Prayer or protest? Fasting, nonviolence, and anti-nuclear activism in the United States

History Seminar Series

School of Humanities and Social Science,
The University of Newcastle

2010, Semester 2

Held in the Cultural Collections (near the Information Desk)
Level 2, Auchmuty Library, Callaghan Campus

10am- 11am, followed by morning tea

6th August. Kyle Harvey, Macquarie University

“Prayer or protest?: Fasting, nonviolence, and anti-nuclear activism in the United States”

In the twentieth century, American pacifists began to experiment in more radical ways with nonviolence as a strategy for social change. Utilising ideas and tactics gleaned from Gandhi’s campaigns in India and South Africa, pacifists sought to bring about change by combining radical protest with religious ritual, satisfying their calling to bear witness to injustices, speaking to a higher truth in the process. This dualism can be seen through a variety of nonviolent protests by pacifists, but those involving the ritual of fasting speak clearest to the problems of combining a political protest with an act of inner spirituality. Fasts in protest of nuclear disarmament also considered themselves prayers of penitence, humility, and self-purification, which struggled to make sense to the targets of most anti-nuclear protest – the public. Attempting to soften the message of pacifist spirituality meant that anti-nuclear fasting campaigns needed to match their faith with a concerted public relations effort, fitting their protest in with the broader, mainstream, peace movement.

This compromise was not easy, and speaks to the marginalisation of radical pacifism in the anti-nuclear movement. In the 1980s, the popularity of the nuclear freeze campaign encouraged pacifists that their efforts might reach a larger audience. The Fast For Life, a 1983 campaign, attempted to combine a radical act of pacifism – an open-ended fast – with a moderate yet somewhat vague rhetoric of committed individuals, hope, faith and love. Building on a lengthy history of religious fasting, as both an ascetic pursuit and one incorporated into nonviolent activism, the Fast For Life used ritual and politics in strange ways that had mixed results. The campaign says much about the nature of religious pacifism, nonviolent action, and the place of spirituality in movements for social change. Moreover, it demonstrates that religious pacifism in the United States was often ruled by uneasy compromises between idealism and realism, between faith and pragmatic politics.

One thought on “Prayer or protest? Fasting, nonviolence, and anti-nuclear activism in the United States

  1. Pingback: History Seminar Series 2010 Semester 2 « UoN Cultural Collections

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