Monthly Archives: December 2010

Christian Pacifism in Brief

Ted Grimsrud with Christian Early

[This is the Prologue to Christian Early and Ted Grimsrud, eds. A Pacifist Way of Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Nonviolent Epistemology. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010. 1-21.]

John Howard Yoder begins The Politics of Jesus by characterizing that book as coming from “a Christian pacifist commitment.”  Yoder attempts, he states, to respond to ways “mainstream Christian theology has set aside the pacifist implications of the New Testament message.”[1]

In a persuasive way that still today, well over thirty years later, witnesses powerfully to those “pacifist implications,” Yoder presents New Testament teaching as speaking directly of social ethics in ways that remain normative for Christians—and that point directly toward pacifism.

Yoder’s essays included in the present book speak, directly and indirectly, of the significance of a pacifist commitment for how we know, for our epistemology.  However, he does not extensively explain what he means by pacifism.  As this term commonly lends itself to misunderstanding and caricature, we believe it will be helpful to begin with a short explanation of what we mean by “pacifism.”

When we present Yoder’s “pacifist epistemology” as exemplary, what follows in this chapter will show what we mean by “pacifism.”

“Pacifism” has the connotation of a complete rejection of involvement in warfare, and usually other forms of violence.  Beyond that simple assumption, however, the term pacifism is used in many different kinds of ways.  Yoder’s classic analysis, Nevertheless: Varieties of Religious Pacifism, describes no less than twenty-nine different types of religious pacifism.[2] Given this variety, no one is in a position to make claims for all pacifists because “pacifism” is an essentially contested concept.  We wish to be very clear at the outset that our intent in this essay is to argue in favor of a particular, contestable understanding of pacifism.  We thought that perhaps it would be helpful to begin with some examples of what we consider to be misunderstanding pacifism, and then go on to give a short case for what we will call Christian pacifism allowing the rest of the book to be an exploration of the epistemological consequences of our view so that readers may judge it and its consequences more fully. Continue reading

Jesus’ “Story of Two Sons” and Our Metaphysics

I reflect on Jesus’ famous parable, often called the “prodigal son” in my December 12, 2010 sermon—the tenth in my series on Luke’s Gospel.

Importantly, we should notice that Jesus’ story begins with “there was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11). The focus is on the father and both sons. The story doesn’t end with the younger son’s return. Rather, the story ends with the father’s unanswered plea to the older son to join in the party celebrating the return of his brother.

I approach the story in the light of big questions we have in today’s world about why so many people in our American society are so accepting of violence. I suggest one big issue is our metaphysics (our views of “what is” and “what it’s like”). I counter pose a metaphysics of redemptive violence with a metaphysics of mercy.

Jesus affirms a metaphysics of mercy—he tells his powerful story of the two sons in response to “grumbling” from religious leaders about his merciful ways (that reflect his understanding of reality as “mercy all the way down”).

The sermon may be found here: it’s called “Metaphysical Therapy.” The other sermons in the series may be found here.

Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism

Ted Grimsrud

[Published in The Conrad Grebel Review 28.3 (Fall 2010), 22-38]

“One of the most pressing questions facing the world today is, How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?”[i] These words opened Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers nearly twenty years ago — and voice the concern that remains at the center of many peacemakers’ sensibilities. Wink’s question about resisting evil without adding to it points in two directions at once, thereby capturing one of the central tensions we face.  On the one hand, we human beings of good will, especially those of us inclined toward pacifism, assume that at the heart of our lives we have a responsibility to resist evil in our world, to seek peace, to be agents of healing — that is, to enter into the brokenness of our present situation and be a force for transformation.  On the other hand, we recognize that efforts to overcome evil all too often end up exacerbating the brokenness.  We recognize that resisting evil can lead to the use of tactics that add to the evil and transform the actors more than the evil situation.

So, how might we act responsibly while not only remaining true to our core convictions that lead us to seek peace but also serving as agents of actual healing instead of well-meaning contributors to added brokenness?

In recent years, various strategies with potential for addressing these issues have arisen.  These include efforts to add teeth to the enforcement of international law (the International Criminal Court) and the emergence of what has come to be known as the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine affirmed by the United Nations Security Council in 2006. In this general arena of seeking to respond creatively to evil, we could also include creative thinking that has been emerging out of peace church circles related to themes such as restorative justice,[ii] “just policing,”[iii] and projects such at the 3D Security Initiative[iv] and Mennonite Central Committee’s “Peace Theology Project.”[v]

The tension seemingly inherent for peacemakers in these efforts at responding to evil appears in the tendency to incline either towards “responsibility” in ways that compromise our commitment to nonviolence and the inherent worth of all human beings, even wrongdoers, or towards “faithfulness” in ways that do not truly contribute to resisting wrongdoing and bringing about needed changes. We face a basic choice. Will we understand this tension as signaling a need to choose one side of it over the other — either retreating into our ecclesial cocoon and accepting our “irresponsibility” or embracing the call to enter the messy world in creative ways that almost certainly will mean leaving our commitment to nonviolence behind? Or will we understand the tension as a call to devote our best energies to finding ways to hold together our nonviolence with creative responsibility?

I affirm the need (and the realistic possibility) of taking the “tension-as-opportunity-for-creative-engagement” path. A number of the people and writings cited in notes 2 through 5 below have been embodying just this kind of path; I do not mean to imply that peace church practitioners haven’t make significant progress in understanding and applying our peacemaking convictions to the “real world.”[vi] However, I am not content that we have yet done the necessary work at sharpening our understanding and articulation of the “faithfulness” side of the responsibility/faithfulness dialectic. Our creativity in engaging these issues may be drawing on increasingly depleted traditions of principled pacifism that found their roots more in traditional communities than in carefully articulated theological ethics. We may not have the resources to live creatively with this dialectic unless we do more work on clarifying and solidifying our understanding of our peace ideals.

With this essay I will articulate a perspective on pacifism that might be usable for thoughtfully engaging human security issues. My contribution is mostly as a pastor and theologian, not a practitioner. My hope is to help with the philosophical underpinnings, not to direct a program of engagement — though I will conclude with a few thoughts on how I see the pacifist perspective outlined here possibly applying to our present situation. Continue reading

Why we pay attention to Jesus

Article published in The Mennonite [13.12 (December 2010), 12-15].

Jesus is pretty amazing.  He’s an ancient character in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire.  He barely made it to his 30s and then joined countless other expendable people who the Empire considered worth executing.

Yet, in his afterlife, he became surely the most famous human being in world history. Certainly, the story of Jesus has been twisted and turned, exploited for evil purposes, corrupted almost beyond recognition—but somehow sprouts keep shooting up through the rubble, bringing forth flowers, revealing something of the beauty of the original vision of this person who history can’t let go of.

We still must ask, though, why do we pay attention to Jesus?

Once upon a time, there was a brilliant young German scholar and musician who paid attention to Jesus.  The seriousness with which he paid attention to Jesus led Albert Schweitzer to abandon a career that combined being a professor of religion with being a world-renowned organist.  He returned to school, earned a medical doctorate and spent the rest of his long life as a medical missionary in Africa and gained enough renown to be named winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work.

Schweitzer’s most important scholarly work was about Jesus.  In his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, he surveyed attempts by European scholars in the 19th century to produce a purely objective, historically accurate portrayal of Jesus and get behind the obvious biases of the gospel writers to the supposed bedrock of fact.

Schweitzer scorned these efforts. He concluded his book with the famous image of various scholars peering deep into the wells of history looking for the face of the historical Jesus.  They don’t realize that the face they see looking up at them is actually their own.  They are not really looking at Jesus but only at a reflecting pool of water.

This image makes an undeniable, and very important, point. We all look at Jesus through our own perspective.  We all look for stuff that matters to us and that speaks to our world.  None of us can be objective about Jesus.  We all run the risk of turning Jesus simply into a caricature of our own values and our own culture.

One impact of Schweitzer’s cutting insight, though, has been to serve as a kind of cynical debunking tool.  It’s a way to mock attempts to take Jesus seriously: Ah, you’re just projecting your own interests onto Jesus and calling them his.

When we look at what people say about Jesus we see such incredible diversity and  contradictions and self-justifications.  I have two recent books that focus on how Americans have presented Jesus—one’s called American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004) by Stephen Prothero, the other Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession (HarperOne, 2005) by Richard Wightman Fox.  These books make it clear how so many in our culture have confused a reflection of themselves for a picture of Jesus.

And yet….

There just may be something we could call revelatory in this cacophony of images of Jesus humans have generated these past 2,000 years.  Maybe we do see something truthful in the sum of what humans, Christian and non-Christian, rich and poor, religious and secular, young and old, westerner and easterner, say about Jesus.

Continue reading

Old Testament Bases for Christian Peace Theology

Paper presented in the Scriptural/Contextual Ethics Consultation

American Academy of Religion—Atlanta, October 31, 2010

Ted Grimsrud

The “just peacemaking” project has made a great start in a practical effort to overcome the curse of war. The desire to expand the project beyond Christianity is welcome—in fact absolutely necessary. My paper points in two mutually reinforcing directions—one is to challenge Christians in our understanding of the bases for our peace theology, the second is to work at finding common ground between Christian peace theology and other traditions (most obviously Judaism, but potentially beyond).

Christian peace theology tends to be New Testament centered, especially drawing on the gospels. Most Christians seem to assume that the Old Testament has little to offer for the work of overcoming war and violence. The comment of a friend of mine many years ago may be representative. We were in a Bible study group together and when someone suggested we study something from the Old Testament, my friend snorted and stated flatly, “I don’t want anything to do with that bloody book!” Many Christians who have wanted something to do with the Old Testament, going back to Augustine, have used it to justify warfare.

So it’s no surprise when a Christian peace theologian such as Jack Nelson-Pallmyer writes a polemical book critiquing Christian acceptance of violent theology, he would portray the Old Testament pretty strictly as a problem. Even peace theologians who don’t share this antipathy do little to develop a positive Old Testament centered peace theology.

Happily, numerous Old Testament scholars have helped us better to see the Hebrew scriptures as conveying a positive message of peace. But as yet, these scholars have mainly produced historical and textual studies more than biblically based peace theologies.

As a constructive theologian drawing on the work of biblical scholars, I try to develop a present-day peace theology that will be usable both within Christian communities and as we relate to fellow peacemakers outside our faith tradition. I am especially concerned to push strenuously the value of reading the Bible as a whole. I believe we find in the Bible a coherent story that provides a powerful basis for peace theology. The Old Testament plays a crucial role in this story—not as a preliminary to the essential part, but by providing the core message of peace and salvation that Jesus and the New Testament confirm and vindicate. Continue reading