Ted Grimsrud—May 18, 2014
[This paper originated as a presentation at the conference, “Mennonites and the Family,” at Goshen College in October 1999. It will be published later this year in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying Peace: Collected Pacifist Writings, Volume 4: Historical and Ethical Essays (Harrisonburg, VA: Peace Theology Books]
What difference does it make to assert that nothing is as important for our theology as pacifism (i.e., the cluster of values which include love, peace, shalom, wholeness, kindness, mercy, restorative justice, nonviolence, and compassion)?
I propose that one difference pacifism makes (or should make) is to cause pacifists to look critically at all justifications for violence – and to question all theological underpinnings for such justifications. In this essay, I will focus critically on one case – theological underpinnings that help justify acting violently toward children (what is commonly called corporal punishment).
I want to discuss six points concerning the theological problem of the justification of violence against children.
(1) Human beings tend to be reluctant to act violently toward other human beings. We usually require some kind of rationale to justify such violence. We must believe some value is more important than nonviolence. For Christians, this value or conviction is usually expressed in terms of “God’s will.”
(2) A theological framework, that I will call “the logic of retribution”, underlies the rationale for the use of violence against children. In “the logic of retribution,” God is understood most fundamentally in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness. God’s law is seen to be the unchanging standard by which sin is measured. Human beings are inherently sinful. God’s response to sin is punitive. Jesus’ death on the cross is necessary as a sacrifice to provide the only basis for sinful human beings escaping their deserved punishment.
(3) Consistent pacifists must raise theological concerns here. When God is understood, as with the logic of retribution, primarily in terms of impersonal holiness, legal requirements, and strict, vengeful justice, the biblical picture of God as relational, compassionate, and responsive is distorted.
(4) Not only is it justified according to problematic theological assumptions, corporal punishment also has problematic practical consequences. It may well intensify the dynamic of responding to violence with violence, actually educating young people into the practice of using violence. It may also contribute to a stunted experience of life for its recipients.
(5) Given that all theology is humanly constructed, we may (and must) reconstruct our understanding of God in order to foster consistently pacifist theology and practice.
(6) Foundational for such a theological reconstruction, the Bible may be read as providing bases for a “logic of restoration.” According to the logic of restoration, God’s holiness is personal, flexible, dynamic, and relational. God’s justice is concerned with restoring relationships and community wholeness, not with punishment, vengeance, and balancing the impersonal scales of an eye for an eye. God’s mercy is unconditional, not dependent upon human beings in any sense earning it.