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American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea
Ira Chernus

Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004
$20.00, 234 pages, ISBN 1-57075-547-7


Reviewed by Daniel Opler


There is much to admire in Ira Chernus’s American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea. It is an interesting and passionate study that raises serious questions about the meaning and history of nonviolence in America. At the same time, the study is deeply flawed, with some surprising inclusions and assumptions.

The study takes as its core thesis that there is an unwritten history of nonviolence in America. In a beautifully written and thought provoking passage, Chernus asserts that political historians have really never allowed the voices or achievements of nonviolent political activists to come to the fore.

The nonviolence tradition runs quietly, like an underground stream, through U.S. history. Its effects have been less visible than the tradition of war and violence. But its effects may some day prove to be more lasting. [xi]

There is no question—or there should be none—of the importance of writing a history of nonviolence in America. On this point, Chernus is wholly correct. However, given that assertion, many questions remain. What is that history? How has nonviolence changed over time? How does it change our larger understanding of American history as a whole?

To Chernus, himself a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the key to understanding nonviolence in America lies in understanding religion. “The idea of nonviolence in the United States,” Chernus writes, “has deep roots in Christianity. Before the twentieth century, virtually everyone in the United States who chose the path of nonviolence was a Christian” [1]. He then moves on to discuss two major nonviolent sects in American history, the Anabaptists and the Quakers. Again and again in Chernus’s work we see the idea that religion and nonviolence are closely linked—Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and even lesser-known figures like A.J. Muste, are all treated primarily in terms of their religious background. It is here that the problems in Chernus’s study begin to emerge. His assertion that virtually all nonviolent activists before the twentieth century were Christians is no doubt correct. He might also have pointed out, however, that with the exception of Native Americans, not discussed in his study, virtually all those in favor of war were also Christians. And, if Christianity was used to justify nonviolence, it was also frequently used to justify war. Even the American Revolution, for instance, founded though it was on largely secular Enlightenment notions of human rights and equality, nonetheless was frequently discussed in terms of Holy Scripture; thinkers like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson both used the Bible to justify the Revolutionary War.
The fact that nonviolent activists expressed themselves in religious terms is therefore not so telling or convincing a fact as Chernus would have us believe; it was simply people expressing their ideas in the dominant language of the era. His emphasis on religion points to another problematic argument in Chernus’s work, that nonviolence is essentially an idea. Although he presents a running debate throughout the study over whether nonviolence is reached through rational or spiritual considerations, always nonviolence is a concept, not a tactic or a strategy.

This understanding of nonviolence has some important benefits to it, most important that it allows for a fairly straightforward history of nonviolence. Having accepted that nonviolence is an idea, Chernus can then proceed with his method, which is to show how figures from John Woolman to Barbara Deming have come to the conclusion that nonviolence is the best way to proceed. He also can then include major critics of nonviolence, like Reinhold Niebuhr, on the grounds that they contribute to the development of the idea of nonviolence by critiquing nonviolent practices. There are several difficulties with his assumption that nonviolence is an idea, especially when one defines the concept as narrowly as Chernus does here; ideas, it seems, are limited more or less to writings, and almost never expressed in actions. In this work, therefore, the great nonviolent activists become writers and thinkers, even when, as in the case of Martin Luther King Jr, they themselves asserted otherwise. To his credit, Chernus includes King’s important quotation: “The experience in Montgomery…did more to clarify my theology on the question of nonviolence than all the books I had read” [161]. But, having included King’s declaration that actions matter, Chernus fails to realize King’s all-important message.

To King, and I would assert, to many of those who practiced nonviolence in America, lessons about nonviolence were best communicated not through books and essays, but through actions—through boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and other tactics. In Chernus’s study, these actions are more or less omitted. In his chapter on King, we get no description of any of King’s tactics, even in the two-page discussion of ‘Nonviolence on the Practical Level” [169-71]. Yet I would assert that King’s marches and boycotts could, in the hands of a more subtle historian, speak volumes about what nonviolence meant to King. In short, Chernus’s assertion that he focuses on the “intellectual tradition” [xi] does not excuse omitting actions, since actions, themselves a form of expression, must be part of any intellectual tradition. It would also allow more voices to enter the debates on nonviolence.

Here the absence of women is a particular problem. Of the nine individuals discussed in depth in American Nonviolence, only two are women. Yet, as Chernus points out in his introduction, women played major roles in the practical side of nonviolent activism. Had Chernus been willing to look at the ways in which actions express ideas, we might have gotten a more thorough picture of the role of women in American nonviolence. To his credit, Chernus acknowledges the omission of women as a weakness of his study, and even realizes the reasons behind it [xi], but that does not necessarily excuse allowing this weakness to go unresolved.

The final difficulty with his treatment of nonviolence as an idea is that Chernus fails to really analyze all the meanings of nonviolence—most particularly, we get virtually no discussion of the potentially massive gendered implications of nonviolence. This is perhaps the most serious omission; in a society where violence is almost always fraught with gendered meanings, it is likely—indeed, a near certainty—that nonviolence also has gendered meanings. Does it mean the same thing for a man to take up nonviolence as a creed as it does for a woman? I would suspect not, but one gets little insight into this question from Chernus’s study.

There are other problems with Chernus’s study, most important among them his discussion of anarchists. Very often, in this discussion, we are treated to problematic overgeneralizations. “What do anarchists see when they look at nature?  According to an anarchist’s view, nature is organic” [57]. Chernus then goes on to discuss Peter Kropotkin’s notion that the natural world is inherently a world of cooperation and collaboration, rather than the struggle for survival postulated by Darwin and some of Darwin’s followers. To an extent, Chernus is correct—some anarchists do hold this position. But to make anarchists a unified group is in some ways to defy the very nature of anarchism in American, and in world history. Especially in America, anarchists have tended to be relatively isolated, with few structures binding them together for most of their history. Consequently, to identify their political thought, especially on such a complex subject as the essence of the natural world, is highly problematic. Chernus acknowledges, “they are bound to go off in many different directions,” but I would argue that he fails to wholly realize how difficult this makes discussing them as a group [56].
More important is the question of whether anarchists belong in the book at all. As Chernus acknowledges, “anarchists have disagreed about…violence” [56]. He then argues that anarchism merits discussion because it is part of the context of nonviolence “because its views on authority, social change, and direct action for change exerted a sizable influence on the principled nonviolence tradition in the United States” [56]. Unfortunately, we are not really told what these influences were. Had we been then led through discussions of anarchism influenced activists like Martin Luther King, one might make an argument that anarchists merit inclusion. While Chernus does discuss Dorothy Day and anarchism (Day had been an anarchist before joining the Catholic Worker movement), this connection does not really require the lengthy discussion of anarchism that Chernus provides.

It is equally questionable whether non-Americans belong in the book: neither Mahatma Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh could be considered Americans. Although I would acknowledge that both influenced Americans’ understandings of nonviolence, their inclusion as separate thinkers in the history of American nonviolence is difficult to justify. In addition, Chernus could have gone further to explain why these thinkers were so influential. Certainly part of their influence can be explained by the reasons Chernus presents. As he says about Nhat Hanh, his “rather bright and sunny style” could indeed appeal to “people who want to avoid anger and fear” [203]. But one could also make an argument that Buddhism’s appeal, at least to white Americans, is in part about the lure of an exotic and foreign religion. Certainly that would not explain the entire appeal of Buddhism, but it might complicate the subject in a way that would benefit an understanding of American nonviolence.

There are nonetheless some wonderful qualities to Chernus’s work, and despite all my disagreements with it, there is a lot of important material here, valuable for the historian as well as nonviolent activists. To me, simply because of my own lack of insight on the subject, the most rewarding chapter was that on Gandhi. Chernus carefully and painstakingly explains Gandhi’s theology, providing a clear and well-written explanation of how Gandhi understood non-violence in religious terms. For an Americanist like myself, with little knowledge of Indian history, this is a particularly welcome exploration, although more detail on the historical context would have made it even more welcome.

There are other moments which are really quite wonderful. Chernus does as good a job as I have ever seen at integrating what some, myself included, have felt were two very different aspects of Henry David Thoreau’s political thought. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau clearly advocates political activism; while in Walden, Thoreau advocates withdrawing from political and social life altogether. It is difficult to mesh these two halves of Thoreau’s thought, but Chernus easily does so, emphasizing that Thoreau went to stay at Walden Pond “to create an example of a morally independent and responsible citizen,” even as he “hoped that his words about nature would provoke a radically new perspective that would lead to radical political change” [49]. Through this simple formulation, Thoreau’s political thought becomes a coherent whole, rather than two very disparate political philosophies. In addition, Chernus takes the important step of placing Thoreau in the context of the changing role of the market in American life, a good move on his part. Again and again, in these cases as in others, Chernus is able to give a very good picture of many of the ideas behind nonviolence.

In the end, therefore, American Nonviolence accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, describing in tremendous detail the development of the idea of nonviolence in America. At the same time, the book makes clear the problems with discussing nonviolence as an idea, and leaves many aspects of the subject unexplored. It is a welcome book, a passionate book, and an important book, that nonetheless leaves gaping and problematic holes in the history of nonviolence in America.


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