A.J. Muste (1885 – 1967) was one of the great leaders of the nonviolence movement in U.S. history. But his path to nonviolence was not at all smooth. For many years, it seemed he might take a route as far away from nonviolence as Niebuhr’s. Like Niebuhr, Muste was among the most gifted and articulate of the young Protestant ministers who committed themselves to nonviolence during World War I. After the war, like Niebuhr, he became deeply involved in the workers' movements for unionization and labor rights. His concern for the working class moved him increasingly toward socialism, and ultimately to communism. By the late 1920s, he was convinced that coercion and force were the only way to gain justice for working people. He aligned himself with the followers of the communist leader Leon Trotsky and spent a number of years actively promoting violent revolution. He even went a step further than Niebuhr: seeing no way to be both communist and Christian, he left the church for over a decade.
Then one day in 1936, while visiting a European church as a tourist, Muste felt an overwhelming conviction that the church was, and would always be, his true home. He broke with communism and recommitted himself to Christianity. He had always believed that true Christianity requires a Christ-like commitment to the way of love and nonviolence. As a Marxist, he felt unable to make that commitment. Returning to the church, he also rejoined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, where he soon became a leader once again. From his re-conversion until his death in 1967, he remained firmly committed to nonviolence. During those years, he was generally acknowledged as the outstanding figure in the white U.S. nonviolence movement. He provided leadership for a broad range of progressive movements and causes, including eventually the opposition to the Vietnam war. He was widely respected, not only for his dedication and his articulate voice, but for his wisdom and his ability to bring disputing factions together.
When Muste wrote about the basis for his nonviolence, he was inspirational but not profoundly intellectual. He did not analyze the logic of his ideas in great detail; he was more of a preacher than a theologian or theorist. "We believe that there are rational and pragmatic arguments to support our pacifism," he wrote. But they are not the most basic source or ultimate reason for that commitment:
Theology is not basic[,] but life.…When we deal with ultimate things, with God, we all necessarily speak in symbols [rather than abstract concepts].…In one sense this may mean limitation, yet in another sense greater effectiveness.…There is nothing wise or "broad" about not trying to talk to folk in "their own language." Neither is the difficulty met by talking exclusively in abstract technical language which bears no freight of emotion. No movement of any sort, and certainly no religious one, can "move" if it becomes thus over-intellectualized.
Muste had been a Quaker in the years after World War I, and he explained the source of his religious commitments in Quaker terms: "It rests finally upon arguments based on the direct insight of the soul into the nature of Truth and Goodness, an insight interpreted as a revelation through Divine Light and Life." That insight must be accepted "not by the mind alone but by the entire being in an act of faith and surrender."
Much of Muste's writing dealt not with religion, but with the political, economic, and social sources of conflict and the concrete advantages of nonviolent alternatives. When he turned to these topics, he was strikingly rational, pragmatic, empirical, and well-informed. In the subtlety of his hard-headed analyses, he could match any political scientist of his day. He was such an effective leader partly because he so skillfully blended detailed rational analysis with inspirational preaching. But his approach to any specific issue always began from, and ultimately returned to, his Christian faith.
GOD IS LOVE
Although Muste tried to avoid abstraction, there was an abstract logical theory undergirding his nonviolent Christianity. He took it as a given that "obviously man did not create himself. He is the product or creation of something, Some One." He identified that "Some One" as God, the essential or ultimate or most basic reality of the universe (and he easily shifted from personal to impersonal understandings of that basic reality). Humans are unique among all species, he argued, because each one of us can have a direct relationship to "the living source and end of his being, which is deep within and yet infinitely beyond himself." That relationship allows humans to make conscious decisions. This is the basis of all freedom and morality: "Only, therefore, if men stand in a living relationship to God, to a Moral Reality beyond themselves, can they live a life of freedom."
Because we are free, we can always choose to do good. There can be no original sin, which condemns us to choose evil, for then we would be neither responsible nor free. But freedom also means that we can deny the source of our existence. We can choose to believe that we are self-sufficient, to act as if we had created ourselves. This is the most fundamental choice that any person makes: whether or not to acknowledge a relationship with the higher spiritual reality. The essence of all religion is to reject self-sufficiency, to accept that relationship with the divine and let it become the guiding force in one's life. "The religious man can, less than anyone, live as an isolated atom." In religion, people are "delivered from imprisonment in the self and become conscious of unity with the whole, united with God, with moral reality beyond themselves…a faith that transforms and saves them, gives them eternal resources to live by and values to live for." Reflecting back on the time that he left the church and on his return to it, Muste wrote that, for a while, he had believed he was self-sufficient: "Now I know that I was not and am not; that I live by the grace of God and stand straightest when I am on my knees."
A person who is open to this spiritual relationship can understand its nature in a "direct insight of the soul." Muste did not claim that every true insight would have to find the same truth. But he staked his own work and his own life on one overpowering insight: "Life is built upon a central truth.…God is love, love is of God. Love is the central thing in the universe." "The most real thing in the universe, the most powerful, the most permanent is love." Although he recognized that others might disagree, for him this was the indisputable essence of the Christian message.
Love, as Muste used the word, is not merely a psychological feeling or a human attitude. It is a cosmic force, which people not only sense but participate in whenever they act lovingly toward others. If God is love, then to have a relationship with God is to link oneself with that cosmic force. This is what he understood as the meaning of Christian salvation. But because love is the fundamental reality of everything in the world, it must be expressed not only in relation to God, but also in relation to the world. "Since it is precisely to love, to the apprehension of our unity with mankind, to the kingdom of God, that we are won, we must carry this dynamic and method into every relationship." To love is to create a connection with others. But even more, it is to recognize the connection that already exists, binding all people together. To love is to experience that connection in a sense of fellowship, of human community, of the unity of all humanity.
It was self-evident to Muste that violence is the very opposite of love. Therefore a true Christian, or anyone who is truly religious in the sense that he understood religion, will be strictly nonviolent (or, to use his terminology, a pacifist). "Pacifism is religious¾ is religion!" Here, again, he made no great effort to define his terms precisely or argue his case with tight logic. But it is clear throughout his writings that violence is always aggressive, always an expression of a desire to dominate others. "The source of evil is the 'I,' 'me,' 'mine.'" To love a person is to want the best for that person, to want as much good for the other as for oneself. Love excludes any egotistical desire to benefit or dominate. So every expression of love must be nonviolent; anyone committed to living and acting lovingly must also be committed to nonviolence, on principle.
To love is to experience all human beings as children of the same God, created by the same force of love. "The human family is therefore in the profoundest sense one; 'the neighbor' is my 'other self' and I can therefore no more thinking of wanting to put him in the wrong, to outwit him, to injure or destroy him than I can think of wanting to do these things to myself." Ultimately, then, nonviolence means much more than merely refraining from violence and rejecting war. It means escaping from the sense of isolation that is at the root of all violence, and acting upon a profound awareness of unity: "To break out of the hard shell of the Self, which is all the time seeking to defend itself against its brothers and therefore commits aggression against them, to know in one's inmost being the unity of all men in God; to express love at every moment and in every relationship, to be channels of this quiet, unobtrusive, persistent force…that is the meaning of pacifism."
Love, as Muste understood it, is the real effective power at work whenever human beings act constructively in the world. Because God is Love, there is "an inexorable moral order," which dictates that, in any endeavor, good results come only from acts of love: "The law that evil can be overcome only by its opposite; i.e., by a dynamic, sacrificial goodness, is so basic in the structure of the universe." Since nonviolence is essentially participation in this cosmic process, nonviolence is more than a moral ideal or mere abstention from evil. It is an active force at work in the world; it is a way¾ indeed the only way¾ of acting in harmony with the fundamental structure of reality. Love and goodness must be sacrificial because they always involve setting aside one's own selfish concerns to care for the good of others. "Only a love that does not think primarily of itself, that has the sensitivity to feel the need of others in concrete situations which cannot be blue-printed beforehand, is adequate to human need."
That selflessness is precisely why nonviolence is effective. Cooperation is the only way to approach other people (or even animals, he noted) if you want to get something done with them. And cooperative efforts requires "gentleness, selflessness, non-aggression." "Men who are essentially self-seekers will not build a cooperative commonwealth." "Every human organization and institution will be able to endure and to function in the degree that this divine, creative element of love, of fellowship, is embodied in it and promoted by it. On the other hand, any institution¾ family, economic system, state, church¾ will fall to pieces in so far as it embodies fear, envy, domination, exploitation, strife, and not fellowship." At its highest level, selflessness is the willingness to risk even death in order to do good. And when people are not checked by their fear of death, anything is possible. Therefore, "whenever love that will suffer unto death is manifested…unconquerable power is released into the stream of history."
To say that nonviolence is always effective is not to say it is merely a means to an end, a technique for achieving results. On the contrary, Muste argued, "pacifism must also be an inner experience, an inner attitude, a way of life, not merely a tool or device which the individual uses in certain circumstances." Anything that is just a device may be set aside in some situations where another device seems more effective.
Begin by assuming that, in some degree, in some situations, you must forswear the way of love, of truth, must accept the method of domination, deceit, violence¾ and on that road there is no stopping place. Take the way of war and there is war¾ not only between nations, classes, individuals¾ but war, division and consequent frustration within your own soul.…The way of peace is really a seamless garment that must cover the whole of life and must be applied in all its relationships.
Nonviolence becomes a seamless garment only when it is followed consistently in every situation, no matter what the results.
To say that nonviolence is always effective is not to say that its results will be seen right away. Love's effects are not always apparent. "The deepest reality, the most vital force always works quietly, unobtrusively, steadfastly, works through patience and gentleness and humility. God, life in its deepest sense, does not work through thunder, bluster, aggression, strife." For this claim, as for so much else, Muste drew his proof from his Christian faith. When God faces opposition and sin, he does what any father would do dealing with his children: "He keeps on loving the sinner. He does not seek subjects or victims. He is Love and can find no joy save in answering love. But love alone can invoke love." The process of love answering love goes on forever. So no matter how slowly it works, it can never stop. Ultimately, it can never be overcome by any opposing force. Even among the most evil people, love will eventually appear. "It is somehow in this divine drama of love that will not let men go that we are given our profoundest insight into the heart of God, the nature of the universe. " To be a Christian is to stand in constant relationship with this undefeatable force of love, to "be in league with destiny itself." To choose nonviolence is to act on the belief that love is ultimately more powerful, as well as more constructive, than hate.
But the message of the Christian story is that "if you keep on loving in the face of rejection and evil and sin, then you suffer.…There was no other method save this of suffering love to redeem us." Whenever humans participate in the cosmic force of love, they must expect to suffer. This is what Christians have traditionally called the imitation of Christ. It means not only accepting one's own suffering, but actively sharing in the suffering of others. A truly nonviolent person must do more than refuse to do the evils that others do. He must also "creatively and at whatever cost serve his fellows…provide channels for the positive and sacrificial service of human need." The task of love is to manifest the unity of humanity. This means working for reconciliation whenever that unity is not being manifest. "There is no reconciliation through the medium of any partial love, but only through a love that is prepared to pay the final price.…Human enmities are healed and human communities are built only through the process of costing, sacrificial love. " So "we must indeed do our utmost to remain in fellowship" with others, even when they oppose us. To distance ourselves from others in times of conflict and suffering is to break the bonds of community, which would mean rejecting the unity of humanity. So "we must seek to identify ourselves with their need and suffering."
INDIVIDUAL, SOCIETY, AND the TRUTH
Muste spoke eloquently of the personal transformations demanded by, and produced by, nonviolence:
If you want a revolution, you must be revolutionized. A world of peace will not be achieved by men who in their own souls are torn with strife and eagerness to assert themselves.…Often it is true we cannot speak or act where conflict rages and evil is being done, because we do not love enough. We know that our eye is not single, that we are not disinterested, that we desire the satisfaction of setting somebody right rather than the right itself.…He who would save men and heal strife must unite in himself both reconciliation and a new order.
He had abandoned Marxism largely because it seemed to ignore that personal dimension. Having gone through his own re-conversion to nonviolence, he could never forget that the movement depends on personal commitments made by individuals, one by one: "In 1929, I believed that he way to bring in a new world was basically¾ virtually exclusively¾ a matter of 'social engineering,' changing 'the system,' economic, political, social. Today I recognize that we neglected too much the problem of what happens inside the human being." Nonviolence requires, and depends on, a belief in free individuals making free and responsible moral choices. That is why, for Muste, nonviolence requires a democratic political system.
While exploring the personal dimensions of nonviolence, Muste never abandoned his concern for transforming societal institutions. He remained true to his roots in the generation of World War I, always focusing on the interactions between individual and society:
Those of us whose roots go down into the Jewish-Christian prophetic tradition cannot evade the call to pray and work for the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth. We must resolutely carry out the political task to its end, the organization of all life on true foundations and for worthy ends.…We must carry this [nonviolent] dynamic and method into every relationship¾ into family life, into race relations, into work in the labor movement, political activity, international relations.
Citing Gandhi as a model, Muste argued that the nonviolence movement "must give much attention to the ordering of the economic life." "A political organization must always embody what is at the time a progressive and mutually beneficial economic base or the former will be hopelessly unstable." Here, too, his former commitment to Marxism was evident; he often traced the roots of social problems back to capitalism and the inequalities it creates. But he criticized Marxism for postponing a new economic order until after the revolution was won "by any means necessary." Like so many other nonviolence thinkers, Muste argued that good ends cannot be achieved by bad means. Nonviolence is the better way, he claimed, because it teaches us to make our means match our ends. As he put it (in what have become his most famous words): "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way." Thus he urged people to live now in the way they hope to see all the world living some day, in economic relationships as in everything else: "Men who have entered into the spirit of community will inevitably be driven to seek to give expression at once to their inner spirit in economic relationships."
Muste spoke of the kingdom of God as both a spiritual transformation and a social, political, and economic revolution. He saw no difference between the two, for each implied the other. Nonviolence is the key to that single, radical change, he argued. Capitalism depends on violence to repress progressive forces; every resort to violence strengthens capitalism and repression. On the other hand, "the system of economic exploitation and imperialism is bound to fall to pieces if it is deprived of its military machine, if it can no longer find an escape from its contradictions in war." "Were any nation today to accept avowedly pacifist leadership, disband its army, offer to join with all others in really establishing a new order, the effect would be revolutionary." Other nations would be surprised to learn how many of their soldiers would refuse to invade such a nonviolent nation; its example would be infectious.
For Muste, the goal of nonviolence must be nothing less than the total transformation of all human society. "We must resolutely carry out the political task to its end, the organization of all life on true foundations an for worthy ends." In religious language, this goal is the kingdom of God on earth, "a kingdom based not on power but on ethical foundations, on a love (covenant) relationship between men and God and men and men.…infusing a spiritual principle, the saving social principle of brotherhood, into this great politico-economic structure."
He was well aware that this was a utopian vision. But because he believed that God's perfect love is the central reality of the universe, he saw no reason to doubt the possibility of creating the kingdom of God: "If in the final analysis it is such love as this with which we have to deal, then all things are indeed possible." "Either we believe our own words when we say that love, nonviolence, community form the basis on which all human associations must be founded¾ and in that case we must do our utmost to achieve such an order…or we do not really believe what we say." He was well aware that he was setting an infinitely high moral standard. As he saw it, Christianity demands the perfection of the kingdom of God precisely because it offers a utopian hope for kingdom of God. Without this utopian hope, people too easily give up any hope of moral improvement. They accept the status quo with all its injustices. There is nothing unrealistic about aspiring to a radically better life. No one knows what is realistically possible until it is tried, and the element of human faith is just as much a part of reality as all the violence and evil in the world.
The hope for perfection does not mean that a Christian, or anyone, committed to nonviolence should claim to be perfect. On the contrary, anyone who sets out to live truly nonviolently must immediately realize and (if they are honest) confess their failure to meet the standard of perfect love. Nonviolence is an endless challenge: "The moral life is infinitely complex and we must be on our guard against feeling self-righteous, complacent, or superior." Humility is a crucial part of nonviolence. A person who acknowledges their own imperfection will not project all wrong-doing onto others and use that as an excuse to hate. It will be "impossible for you to hate him with the implacable hatred of the self-righteous. Like yourself…he is caught in the toils of evil. Thus, as it were, you take on your soul the burden of the enemy's sin too, you suffer for him." An awareness of common sinfulness creates a bond between both sides in a conflict; in nonviolence, the goal of the conflict is to redeem both sides together. The nonviolent strive for that redemption by taking upon themselves all the suffering generated by the sins of both sides. Yet Muste argued that the acknowledgment of imperfection does not invalidate the absolute truth and demand of nonviolence. If I fall short of a standard, he said, that means there is something wrong with me, not with the standard.
There is a strong tone of absolute certainty in his writings, for which he did not apologize. Rather, he argued that absolute truths are necessary. Without a belief in eternal objective truth, people are likely to follow the latest popular fads in truth, knuckle under to the strongest person's truth, or simply stop believing there is any truth at all. "Only the belief in objective rational truths and moral values can preserve freedom; for it is only through the right of appeal to objective standards that men can judge the actions of their government and resist them when they believe them to be wrong. It is those and only those who bow the knee to God who do not bow the knee to any man." Those who stop caring about truth also stop caring about other people. If "they really believe there is no objective Good for which they can live; no law of reality to which high and low are truly subject…then they cannot respect and trust themselves or one another. The bond of community is broken and life flies apart." There is a more practical value to absolute certainty, too. Nonviolence means a readiness to suffer all. To endure that suffering, one must have a powerful conviction that one's own beliefs are true.
To believe in absolute objective truth is not necessarily to believe that anyone can possess this truth in its totality. Muste recognized how easily belief in objective truth can lead to self-righteousness and then to oppression of others who hold different truths. One way to guard against this is "to discipline ourselves to discern and renounce our prejudices." Another way is to listen to people who disagree with us. "In each of the diverse positions which men hold there will be something that is valid, that represents an effort to respond to the situation, a fidelity to the truth as they see it. Recognizing this is a way of achieving at-oneness with our fellows." Violence prevents this at-oneness. Violence is typically justified by the claim that I am wholly right and my opponent wholly wrong, or that my opponent is the aggressor and I am merely the defender. The nonviolent recognize that the opponent is probably making pretty much the same claim. The truth of the matter only appears by seeing things from both points of view. That will usually reveal some right and some wrong on both sides. This is especially true when two nations prepare to go to war.
Anyone who closes their ears and mind, claiming to have the entire truth, is probably more interested in self than in truth. "We seek to divest ourselves of any notion that our knowledge is sufficient and final.…When we think of our insights as having finality, as something to be possessed and defended, we set up a wall against God who is the Source of Light and whom we can receive only if we become infinitely receptive." That means being open to receiving truth from any source, including people who espouse a radically different truth.
The challenge of nonviolence is to admit that our own truth is always limited, yet avoid passivity; to keep our minds open to new truth, yet take a stand and act against injustice and oppression. Like Gandhi, Muste met this challenge by insisting on a commitment to nonviolence as an integral part of his commitment to truth¾ to suffer and die for the sake of the truth, but never to inflict suffering and death. Nonviolence means clinging steadfastly to an objective truth and disagreeing with others. But it also means loving those others and wanting only the best for them, never forgetting that even the bitterest opponent remains part of the single human community. If love itself is the objective truth, the only way to adhere to truth is to love. And that means to be, in every relationship and at every moment, nonviolent.
THE CHALLENGE OF WORLD WAR II
Although Muste had a rich theoretical foundation for his nonviolence, he was not primarily concerned to explain or defend that foundation. His true concern was to promote the practice of nonviolence by blending the personal and societal dimensions. His greatest strength as a thinker, writer, and leader was his ability to explore that blend in all its subtle complexity. As a psychologist, sociologist, and political scientist of nonviolence, he was probably unequalled in the U.S. tradition. He always set his discussions in the context of the immediate issues of the day. Yet the points he made always transcended the context, and they still hold enduring interest.
One particularly important example of his skill is his response to the onset of World War II. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, and World War II broke out in Europe, the idea of nonviolent resistance became increasingly unpopular in the U.S. To most people, it seemed that the U.S. would either have to stay strictly uninvolved or else prepare to fight. As the war went on, the U.S. public gradually came to embrace the idea of U.S. entry into the war. Even within the FOR, many members despaired of finding institutions that could promote revolution and stem the rise of fascism without violence. So they turned to a new focus on individual religious life.
Muste led the relatively small group who remained concerned with society and politics yet rejected the option of war. They were not "isolationists" (as their critics often claimed). They wanted the U.S. to take responsibility for helping to solve problems and improve situations abroad. Indeed, Muste wrote that no religious pacifist, who believes that one God is the Father of all people, could approve "our traditional policy of isolation from peaceful co-operation with other nations for the economic and political ordering of the world." The nonviolent were as eager as anyone else to defend democracy against fascism. But they continued to reject war as a futile means to that end. They wanted to set foreign relations on a nonviolent foundation. And they were convinced that nonviolence is the best way to preserve the individual rights and freedoms that are the foundation of democracy.
Could they make a plausible case? This is a particularly important question for the whole nonviolence tradition. Critics of nonviolence invariably point to World War II, arguing that nonviolence would not have "worked" against the Nazis. And they often jump from that claim to the much more sweeping claim that, therefore, the whole notion of principled nonviolence is mistaken or impossible. This jump is a dubious leap in logic. Even if it could be proven in a specific case that nonviolence would not "work," that would not invalidate the whole approach. It would be just as logical to say that if one house burns down, even though the fire department tried to save it, we should abolish the fire department.
But what about World War II? To be sure, if they are honest, the nonviolent will confess that the case of Nazi Germany poses a difficult challenge. But Muste pointed out that nonviolence never claims to offer a simple solution. The critics often take that to be an admission that nonviolence is useless. Of course this is unfair. The world has largely ignored the teachings of nonviolence for centuries. Then, as Muste said, "when a crisis develops, people turn upon the pacifist, figuratively hold a gun to his head, and demand: 'Now how would you pacifists stop this thing?'¾ in five minutes and painlessly." It is usually the violent who want simple, instant solutions. The nonviolent recognize that there are never any simple solutions to society's problems.
Actually, there is no way to know what a massive, disciplined campaign of nonviolence against the Nazis might or might not have achieved. The fact is that it was scarcely ever tried. When the teachers in Nazi-occupied Norway refused to follow Nazi orders, many were imprisoned. But eventually the Nazis gave up their efforts to control the schools. Suppose that kind of refusal to obey had been practiced throughout Europe? Surely many would have died. But, of course, many died in the violent resistance too. So there is no reason to assume that nonviolent resistance would have been futile; the answer to that question will forever remain unknown.
But that was not really the issue, for Muste. He knew that the blunt question, "Could nonviolence defeat the Nazis?" makes the whole issue rest on a false premise. It assumes that the Nazis are an irrational, implacable force coming from outside civilization, like some monster from outer space. It takes the war out of its historical context, as if nothing had happened before the Nazis invaded Poland (or even, for Americans, before the U.S. entered the war). "It is never possible to take the case of Big Power A versus Little Power X and isolate it in space and time. It must be seen in its setting in world history and contemporary conditions." The setting for Germany's invasion of its neighbors is the whole history of European capitalism and imperialism, the centuries of oppression of the weak by the strong.
The burden of Muste's analysis is that war is never caused by one "evil" nation attacking another innocent nation. War between nations is always an extension of class warfare. He wanted to apply to international conflict the model of nonviolence that the FOR and others had developed for resolving class and labor conflicts. This means, first and foremost, recognizing that all parties to a dispute are parts of a single system of relationships.
In the deepest sense, the 'enemy' is not a person, someone whom you can shoot and thus 'solve' your problem.…You are living in a civilization under a political-economic system of which your nation and the enemy nation are alike a part.…Its foundations were largely laid in greed and injustice and violence; and, at any rate, it is now everywhere unable to function unless basic economic changes are made.…[War] is both an outgrowth and an expression of that decay and an agent for terribly accelerating it."
Muste condemned the evils of Hitler and the fascists as vigorously as anyone. But he recognized that the fascist nations and the United States were parts of a single system, whose evils the U.S. had done little to remove. "Our business in America is, however, primarily that of recognizing and repenting of the evil in ourselves and our associates among the nations.…We must recognize that we too are a war-like and imperialist nation." By going to war, he argued, the U.S. would self-righteously avoid recognizing the real causes of problems in the world system: capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, militarism. And the U.S. would avoid its most basic moral task: creating economic justice within its own borders.
Every country fights wars only for its own advantage, Muste pointed out. Britain and its allies had not been forced to war. They had chosen war because they saw it as a way to maintain the status quo. They wanted to prevent socialist movements from having any success. Even more importantly, they wanted to hold on to their far-flung colonies. Britain and France refused disarmament proposals as flatly as Germany. And if the U.S. had made "a great national effort…to participate honestly in providing equitable access to the earth's resources, for all peoples, instead of vainly seeking to protect ourselves behind tariff and immigration walls," fascism would probably not have come to power in the first place.
So it was a mistake to view the war as a fight between the peace-loving and the aggressive nations. Rather, it was a fight between "satiated powers determined to hang on to the 85 percent of the earth's vital resources which they control, even if that means plunging the world into another war, and another set of powers equally determined to change the imperialist status quo." But the imperialist system was doomed, in Muste's opinion. For practical as well as moral reasons, it soon had to come to an end. Going to war to maintain it was self-defeating, because the costs of war would make it impossible for European powers to keep their colonies. Muste suspected that U.S. leaders understood this. They wanted to wait until all the other major powers had exhausted themselves in war, and then enter just at the endgame, leaving the U.S. as the greatest post-war world power.
The U.S. would be hypocritical if it claimed to fight for freedom and prosperity for all, he argued, since so many people in the U.S. did not yet have freedom or prosperity. Moreover, if the U.S. really were fighting for abstract ideals like freedom and democracy, why not fight for them everywhere? In fact, U.S. policy ignored many oppressed peoples and called for war only when "our own imperialist concerns or native economic lords required that particular war." And all too often, when it served these imperialist or economic interests, the U.S. went to war to support nations that were far from democratic. So the idealistic reasons most often given to justify U.S. entry into World War II could hardly be taken at face value. Yet society always applauds the individual soldier who enlists to fight on behalf of those ideals, as long as the soldier really believes in them. Why not applaud the pacifist, Muste asked, since he or she believes just as sincerely in the ideal of nonviolence.
At the same time, though, he insisted that both pro- and anti-war forces were not idealistic but realistic. The U.S. leaders moving the nation into war were guided by "realist" motives of power and profit, not by their professed concern for democratic ideals. And the nonviolent critics of the war, like himself, were offering the most realistic assessments of both motives and probable outcomes. Although their opposition to the war was ultimately rooted in religious and moral ideals, their arguments were as concrete, political, and logical as those of the most hard-headed "realist."
For example, Muste analyzed an aspect of the situation that most people missed. Having studied the theory of nonviolence, he understood that ultimately a person chooses whether or not to obey authority. When the consequences of obedience are bad enough, people will resist. Even the most totalitarian government must maintain the support of its people. That is particularly difficult in war, when the government demands that people endure the most terrible horrors. In 1941, Muste, like many others, saw the war in Europe settling into a prolonged stalemate like the trench warfare of World War I. He said that the German and Japanese military successes had helped their people feel relieved of their international stigma and inferiority complex. At the same time, Germans and Japanese were already seeing the costs of war. Therefore those governments were beginning to feel popular resistance to the war. This made the time right for a peaceful negotiated settlement, as long as it responded to the legitimate claims of the Axis powers. At least it was worth exploring this possibility, he claimed. But if the U.S. entered the war, it would make a settlement impossible. And he suspected that the U.S. would put all the blame for the war on the Germans and Japanese. That would allow people in the U.S. to deny their own nation's role in the causes of the war. But it would only anger the German and Japanese people, spurring them to give even more support their governments' war efforts.
Arguing from yet another angle, Muste urged people to look beyond the war. If the U.S. entered and the allies won, the post-war world would look much like the world after World War I, but worse. Efforts at limited war would inevitably lead to full-scale war, because violence inevitably leads to more violence. Given the military technology available, full-scale war would be incredibly destructive for every nation. Yet there would be no way to stop the destruction, no matter how horrendous. No nation would make or accept any peace if it was losing the war. So there could be no negotiated peace. The war would end only with total victory by one side and unconditional surrender by the other.
Muste pointed out that if the U.S. destroyed Germany, it would have to impose a long military occupation and deny democracy to the Germans, or else risk another war. Moreover, the victorious Allies would inevitably resume their domination of the world's economic resources, perpetuating the inequities that had led to the war in the first place. Listening to the pronouncements of U.S. and British leaders during the war, Muste heard a vision of "American-British military domination of the earth," to protect their economic advantage. Indeed, he said, all possible outcomes of the war would lead to more enmity, not the world community that U.S. leaders publicly advocated. Capitalism would be preserved and its rule strengthened. A return to the familiar pre-war capitalist system, buttressed by a massively militarized state, would lead to more economic depressions. (Many pro-capitalist observers agreed with him on this point.) Then there would be either "a period marked by chaos and incalculable woe", or the imposition of totalitarian-style controls¾ the very thing the war was supposed to prevent. Eventually, just as after World War I, the bitterness and hardship created by this war would sow the seeds of the next.
Every war is more technologically sophisticated, and thus more lethal, than the last, Muste pointed out. World War II saw the first massive use of aerial bombing, which requires the soldier to detach himself emotionally from his act of killing and from his victims. This dehumanizing experience would make it more likely that there would be more technological killing after the war, too. No one could expect people to seek unconditional surrender through violence in war and then immediately after war become generous and democratic. The means one chooses to gain one's ends inevitably shape the ends that are achieved.
Once people become accustomed to use force during war to gain their ends, they would want to use force after the war, too. So they would continue the world system of dominators and dominated, the very system that created the war in the first place. They would feel less secure, with good reason, and build up their military forces. But "piling up armaments means piling up insecurity and terror." So the cycle would repeat itself, until eventually there another war would erupt. "War for whatever purpose waged in these days creates more insecurity both while it lasts and as its inevitable aftermath. The pacifist believes therefore that at the present time the most positive thing he can do for the safety and the material and moral well-being of his countrymen and of all mankind is absolutely to refuse support to any war."
The crucial task for the nonviolent, he insisted throughout the war, is to avoid adapting to the demands of the state, to keep on insisting that the state and all of society must adapt themselves to the way of love and nonviolence. For that way remains always "the hope of the world, the one means of salvation." Perhaps, he speculated, the war's devastation would be so complete that, when it ended, people would see the folly of their ways and turn to a wholly (and holy) new leadership group: the small band of pacifists who have retained their principled commitment throughout the war. Though he did not think this likely, neither did he think it totally unrealistic.
Some of Muste's predictions about the postwar era were accurate. The European imperial systems did collapse. There was a new war. Although it was a cold war, it did bring a vast militarization of U.S. society. And it brought more insecurity to many millions of people. But it would be hard to argue that World War II created, in any sense, the kind of total disaster or world "suicide" that Muste predicted. He took the post-World War I era as his model, expecting it to be replicated on a larger scale. But it did not happen that way. There was no economic depression. Nor were there social revolutions in Europe. And the defeated nations made no effort to strike back at the victors militarily. Muste's views proved to be excessively apocalyptic. This was true, in part, because the U.S. government made sure it did not happen. Ironically, U.S. leaders were acting out of apocalyptic fears surprisingly similar to Muste's, though of course they blamed the supposed threats on quite different factors than he did.
It is not surprising that Muste saw the war in such apocalyptic terms. Despite his pleas for tolerance and his great ability to look at a situation from many angles, he tended to think, speak, and write in absolutes. He saw nonviolence as the salvation of humanity and of the Christian church. If the church did not adopt the strict nonviolent stance called for in the Sermon on the Mount, he predicted, it too would face disaster.
Much of Muste's writing was directed to internal Christian debates about theology, ethics, and the future of the church. Although those issues are not directly relevant here, one deserves brief mention. Muste was the most persistent and probably the most persuasive critic of Reinhold Niebuhr's views on nonviolence. Though he criticized Niebuhr in a number of different ways, his most telling argument was rather simple. He agreed with the great theologian that a Christian must say that everyone is a sinner. But, he argued, Christians believe that God so loved the sinful world that He sacrificed his only Son, precisely in order to triumph over sin. Christians are supposed to believe that the death and resurrection of Christ broke the power of sin, making it possible for humans to live genuinely good lives. This is never effortless; faith and goodness are always a challenge. But if we can not in fact be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect, then there is no point in Christianity or in being Christian. And if perfection is an ideal worth striving for, then nonviolence is the only way to approach it, and Niebuhr’s arguments against nonviolence are all called into question.
Muste's absolutist style, and his concern for the church and theology, reflected the most fundamental fact about his commitment to nonviolence: Christianity was the unswerving center of his nonviolence, his writing, his activism, and his life (except for his few years as a Marxist). Yet he was a leader of the entire U.S. nonviolence movement, both Christian and non-Christian. He himself pondered the question of how nonviolent Christians should relate to others. He always urged tolerance of different paths to the same goal, but he implied that different religious groups might achieve that tolerance only by limiting their talk to practical matters and avoiding discussion of religious differences: "There is a unity underlying all differences. In 'the silence' we find it together." As soon as we start speaking, especially about religion, there is a danger of forgetting this unity, because we take our particular symbols as ultimate and total truth. We should "divest ourselves of any notion that our knowledge is sufficient and final.…When we think of our insights as having finality, as something to be possessed and defended, we set up a wall against God who is the Source of Light."
Nevertheless, Muste continued, if we want to say anything meaningful we must use the symbols of a particular religious tradition. He adopted distinctively Christian language because his own life had been shaped and reshaped by specifically Christian religious experiences. Therefore he always expressed himself in the concrete language of his own Christianity. He defended this choice quite explicitly:
If we hold the religious pacifist position we must necessarily assert its centrality. We shall be profoundly convinced that the core of any effective movement against war must be composed of those who by the grace of God and a genuine religious experience have put the spirit of domination and strife out of their own hearts…who really believe in the overcoming power of prayer and humility and sacrifice. This does not mean that we cannot work whole-heartedly on many things with those who do not share our faith. But in any such organizations we must necessarily be a distinctive force and must proclaim the faith that is in us.
It is right, he continued, for non-Christians always to ask whether this is a form of Christian arrogance. The Christians could answer not with any words, but only by demonstrating humility, self-effacement, and constructive good will. And they could have these virtues in full measure only by rooting themselves ever more firmly in the church.
But did Muste push the question far enough? When he returned to nonviolence in the late 1930s it was not a terribly important question, for the vast majority of the nonviolent were Christians. By the time he died, in the midst of the Vietnam war, the antiwar cause was bringing thousands to nonviolence, many of whom were not Christians. Indeed some actively rejected the fundamental symbols of Christianity, such as a monarchical male deity who gives laws and punishes those who break the laws. These new adherents of nonviolence might or might not accept Muste's premise that love is the central reality of the universe. But those who were not Christian could not take that claim as an article of faith. They would have to find some other basis to believe it. Or they would have to find some other basis entirely for their commitment to nonviolence. For increasing numbers of people, that other basis was simply a concern for justice and the well-being of other people. They were more concerned with changing the world politically than changing themselves spiritually. Some were impatient with any teaching that the latter depended on the former. So they were likely to measure their nonviolence by outcomes, not by their own inner state.
Muste's years as a Marxist taught him to look carefully at the question of means and ends. He was always devoted to the cause of improving the world, making life more just and humane for all. But that was never his central motivation. Rather, his central motivation was always to live a good Christian life, to follow the way of Christ as he understood it. He tried to find the perfect balance between the socialists' concern for ends and the traditional Christian concern for means, by living a Christ-like life as an end in itself. Ultimately, though, the inner voice of conscience in obedience to God, not the outward results, was always his fundamental guide for action. By the end of his life, the question was unavoidable: Is this any longer an adequate basis for building a strong, enduring nonviolence movement in the United States?
Notes to Chapter 9: A. J. Muste