Philosophical Nonviolence


American Nonviolence:
The History of an Idea

By Ira Chernus
2004, Orbis Books; 234 pages.
$20.00, paperback

Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies, has written American Nonviolence primarily from the religious perspective. While he includes material on the secular basis for nonviolence, most of his study involves individuals and groups who based their nonviolence on Christianity or other religions. These individuals are William Lloyd Garrison, Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Reinhold Niebuhr, A.J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Barbara Deming, and Thich Nhat Hanh. (The inclusion of Niebuhr is questionable-although he promoted nonviolence from time to time, no other Christian pastor was as influential in arguing for full support of World War II.)

Much of the book addresses the philosophical basis for individual acceptance of nonviolence. Chernus writes little about the actions of these nine individuals; it is their motivating philosophies that interest him most, as he analyzes the strengths and weaknesses in their thinking. Yet how much such philosophical factors influence activists is a matter of question. The effective use of mass nonviolence in India, Poland, the U.S. civil rights movement, and the movement for women's suffrage involved thousands who knew little of the various philosophical bases for their nonviolent actions.

Some of the author's choices are puzzling. Why, for instance, would the discussion of Quaker pacifism end with the contributions of John Woolman in the 18th century? Additionally, some historians would question whether William Lloyd Garrison was the leading 19th-century proponent of nonviolence in the United States since, unlike his contemporaries Elihu Burritt and Adin Ballou, he set aside his pacifism to support the Union cause in the Civil War. Moreover, in discussing influences on Martin Luther King Jr., Chernus mentions Niebuhr, Christian philosopher Paul Tillich, and Gandhi, but not Bayard Rustin or A. J. Muste.

The author's final chapter, a conclusion in which he compares the strong and weak points of the various bases for nonviolence, is the book's most interesting section. Although he leans strongly toward the religious motivations for pacifism, he sees merit in Barbara Deming's secular approach and synthesizes them in his final position.

Writing a book on the idea of nonviolence is daunting, and Chernus largely succeeds. Yet, while all movements need philosophical underpinnings, philosophy and ideas are not enough. This work might be supplemented with other writings, perhaps The Missing Peace, by James Juhnke and Carol Hunter. Nevertheless, American Nonviolence, thoroughly researched and well written, would prove an excellent choice for a pacifist study group.

Larry Gara

Historian and longtime WRL member Larry Gara has been a frequent contributor to the Nonviolent Activist.