Religion, War, and Peace (and Love) in West Hartford

Guy Aiken

Talk about a congenial professional atmosphere. The Peace History Society Conference at the University of Saint Joseph (Friday and Saturday, Oct 23-4) in Connecticut was full of papers talking unabashedly about the power of love in history, and full of scholars who delivered incisive critiques so gently that one could only feel grateful for their help. At least that's how I felt. But what I want to do here is more than just praise the atmosphere and quality of the conference. I want very briefly to summarize some of the US-centered papers I heard at the conference as a service to any readers of this blog who might find their own work intersecting with these papers, and who might wish to follow up with the presenters. (I'll specify institutional affiliation only for the grad student presenters to make it easier to find them on the web.)

The conference theme was "Historical Perspectives on War, Peace, and Religion." According to PHS's affable president, Kevin J. Callahan, this was the first time the Peace History Society had made "religion" a thematic focus of its biennial conference. This is remarkable, given that the histories of pacifism and peace activism are often tightly intertwined with religion and faith. Leilah Danielson (American Gandhi) pondered the apparent reluctance on the part of peace historians to talk about "supernaturalism" with her keynote address after lunch on Friday.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first round of panels started Friday morning at 9. I'm usually doing nothing with my brain at 9 in the morning, but the papers I heard from Doug Rossinow, Robert Shaffer, and Lawrence J. McAndrews woke my brain up. (RiAH's own Trevor Burrows was on a concurrent panel, so I didn't get to hear his paper.) Doug Rossinow argued that postzionism (Jewish postnationalism) could liberate the historiography of American Zionism from its narrow nationalism, and even lead non-Jewish historians to join the conversation. Robert Shaffer looked at the editorial pages of The Christian Century between 1946 and 1952 and found the editors of this leading mainline periodical decidedly cool on Truman's Cold War Policies. Lawrence McAndrews traced the Catholic bishops' support of George W Bush's war in Afghanistan in large part to a generational shift, as younger, more conservative bishops appointed by John Paul II had replaced older, more liberal bishops in the American hierarchy during the 1980s and 90s.

The second round of panels Friday morning included Nancy Gentile Ford's gripping account of chaplains in the American Expeditionary Force during the Great War. The round of panels Friday afternoon included Elizabeth Agnew's analysis of Jane Addams's "deliberative devotion" to Gandhi--Addams thought goodwill took priority over nonviolence when the latter involved coercion--and Deborah Kisatsky's elegant drawing of a straight line from American antebellum pacifist Adin Ballou to Gandhi via Leo Tolstoy. Jeffrey Meyers (Lutheran Theological Seminary in Chicago) cogently sketched the theological differences in the 1930s between advocates of nonresistance (mostly the historic peace churches) and champions of the new Gandhian nonviolence (mostly the mainline Christian pacifists).

Between the morning and afternoon sessions, Leilah Danielson delivered her keynote address. In essence she argued, as Jeffrey Kripal has about histories of liberal religion, that histories of pacifism in the United States need to get "way, way weirder" (Kripal).* They haven't included the seances alongside the strikes that many liberal Protestant pacifists were organizing after World War I. A lot of what these men and women believed has been ignored. Why? Is it because religion has become equated with conservatism and church attendance, or is it because historians just want a neater narrative? Whatever the reason, Danielson thinks an essential part of twentieth-century pacifism--supernaturalism--is missing from the historiography. And it's essential because it inspired and sustained much of the last century's peace activism. The weirdness and the work were inextricable. I wonder if part of the problem might be that peace historians tend to identify with their subjects even more than historians usually do, and not being very weird themselves (in religious matters at least), they find their subjects' supernaturalism embarrassing. And so they tend to hide or gloss over it.

The panels Saturday morning included a paper by Luther Adams (U of Washington-Tacoma) about African-American victims of police brutality who wrote to the NAACP in the 1930s and 1940s in the faith that, if they could not get justice themselves, they could at least help build momentum toward a future day of reckoning. Then a plenary session discussed the American Catholic pacifists Ben Salmon (imprisoned during WWI as a CO), Dorothy Day (who stood firm in her pacifism even during WWII), and Carl Kabat (notorious for dressing as a clown for his "actions" against nuclear weapons). Michael Baxter, Robert Russo, and Andrew Barbero delivered the respective papers. After lunch, I gave a paper on the American Friends Service Committee's daring mission to the Gestapo in December 1938 to try to negotiate the evacuation of all 150,000 of Germany's Jews and non-Aryans who were employable abroad.

Then everybody went home. I was fortunate to share a ride to the airport with Doug Rossinow and Robert Shaffer (as well as Andrew Bolton), who just a few minutes before had so perceptively yet gently probed my paper's weaknesses. I wish the PHSC were annual rather than biennial. I could use a dose of its passionate, ethical intellectualism every year. Alas, the next PHSC is not until 2017, in Kansas City. But I encourage any of you who might be interested to keep it on your radar--or to speak more peaceably, to simply keep it in mind.

*Quoted in Leigh Schmidt's introduction to American Religious Liberalism, edited by Leigh E. Schmidt and Sally M. Promey (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 9.


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