Book Review by J. Robert Charles
The Missing Peace: The Search for Nonviolent
Alternatives in United States History.
By James C. Juhnke and Carol M. Hunter. Kitchener, Ont., and Scottdale,
Pa.: Pandora Press and Herald Press. 2001. 321 pp. $26.50 (US); $37.50
If the sweep of United States history
surveyed in this timely, provocative book fails to persuade you that
our nation is in thrall, both domestically and abroad, to the "myth of
redemptive violence," then consider for a moment the war carried out
earlier this year by the United States (and Britain) in Iraq.
The military campaign against the regime of
Saddam Hussein was waged in the face of significant public opposition
in polls and in the streets, both at home and overseas. It was waged
despite opposition from other governments in the United Nations
Security Council. It was waged despite numerous pleas to give weapons
inspections more time. In the end, the Bush chose to declare that time
had expired for diplomatic solutions short of war. Had it ever believed
in non-military alternatives in the first place? Not likely. Under the
banner of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the American military juggernaut was
unleashed. In short order it toppled one of the three "axis of evil"
regimes identified by President Bush a year earlier.
While the story does not stop here, of course,
the telling of this most recent episode can. Now, substitute different
dates, geographical references, enemies, and names of our political
leaders, and leave out any persons who questioned or rejected violence
as a means to secure freedom or settle international disputes. You will
have the history of the United States as it has been recorded and
celebrated from colonial times to the present. This is the contention
of James Juhnke and Carol Hunter, historians from Christian liberal
arts colleges affiliated with historic peace churches: Juhnke of Bethel
(Kans.) College; and Hunter of Earlham College in Indiana.
Now, to be sure, Juhnke and Hunter are not the
only historians to point out this close connection between the U.S.
history and the glorified use of violence. Writing earlier this year in
The Washington Post, Michael Sherry noted that, although Americans like
to think their nation is "a reluctant warrior," when "measured by
actions, the U.S. is a warrior nation." While not loving war "in some
bloodthirsty way," Sherry finds most Americans "focus on the good, or
at least the heroism, that war yields," while pushing war's death and
destruction into the background. As a nation we see war as a crucible
for character and principle. We declare war on cancer, poverty, drug
abuse, and AIDS; deep disagreements over issues like abortion,
homosexuality, and gender roles become "culture wars." And then there
are the real international conflicts: at least ten in the last century.
Why do Americans-in marked contrast to continental Europeans, for
example-see war as a force for good? Perhaps, according to Sherry,
because most recent ones have been fought so far away.
Juhnke and Hunter, however, want to do more than
observe, analyze, and gently chide. If war is the locomotive of
history, as Trotsky once claimed, in The Missing Peace they clearly
hope to derail the engine and rip up the track. Or, failing that,
Juhnke and Hunter at least intend to give a voice to courageous persons
who have dissented from, and called for alternatives to, this master
narrative and public policy template. Their goal is to survey the
course of American history from the viewpoint of "peace values" as well
as from a global, non-nationalistic perspective.
The authors have borrowed their key interpretive
concept from biblical scholar Walter Wink: the "myth of redemptive
violence," which sees in violence the most effective way to secure
American (or any other nation's) freedom, and which is embedded in a
larger "domination system" going back to Babylonian creation myths. In
opposition to this perspective, Juhnke and Hunter aim to celebrate
"what makes for a peaceful and just society for all the citizens of the
world." They take up their task guided by three convictions. First,
"violence in the United States has done more harm than good, often
escalating rather than diminishing violence"; in other words, they
reject violence on strictly utilitarian grounds. Second, history must
be viewed through a lens of "mutuality and interdependence rather than
of self-willed triumph"; this means that there is no room for a
national-interest perspective in interpreting history. Third, "by
remembering those people and events who worked for nonviolent
alternatives, but whose stories are often missing from traditional
texts," their study will "provide hope and encouragement for a less
In addition to bringing neglected voices such as
Native American peacemaking traditions and republican peace experiments
of the early nineteenth century into their story, Juhnke and Hunter
read American history with "what if?" questions in mind. This approach,
also known as "counter-factual" or "conditional" history, rejects the
notion that history is limited to the study of what did happen; the
road not taken, this approach contends, belongs on the historical map
as well. If other policies had been followed, or if those who were
working for peace and justice in this situation-Juhnke and Hunter seem
quite confident that they can identify them-had been heeded, might war
have been avoided, while still producing more or less the same
outcomes? Interestingly, Juhnke and Hunter seem not so much in
disagreement with the political ends that were pursued-perhaps with the
exception of maintaining the unity of the American republic in the
mid-nineteenth century-as they are with the means used to pursue them.
These violent means, they argue, succeeded only in undermining rather
than achieving the goals for which Americans strived.
So, the question that Juhnke and Hunter want to
wrestle with is not why American history has taken a consistently
violent course; for them the myth of redemptive violence clearly is the
chief, maybe only, culprit. Rather, they want to ask, did it really
have to happen this way? Was, for example, a war really necessary to
win American independence from Britain? Was a war really necessary to
abolish slavery in the United States? Was World War I really the great
progressive crusade to make the world safe for democracy that President
Wilson portrayed it as? Was World War II really the "good war" it is
usually remembered to be? Did the Cold War really need to descend into
a costly and fear-ridden military competition between the U.S. and the
Soviet Union? Not surprisingly, given their basic conviction that
violence never works and their rather uncritical appeal to all manner
of peace advocates all along the way, their answer to each one of these
questions is negative. Things could have gone otherwise, they maintain,
for reasons that they explain at length and which all but the most
hard-core historical determinist will find plausible.
To another set of questions Juhnke and Hunter
bring either positive or "maybe" answers. For example, would it have
been better if the southern states had been allowed to secede in peace,
as some northerners were arguing in 1860? Did the Civil War profoundly
corrupt postwar relationships between the races and between regions?
Could the United States have retreated to its own hemisphere around
1940, protected by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and left Germany to
dominate Europe and Japan East Asia? Did the nonviolent civil rights
movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., challenge the country to live
up to its ideals of freedom, democracy, and equality? Do some
formulations of gender tend toward greater peace and justice, while
others usually lead to violence and justice? Again they advance
thoughtful arguments worthy of consideration and show that no
historical issue is an open-and-shut case.
The Missing Peace thus succeeds quite admirably
in bringing the "what if" questions to the study of American
history-even if it does not always explore the likely consequences of
these alternatives as thoroughly as one might wish. For this reason
alone this book is well worth reading and pondering.
Does it, however, attain its goal of providing
hope and encouragement for a less violent future, of helping its
readers overcome cynicism and disillusion about an America addicted to
the myth of redemptive violence? Here I am less sure-even if the recent
war against Iraq had been averted by advocates of nonviolent policies
such as the ones studied in these pages. Such a lofty goal is, I think,
beyond the ability of any study of political and social
history-religious history may be different-to achieve fully. Its
results will often vex and weary, even if occasional flickers of hope
and encouragement appear, as they do here. Yet peace proponents never
seem to gain the upper hand, or maintain it for very long. Why is this?
Is it that they are never given a serious hearing and thus never enter
the public record? Or do they simply fail to make a persuasive
practical case, to enough of their contemporaries to influence the
course of national policy, that violence always does more harm than
good, and thus are marginalized?
That the authors do not entirely succeed is not
entirely surprising given their understanding of peace as "both
personal and communal; local and universal; spiritual and political"
(p. 13). This broad, idealistic definition not only is devoid of any
Christian reference, but also is unlikely, under the conditions of
sin-tainted human history, to be realized. No wonder such a peace is a
missing peace! To explain its absence in American (or any other)
history by the power of a single myth seems a little too neat and
simple. Single-cause explanations such as this underestimate what it
would take to tidy up the messiness and violence of history short of
the eschaton. They also pay insufficient attention to the anarchic,
competitive nature of the international context in which no single
state-including the United States-can either take its own survival for
granted or create the conditions of enduring world peace.
Is then the partial success of The Missing Peace
a reason to despair? Once again, I think not. Historically the
Mennonite commitment to peace has been Christ-centered; it has not been
grounded in claims that violence never works, or that the world of
nations can run without it, or that nonviolence will sort everything
out if only its advocates are heeded. Rather, it has always been
rooted, first, in the conviction that it is wrong for disciples of
Christ to engage in violence because it runs counter to his teaching
and example, and, second, in the power of his resurrection, which
promises ultimate vindication though no immediate success to those who
would follow him.
It is only if and when this basis for our
peace-and our hope-comes up missing that our real scandal will begin.
Until then, the missing peace of this world will sadden us, but will
neither surprise nor discourage us.
J. Robert Charles, Goshen, Ind.
is director for Europe and project manager for research and program
review at Mennonite Mission Network.