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There’s a quip that goes “Christianity is probably a great religion. Someone should really try it.” The implication, of course, is that most people who call themselves Christians aren't very Christian at all. And, in truth, it's hard to be a good Christian, what with all that loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, and helping the poor. It’s particularly hard to pull off in the modern world. But some have tried, at least in part. Foremost among them are the Christian pacifists. They are the subject of Kip Kosek's wonderful book Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2009). Kip shows that the pacifists—more specifically members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR)—were an oddly influential group. They utterly failed in their primary mission, that is, to create a world without war. They themselves didn’t fight, but that didn’t stop everyone else from going at it hammer and tong. Yet in pursuing that quixotic end the pacifists managed to either launch or aid several progressive causes that stand at the center of modern political life. These include: civil liberties (the ACLU), racial equality (the Civil Rights Movement), the Anti-Vietnam war campaign (the SNCC), and the nuclear disarmament movement (the Nuclear Freeze Campaign) among others. The members of FoR were on the right side of all these issues before it was clear what the right side was. And they suffered for it, though they were vindicated in the end. Kip does an excellent job of explaining how their Christian faith gave them the courage of their convictions and thereby allowed them—a tiny group of believers—to help create modern liberal democracy.
It’s very common today for seemingly sensible people to claim that religion is the cause of much that is the wrong in the world. But, as Kip demonstrates, it’s also the cause of much that is right.
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