Book Review & Literature

Book Review: The Root of War Is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers

by David M. Craig

Dustwrapper art courtesy Orbis Books; orbisbooks.com

Jim Forest has written a deeply personal book, The Root of War Is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016). It is personal in two ways. First, the book is a memoir of Forest’s encounters with Merton during the 1960s. A co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship and former managing editor of The Catholic Worker, Forest stumbled upon Merton’s spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain in late 1959 when he was still in the United States Navy. Up until Merton’s untimely death in 1968, Forest corresponded with Merton and visited him at his Trappist monastery in Kentucky. The book’s chapters proceed chronologically, weaving substantial excerpts from Merton’s writings on peace and war into an assessment of his intellectual, moral, and spiritual significance for the Catholic Church, peace activists, and Forest himself.

Second, the book locates the beating heart of Merton’s transformative influence in a Christian personalism. This theology affirms that every person is God’s child, while revealing each person as woefully self-justifying yet still redeemed in Jesus Christ. Merton’s theology manifests in vivid flashes of writing, not abstract doctrinal statements like this one. For example, Merton decided to intervene more publicly in contemporary debates following his 1958 epiphany on a Louisville street corner. Merton recounts how the “illusory difference” of human separateness vanished in a rush of unbounded joy that “God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race.” He continues, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun… There are no strangers… If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed… I suppose the big problem is that we would fall down and worship each other.” (17-18, ellipses and brackets are Forest’s.)

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Reflections on Thoreau and War Tax Resistance

by Lawrence Rosenwald

Poster art of Thoreau courtesy pinterest.com

Doing tax resistance has for me been connected with thinking about Thoreau, whose works I often teach in my classes. I used not to teach “Civil Disobedience,” but only Walden; although I admired “Civil Disobedience” very much, but couldn’t bring myself to teach it. It is an essay intended as an argument; I knew that if I taught it I would present it as an argument, as an argument I found reasonable and compelling, and then, I thought, some alert and nervy student would ask, “If you think it’s such a good argument then why are you paying your taxes?” And then I’d either mutter something about how times have changed, or say I was a coward, and I knew I wouldn’t like myself in either case. But when my wife and I began doing tax resistance, I began to teach “Civil Disobedience,” and in fact teaching it — not proselytizing with it, but teaching it on a footing of equality — is among the rewards doing tax resistance has brought me.

So I want to talk about Thoreau, first, and about the ideas his tax resistance came from; and then about myself, as someone who finds Thoreau’s stance attractive but who knows that, after all, times have changed, and that doing tax resistance now is different from doing it then, and grimmer; and generally about why so many people with political views similar to mine don’t find Thoreau attractive or at any rate don’t do tax resistance, and how this can perhaps be changed.

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Book Review: Ajay Skaria’s Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance

by Thomas Weber

Cover art courtesy University of Minnesota Press; upress.umn.edu

As a university student with an interest in existential philosophy, I remember struggling with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. At times there were even consecutive pages that made sense to me, but more often there were only single paragraphs separated by many pages of dense language and philosophical concepts that were beyond my comprehension. I was very thankful when I came across Sartre’s essay “Humanism as an Existentialism” and suddenly what he was trying to say came into focus and made sense. How much I lost by not comprehending the probably profounder text, I will never know. Readers of some of the latest scholarly offerings in the attempts to understand the life and thought of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi may find themselves in a similar position while waiting for the simpler more readily graspable versions to materialise. But then, weighty philosophical concepts are weighty philosophical concepts and possibly they are not meant for a wider audience that has little desire or ability to engage in deep theoretical philosophical discourse.

Once, writings about Gandhi were biographies, often hagiographical (for example by Louis Fischer); personal reminiscences, usually hagiographical (for example by his most well known British disciple Mirabehn); and selections of the Mahatma’s thoughts grouped in various categories, generally selected by those who were followers (R.K.Prabhu and U.R.Rao, Anand Hingorani, N.K.Bose and Krishna Kripalani come to mind). Of course there were serious attempts at analysing Gandhi’s campaigns through primary archival sources (for example by Judith Brown) and more probing attempts to make sense of his world view and what led him to have it (here one could list Gopinath Dhawan, T.K.N.Unnithan and Erik Erikson). During 1969, the Gandhi birth centenary year, dozens of books appeared. More recently, although there was the occasional controversy (particularly over the writings of James Lelyveld and Jad Adams), it has become almost fashionable to ensure that Gandhi scholarship can in no way be seen as hagiographical, with writers doing their utmost to undermine the “myth of the Mahatma”, by pointing out Gandhi’s inconsistencies, his youthful elitist and even racist attitudes (for example by Desai and Vahed), his older-age, controversial experiments in sexuality, and even labelling him as a traitor in the project of the creation of modern India (too many to mention). Even more recently, however, there has been another trend where scholars with a strong theoretical bent and deep philosophical knowledge have taken the Mahatma seriously and decided to turn their attention to his life and an analysis of his praxis (and here we could mention the writings of Vinay Lal, Faisal Devji, Isabel Hofmeyr and Tridip Suhrud among a growing cohort). Ajay Skaria’s Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016) is a prime example of this development.

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Book Review: Vandana Shiva’s Who Really Feeds the World?

by Tallessyn Z. Grenfell-Lee

Book cover art courtesy zedbooks.net

Humanity will always have a few basic needs: clothing, shelter, food. In the early 1900s, Gandhi saw clearly how imperialist colonialism had hijacked India’s sovereignty along with its ability to clothe itself, and he inspired a nation to reclaim the right to spin its own cloth. The people embraced homespun khadi and the spinning wheel, not only for their practical utility in reestablishing the independent foundation for a local economy, but for their deep symbolic significance in resisting the oppressive forces of racism, sexism, and classism perpetuated by imperialistic greed.

In her book Who Really Feeds the World (London: Zed Books, 2016) Vandana Shiva describes how India is again reclaiming another of humanity’s elemental needs from equally rapacious forces: the ability and right for a community to feed itself. This time, the symbol of communal empowerment is the humble seed, and Shiva’s Navdanya movement urges all Indians – and all peoples – to plant diverse seeds on every plot and balcony as a way to resist and reclaim food and seed sovereignty. Navdanya follows in the footsteps of Gandhi, employing Seed Satyagraha, or non-cooperation, to resist laws and policies that would allow large, trans-national corporations not only to convert local farms to industrialized, chemical-intensive practices, but also to outlaw ancient practices such as seed saving and sharing.

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New Additions to the Nonviolence Canon

by Brian Martin

Dustwrapper for Nepstad’s book, courtesy global.oup.com

Interest in nonviolent action is greater today than it ever has been. This is reflected in the number and sophistication of nonviolent campaigns, in media coverage and popular understanding, and in new books. Several terrific new nonviolence books were published last year.

Decades ago, really good books in the area were uncommon. There was Gandhi’s autobiography, Richard Gregg’s The Power of Nonviolence (1934), and Joan Bondurant’s  Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict (1958). These classic treatments are all in the Gandhian tradition, and each one is still worth reading today. Other favorites of mine are Bart de Ligt, The Conquest of Violence: An Essay on War and Revolution (1937), and Gene Sharp’s epic The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973). Each of Sharp’s three parts is available separately and is a book in itself. Back in the 1970s, I read it from beginning to end, but these days many just look at Sharp’s list of 198 methods of nonviolent action. Sharp put so-called “pragmatic nonviolent action” on the agenda as an alternative or complement to the Gandhian tradition. (Please see the note at the end for bibliographical details of the above titles.)

Below I review five books published in 2015 that make important contributions to the field, and also two others published in late 2015 and in 2016. Full disclosure: I should mention that I’m not a neutral commentator. For each of the first four books, I either commented on drafts of the text or on the book proposal. As you’ll see, I think they are all excellent and worth reading. (Please see the note at the end for full details of each of the titles under review.)

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Climate Change: Pope Francis’s Encyclical and the Dominion of Religion

by Vinay Lal

“Caring for Our Common Home”; artwork courtesy parochiesintmaarten.nl

The thinking person, as Walter Benjamin had occasion to remark, appears to experience crisis at every juncture of her or his life. How can this not be so if one were to experience the pain of someone else as one’s own? How can this not be so when, amidst growing stockpiles of food in many countries, millions continue to suffer from malnutrition, and the lengthening shadows of poverty give lie to the pious promises and pompous proclamations by the world’s leaders over the last several decades that humanity is determined to achieve victory in its quest to eradicate poverty? With war, violence, disease, and the myriad manifestations of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination which man’s ingenuity has wrought all around us, how might a person not be experiencing crisis? One foundation after another—whether it be named after Bill and Melinda Gates, the Clintons, Ford, Rockefeller, or other tycoons—has claimed to have helped “millions” of people around the world, but the crises appear to be multiplying.

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Carrying on the Spirit of Peace and Love

by Terry Messman

Cover of Country Joe’s album, designed by Jane Fonda, sold for benefit of Free The Army’s anti-war performance troupe; courtesy thestreetspirit.org

Country Joe McDonald has carried on the spirit of the 1960s by singing for peace and justice, speaking against war and environmental damage, and advocating fair treatment for military veterans and homeless people.

The summer of 1967 was a moment when a utopian vision of peace and love seemed to be just over the horizon — or even down the next aisle in a record store. On June 1, 1967, the Beatles released the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, It seemed to herald a new day when love would overcome the injustices and cruelty of a world plagued by war, poverty and racial discrimination. “With our love, with our love, we could save the world — if they only knew,” George Harrison sang on “Within You Without You.”

Only two weeks later (June 16-18, 1967) the Monterey International Pop Festival brought together an extraordinary gathering of some of the most creative and innovative musical artists in the world, including Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MGs, Ravi Shankar, Canned Heat, the Electric Flag, the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, the Animals, and Country Joe and the Fish.

Taken together, those two momentous events — the Beatles’ imaginative and beautiful album, and the epochal gathering of legendary artists at Monterey — seemed to announce the dawning of a rebellious and visionary counterculture. The first rays of sunlight in the darkness of a world at war. It now may seem like a half-remembered fragment of a dream, but those days were filled with the hope that momentous social change might emerge suddenly from almost any protest, and breathtaking moments of beauty could be found in almost any music store or concert hall.

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Book Review: Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis

by Gertjan Cobelens

Dustwrapper art courtesy youcaxton.co.uk

But what about World War II? It is considered the ultimate trump card in any debate on the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. Not entirely by accident, it is also the title of an IFOR brochure on this very question. (1) It was President Obama’s main defense for his justification of the use of force in his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize. It was one of the main stumbling blocks for Martin Luther King Jr. towards embracing nonviolence, and it is the standard reaction of most people involved in government and the military to suggestions of implementing forms of nonviolent civil defense. The implication, of course, is that the Nazi regime was so violent and abhorrent that it could only be stopped by brute force. The other side of the coin, though, is that if one could argue successfully that some forms of nonviolent resistance did prove viable during WWII, it would follow that these strategies would be effective under most circumstances.

That was what the War Resisters’ International set out to demonstrate when, in 1952, they embarked on the idea to put together a book on accounts of nonviolent resistance. Although the WRI succeeded in amassing some first-class examples, the amount of material collected was deemed insufficient to be published as a book. (2) Others followed suit, such as Gene Sharp in his 1958 Peace News Pamphlet Tyranny Could Not Quell Them, in which he detailed the successful non-cooperation campaign by the teachers of Norway, and Jacques Sémelin’s Unarmed Against Hitler: Civilian Resistance in Europe 1939-1943. (3).

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Book Review: A Theory of Nonviolent Action: How Civil Resistance Works

by David M. Craig

Dustwrapper art courtesy zedbooks.co.uk

Reflecting on the writer’s internal struggle between the sense of futility and the need to persevere, the American author F. Scott Fitzgerald described the “test of a first-rate intelligence [as] the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” (1) Stellan Vinthagen’s book, A Theory of Nonviolent Action: How Civil Resistance Works (London: Zed Books, 2015), passes a similar judgment on Mohandas Gandhi. Even if Gandhi resisted the “Great Soul” title of Mahatma, his genius included a capacious imagination and experimental creativity that not only embraced opposed ideas, but also put them into action simultaneously. Some of the contradictions in Gandhi’s nonviolence are familiar. His aspiration for spiritual purification could sometimes conflict with his political strategizing. The nonviolent resister’s opposition to oppressive rules and roles stands in tension with solicitude for the people who support and benefit from the status quo. Vinthagen multiplies the contradictions inherent in nonviolent action, interpreting them as “a creative tension, a dynamic that gives nonviolence its social ‘force.’” (Vinthagen, 321)

Vinthagen’s original contribution is to map out these tensions in a general sociological theory of nonviolent action. For Vinthagen, Gandhi is the primary source and theorist for all discussions of nonviolence, but he also draws Gandhi outside of his historical context and religious identity. A good illustration is Vinthagen’s disagreement over the role and significance of suffering in nonviolence. Gandhi links suffering (tapasya) to a Hindu ideal of renunciation. In his re-reading of Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, Gandhi exhorts everyone to follow the sannyasi’s practice of renunciation and always renounce the fruits of one’s actions. In place of personal goals, right action aspires to Truth. The clearest sign that devotion to Truth has displaced personal goals is a person’s openness to suffering even to the point of losing one’s life.

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Country Joe McDonald: Singing Louder Than the Guns

by Terry Messman

Country Joe McDonald sings anti-war songs; Livermore Lab, Hiroshima Day, August 6, 2015; courtesy thestreetspirit.org

Country Joe McDonald composed one of the most acclaimed peace anthems of the Vietnam era, “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” a rebellious and uproarious blast against the war machine. The song’s anti-war message seems more timely than ever, with its savagely satirical attack on the arms merchants, the military and the White House. “Fixin’ to Die Rag” condemns the architects of war and the military-industrial complex in bitterly sarcastic terms.

Come on Wall Street, don’t move slow
Why man, this is war au-go-go!
There’s plenty good money to be made
By supplying the Army with the tools of its trade.

Recently, a major new book by Craig Werner and Doug Bradley, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, [Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015] ranked hundreds of Vietnam-era songs and listed “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish as one of the two most important songs named by Vietnam veterans, right after “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by the Animals. “The soldiers got it,” write co-authors Werner and Bradley about Country Joe’s song. Michael Rodriguez, an infantryman with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, said: “Bitter, sarcastic, angry at a government some of us felt we didn’t understand — ‘Fixin’ to Die Rag’ became the battle standard for grunts in the bush.”

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“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi