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July 29th, 2009 at 10:20 am

Acts of Conscience and the history of radical pacifism in the United States

Acts of ConscienceSpeaking of titles (see below), the excellent blog Religion in American History has been looking at two books with the same title: Acts of Conscience. More precisely, there has been essays about Columbia’s Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy, by Kip Kosek and Steven Taylor’s Acts of Conscience: World War II, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors, published by Syracuse University Press.

Both books examine the history of radical pacifism in the United States. In his review of Steven Taylor’s Acts of Conscience, Kip Kosek describes the book’s recounting of how conscientious objectors during World War II became advocates for the mentally ill and what it might say about religion and institutional settings such as hospitals, prisons, asylums, etc.

In his essay on Kip Kosek’s Acts of Conscience, Paul Harvey draws on the book to explore the history of Christian non-violence in twentieth-century America from the Richard Gregg and the Fellowship of Reconciliation to Martin Luther King. Harvey quotes a particularly powerful passage from Kosek’s book:

Christian nonviolence succeeded by developing sophisticated public spectacles in the service of ambitious moral demands. . . . The Journey of Reconciliation, the sociodramas, the King-Smiley bus ride–all were feats of existential courage, all were religious rituals, and all were shrewd attempts to gain political power by securing the sympathy of spectators. To focus solely on the act of personal religious faith is to succumb to a sentimental belief in individual saintliness. To focus solely on the spectacular act performed for media audiences is to turn a tin ear to the real power of religious belief in the modern world. Christian nonviolent acts were . . . simultaneously spiritual and strategic.

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