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The Original Peaceniks

CommonwealMy review of Joseph Kip Kosek’s Acts of Conscience appears in this week’s Commonweal. The online version is subscription-only, but the magazine is well worth picking up at your local newsstand.

In his new history of Christian nonviolence from World War I to Vietnam, Joseph Kip Kosek asks what this movement has offered American democracy, and how much of the offer has been accepted. The book is largely about a single organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), founded in the first months of World War I by European and American liberal Protestant pacifists. The quietism of the historic peace churches—Mennonites, Quakers, and the Brethren—keeps them on the margins of Kosek’s story. Acts of Conscience follows the Fellowship through its resistance to two world wars, skillfully explains its complex ties with labor during the interwar period, and ends with the triumph of the civil-rights movement.

Above all, Kosek’s book reveals the ongoing tension and resonance between democracy and the tradition of nonviolent resistance. The civil-rights movement, above all, has been adopted as one of the great triumphs of American politics. Yet Kosek shows that the convictions and strategies which helped fuel the movement come out of a pacifist tradition that remains virtually unacknowledged in the popular narrative.

An attentive reader of Acts of Conscience will surely conclude what Martin Luther King, Jr. came to realize at the end of his life—that achieving civil rights at home is meaningless and untenable as long as we pursue unjust wars abroad.