened to the story, that this is a theme that reproduces itself across our public discourse, including the political sphere. We are losing the ability to see actual human beings behind the views they hold. Someone who thinks differently than us about sex or money or pipelines or education or healthcare isn’t someone to have a conversation with, they are disgusting sinners who have all but forfeited their humanity. Someone who has a different coloured sign on their front lawn is not a neighbour but an incomprehensible enemy. And so, we get what we get every election cycle: an ideological slugfest with results that swing wildly back and forth, dictated by whoever has enough people that feel like they’ve been on the wrong end of the score for the past four years.
My kids are not old enough to vote provincially this time around, but they will be by the time the federal election rolls around in fall. I don’t want them to internalize this vision of politics that we are modeling for them. I don’t want them to see a ballot in the election box as their weapon against the very bad, very stupid people. I want them to be willing to sit down with people who think differently than them and do the hard word of trying to understand them and what might motivate their priorities. I want them to see fellow citizens instead of ideological enemies to conquer. I want them learn how to live with difference responsibly, with both conviction and empathy.
I want the same for myself. And I want it for you, too, dear reader. If you have made it this far, and if you happen to live in Alberta and are voting today, and if you happen to be inclined toward weaponizing your social media feed later today either in exultant glee or righteous indignation, perhaps consider a different approach. Maybe have a conversation with someone you disagree with instead. Or ask, “I wonder why they might calibrate their priorities differently than I do?” Or consider a slightly more charitable interpretation than, “They’re an idiot.” We really have to do better, I think. Today is as good a day as any to give “better” a try.
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Image source. 

Syndicated from Rumblings

Jesus Was Not a [Socialist]

Article by Dan Kent Our political climate right now exhausts me. The fracturing. The bullying. The ideological mobs. I feel like I’m surrounded by a hundred Towers of Babel babbling at me all day long, pummeling me with endless propaganda and page-after-page of facts. “Look at the facts!” they implore. ...
The post Jesus Was Not a [Socialist] appeared first on Greg Boyd - ReKnew.

Syndicated from Greg Boyd – ReKnew

Jesus Was a Socialist

Many Christians think socialism is at odds with their faith. But Jesus taught (and the early church modeled) principles very much in line with socialist thinking. Let’s take a look at the many things Jesus had to say on this subject.
Syndicated from Hippie Heretic

Podcast: How Do We Talk About Politically Charged Topics?

Greg gets charged-up talking about ‘talking about politically charged topics.’ Send Questions To: Dan: @thatdankent Email: askgregboyd@gmail.com Twitter: @reKnewOrg http://traffic.libsyn.com/askgregboyd/Episode_0463.mp3 Subscribe: iTunes | Stitcher | Google Play | RSS
The post Podcast: How Do We Talk About Politically Charged Topics? appeared first on Greg Boyd - ReKnew.

Syndicated from Greg Boyd – ReKnew

Say No to the Douglas County Jail Expansion

This is the public comment that I gave to the Douglas County Commission on February 20, 2019, regarding their proposal to hire a construction manager for the jail expansion project: The Douglas County jail population has grown 15 times faster than our general population since 2011. And I have not heard any good explanations as to…
Syndicated from Spacious Faith

Socialism and capitalism: Two exhausted labels (Looking West #4)

Ted Grimsrud—February 19, 2016
When I was trying to find some glimmers of hope after the 2016 election, I wrote in a blog post that one of my thoughts was that hopefully we would see the renewed interest in progressive politics stirred by the Bernie Sanders campaign expanded. It does seem that that has happened. We certainly are getting more conversations about “socialism,” a word earlier in my lifetime generally only heard on the public airwaves as a cussword.
A lack of clear meaning
I welcome these conversations. Just yesterday, Kathleen and I listened to a couple of podcasts with interviewees talking about socialism in a positive way—one the renowned Harvard historian Jill Lepore and the other Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Breunig. But I was actually troubled by something. I never truly got a sense of what the word “socialism” means these days—or, for that matter, what “capitalism” means. Lepore even said that “socialism” doesn’t really mean anything, but then proceeded to use the term as if it did mean something.
I believe that something real is being advocated by politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. But I’m not sure it should be called “socialism”—though I get why they might want to use that term to indicate that they are seeking something different than the standard corporate liberalism of mainstream Democrats. Still, the term does not seem to me to be helpful. When Bernie and AOC advocate for “socialism” and Trump uses his State of the Union address to insist that “we will never have socialism” in the US, it seems all we are getting is fuel for our polarizations.
And maybe it is even worse when someone such as Lepore uses the word “capitalism” seemingly as an accurate term for our current economic system that is characterized mainly by unrestrained corporate oligopolies and monopolies. Such use ignores differences between our current system and the actual practice of competitive, free market oriented economics.
Perhaps it was an expression of capitalism when Bill Pruett moved to Elkton, Oregon, when I was in high school and opened an Arco gas station just west of town. He triggered a gas war where Joe Bishop’s Chevron and Walt Esslinger’s Texaco stations had to lower their prices to compete. But that was quite a different dynamic than our current situation where gas prices at the pump are set by a small handful of big corporations leaving the local station owners no slack for competing with their neighboring rivals.
These two words, “socialism” and “capitalism,” do not seem to be capable any more of doing the work useful words do. They seem more like exhausted labels that mainly serve as cudgels for unhelpful and polarizing posturing. They do not help us communicate and find common understandings and possible common ground for important conversations about the direction of our society.
Market-oriented economics not necessarily bad
Back in the late 1970s, I read insightful writers such as E. F. Schumacher and Barry Commoner who helped me see that a market-oriented economy is not a bad thing when it spurs innovation and meets the actual needs of people. And to see that monopolistic, corporatist, state-dominated, and other anti-democratic practices are what’s bad—whether the Soviet version or the American version (later, James C. Scott reinforced these points in his book, Seeing Like a State, arguing that the problem is centralization).
Which approach is capitalist? That depends on how we define the term. If we center on free markets and the enhancement of fair competition, then capitalism is something that can enhance democracy. But if we center on the ruthless quest for ever-increasing profits that invariably leads to centralization and reducing free competition, then capitalism undermines democracy. I tend to think that we should never refer to the latter focus simply as “capitalism” but should call it “corporatism” or “monopoly capitalism”—and make clear that it is antithetical to democracy.
“Socialism” or simply “democracy”?
And what about socialism? Certainly our current “socialist” leaders are the polar opposite in their views from what was usually called “socialism” back in the 1970s—i.e., the Soviet Union and Eastern and Central Europe. Of course, we have also long had the model of the Scandinavian-style of social organization that has often been called “socialism” as in social democracy. These are two very different models. But because they are both called “socialist,” I wonder whether the term is essentially irredeemable. I think we could accurately use “social democracy” for a political philosophy that places human wellbeing above corporate greed and affirms investing in public good over being consistently deferential to the wishes of the rich and powerful.
I actually am most attracted to advocating a strengthening of the stand alone term “democracy”—meaning something similar to what others have recently called “deep democracy” [Cornell West] or “radical democracy” [Romand Coles; Sheldon Wolin]. The heart of the notion to me actually has an anarchistic kind of tinge in that it emphasizes self-determination and a suspicion of all tendencies toward centralized, top down power (be it state-centered or corporation-centered).
A more vital democracy would mean, among other dynamics, an even playing field (or better) for locally-owned small businesses vis-à-vis the big boxes; access for voting for everyone; a guaranteed living wage; an end to big money dominating politics; universal healthcare; rebuilt infrastructure with union jobs; revitalized labor movement in general; renewable energy; support for family farms; et al. None of this is socialistic per se, none is contrary to market-oriented (non-monopolistic and corporatist) capitalism.
For a future post, I will reflect on how this notion of democracy is actually pretty biblical. I was interested that Jill Lepore, in her interview mentioned Eugene Debs, America’s great socialist, as actually a kind of social gospeler. I also hope soon to read Gary Dorrien’s recent books on the black social gospel. He’s trying to recover a vital American tradition that has a lot to offer us today.
[This is the next in a series of blog posts under the rubric of “Looking West” that will include reflections on numerous issues of our current day—politics, theology, memoirs, spirituality, and what not. An index for the series may be found at “Looking West.”]

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

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