Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Lessons for the Past Year from Rev. John Haynes Holmes

In pursuit of a master's thesis this week, I have read far more American pacifist literature of the 1940s than I ever expected to-- dwelling in particular on the work of John Haynes Holmes, the great Unitarian minister, renegade preacher of nonviolence, and social reformer. Holmes had his hand in every great left-liberal pie of the first half of the Twentieth Century, from the Social Gospel to the NAACP to the ACLU to the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Here was a man who never once deviated from the path of most resistance, proclaiming that "War is the great atrocity" even when the full heft of progressives, Popular Front-ers and fellow-travelers in the world of liberal religion was pressing down against him. I am not a true and thoroughgoing Holmesian in my ideology, but still, I can't help but feel -- especially when we look back on this year of universally-ascendent gangsterism and savagery -- that we need to hear again his lonely cry for peace.

The best that can be said for the year 2014 is that it is over. This will be remembered as a year of triumphant autocracy and cynicism. This was springtime for Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu and China's ruling class. This was the year when the War on Terror ended -- effectively -- with a whimper of terror rather than a bang of war. The full extent of the previous administration's participation in torturing detainees -- long known but now inescapably brought to the public's attention -- was proudly proclaimed and defended by Dick Cheney himself on cable TV. The "War on Terror" was revealed once again to be itself an act of terrorism. And in its place we have the return of Great Power politics, with the fighting of proxy wars in Eastern Europe, in which, as always, the local civilian population is the first and chief sufferer.

The Islamic State, I suspect, will probably be routed and defeated in its present form-- the memory of its name will not last another ten years, let's hope -- but it is likely to be only one of many future sectarian gangs committing ethnically-motivated atrocities in the Middle East. The forces that replace it may be just as cruel. The Iraqi government and the Shiite militias have already displayed their willingness to carry out massacres against Sunnis not very different from IS crimes perpetrated against Shiites and Iraq's religious minorities.

Meantime we have witnessed Israeli warplanes flatten Gaza to rubble for the third time in five years-- coupled with a continued tightening of the Israeli occupation over the rest of Palestine; we have seen the Chinese government further harden its heart against all democratic aspirations, in Hong Kong or elsewhere in its domain; we have seen the prospects for decent human life free of violence recede even further in Syria and Pakistan and elsewhere.

Even our good news this year, such as it is, has a bitter aftertaste -- the relief it brings being so often founded in the thought that "it could have been worse." America's diplomatic rapprochement with Iran has headed off the likelihood of war with that country -- for now. But it came about chiefly for sectarian reasons -- Iran hates the Sunni IS as much as we do -- which only reinforce the worst tendencies toward violence and civil war already at play in the modern Middle East. Obama's immigration deferrals, while necessary, were simply an incomplete reversal of direction from the administration's own earlier destructive deportation policy. The opening of relations with Cuba, after 50 years of pretending Castro did not exist, is to be celebrated -- but alas, the belief that this gesture will singlehandedly help to unseat the ruling regime may prove just as wrongheaded as our earlier isolation policy. "Openness," especially in its capitalist form, can get along quite comfortably with authoritarianism. Authoritarianism can often make the capitalist revolution possible in the first place; and capitalism has proven adept before at enriching reigning autocrats. Cuba may become a miniature PRC.

In a world of such unrepentant and unstymied brutality from all sides, the typical view is going to be that pacifism, as a doctrine, has very little to offer -- that pacifism has never been less needed or helpful. This was also the view expressed to Holmes during the Second World War by nearly everyone else in his circle-- apart from the handful of other pacifist diehards, like Vera Brittain and A.J. Muste. Pacifism might have served in previous decades, such voices said, but when faced with the geopolitics of 1939, it could provide no answers.

Holmes' response, however -- the one we need to attend to today -- was of course that it was precisely this sort of situation that most demanded pacifism -- that non-violence is never a more necessary corrective than when the world is especially full of violence. Holmes took our natural way of looking at our threatened position on a perilous globe and turned it on its head. Instead of seeing criminality and gangsterism and brutality abroad and concluding that we ought to defend ourselves by force, he urged us to look out at such atrocity and draw even more strength from it to our conviction  that "War is the great atrocity," and that injecting more violence into the scene, for whatever reason, is the very last thing we should do.


I am not wholly persuaded by Holmes in this regard -- nor am I entirely unmoved by the voices that opposed him. It still seems to me that Orwell (for all his own moral failings with regard to the Second World War) raised an unanswerable objection to the pacifist position. In his essay on Gandhi, he recounted an interview the Mahatma gave to his most famous journalist-disciple, Louis Fischer (who almost certainly knew J.H. Holmes, meanwhile, through pacifist connections). Fischer asked Gandhi what the Jewish people of Europe should have done to avert the Holocaust, if not turn to violent resistance or join a war effort against Hitler. Gandhi said that they should have lined themselves up along the cliffs of Europe and dashed themselves on the rocks below, until they managed to soften Hitler's heart. Orwell's point is that this counsel to Hitler's victims to complete his genocide for him is not only utterly ghastly-- it is also a perfectly consistent working out of pacifist principles.

Of course, the pacifist would not have to say exactly what Gandhi said. She could speak more sensitively of the millions of Jews and sexual minorities and Roma people and Jehovah's Witnesses and others who were the victims of Nazi atrocities; and she could have advised them to pursue more confrontational methods of non-violent resistance than hurling themselves into the sea (one notes that Gandhian resistance in India never took this suicidal form-- what was sauce for the goose was evidently not meant for the gander). But it remains true at last, that if the appeal to conscience fails, the pacifist has to counsel martyrdom -- as Gandhi did. 

This is not a wholly dishonorable position to take; but it is not my own. I believe people are entitled to fight for the lives they have-- and the lives of their loved ones. We each only get one, after all, and it is no small thing to ask anyone to surrender it on the alter of another man's scruples. Then, on a principle of moral consistency-- let alone compassion -- self-defense must lead into other-defense. If people are allowed to fight for themselves, we must be morally permitted to fight on their behalf.

There is of course a version of the doctrine I have just described that denies humanity to the perpetrators of evil. A lot of non-pacifists, after all, would have retorted to Gandhi that there are some people-- Hitler and high-ranking Nazis and maybe even "the Germans" as a whole -- who just cannot be moved by force of conscience alone. "The only thing those people understand is force," etc.

This anti-humanist version is not one I accept. There is no such thing as a wholly evil or wholly good person. The people who commit horrible acts of violence were often themselves the victims of violence at some point in their past -- and their outward cruelty is often a working out of an inward cruelty they have been practicing on themselves their whole lives. Even Hitler was likely physically abused as a child (as his father probably had been in turn). All of which suggests that introducing further violence into a person's life is not at all "the only thing" that person will "understand." Far from changing a person's violent behavior, in fact, such a show of force will only confirm him in it.

Moreover, there will always be those incredible stories of the successful appeal to conscience, even in the midst of a fervor for persecution. The young Desmond Tutu witnessed the "necklacing" of an alleged collaborator with the Apartheid regime; he threw his arms around the man before the tire could be placed about his torso, and thereby saved his life, and moved the onlookers to mercy. A friend from Div school once told me of an instance from Southeast Asia, when Buddhist monks laid religious artifacts in front of advancing tanks and dared them to roll over them-- the tank drivers refused.

Such stories, however, are merely a drop compared to the ocean of instances in which people have most literally appealed to the conscience of their persecutors -- begged for their lives, that is -- only to be silenced with a bullet to the face. Marvin Harris remarks in one of his books that despite all human conceit with regard to the comparative violence of the other animals ("brutality" is supposedly characteristic of "brute" creation, after all), we are in fact the only creatures known "to shoot a mother and her child while they are on their knees pleading for life." Some people in the world do seem to be genuinely remorseless.

This impression may be wrong, as I say. Even people who seem at first most inured, may only have become such by once being the victims of violence and cruelty themselves. They can be affected for the better by non-violent therapeutic interventions, which lead people toward a discovery of their own inner resources of empathy. But such interventions require a state or some other agency that has power over individuals long enough to obtain treatment for them, and to protect in the meantime the people they might harm. In the absence of such agency, the only plausible choice at times is that between letting the mother and her child be shot, or shooting the person with the gun. 

Without a larger agency capable of protecting the innocent, meanwhile, counseling "meekness" to the victims is a great crime against them, which leaves them more vulnerable to violence. Perhaps even worse than that, it suggests to those who do defend themselves, that they are wrong, guilty, for having done so. That is an implication of absolute pacifism which is very difficult to forgive, let alone to accept.

As for John Haynes Holmes, he was a man frankly outraged by Nazi atrocities, and a sincere opponent of all dictatorship, whether Hitlerian or Soviet or colonial. Yet in his effort to maintain this stance while also insisting on the humanity of the Germans, he sometimes struck the balance terribly wrong. In one notorious editorial, he insisted that "atrocity stories" about the Nazis had done too much to forge "hatred against the enemy," and ought to be counterbalanced with stories of the German army's decency and compassion. He provides as one example the satisfactory treatment of American POWs in the German camps. Holmes does not mention, in this editorial, the other sort of camps in Germany. Even if the full horror of the Final Solution was not yet known in these years, the fact that the Nazis maintained concentration camps filled with their political opponents and other victims of Gestapo persecution was quite well known -- and should have been mentioned by Holmes. Nor does Holmes seem aware of the fact that American and British treatment in the POW camps was decent because of the supposedly high status of these peoples, according to Nazi racist ideology, and was simply the reverse side of the appalling treatment of Russian prisoners, who were thought to be Slavic Untermenschen

As Holmes himself was aware, and said elsewhere (with regard to the Soviet Union, e.g.), the humanity of a people should not be argued at the expense of failing to denounce the inhumanity of a regime.


But Holmes and Gandhi and their pacifist colleagues got one thing entirely right-- namely, that the fact of atrocity in itself is a very poor argument for going to war; even though it is generally treated as the final and definitive argument for it. When we look out on a world at war, we should conclude from it first of all that violence is a terrible thing; we should conclude from it second that violence is a self-propagating and metastasizing thing; and we should conclude last of all that the injection of further violence therefore should be a very last resort -- one only turned to under the most restricted circumstances. The sight of a conflict-ridden world should make us more resistant to going to war, rather than less so.

I laid out above the reasons for thinking force is sometimes necessary to protect innocent lives. I hope I made it clear at the same time, however, just how limited a sanction this really is. One may have to employ violence to save people from violence, but only when one knows 1) that one's "protective" act will not be just as destructive or more so in itself than the act it aims at preventing; 2) that one's "protective" act will not give power to forces -- such as oneself -- who will commit reprisals or acts of vengeance that will eventually prove just as destructive or more so than the act it is preventing; 3) that one's "protective" act was truly the only means available of preserving people's lives.

As much as I might regard violent opposition to Hitler as justified, therefore, it should be clear just how much of the conduct of the war against him transgressed every one of these limitations. The saturation bombing of German and Japanese cities was not only unnecessary for the protection of life-- it was in fact massively destructive of innocent life, on a scale basically equivalent to German and Japanese war crimes. The collective punishment visited on Germans during and after the war was pure vengeance-- and perpetrated against the innocent at that. The war crimes trials afterwards, even when they punished the guilty, were at root similarly one-sided revenge-takings. As one of the Holmes-associated pacifist journals (Fellowship) sardonically put it at the time of Nuremberg: "Wasn't it convenient that all the war criminals happened to be on the losing side?"

To the extent Holmes and the others stood firm against these things, in the face of a lot of otherwise conscientious people who supported them, they were truly prophetic. As were some of the non-pacifists, like Victor Gollancz and George Orwell, who urged compassion toward the defeated enemy after the war. (Orwell was guilty of some truly blood-curdling pronouncements during the war, it is true-- but he condemned the postwar trials and the massive destruction of life that attended the postwar German "population transfers.") 

This is the spirit we need today, as we look out yet again on a world full of gangsters and war criminals. We need to remember that the sight of the enemy's atrocities should not first of all confirm in us how terrible the enemy is -- it should confirm in us rather a belief that all human parties are capable of evil. It should confirm that we too are guilty of and capable of atrocities, as are our allies. It should remind us that there is no reason, a prior or a anything, to trust ourselves with power of life and death that we would not grant to others. It should confirm for us the horror of atrocity; not the horror of the enemy's atrocities. 

If we choose the latter insight instead, we may start to believe that the problem with the world is simply that there are too many evil people in it. And the solution to war is therefore to blot out the war-makers from existence. (One of the reader's of Holmes editorial who sent in an angry rebuttal enunciates essentially this theory -- kill enough people and you will have peace).

And pretty soon we have committed all the atrocities that we invoked as reasons for our first intervention. We have done everything our enemies were guilty of, and then some. Or else we have empowered forces who will do this. It is a process of moral self-inversion and self-immolation that A.J. Muste once called "The Logic of Atrocious Means." Standing in opposition to it is the much more intuitive and honest way of confronting atrocity stories-- namely, to take from them that they prove how awful violence is, not how necessary it must be.


One can read or learn very little at present about our conduct of the war against IS in Iraq; it is not much covered in the news, and the usual sources of information can tell us few of its details. This is a disconcerting thing. We know very little about what is being done in our name out there. We know a great deal more about the utterly abhorrent nature of the Islamic State, and about its campaign of torture, rape, massacre, and randomized terror against religious minorities and Shiites.

The temptation in such a situation is very great to apply "The Logic of Atrocious Means." The horror of IS will make people wish to destroy it even more utterly -- to pave it under the onrush of history. But if we apply a different logic, the logic of what we actually know about the nature of violence and of human motivation, we realize that the stories of terrible wrongdoing coming from the IS should make us less likely to go to war in Iraq, less likely to bomb people from the skies, and less likely to support factions in opposition to the IS who are likely to mirror its behavior by reprisal killings, massacring prisoners, and the like.

There is another John Haynes Holmes editorial that I found quite unsettling-- cutting to the heart of my own compromises with violence as it did. (Whether one agrees with Holmes or not, his consistent moral center is one immensely productive of a feeling of comparative moral inadequacy.)

In this editorial, Holmes speaks of what he calls the "fair-weather" pacifist -- but a better term might be the "foul-weather" pacifist, given Holmes' description:
 This "Imperfect Pacifist is first of all the pacifist who takes his stand in peacetime and not in wartime. [...] We see this type of pacifist crawling out of his storm shelter now that the war against Germany and Japan is over, and telling us that it was all wrong and he will never have anything to do with war again [...] But let another war break out and he will find a reason for supporting it. This war, he will say, is different! It involves great questions of liberty, justice, and peace. As if war had not been camouflaged in these suppositious issues ever since the first cave-dweller threw a stone in anger against his neighbor."
How many of such people have emerged from the rubble of the 2003 invasion of Iraq! That war was horrible, we hear. But it would be irresponsible and selfish not to go in again and right the wrongs we inflicted. IS is a different kind of foe. And so on.

I have some reason for thinking I can share Holmes' moral high ground with respect to such people. I have never pretended to be an absolute pacifist, for one thing. For another, I have opposed every war of my politically-conscious lifetime, from Afghanistan on. Even as a child, I had an almost gastric revulsion against "the Logic of Atrocious Means." When the other kids on the playground were talking about "nuking" Afghanistan, I was declaring myself for peace. I even wrote an unsubtle, hectoring short story in which American soldiers ended up flying a civilian aircraft into a skyscraper in Afghanistan, mirroring (get it?) the atrocity of 9/11. (I guess I assumed at that point in my life that every country has skyscrapers.)

I was eleven at the time, and as V.S. Pritchett aptly notes in an autobiographical essay, "Between the ages of ten and fourteen a boy reaches a first maturity or wholeness as a person; it is broken up by adolescence and not remade until many years later." I sometimes feel that 2001 was my highpoint of integrity and moral wholeness with regard to America's wars, and it's been a much more strenuous effort ever since then to hold myself to its standard. I may not have supported any wars out loud, but I have wanted to, at various times, and have toyed with the possibility. I have lusted in my heart, as Jimmy Carter would say, if not in the flesh. That's why I still feel so unsettled by Holmes's remarks, though they could not precisely be said to apply to me.

I do not meet all of Holmes' pacifist standards all the time, and I do not really wish to. However, the overarching purpose and objective of his life was to convey a message we very much need in our time. Here's how I understand it:

The first lesson of atrocity is not that one's enemies are evil and should be blotted out. The first lesson is that life is of infinite value -- it is the first and primary thing of all values, because without it, everything else to which we might attach worth disappears with it.

As I celebrate the New Year with my family in a place of great tranquility, I earnestly wish for 2015 that this lesson will come to be more widely recognized, implemented, and cherished. Let's never have a 2014 again.

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