Acts of Conscience

Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy

Joseph Kip Kosek
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 376
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/kose14418
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    Acts of Conscience
    Book Description:

    In response to the massive bloodshed that defined the twentieth century, American religious radicals developed a modern form of nonviolent protest, one that combined Christian principles with new uses of mass media. Greatly influenced by the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi, these "acts of conscience" included sit-ins, boycotts, labor strikes, and conscientious objection to war.

    Beginning with World War I and ending with the ascendance of Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph Kip Kosek traces the impact of A. J. Muste, Richard Gregg, and other radical Christian pacifists on American democratic theory and practice. These dissenters found little hope in the secular ideologies of Wilsonian Progressivism, revolutionary Marxism, and Cold War liberalism, all of which embraced organized killing at one time or another. The example of Jesus, they believed, demonstrated the immorality and futility of such violence under any circumstance and for any cause. Yet the theories of Christian nonviolence are anything but fixed. For decades, followers have actively reinterpreted the nonviolent tradition, keeping pace with developments in politics, technology, and culture.

    Tracing the rise of militant nonviolence across a century of industrial conflict, imperialism, racial terror, and international warfare, Kosek recovers radical Christians' remarkable stance against the use of deadly force, even during World War II and other seemingly just causes. His research sheds new light on an interracial and transnational movement that posed a fundamental, and still relevant, challenge to the American political and religious mainstream.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51305-0
    Subjects: History, Religion, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    This book traces the history of a radical religious vanguard. The guiding principle of this group, which I call “Christian nonviolence,” has long been dismissed as marginal, eccentric, or impossibly saintly, but I take a more sophisticated approach. For these rebels, the example of Jesus showed the immorality and futility of organized violence in any circumstance and for any cause. Yet Christian nonviolence, for them, was not a matter of fixed dogma, but rather an active process of interpreting religion in the modern world. They believed that their uniquely gruesome era required new political formations and new ways of thinking....

  6. 1 Love and War
    (pp. 16-48)

    Evan Thomas and Harold Gray sailed across the Atlantic in the fall of 1917, as the United States was deepening its commitment to the war in Europe. Like thousands of their compatriots, the two young Americans worried about their fate as they prepared for a struggle against a hostile nation. However, Thomas and Gray sailed west, and the hostile nation they feared was their own. The two had been doing relief work for the Young Men’s Christian Association in England, where they had become absolute pacifists, believing that war was inherently contrary to the example set by Jesus Christ. Their...

  7. 2 Social Evangelism
    (pp. 49-84)

    In 1923, a sociology professor named Clarence Marsh Case published the first extensive scholarly analysis of nonviolence to appear in America. The book, Non-Violent Coercion: A Study in the Methods of Social Pressure, was a revision of Case’s 1915 doctoral dissertation, completed at the University of Wisconsin under the renowned sociologist Edward A. Ross. Case began with a historical survey covering major religious traditions, along with smaller Christian sects such as the Quakers and Mennonites. Then he turned to more recent developments: strikes, boycotts, conscientious objection to the Great War, and the peculiar career of a rising political leader in...

  8. 3 The Gandhian Moment
    (pp. 85-111)

    In 1930, Mohandas Gandhi reached one of the high points of his long career. He had gained some international attention during his first noncooperation campaign, which lasted from 1920 to 1922, but he was imprisoned at the end of it, and in the years after his release in 1924, writing and domestic reforms consumed his attention. Then, in the spring of 1930, he strode back onto the world stage with the famous “March to the Sea,” a protest against the British salt tax. Walking for twenty-four days with a band of devoted satyagrahis at his side and a huge crowd...

  9. 4 Gandhism and Socialism
    (pp. 112-145)

    By 1934, the year that Richard Gregg published The Power of Non-Violence, the figure of Gandhi had become an important touchstone in discussions of violence, religion, and democratic politics. So the time was as ripe as it would ever be for Thornton Wilder to invent George Marvin Brush, undoubtedly the only Middle Western Gandhian traveling salesman in all of American literature. Though Wilder was no pacifist, his interest in Gandhi made sense. The son of a diplomat, he had spent much of his youth in the Asian missionary network that shaped so many of the leaders of the Fellowship of...

  10. 5 Tragic Choices
    (pp. 146-190)

    In the tumultuous period that began with the Spanish Civil War and ended with the atomic destruction of two Japanese cities, Christian nonviolence faced its bleakest hours. In retrospect, the acrimonious debate over class warfare must have seemed like a luxury. Now the question was not about which degree of nonviolence was most ethical, but whether any kind of nonviolence had anything at all to say amid the new cataclysms. The Fellowship of Reconciliation actually grew from 8,600 members in 1937 to over 14,000 near the end of the war, but the numbers were highly deceptive.¹ They represented not a...

  11. 6 The Age of Conscience
    (pp. 191-227)

    On the evening of October 1, 1956, eight hundred black men and women packed the Hutchinson Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Such mass meetings, organized by the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), were a regular part of the bus boycott that had now been operating for several months. This assembly, though, marked a shift of emphasis for the boycott’s organizers. They did not know for certain that the Supreme Court would soon rule bus segregation unconstitutional, but they sensed that the momentum of the struggle was turning their way. So, at the October 1 meeting, Martin Luther King Jr. and...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 228-246)

    James Lawson was teaching at a Methodist missionary school in India when he first read about the Montgomery bus boycott. Lawson, who discovered Christian nonviolence during his college years in the late 1940s, had participated in some of the early sit-ins organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Congress of Racial Equality. True to his beliefs, he spent a year in prison for refusal to cooperate with the military draft during the Korean War. Then he traveled to India to learn about nonviolence in Gandhi’s homeland, obtaining upon his return a job as a Fellowship field secretary. Lawson began...

  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 247-250)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 251-302)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 303-332)
  16. Index
    (pp. 333-352)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 353-354)