Monthly Archives: May 2012

A Theological Critique of Corporal Punishment

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #E.4

[Presented at the conference, “Mennonites and the Family,” October 1999]

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 reflect on six theses 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. Continue reading

A Pacifist Critique of the Modern Worldview

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays E.2

[Published in Ray Gingerich and Ted Grimsrud, eds. Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice, and the Domination System: Engaging Walter Wink (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 53-64.]

I have been learning from Walter Wink for years, going back half my lifetime to when I read his little book, The Bible in Human Transformation,[1] which came at a crucial time for me as I was emerging from the literalistic fundamentalism I had been taught as a young Christian.

In the early 1980s I eagerly awaited his books on the Powers – I had been fascinated by John Howard Yoder’s work on the Powers in The Politics of Jesus[2] and was delighted when I learned that Wink would be developing the analysis further.  I was not disappointed.  Naming the Powers[3] took the exegetical work done by Yoder and others to new depths, and Unmasking the Powers[4] provided new and exciting applications to social and psychological issues.  However, impressed as I was by these books, I still could never have imagined the kind of book with which Wink would conclude his Powers trilogy.

That book, Engaging the Powers,[5] has energized me ever since I first read it in 1992, and more than any book I can think of has directed my own thinking and research in the last number of years.  Wink’s analysis provides two especially crucial insights.  The first is that one of the main effects that the fallen Powers have in the modern world is concealment; that is, they distort and hide from us the true nature of reality, the true nature of what binds us, and the true sources for our liberation.  And the second is that the best criterion for discerning what is truth and what is deception in the swirl of ideas and values and theories and biases in which we are immersed in our world is nonviolence.

In this essay I will reflect on the way we look at the world around us (our modern worldview) as a major expression of “concealment” in our culture today.  Using the criterion of nonviolence (or, my preferred term, “pacifism”), I want to suggest that our culture’s very worldview itself serves to alienate us from truth and life.  Perhaps we fragile human beings feel the power of the fallen Powers most profoundly in the concealed assumptions of our worldview that lead to violence – violence against human beings, for sure, but even more fundamentally, violence against creation itself.

I conclude from this analysis that one of the major tasks of pacifists is simply to bring that which is concealed to awareness.  That is, we are challenged to foster dis-illusionment with the modern worldview.  We are challenged to discern how this worldview distorts and disguises and conceals and to expose such distortions for all people of good will to see.  Such work plays a crucial role in human transformation and the healing of creation. Continue reading

Violence as a theological problem

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.2

[Published in Justice Reflections, Issue 10, #70 (December 2005), 1-25.]

We live in a world where all too many people “purposefully contribute to the harm of another human being, either by action or inaction” (my working definition of violence).  In such a world, an unavoidable moral question arises, how do we respond to violence, how do we respond to evil?

Despite widespread occurrences of inter-human violence, the case may be made that most human beings tend to want to avoid lethal violence toward other human beings. If this were not true, the human race could never have survived to evolve to the point it has. In human experience people need some overriding reason to go against the tendency to avoid lethal violence.  To act violently, especially to kill other human beings, is serious business, undertaken because some other value or commitment overrides the tendency not to be violent.

Almost all violence emerges with a rationale that justifies its use. Psychiatrist James Gilligan, who worked in the criminal justice system for many years, argues, based on his extensive work with extremely violent offenders, that even the most seemingly pointless acts of violence usually nonetheless have some justification in the mind of the perpetrator.[1]

Other more obviously rational uses of violence (for example, warfare, capital punishment, corporal punishment of children) generally follow a fairly self-conscious logic. At the core of this “logic” rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution. When the moral order is violated by wrongdoing, “justice” requires retribution (that is, repayment of violence with violence, pain with pain).

The legitimacy of retribution is widely accepted in the United States.  Where does this commitment to retribution come from? One key source is Christian theology, the belief that retribution is God’s will, or that the need for retribution stems from the nature of the universe.   That the nature of the universe requires retribution is a part of what most Western Christians believe, leading to strong support for retribution (that is, for justifying violence as the appropriate response to violence). Continue reading

Anabaptism for the 21st Century

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #c.4

[Published in the Mennonite Quarterly Review 80.3 (June 2006), 371-90]

In contemporary American culture, religious labels have become increasingly imprecise.  Our dominant religion remains Christianity, but what does “Christian” mean?

Until very recently, many observers of America have spoken of moving into a post-Christian era.  However, clearly we have not yet arrived at such a state.  Currently, we are in the midst of a revival (of sorts) of the public expression of overt Christian religiosity.  High-profile politicians use explicitly Christian language as much as, if not more than, ever.[1]  Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians such as James Dobson exercise extraordinary influence over public policy makers.[2]

For those Christians who find their faith calling them to Jesus’ way of peace,[3] of resistance to injustice, of exercising strong support for addressing the needs of vulnerable people, of a desire for more mercy and less retribution, the current scene is profoundly challenging.  Such Christians see the very basis for their core convictions – the Bible (which they read as centered on Jesus’ message) – being associated in the public eye with policies and rhetoric and values that they abhor.

What is presented as the “biblical” or “Christian” view, by common popular agreement among people who both agree and disagree with it, seems to include support for the wars and militarism of the United States[4] and for capital punishment and a harshly retributive criminal justice system.[5]

So, what do Jesus-oriented Christians in America do?  If they cede Christianity to those who are pro-military and pro-death penalty, they cut themselves off from the taproot of their own meaning system and spiritual empowerment.  If they explicitly affirm their Christian convictions, they run the risk of being lumped in the public eye with these prominent expressions of “Christianity” that so contradict their reading of the gospel message. Continue reading

Christian Pacifism Encounters the Old Testament

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.2

[Previously unpublished. From a 1983 lecture. Slightly revised in 1991.]

The Old Testament has been enormously influential in Christian thinking about warfare, especially for its use in justifying involvement in warfare.  Sociologist Ray Abrams, in his study of American Christian support for World War I makes the strong statement: “It may be safely predicted that as long as Christian ministers and Sunday School teachers continue, as the majority of them now do, to defend the crude ethics in parts of the Old Testament, the Bible will continue to be used as the greatest defense of war in history.”[1]  Unfortunately, many pacifists react to such uses of the Old Testament by dismissing it and neglecting the positive resources it offers for Christian peacemaking and social thought in general.

We do not have to explain away the Old Testament’s wars in order to remain pacifists and at the same time accept all of the Old Testament as scripture.  Looked at on its own terms, and seen as a record of the historical movement of God’s people in history, the Old Testament can provide us with a great deal of insight.  For one thing, it can help us to see that we are pacifists primarily not for negative reasons (it is wrong to kill) but for positive reasons.  We are called to be agents of God’s redemptive working in human history and that working moves in the way of the suffering servant, not in the way of power politics and violence.

Certainly, we are not left without problems.  But all areas of Christian theology leave us with problems.  The Bible is a very human book, presenting human history.  Just as human history is neither unambivalent nor unambiguous, neither is the Bible.  And the Bible, with its ambivalence and ambiguity, addresses us in our ambivalent and ambiguous contexts with words and images which nonetheless mediate the word of God for us.

The Old Testament texts should be seen first within their historical contexts.  In the age of Joshua, for example, the question of whether the taking of human life is morally permissible would never have been asked.  The key concept during the holy wars for the participants was not bloodshed, but rather the question of whether Israel would trust in God or not.  If it would trust and follow God’s will, then the occupants of the land would be driven out in ways which would make it clear that it was God and not military might or large numbers which won the victory.[2]

When we look at the historical development rather than directly comparing Jesus with Joshua, we see evolution.  First we can see novel aspects of holy war itself (e.g., dependence on God for one’s existence) and in legislation (e.g., rejection of indirect retaliation and greater dignity given women and slaves).  Progressively the prophetic line represented by writers such as Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah underlines these same emphases.  Progression continues through incorporation of persons of non-Israelite blood into the tribe, expansion of world vision to include other nations, prophets’ criticism of and history’s destruction of kingship and territorial sovereignty as definitions of peoplehood.[3] Continue reading

A pacifist Christian perspective on war and peace

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #A.2

[This essay is based on a paper presented to a conference on World Religions and Peace, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, April 11, 2005]

As a pacifist Christian theologian, I find it more than a little ironic that many Christians in the United States compare Christianity to other religions, especially Islam and Judaism, by asserting that Christianity is more peaceful.  They presumably base such a claim on the teachings of Jesus, who they affirm as central to their faith.  However, looking at the message of Jesus only underscores how much blood we Christians actually have on our hands over the past two millennia, how far most Christians over most of Christianity’s history have moved from our namesake’s words such as “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” and “Father, forgive them” when it comes to issues of war and peace.

This is to say, as I discuss a Christian perspective on war and peace today I recognize just how tiny of a minority within the Christian tradition I represent.  Most Christians are not pacifists; only a few have ever been, at least in the years since 300 CE.  However, I will suggest that pacifism has strong grounding in the basic storyline of the Christian Bible, that pacifism is in fact the original (or default) position of Christianity, that pacifism has always existed as an option for Christian believers, and that following the 20th century, the century of total war, Christian pacifism has more relevance (and more adherents) than ever before.[1]

I need to start with some definitions before outlining the biblical grounding for Christian pacifism.  The most common definitions of “pacifism” focus on what pacifism rejects, characterizing pacifism as the in-principled rejection of participation in warfare.  Some pacifists would say that all war is wrong, others more that they simply themselves will never fight.  Focusing on what pacifism affirms, I define pacifism as the conviction that nothing matters as much as love, kindness, respect, seeking wholeness.  Hence, nothing that would justify violence matters enough to override the commitment to love.  In my understanding, pacifism is a worldview, a way of looking at reality;[2] there is a pacifist way of knowing, a pacifist way of perceiving, of discerning, of negotiating life.

The term “nonviolence” is recently prominent as a near-synonym for pacifism.  I will use the terms interchangeably, though if we trying to be truly precise, we could find nuances that might make us want to differentiate between the two terms.[3]

My definition of pacifism more in positive, worldview terms links more closely with the logic of the biblical story than simply defining pacifism as the rejection of warfare.  The Bible, famously, does not overtly reject warfare for believers; in fact, in certain notorious cases the Bible actually commends, even commands, God’s people fighting.[4] Continue reading

The Old Testament God

Ted Grimsrud

Exodus and the Psalms provided stimulus for reflecting on how the Old Testament presents God in a series of short reflections I published during the Fall of 2010 in Mennonite Weekly Review.

These reflections followed the uniform Sunday School lesson for that time period. The format for these reflections allows very little opportunity for in-depth analysis of any sort. And they are meant to be accessible to non-scholars. So it’s a challenge to find something to say that has substance.

My main interest, in the small space allotted, was to test the thesis that God in the Old Testament is actually mainly presented as merciful, concerned with healing, and well worth trusting in. Of course, one could easily find 13 passages that would support this thesis. However, part of the challenge in writing these reflections was that I was not allowed to choose the passages to write on; I had to follow the outline given to me.

Continue reading

Is “Academic Freedom” a Mennonite Value?

Ted Grimsrud

 [This essay was published in the Anabaptist Scholars Network Newsletter 4.1 (May 2001). It originated as a “discussion starter” that I emailed to various Mennonite academic friends for their responses. We had a lively discussion; edited responses from the discusion may be found here. A shortened and revised version was published in DreamSeeker Magazine, Autumn 2001, with a response from the then president of Eastern Mennonite University, Joseph Lapp.]

For over one hundred years, Mennonites in North America have been in the higher education business.  As was no doubt inevitable, as time has passed, Mennonite colleges and seminaries have adopted many of the values and practices of their surrounding culture’s higher education milieu.  And yet, we still want to think of our “product” as in some sense distinctively Mennonite.

One area where these two communities (North American higher education and the Mennonite churches) perhaps most obviously have potential for being in tension is the area often referred to as “academic freedom.”  Should academics who work for Mennonite schools operate in terms of “academic freedom?”  Partly because I teach in theology and partly because this question seems especially pointed in relation to theology (broadly defined to include biblical studies, ethics, and other related disciplines), I will focus on theology in this essay.  I believe my reflections, though, could to a large extent apply to all disciplines in our Mennonite colleges and seminaries.  What constraints, if any, should be placed on the freedom of expression in the classroom for Mennonite theologians?  What about our publications?  What place is there for censorship on the part of Mennonite institutions?  How about self-censorship?

I address these issues from the perspective of one who has taught at a Mennonite college for nearly five years, and who for ten years before that pastored in three Mennonite congregations.  I also address these issues as a person who did not grow up as a Mennonite, but rather grew up in the “Wild, Wild West” in a milieu strongly influenced by rugged frontier individualism.  So, while I write out of lengthy experience in Mennonite institutions, I also write as one who does not have the traditional Mennonite, community-first ethos in my bones. Continue reading

The justice of God in the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.11

[This essay was published in Willard M. Swartley, ed. Essays on Peace Theology and Witness (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988), 135-52.]

For the person seeking to gain a Christian theological perspective on justice, it is likely not self-evident that the Book of Revelation would be a crucial source.  For example, Jose Miranda’s well-known study, Marx and the Bible,[1] only tangentially refers to Revelation, and the biblical chapter in the United States Catholic bishops’ 1985 pastoral letter on the US economy does not refer even once to Revelation.

We can paraphrase Tertullian’s famous question: What has Patmos to do with Rome?  What do these obscure and seemingly fanciful visions have to do with justice in the real world? I will attempt to show that they have a great deal of relevance.

Does Revelation picture God and God’s justice in such a way as to make it illegitimate to apply Jesus’ teaching about God being the model of Christians’ loving their enemies to a rejection to a rejection of Christian involvement in warfare? Is the justice of God in Revelation punitive, angry, and vengeful in such a way that it becomes a warrant for acts of human “justice” such as just wars, capital punishment, a harsh and strictly punitive prison system, and a “big stick” foreign policy that seeks to punish “ungodly” and “unjust” enemies.

Is this really the view of God’s justice presented in Revelation?  My thesis is that it is not, that just as Jesus and Paul give us a picture of God’s justice that is different from the justice of “the nations,” so too does John. Continue reading

Theology by numbers: A sermon on Revelation 7

[This is the seventh in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly for about two years.]

Ted Grimsrud

Shalom Mennonite Congregation—May 13, 2012—Revelation 7:1-17

The book of Revelation is full of numbers. If you pick it up and start to read it, you may feel like it is a kind of impenetrable code. Journalist Jonathan Kirsch, in his book A History of the End of the World, writes that “the book of Revelation is regarded by secular readers—and even by progressive Christians—as a biblical oddity at best and, at worst, a kind of petri dish for the breeding of dangerous religious eccentricity.”

The numbers certainly play into this dangerous religious eccentricity. I want to focus on one number in particular this morning. But first, I’d like for us to think about as many numbers as we can remember from the book. What are the numbers in Revelation? And what do they mean?

Two types of symbols

Clearly, the numbers have symbolic meaning. But there are different kinds of symbols. We can break symbols into two general categories: specific symbols and general symbols. With specific symbols, one particular meaning is meant by the symbol. Like with the American flag—the thirteen stripes symbolize the original thirteen colonies and the fifty stars symbolize the current fifty states.

With general symbols, the meanings are much broader, more dynamic and subjective. Think again of the American flag—what does the flag itself symbolize? Tons of things. Probably significantly different things for different ones of us even in our small group here today. Democracy, religious freedom, the destination for many of our ancestors fleeing trouble—and, empire, war-making, global domination, hypocrisy.

Right after September 11, 2001, a friend of mine who teaches at a Mennonite college put a picture of the American flag on his office door. You can imagine that this led to some controversy (to say the least). The meaning of that symbol for my friend changed just within weeks and he soon took the picture down—from a statement of solidarity with victims and relief workers, the flag came soon to symbolize revenge and a new war of aggression against Afghanistan.

I think the numbers in Revelation work both ways—some symbolize specific things, others are more general. Let me read from chapter 7, which gives us several numbers. Think about what these numbers may symbolize—and think of other numbers in Revelation. We’ll talk about these when I’m done reading. Continue reading