Giving Peace a Chance

For their 1968 book The Lessons of History, Will and Ariel Durant calculated that the world had been without war for only 268 of the previous 3,421 years. Four decades later, we seem less likely than ever to reach 269. “Once you start the business of killing, you just get ‘deeper and deeper,’ without limits,” writes Mark Kurlansky. It’s almost as if he’s commenting on five years (and counting) of bloody, pointless, bungled warfare in Iraq.

That maxim is one of 25 lessons that Kurlansky draws from his survey of nonviolence-an effort to strike a mighty blow against belligerence in general, not just in the Middle East.

Known for his quirky chronicles of sodium chloride and a saltwater fish (Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World), Kurlansky here offers an inspiring alternative to official histories that more frequently record invasions, battles, and assassinations. In Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, he demonstrates that the struggle for peace has a glorious past. It just might have a future.

Though George W. Bush is mentioned only three times, in passing, al-Qaida only once, and Darfur not at all, this new edition of a book first published in 2006 seems even more timely now, when nonviolence is nonexistent in much of the world. A foreword by the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, does not need to dwell on the current troubles in Tibet to remind a reader that nonviolence is an urgent matter.

Nonviolence joins Nicholson Baker’s new book, Human Smoke, a compilation of contemporary newspaper articles, letters, and journals designed to demonstrate that “the Good War”-in which civilians were targeted by Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt, as well as by Hitler and Tojo-was nothing of the kind. “The greatest generation” was as destructive as any other, in Baker’s view. Baker includes voices that did not buy into the dominant ethos of brutal domination, reinforcing another of Kurlansky’s lessons: “The hard work of beginning a movement to end war has already been done.”


Kurlansky begins his own work, appropriately, by attempting to define his terms. He notes that most languages lack a satisfactory vocabulary to discuss nonviolence except as a negation of violence. Though Mohandas Gandhi coined the term satyagraha-truth force-to fill the vacuum, it never caught on. Kurlansky’s book embraces the term nonviolence as a principle of proactive, but nondestructive, intervention rooted in compassion, and distinguishes it from pacifism, which he belittles as wimpish submission. Yet Ammon Hennacy, who went on a hunger strike during his incarceration as a World War I resister and later campaigned against nuclear weapons, the death penalty, and military funding, was, like many others, proud to call himself a pacifist.

Kurlansky’s disdain for the word “pacifist” seems to derive merely from its homonymy with passivism. By any name, though, what he is interested in is the vigorous pursuit of peace, as opposed to turning the other cheek, hectoring and converting foes, or convincing them that in harming others we harm ourselves. He does not, however, pursue what exactly he means by peace aside from the absence of war. For those languages in which war determines what we mean by pax, violence is the cultural norm. Neither does Kurlansky attempt to understand, or even bother to mention, shantih, the Sanskrit term popularized by T.S. Eliot as the peace that passeth understanding.

In the early chapters, a breezy review of world religions allots a few paragraphs each to the ways in which Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam encourage nonviolence, but also shows how their adherents have invoked sacred authority for carnage. It was a Doctor of the Church, Augustine, who theorized the “just war,” scorned by some pacifists as an oxymoron, and Muslim leaders who reinterpreted jihad from spiritual struggle to holy war. The Emperor Constantine’s exploitation of Christianity for military advantage leads Kurlansky to draw another of his lessons: “Once a state takes over a religion, the religion loses its nonviolent teachings.” But he is silent about Bahá’í, an irenic faith uncorrupted by the responsibilities and temptations of statecraft.

Nonviolence is most striking when it recounts the largely forgotten history of dissenters from the governing creed of bellicosity-including men who flocked to monasteries as havens from conscription as Christian soldiers. Kurlansky recounts the grim fate of the 13th-century Cathars, vegetarian Christians who opposed church authority in southern France. He argues that if the Cathars had not finally taken up arms in self-defense, Crusaders might not have exterminated the entire community. “The lesson,” Kurlansky says, “is that if the nonviolent side can be led to violence, they have lost the argument and they are destroyed.”

He recalls other marginalized, peaceable folk such as the Waldensians, Anabaptists, and Mennonites, and he finds sustenance in the writings of Petr Chelčiký, the 15th-century Taborite who recognized that it is not human nature that’s responsible for perpetual war, but rather the logic of power.

And the author finds vindication in the eventual success of Te Whiti, the Maori chief in New Zealand who employed passive resistance to avert genocide against his people in the late 1800s, when the New Zealand government attempted to confiscate the last of Maori lands. “What if there had been a Te Whiti among the Cherokee or the Iroquois?” Kurlansky asks.

The efficacy, if not the virtue, of nonviolence is a question that haunts this history. Nonviolent tactics brought about the Orange (Ukraine), People Power (Philippines), Rose (Georgia), Tulip (Kyrgyzstan), and Velvet (Czechoslovakia) revolutions. But what if there had been a Te Whiti among the Jews at Auschwitz? Would he not have been incinerated along with all the others?

American history is usually viewed through the scope of a rifle, as the record of war after war after war, but Kurlansky tantalizes with hints of what might have been. He recounts how Pennsylvania, controlled by Quakers until 1756, irritated Britain and the other colonies by pursuing amity with the Indians and refusing to conscript citizens to fight the French. If John Dickenson, Pennsylvania’s delegate to the Continental Congress, had prevailed over Tom Paine, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and other warmongers, American independence, Kurlansky suggests, might have been achieved without a violent revolution, whose aftermath, the War of 1812, accomplished nothing, he insists.

Founded in violence, the young republic was also home to peace activists such as David Low Dodge, Noah Worcester, and Charles K. Whipple. Though Abolitionist leaders William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child embraced nonviolence, they were unable to halt the rush toward Civil War. “Was this bloodbath necessary to free the slaves?” Kurlansky asks, rhetorically. He analyzes the Spanish American War as an example of imperialist aggression, and World War II as the inevitable consequence of World War I. (“Violence does not resolve,” Kurlansky contends. “It always leads to more violence.”) He celebrates conscientious objection even when the price has been incarceration, and credits Christian pacifist (and author of 1940’s Nonviolence in an Aggressive World) A.J. Muste as a godfather of nonviolent activism during the civil rights and nuclear disarmament movements.

Blessed are the peacemakers, but in a society that elevates the Second Amendment above the First, entertains itself with images of slaughter, and dispenses justice through lethal injections, they often seem cursed. A brief study, and a primer for why peace demands study, Nonviolence fails to mention peace seekers Bernard Bolzano, Chief Seattle, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, among other dissidents from cultures of violence. And the book itself does violence to history in asserting that, “Women were granted the right to vote in the United States in 1929.” (The 19th Amendment became law in 1920.)

Perhaps, as Kurlansky notes: “Violence is a virus that infects and takes over.” If taken as directed, his enlightening survey could be a potent antiviral.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth.

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Published at 12:00 am CST