One of the highlights of the Christian liturgical year for me has been gathering with friends and family at a late Christmas Eve service to celebrate the birth of Christ. With the passing of time, however, this experience has become rather bittersweet. On the one hand, we proclaim “peace on earth, good will toward all,” echoing the heavenly host that appeared to the shepherds some 2,000 years ago (Luke 2:14). Yet a quick glance at any news network’s images of those who are suffering, displaced, and dying due to war and conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Darfur region of Sudan, and elsewhere—as well as in our own neighborhoods—reveals an excruciating absence of peace in the world for too many people. Indeed, I now find that these Christmas words keep “sticking in my throat,” as U2’s song “Peace on Earth” puts it, for “hope and history won’t rhyme.”
Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas, the latest book by veteran scholar and peacemaking activist David Cortright, demonstrates that hope and history, or theory and practice, have coincided perhaps more than many people might suspect. Giving honest attention to both the failures and the successes of peacemaking over the centuries in order to glean lessons for the present (and future), Peace is, against those who attack pacifism as ineffective or leading to appeasement, “an attempt to set the record straight by exploring the history of movements and ideas for peace,” Cortright writes. He is a research fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and a member of Sojourners’ board.
Much of the book is a who’s who of peace leaders and advocates: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., John Howard Yoder, Václav Havel, Jane Addams, Barbara Deming, Immanuel Kant, Leo Tolstoy, Reinhold Niebuhr, William James, and many more. Movements, congresses, and peace societies are studied, from familiar ones such as the American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the War Resisters League to forgotten ones such as the League of Universal Brotherhood, the American Peace Society, and the Association de la Paix par le Droit. Especially interesting are pages devoted to Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Muslim ally of Gandhi who led a mass movement of nonviolent direct action in Pakistan, and to the correspondence between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud about how to deliver humankind “from the menace of war.” Cortright also explores important themes and ideas: the role of religion, the power of nonviolence, the impact of democracy, and the necessity of social justice and human rights in peacemaking.
THE BOOK ALSO contains an argument, threaded throughout and developed more explicitly in its final chapter, for a “realistic pacifism.” Cortright seeks to retrieve the original, broader meaning of “pacifism” to refer to all those who actively work to preserve peace and prevent war. Rather than a passive or absolutist type of pacifism, Cortright emphasizes a more pragmatic or conditional pacifism that opposes and seeks to prevent war but allows for the possibility of the use of force, including lethal force, in cases where nonviolent methods have failed and “the victims of tyranny and abuse cry out for help.”
In this connection, Cortright’s attention turns to recent calls for “just policing” to deal with terrorists and developments toward what the United Nations and the World Council of Churches refer to as “the responsibility to protect” (R2P) people from genocide. In each of these instances, strict ethical criteria govern the use of force, as in the just war tradition, which Cortright includes within his understanding of “peacemaking” or “peace-building”—terms he substitutes for realistic pacifism by the end of the book. Some readers who are more absolute in their pacifist refusal to allow for the resort to lethal force may be disappointed with this particular aspect of Cortright’s understanding of pacifism.
Nevertheless, this book is essential reading for all persons committed to promoting peace and justice. An exemplary interdisciplinary effort that comprehensively and accessibly covers its subject, the volume will undoubtedly become a standard resource that will be kept within easy reach on the bookshelf.
Tobias Winright teaches Christian ethics at Saint Louis University.