Acts of Conscience

Paul Harvey

I've just had the pleasure of receiving a book derived from a dissertation that won the 2005 Allan Nevins prize (given annually to the best-written dissertation in American history): Joseph Kip Kosek's Acts of Conscience: Christian NonViolence and Modern American Democracy. It's on my spring break reading list, so I hope to post further thoughts on this new work in April. In the meantime, the author has an engaging post here at the Columbia University Press blog, which I recommend.

A brief excerpt:

Everyone admires nonviolence when it remains safely in the past, but it looks a little too exotic, too effete, and perhaps even too religious to be much help in our present moment. Does nonviolence really have anything to offer amid the violent crises exploding around the world today? Seventy-five years ago, an American pacifist named Richard Gregg confronted an essentially similar question. His 1934 book The Power of Non-Violence was the first substantial attempt by an American to imagine nonviolence as a formidable strategy in the modern world, not simply as a virtuous allegiance to high-minded ideals. Many years after its initial publication, Martin Luther King, Jr. read The Power of Non-Violence and brought its central ideas into the nascent civil rights movement. King frequently cited the book as one of his most important intellectual influences, alongside the writings of Mohandas Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau. Gregg forced King, as he forces us, to realize that nonviolence is not merely admirable or historically interesting, but fundamentally necessary.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for the recommendation. The book looks great.

When the oppressing power has a populace with a well established sense of human values, even if they are not living or governing accordingly, nonviolent resistance is much more effective than violence. Whereas violence only increases fear and may serve to justify the oppression -- a lesser of two evils, as it were -- nonviolence allows room for an appeal to the societal conscience. This is why Gandhi could take down the British colonial power and MLK could dismantle Jim Crow. In like manner, the best way to remove Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories would be through nonviolent resistance. As we've seen, Hamas's actions have only accomplished the destruction of the Israeli Left. A Palestinian Gandhi or MLK would be much more powerful.

Unfortunately, I'm not so sure about the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance against regimes that have destroyed, or at least suppressed, their society's conscience through utter brutality. In those cases, such as in Kim Il Jong's North Korea, for example, the nonviolent dissident will be a very quick matyr. But perhaps I lack faith. My Quaker grandparents would certainly say so.

Anyway, I look forward to reading this book.

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