Joseph Kip Kosek. Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy. Columbia University Press, 2009. xiii + 352pp.
This well-written book makes an important contribution to a reassessment of the significance of Christian pacifism in 20th century America. Focusing especially on the legacy of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Kosek vividly portrays a generation of peacemakers who sought with great commitment and some important successes to resist the modern world’s march to the abyss of overwhelming violence and injustice.
Kosek begins with an account of the experience of the Great War (World War I) and the disillusionment with warfare that emerged from that event. The Fellowship of Reconciliation, founded in Europe in the midst of the War as a pacifist witness to international brotherhood, established a strong foothold in the United States in the 1920s, and many of its leaders gained positions of prominence in the then culturally potent world of American Protestantism. It is difficult for present-day Americans to imagine how prominent these pacifists were, especially in urban areas such as New York and Chicago.
In a particularly interesting emphasis, Kosek recovers the memory of Richard Gregg, a remarkable pacifist idealist who apprenticed under Mahatma Gandhi himself and through numerous books exerted significant influence among pacifists who sought to apply their convictions more broadly than simply saying no to war. Gregg’s influence reached its apex during the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s when he was commonly cited by Martin Luther King, Jr., as one of his main inspirations.
Kosek tells the tragic story of the inability of the pacifists to stem the march toward World War II, and the increased marginalization of the FOR—with the important exception of the Civil Rights movement. The final, too short, chapter summarizes the evolution of pacifism in face of the disintegration of Civil Rights activism and the efforts to oppose atomic weapons and the Vietnam War.
I highly recommend this book. The writing is straightforward, clear, and engaging. The story is important, and it is told with a strong grounding in solid historical research. Kosek makes a persuasive case for the on-going relevance of the pacifist ideals and their under-recognized significance in the events of the past 100 years.
The only criticisms I can find to offer have to do with the book’s relative brevity (the main text covers only 245 pages). I would have liked more reflection on the role of the Historic Peace Churches in this story. Quakers show up throughout the book, but aren’t really given any stage time (for example, neither Rufus Jones nor Clarence Pickett, two remarkable Quaker peace leaders, receive attention). Kosek shares the lack of interest toward the Mennonite peace witness characteristic of most historians of this topic. It would also have been nice to have seen the Catholic Worker movement get more attention. Given how well Kosek writes, another 100 pages or so would not have been burdensome for the reader.
It is encouraging to have this book bring to mind again the work of a group of people who did their best to witness to an alternative to the blank check for total war most citizens gave their countries in the century of total war. This witness remains a window into the only way out for a world still all too caught up in the myth of redemptive violence.