The Common Good
January-February 2001

Nonviolent Legacies

by Dan Buchanan | January-February 2001

Since 1915, the Fellowship of Reconciliation has been the most influential faith-based
peace organization in the United States and, indeed, the world.

Since 1915, the Fellowship of Reconciliation has been the most influential faith-based peace organization in the United States and, indeed, the world. The FOR exposed the insanity of World War I, promoted nonviolent responses to the Holocaust, fought Cold War nuclear proliferation, introduced active nonviolence to the civil rights movement, and pioneered a dialogue among Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Native American peacemakers. Now, to mark the FOR's 85th anniversary, Walter Wink has distilled nearly a century of peacemaking wisdom in this collection of essays drawn from FOR publications. Many of the classic peace essays—from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence" to Thich Nhat Hanh's "Being Peace"—appeared in the pages of Fellowship or its predecessors.

Though the diversity of voices is remarkable, the collection reveals the abiding legacy of three individuals: Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Reinhold Niebuhr. The book's title is a quote from Gandhi, and he is mentioned in roughly half the essays, by authors as diverse as the German Lutheran Martin Niemoeller, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and the Irish Nobel laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire. Most often, Gandhi appears as the apostle of active nonviolence—in King's words, "the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interactions between individuals to a powerful and effective social force." Gandhi helped Western Christians recognize that Jesus' "cheeky" resistance to violence offered an alternative to both just war theory and the social withdrawal of many peace churches.

Martin King appears in the text as the most important American practitioner of Gandhian nonviolence. Essays by Glenn Smiley, James Farmer, Vincent Harding, and King himself underscore the continuity between Gandhi and King and the FOR's important role in training civil rights activists in Gandhian nonviolence. These essays remind us that nonviolence is a tactic not only for peace activists but also for all who fight against racism, poverty, and oppression.

Several essays grappling with the FOR's prodigal son, Reinhold Niebuhr, are the book's most intriguing. Niebuhr began his career as FOR president, but with the rise of fascism in Europe, he defected to promote a "realistic" use of violence on behalf of justice. Niebuhr's critique stemmed from the Augustinian theology of original sin. Failure to acknowledge the reality of sin, Niebuhr argued, led liberal pacifists to expect easy victories and to sacrifice justice for the sake of peace.

The essayists who respond to Niebuhr do not speak with one voice. Most value his emphasis on justice and insist on the need for a nonviolent revolution. But they differ in their response to Niebuhr's pessimistic assessment of human nature. John Swomley agrees with him, but argues for an "apocalyptic" pacifism that acknowledges our inability to overcome violence by ourselves. Henri Nouwen admits that humans are sinful, but finds this sinfulness primarily in "the voice of self-loathing" that keeps us from working for peace. G. H. C. Macgregor and Martin King suggest that Niebuhr was right to stress human depravity but wrong to neglect God's sanctifying power. Niebuhr, King writes, "was so involved in diagnosing man's sickness of sin that he overlooked the cure of grace." Editor Wink, for his part, argues that Niebuhr's critique applies to "theological liberalism" but not to genuine nonviolence.

Others counter Niebuhr's pessimism with a radical faith in human nature. A.J. Muste writes that pacifists are "simply those who do what they want to do; who let the creative in them function." Mary Evelyn Jegen insists that the FOR's core vision "is a hunch, an intuition of goodness, of sheer human goodness." This sounds a lot like liberalism! It also sounds like Gandhi, who based his nonviolent strategy on the Hindu doctrine that every human soul contains a seed of divinity. Some Christian mystics champion this view, but orthodox theologians rejected it early on. Gandhi invites us to reconsider: Perhaps nonviolence is more than a supernatural grace, available only to an elect few. Perhaps it is the heart of human nature. Peace may be the way to our deepest selves.

Dan Buchanan teaches theology and peace studies at Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

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