Acts of Conscience, Part I


Paul Harvey

Following up on our introduction to our
Acts of Conscience series, today I'll finish up some thoughts on Kip Kosek's work. Later we'll have Kip's thoughts on Steve Taylor's Acts of Conscience, and I'll follow up later with more on other works on religiously inspired nonviolence and 20th century American history, including the new work by Patricia Applebaum.

First, I'll reprint my initial post; and then move on to further thoughts. A few months ago I introduced the book (which I had just started) with the following:

[from previous post]: With all that in mind [referring to a discussion of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian "realism"), perhaps it's a good time to take a cold bath and feel a little uncomfortable chill from all this necessary but sometimes impoverishing realism. I felt a little bit of that chill yesterday evening as I was just cracking open Kip Kosek's Acts of Conscience, which I just mentioned here at the blog a couple of days ago. I'm no further than the introduction, but the author grabbed my attention immediately with this passage:

". . . the tough liberals of the mid-twentieth century [ignored] the Christian nonviolent tradition's most profound insight. The problem of the twentieth century, the pacifists contended, was the problem of violence. . . . It was, above all, the fact of human beings killing one another with extraordinary ferocity and effectiveness. . . Pacifists certainly failed to solve the problem of 'permanent war,' but the uncomfortable truth is that everyone else failed, too, even the liberal realists. Recent estimates put the total number of people killed by oranized violence in the twentieth century between 167 million and 188 million, which works out to some five thousand lives unnaturally ended every single day for a hundred years. Of course, the deaths came not at regular intervals, but rather in concentrated spasms unprecedented in their destructive power. . . We should take radical Christian pactifists seriously not because they were always right, but because they force us, as they forced their contemporaries, to confront these terrible truths. They insisted more emphatically, more sanely, than Niebuhr and the realists that the elimination of violence was not mere tilting at windmills but the most urgent modern project. "

Kosek focuses his book on the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a group with which Niebuhr was intimately involved during his time at Union Seminary. In researching Freedom's Coming, I encountered Niebuhr as an inspirational professor who sent a remarkable number of idealists on projects (I was focusing on civil rights) that must have seemed quixotic at the time. Discovering the inspiration for the likes of Howard Kester, James Dombrowski, Myles Horton, and others was exhilarating, and Niebuhr was central to the expansive dreams of this lot. The liberal realists of that era had no answer to American apartheid; the dreamers did.

Later, Niebuhr moved out of the religious left of the day and into a vision of liberal realism;that's the Niebuhr primarily that is celebrated today. Kosek has a less celebratory take: "the decline of the Fellowship's strain of radical Christianity has not led to enlightened secularism, but rather to an impoverishment of political discourse about violence."

Now, further reflections after completing the text. First, Nathan Schneider has a thoughtful review of the book at Commonweal -- you'll have to subscribe or find a copy in the library, but here's a clip from his website which captures what is probably the single most important point:

Above all, Kosek’s book reveals the ongoing tension and resonance between democracy and the tradition of nonviolent resistance. The civil-rights movement, above all, has been adopted as one of the great triumphs of American politics. Yet Kosek shows that the convictions and strategies which helped fuel the movement come out of a pacifist tradition that remains virtually unacknowledged in the popular narrative.

Next, here's another irony of American history. The principle intellectual proponent and apostle of nonviolent resistance in twentieth-century American history, Richard Gregg (author of the seminal text The Power of Nonviolence), was born in Colorado Springs in 1885. I can only imagine what Richard Gregg would think of the city now, as he would survey a local economy completely dominated by, and dependent on, the military-industrial complex. (I’m fully complicit in that -- without the military, my university wouldn’t exist, and besides “Professional Golf Management,” a big growth industry for the university presently is in “Homeland Security Studies,” in which we offer a Ph.D. What would Richard Gregg do?). But in 1885 Colorado Springs was a utopian community, founded by a Quaker. It was powered by coal, and ultimately that would introduce the violent class conflict that the city's founder sought to avert/ignore, but the Civil War general who founded the town not long before Gregg's birth hoped to create a place of permanent peace and order.

It’s fascinating in the text to watch Christian nonviolence, with very definite roots in the Christians (such as Sherwood Eddy) who populate the early part of this book and easily talked to students both about Jesus and about labor relations and “the Negro question,” transform into something more universalist, and ultimately humanist, and then in a sense become re-Christianized in the era of the civil rights movement. Partly this came through the vast influence of Gandhi, whom the Fellowship of Reconciliation activists worshipped. Early FOR members called Gandhi “one of the greatest Christians of all times,” and “the Christ of our age,” basically turning him into an ideal liberal Protestant. Later, Gandhi came packaged more in his own terms. Moreover, as black humanists such as James Farmer and the Japanese YMCA member who confronted the government’s internment policy in the Supreme Court, Gordon Hirabayashi, moved into FOR, racial equality sometimes trumped a purist or absolutist Christian pacifism.

The savviest of the individuals in this book understood that a principle could become a spectacle, and indeed that it must become a spectacle if it was to draw sufficient public attention to make a difference. It was all well and good to tie in nonviolence with challenges to “capitalism, imperialism, racism, and war”; it was another, and something more effective to make Christian nonviolence a complex strategy as well as a religious conviction.” (50) Long before the kinds of people covered in recent texts, the radicals in this book understood race in global rather than national terms, and understood racial violence as a sub-species of the problem of violence more generally. The racial problem was, for them, “contiguous with the problem of violence.”

A key moment in this book comes when Richard Gregg sailed to India in 1925. He had discovered, through his work with the National Labor Relations Board during World War One and in the strikes of the early 1920s, that “neither the rational methods of legal professionalism nor the fearsome power of violent action had done much to solve the problems of modern society” (92-93).

Richard Gregg’s classic 1934 text Power of Nonviolence enunciated his philosophy. Reinhold Niebuhr, already moving away from the Fellowship of Reconciliation even though he had been instrumental in its early days, critiqued it in 1934. “He maintained that no clear line separated violence from nonviolence. By entering into politics, pacifists had to relinquish their allegiance to absolute values. . . . Modern pacifism was a ‘religious absolutism’ that led its proponents into a preference for tyranny’ over war.” (151). Gregg was not the same as the sectarian perfectionists of past who practiced non-resistance but disavowed politics. Returning the fire, the radical Christian pacifists charged that Niebuhr and the postwar realists”had failed to reckon with the costs of establishing war as an institution in American life” (157).

The radical pacifists in this book really had no answer to the dilemmas confronting western democracies during World War Two; they tended instead during those years to focus on honing nonviolence in issues such as the internment policy and the conjunction of racism and violence in America. By this time, Bayard Rustin had joined the “Union 8” in jail during the war. In one key incident understood to be emblematic for those (including a white Texan named Glenn Smiley, who later became instrumental in the early days of the civil rights struggle) who were around to witness it, a white prisoner began beating Rustin, who was conducting lectures on nonviolent resistance. Other conscientious objectors began protecting Rustin, but he ordered them to stop, and he absorbed the blows without resisting. “The man soon ceased his assault, and Rustin’s friends considered the incident a victory for nonviolent resistance” (169).

After the war, the power of nonviolence soon became evident. Glenn Smiley and others from CORE and FOR infused the Montgomery boycott with moral and Christian imagery, even while understanding that it was “dependent on the creation and manipulation of mass mediated spectacles, images, and illusions” -- what King later called “moral dramatizations.” By this point, Kosek points out, Glenn Smiley and his comrades exercised a lot more direct influence on King than Niebuhr did. At a number of points, Kosek argues strongly that Niebuhr has been overrated as an influence on the civil rights movement. As if to prove that point, King authored a preface to the new 1959 edition of The Power of Nonviolence, pleasing Richard Gregg, who began to see history moving in his direction at last.

Gregg’s ideas extended far beyond moral dramatizations and spectacles, for he still thought a complete restructuring of the labor system would be necessary for the moral foundations of nonviolence to be complete. He was a true Gandhian in that sense.

King wasn’t buying that, at least not yet. For King and others, “the power of authentic labor proved less efficacious than the power of representation.” Kosek ends the main part of the text with some powerful sentences on nonviolence as a philosophy and as a spectacle:

Christian nonviolence succeeded by developing sophisticated public spectacles in the service of ambitious moral demands. . . . The Journey of Reconciliation, the sociodramas, the King-Smiley bus ride--all were feats of existential courage, all were religious rituals, and all were shrewd attempts to gain political power by securing the sympathy of spectators. To focus solely on the act of personal religious faith is to succumb to a sentimental belief in individual saintliness. To focus solely on the spectacular act performed for media audiences is to turn a tin ear to the real power of religious belief in the modern world. Christian nonviolent acts were . . . simultaneously spiritual and strategic.

A shorter version of some of the ideas in Kip's text may be found in Joseph Kip Kosek,"Richard Gregg, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Strategy of Nonviolence," Journal of American History 91 (March 2005): 1318-1348, available here (JSTOR access required). His summary of Richard Gregg's influence, from the article:

More than any other single figure, Gregg taught American pacifists and social reformers that nonviolence was more than an ethical or religious principle; it was also a self-conscious method of social action with its own logic and strategy. Specifically, he argued that the method, particularly when it involved suffering, became a dramatic performance that would elicit guilt and shame from opponents and sympathy from onlookers. Gregg's theories were the result of an unprecedented transnational exchange. In the 1920s he took up residence in India, where he befriended Gandhi and became the first American to make an extensive study of the Indian independence movement. He believed that Gandhi was developing a comprehensive counter-modernity, a more humane alternative to Western civilization that would use modern scientific knowledge to create a simplified, decentralized, peaceful, and ecologically balanced culture. But Gregg's lasting and original contribution to American politics and intellectual life was his explication and modification of the Indian leader's nonviolent techniques. For Gregg, as for generations of pacifists before him, the rejection of violence was a fundamental religious imperative. Yet the "power of non-violence" drew on more than divine mandate; it also depended on the insights of modern psychology, the influence of mass media, and the experience of mass spectatorship. In his fusion of principle and spectacle, he hoped to rescue and revitalize democratic practice. That King was the person who came closest to fulfilling that goal was only one of the surprises in Gregg's unlikely career.

Tomorrow, I'll put up Kip's post about Steve Taylor's
Acts of Conscience.


newer post older post