peace movement

Incubating Peaceful Revolution

IN NOVEMBER 1964, as the long Cold War heated up again, this time in Vietnam, Trappist monk Thomas Merton set forth a koan to 14 peacemakers: “By what right do Christians protest?” For three days, these activists and theologians—famously uniting Catholic and Protestant faith traditions—met with Merton in the Kentucky hills, grappling with how and why Christians should resist the violence of war.

Historian Gordon Oyer has re-created this meeting so pivotal to the peace movement and—most important—assessed its meaning for our time. The historic retreat is meticulously sourced with detailed textual analysis of the presenters at the retreat and the writers who influenced them. Particularly impressive is the lucid summary of the era and the delicacy and respect with which the author treats cultural and doctrinal differences among the participants.

Ecumenism in peace work is thankfully common today, but in the early ’60s the blending of faith traditions at the retreat was groundbreaking. Even more revolutionary were the two Masses the group celebrated together, with Jesuit priest Dan Berrigan presiding, everyone in the group receiving communion, and John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite theologian, preaching at the second liturgy. (Both practices were proscribed at the time.)

Attendees included Phil Berrigan, later one of the creators of the Plowshares actions for nuclear disarmament, and A.J. Muste, dean of the U.S. peace movement at the time, with years of experience in War Resisters League, the Committee for Nonviolent Action, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). FOR’s Paul Peachey and John Heidbrink were instrumental in initiating and organizing the retreat, although neither of them could attend in the end. (Neither could two other invitees—Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr.)

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Toward an Evangelical Peace Movement

Billy Sunday was the most famous evangelist in America during the first two decades of the 20th century. Without the aid of loudspeakers, TV or radio, Sunday preached to over 100 million people the classic evangelical gospel that remains familiar to many people today. Repent and believe in Jesus, who died on the cross for your sins, and be saved from eternal damnation. The simplicity of Sunday’s message prompted millions of early 20th century Americans to examine the state of their souls and consider their eternal fates. Yet when it came to conscientious objectors during World War I, Sunday spared no mercy:

The man who breaks all the rules but at last dies fighting in the trenches is better than you God-forsaken mutts who won’t enlist.

Throughout our nation’s history, it’s been an axiom that Presidents lead us into wars, while Christians provide the flags and the crosses. Barring a few notable exceptions — Anabaptists, Quakers, and early Pentecostals — evangelical fervor has often promoted an uncritical nationalism that baptizes American military adventures with religious legitimacy. It’s no coincidence that the setting of Mark Twain’s famous War Prayer —in which Twain delivers a devastating critique of the use of religion to justify imperialism — is a Protestant Christian church. Given the historical record, it may seem the deck is stacked against American evangelicals organizing into a comprehensive peace movement — yet that’s exactly what’s happening.

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