LITTLE THAT IS BEING said or done these days by America's authentic peacemakers--from the Berrigan brothers to members of Congress like Ronald Dellums -- wasn't once said or done by A.J. Muste. From the 1920s to his death in 1967 at age 82, this Quaker pastor was an acclaimed practitioner of nonviolence who convincingly argued that pacifism was not passivity, that military force does not lead to peace and that the power of the state to gather men and taxes for war is a power worth defying.
Until now, a 1963 work by Nat Hentoff, Peace Agitator: The Story of A. J. Muste, has been the only biography of this Dutch-born American patriot. But the need for a fuller examination of Muste's life and thought prompted Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Morgan State University into a years-long research project that has produced a biography of singular breadth.
Robinson is a diligent assembler of information: her nearly 90 pages of notes amplify the text's richness of detail. She is careful to include facts that could have easily been passed over, such as Muste's disappointment in 1944 when his 17-year-old son enrolled in a military training program. The pacifist father told friends that "there is complete freedom in the Muste family," but Robinson found a colleague who saw that Muste's tone "was so defensive that (associates) restrained their impulses to tease him."
Robinson's esteem for Muste is balanced by an eye for his blindnesses. A stern resolve to obey one's conscience inevitably bangs the individual into the hard walls of obligations to family and children. When Muste's wife was suffering from a worsening heart condition, he remained undeterred in his endless rounds of traveling the country and globe for peace. He "was never apologetic about the harsh implications of his position; he clearly felt that, because he was working for a greater good, the strains and uncertainties to which his work subjected his loved ones was justified."
If Muste had his flaws--since when should even near- saints be easy to live with?--his virtues, both public and private, were more than compensatory. His generosity toward peace organizations brought him into contact with tens of thousands of members of groups like the War Resisters League, the Catholic Workers, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee and the Committee for Nonviolent Action. Toward the end of his life, which coincided with the buildup of the Vietnam war, Muste was turned into a cult figure--the old-timer who showed up at antiwar rallies and was given the bullhorn after the celeb peaceniks had their windy say against Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara. But for Muste, pacifism wasn't a way of denouncing the state as much as it was an active means of being open to "the world of possibility."
He saw this world while a student in 1910 at Union Theological Seminary in New York. The prophets of the Old Testament, he recalled "really (came) alive for me at Union." They were men "who preached politics, got into the actual struggle and cursed those who were grinding the faces of the poor."
In 1912, the newly ordained Reverend Abraham Johannas Muste was a supporter of socialists like Eugene Debs, then running his fourth presidential campaign. In 1917, Muste resigned his pastorate at a Congregational church in Newtonville, Massachusetts, where his opposition to World War I angered the parishioners. Muste became a labor organizer and taught for 12 years at the Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York. His pacifism lapsed. Along with many intellectuals in the 1920s, he followed the vague Trotskyite line that a little violence is allowable in the cause of the workers' revolution. In 1936 in a Paris church, St. Sulpice, he had a reconversion to pacifism. Robinson writes that "while Muste grounded his views as much as possible in fact, logic and common sense, the source of his pacifism was personal faith and a religious historical perspective."
Throughout his life, Muste sought to explain that pacifism was not a dreamy vision of lambs mystically taming lions. It could be a tactically efficient alternative to violence, provided that the individual worked hard to develop techniques of organized resistance. This included the moral force of sharing the earth's wealth and of reducing the reasons that lead others to violence.
Of course Muste failed to spread his teaching beyond the circle of the peace groups. But he made the circle wider. He gave answers to questions that are raised by stories on this morning's front pages: why do American politicians preach that the Soviet Union is, on the one hand, "diabolical and yet, on the other hand, reasonable enough to back down before a U.S. challenge?"
Muste didn't vote, didn't pay taxes and didn't believe in the conventional theories of political deviltry. In 1964, he counseled the peace movement that "it is not Goldwater and Right extremists in this country who have built up our vast military establishment." The permission for American militarism comes from the prevailing power politics that is independent of this or that administration.
As an earthly reward for his teaching of pacifism in a world plunging ahead daily toward more violence, Muste seems to have had the gift of a peaceable kingdom within. His son John once said that "whether he's at a ball game or climbing over a fence into a missile base, (my father) is always at peace within himself. He's the happiest man I've known. I can't believe a man can be that happy, but he is, he really is."
For the reader it is an earthly reward that Muste's idealism finds itself so well-served by Robinson. The current forms of dissent against militarism-- American, Soviet, Arab, Israeli, wherever--can be better understood if Muste is better remembered.