Ted Grimsrud

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Who can stand against it? The “good” war and the Beast of Revelation

In Biblical theology, Current Events, Empire, Pacifism, Revelation, World War II on June 25, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Ted Grimsrud—Published in The Mennonite (July 2012)

For Baby Boomers such as myself (born in 1954), World War II was in the background during our formative years. It was the most destructive event, by far, in all of human history. However, we still don’t  really understand that war and its  impact. We would do well to try to come to terms with what happened then, and its ongoing presence in our lives. As I  reflect on World War II as a Christian, I find myself struggling to find hope. This struggle, perhaps paradoxically, leads  me to the book of Revelation. Let me explain why.

I have several reasons for trying better to understand World War II.

I always encounter the long shadow of World War II in discussions with students. For many, the ideas of pacifism are new and foreign. Every semester I face the question, What about World War II? Doesn’t it prove that war at times is necessary—and that pacifism is unrealistic?

No wonder students raise these questions. They have grown up with images of the “Good War.” They hear our leaders, including President Obama, evoke the war against Hitler to show that the only way to pursue the right in extreme circumstances is by violent force.

My father fought in the Pacific war. He lost his best friend there, a man named Ted. My parents met when my father was stationed in Oregon. My mother also served in the military as a recruiter. They did not glorify the war. But they clearly valued their experience, proud of having done their part. I find myself constantly conversing with them in my mind as I study the war.

The more I learn of World War II and its moral legacy in the United States, the more discouraged I feel (actually, “discouraged” may be way too mild a term; horrified, outraged, depressed or despairing might be better terms). Read the rest of this entry »

How Not to Get Repentance

In Biblical theology, Jesus, Pacifism, Revelation, Theology on June 24, 2012 at 11:51 am

[This is the eighth 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—June 24, 2012—Revelation 8:2–10:10

Several weeks ago when Jason Myers-Benner brought our children’s story, he said something that helped inspire this sermon. The book he read was great, but it told us that hens lay their eggs when they are sitting down. Jason said that, no, hens actually stand up when they lay.

“The book is wrong,” Jason said. That struck me as kind of a subversive thing to say. “The book is wrong.” Are we supposed to entertain that thought? I think so, as Jason showed us.

So that made me think. Could we imagine saying this about the Bible? “The book is wrong.”

Jason obviously thought that being wrong about the laying of eggs did not invalidate his book. It still is truthful in important ways. Maybe we could say this about the Bible, too.

Does “the book is wrong” apply to the Bible?

So, I’d like us to do a thought exercise. If you can, come up with a passage or idea or piece of information from the Bible of which you might want to say, “the book is wrong.” I am not intending in doing this to trash the Bible—more so, I think honestly to ask this question might help make the Bible even more meaningful and helpful to us.

So think of a place where you would consider saying “the book is wrong” about the Bible. I will read from one of my candidates, a condensed version of Revelation 8–10. As I read, think about why one might be tempted to say “the book is wrong” in this text. And think about other parts of the Bible. Read the rest of this entry »

The Christian Alternative to Vengeance

In Justice, Pacifism, Restorative justice, Salvation, Theology on June 19, 2012 at 10:45 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #E.3

[Presented at Theologica Pacis conference, Akron, PA, January 2007]

The faith community is central to biblical religion.  In the Bible, from the start (the calling of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12 to bring forth a community meant to bless all the families of the earth) to the end (the vision in Revelation 21–22 of the churches witness leading to the healing of the nations), this community has the vocation not simply to serve its own interests but to serve the interests of all the families of the earth.

I have written a little book reflecting on this vocation as a central theme of the Bible as a whole, suggesting what I call “God’s healing strategy” as a narrative key for interpreting the overall message of the Bible.[1]  The “strategy” is simply that God has called together a faith community to know God’s healing love in its common life and to witness to that healing love in a way the serves to bless all the families of the earth, that brings healing to the nations.

This motif recognizes the need the human family has for healing.  We hurt each other.  We violate each others’ dignity, sometimes in terribly destructive ways.  A key aspect of the healing motif then may be seen as the issue of how to we respond to the inevitable harm we do to each other in ways that does not add to the harm.  Based on the Bible’s core message, the community of faith is central in the effort to respond redemptively to harm.  And a key part of redemptive responses, of course, is forgiveness.

When Michael Hardin asked me to prepare a discussion paper for this conference that would discuss the theme of “how the church might look if it was grounded not in victimage but in forgiveness,” I said sure, that I would be happy to since I was in the midst of teaching a course at Eastern Mennonite University I called “Topics in Theology: Vengeance and God.”  I figured I could draw on materials from that class.  This was a new class for me and back in mid-September when Michael contacted me, I wasn’t quite sure where the class would go.

As it turned out, the class pretty much did go the direction I hoped it would – concluding with a lively discussion on forgiveness and the centrality of the church in the embodiment of forgiveness as the ultimate Christian response to harm-doing.

Forgiveness may most usefully be understood not simply as pardon, a letting of wrongdoers off the hook, so much as a way of life, a set of practices, that brings an end to the cycle of enmity but also effects transformation in the wrongdoer, the survivors of the wrongdoing, and the broader community that is effected by the wrongdoing.

When we look at the dynamics loosed by the manifold violations of human dignity in our world today, we may easily recognize how crucial reflection on and, much more importantly, putting into practice forgiveness has become.  Much more common, it would seem, that seeking to break the cycle of harm triggered by violating acts, human beings tend to heighten the cycle with the “automatic” (?) quest for vengeance.  From the perspective of the Bible and its account of God’s healing strategy, we may want to claim, as Christians, that our tradition offers powerful resources for freeing human beings from the spiral of violence.  As we should.  But, of course, Christianity has, as Michael’s wording in his request implies, all too often embodied vengeful, violent dynamics more than healing, forgiving dynamics. Read the rest of this entry »

Anabaptist versus conventional theologies

In Anabaptism, John Howard Yoder, Mennonites, Theology on June 18, 2012 at 9:07 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.5

[Revised version of  “Whither Contemporary Anabaptist Theology,” published in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 23-36.]

Is there such a thing as “Anabaptist theology” for the present day? Is seeking to construct a distinctively Anabaptist theology an appropriate task for the 21st century?

John Howard Yoder did not consider himself a systematic theologian, and as far as I know would not have called himself a constructive theologian. However, his work certainly directly related to the task many Mennonites, and others who would also think of themselves as spiritual descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists see as vital for the viability of Mennonite and other Anabaptist communities—namely, self-conscious work at articulating their theological convictions in ways that might provide sustenance to their tradition.

Yoder’s model I will call “practice-oriented” theology. To help understand Yoder’s approach, and why it’s an exemplary model for those of us engaged in the work of constructive Anabaptist theology for the 21st century, I will first look at a somewhat different model for contemporary Anabaptist theology and reflect on the differences between these two models.

Tom Finger’s contemporary proposal

Tom Finger, like many other Mennonite writers wrestling with the challenge of working within the Anabaptist tradition (notably a marginal perspective in the history of Christian theology), seeks to find links of commonality with more mainstream traditions. In doing so, he takes an approach I will call “doctrine-oriented” theology.

Finger’s work has many characteristics unique to his own perspective, certainly, yet in relation to the key points I will focus on, his approach is at least somewhat representative of the general approach taken by Anabaptist-Mennonite theologians seeking rapprochement with mainstream theologies.

I understand the central characteristics of “Anabaptist theology” to be centered in an integration of theological convictions with ethical practices.  The ethical commitments of the sixteenth century Anabaptists such as their pacifism, their emphasis on economic sharing, and their rejection of the subordination of the church to nation-states, reflected a distinctive theology that placed central importance on commitment to the way of Jesus in costly discipleship. Read the rest of this entry »

A pacifist critique of just war thought

In Just War, Justice, Pacifism, Politics on June 17, 2012 at 8:48 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #C.7

[Unpublished paper, May 1986]

[Preface, 2012] This paper was written in the latter days of the Cold War. Hence, it has a context that is quite different from our contemporary setting. As well, it focuses on the generation of just war thinkers that came of age in the midst of the nuclear arms race and Vietnam War—most of whom have passed from the scene (though Michael Walzer and James Turner Johnson are still active).

Also, the paper does not, of course, take into account the recent flurry of writing on the just war: see, for example: Daniel M. Bell, Jr., Just War as Christian Discipleship (Brazos, 2009); Mark Allman, Who Would Jesus Kill?(Anselm, 2008); W. Michael Slatterly, Jesus the Warrior? (Marquette University, 2007); A. James Reimer, Christians and War (Fortress, 2010); J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy, War, Peace, and Christianity (Crossway, 2010); and Andrew Fiala, The Just War Myth (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).

However, I believe the issues I address here are perennial issues and the perspective I offer remains relevant.

Historical introduction

From the time of Augustine until now, the so-called “just war theory” has been the more-or-less official Christian doctrine regarding involvement in warfare.  I say “more-or-less official” because the just war system does not begin as a system in the strong sense of a group of thoughts that hang together.  It was never adopted by a church council.  It was not until the Reformation in the sixteenth century that it is mentioned in church confessions, and then only in passing.  This is to say that the “just war theory” was the norm in practice for the vast majority of Christians, the assumed position.

Ambrose, the late fourth century church leader, was the first to articulate a Christian “ethics of war”–before him it was always an ethic against war.  He furnished two of the ingredients of the Christian theory of the just war:  that the conduct of the war should be just and that monks and priests should abstain from fighting.

What Ambrose roughly sketched, his student Augustine amplified.  However, he never systematized his thought on warfare.  There was no debate among the church leaders of Augustine’s time about a coherent proposal for a Christian ethic of war that could be either accepted or rejected.  Since this was the case, there was no official acceptance of criteria that could lead to a clear decision as to whether the war was justifiable or not.

Rather, what happened is that the events occurred, wars happened, and the church leaders followed along, responding in an ad hoc fashion.  The acceptance of war and of the just war tradition simply happened.  No individual or group of individuals ever directed it.  There was no debate, no votes taken. Read the rest of this entry »

Summarizing John Howard Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus”

In Anabaptism, Biblical theology, Jesus, John Howard Yoder, Pacifism, Politics, Theology on June 16, 2012 at 9:40 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.4

[Unpublished paper, July 2008]

Christian pacifism stems directly from the biblical story of God’s revelation to humanity of the normative pattern for human life.  We see this revelation most clearly in the life and teaching of Jesus.  One of our most sophisticated interpreters of this story has been John Howard Yoder.  This essay presents a summary of Yoder’s argument in his classic book, The Politics of Jesus.[1]

The New Testament, centered on the story, presents a political philosophy.  This philosophy has at its core a commitment to pacifism, a commitment based on the normativity of Jesus Christ as the definitive revelation of God and of God’s intention for human social life.  Christians have tended to miss the social implications of the New Testament story because of assumptions about both politics and Jesus.

Christian ethicists and theologians have generally posited that Jesus’ thought as expressed in his teaching and practice could not have intended to speak in a concrete way to social ethics.  Jesus, it has been said, spoke only to the personal sphere or (more recently) he articulated his ethical expectations in the extreme forms he did because he (mistakenly) expected history to end very soon.

Because Jesus does not speak directly to our social ethics, Christian theology has concluded, we must derive our ethical guidance for life in the real world from other sources: common sense, calculation of what will work in a fallen world, non-Christian philosophical sources.

We must ask, though, whether, given Christian belief in Jesus as God Incarnate, should we not rather begin with an assumption that God’s revelation in Jesus’ life and teaching might well offer clear guidance for our social ethics?  We at least should look at the story itself and discern whether it indeed might have social ethical relevance.

Jesus’ identity

We will look first at how the gospels present Jesus, focusing on the Gospel of Luke primarily for simplicity’s sake.  At the very beginning, the song of Mary in 1:46-55 upon her learning of the child she will bear, we learn that this child will address social reality.  He will challenge the power elite of his world and lift up those at the bottom of the social ladder.

This child, we are told, will bring succor to those who desire the “consolation of Israel.” Those who seek freedom from the cultural domination of one great empire after another that had been imposed upon Jesus’ people for six centuries will find comfort.  From the beginning, this child is perceived in social and political terms. Read the rest of this entry »

My journey to pacifism as a way of knowing

In Pacifism, Theology on June 15, 2012 at 9:53 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #E.1

[Published in Mennonite Life 56.1 (March 2001)]

In the late 1980s, when I was pastoring a Mennonite congregation on the west coast, I became friends with a Lutheran pastor.  Soon after we met, when he realized I was a Mennonite, he asked (with a glint in his eye), “So you must be a pacifist?”  That triggered several friendly but intense debates about the theological and practical possibility of Christian pacifism.

My friend’s automatic link of Mennonites with pacifism is typical.  I well know that the history of pacifism among Mennonites is more ambiguous than my friend realized.[1]  However, I affirm the designation of the Mennonite church as a “peace church,” and I believe one of the most important tasks for Mennonite theologians remains that of understanding the full implications of our pacifist convictions for all aspects of our life and thought.

I write this essay as one small attempt to take on the task of Mennonite peace theology.  I will set pacifism in the context of the ferment in the contemporary world which many see as characterizing a time of transition between the modern and postmodern eras.[2]  I will do this initially through some autobiographical reflections that illustrate the connection between pacifism and critiques of modernity.  I will then summarize a few elements of what I will call “postmodern sensibilities” that I believe dovetail with a pacifist perspective on life.

I believe that the postmodern situation in which we find ourselves is potentially friendly to a pacifist way of knowing.  Those of us with pacifist commitments should welcome the deconstruction of the modern worldview, and with renewed commitment, we should seek to think and act in all areas of life in light of our peaceable convictions.

Autobiography

It has been a little more than twenty-four years since I first made a pacifist commitment.  I am more convinced all the time that this choice (or “acceptance”) was truly one of the two or three definitive personal commitments of my life.[3]

Pacifism, for me, meant, first of all, a realization that I could never participate in warfare.  In time, my pacifist commitment expanded greatly.  I came to understand pacifism to mean a positive affirmation of shalom (peace, in a broad sense, as kindness, respect, justice, restoration of brokenness).  Ultimately, I came to understand pacifism as a way of knowing, a way of understanding God and all of reality. Read the rest of this entry »

Is God Nonviolent?

In Anabaptism, Mennonites, Pacifism, Theology on June 14, 2012 at 10:22 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.1

[Published in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-first Century (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 47-53.]

The importance of self-conscious theological reflection for Christians in the Anabaptist tradition may be illustrated by considering an issue at the heart of Christian ethics, the moral acceptability (or not) of the use of violence.[1] From its beginning in the 16th century, the Anabaptist movement has as a rule affirmed pacifism as the will of God. However, this affirmation has not generally stemmed from sustained theological reflection so much as from a more existential belief that Jesus’ commands to love enemies apply in all circumstances. What has sustained this belief has generally been the on-going existence of pacifist communities that have claimed a loyalty from its members higher than the loyalty given to nation-states that might ask involvement in warfare of its citizens.

However, in the 21st century, the close-knit, homogenous, rural communities that sustained Anabaptist pacifism in a way that did not require sustained theological reflection are disintegrating. If pacifism is to remain a central aspect of Anabaptist convictions, such theological reflection will become more important—including, at its heart, reflection on the character of God.

God and violence? The urgency of the question

In our day of heightening sensitivity to the role of religion in violent conflict—“terrorism,” “wars on terrorism,” retributive criminal justice practices, religious-supported nationalist movements—the question of how we understand God in relation to violence has never been more urgent.

Certainly, not only pacifists have a stake in this question.  And not only religious people have a stake.  The urgency of the question stems not so much from the need to “get it right” about how God actually is (as if human beings could actually nail this down).  Rather, the urgency stems from the reality that our view of what God is like greatly shapes our behavior.  How people act in relation to their view of God affects us all.

The connection between our view of God and our behavior in relation to violence may be understood in four possible ways.  Most people who believe in God believe God is violent and that human beings thus are also appropriately violent, at least in morally justifiable circumstances.  As human existence grows ever more precarious, though, this simple assumption grows more problematic—violence, it becomes increasingly clear, leads to more violence.  The spiral of violence is more clearly all the time becoming a threat to the very viability of human life itself.[2]  And, of course, for Anabaptist Christians, the assumption that human violence is appropriate has always been questioned.

As a second logical possibility, one could presumably believe that God is nonviolent but that human beings need not be, though I am not aware of anyone taking this stance.

A third view would be that God is not nonviolent – but human beings should be nonviolent. Some of those who believe human beings are called to nonviolence, understand this calling to stem more directly from the specific teaching of Jesus, not God’s own pacifism.[3]  Perhaps based on the biblical portrayal of the “warrior God,” perhaps based on the need to allow God freedom from anthropocentric moral restraints, perhaps based on the necessity of recognizing God’s need to use violence in effecting final justice in relation to a rebellious creation, perhaps based on an awareness of nature itself as “red in tooth and claw” – for these reasons many pacifist Christians answer our question, “is God nonviolent?” with a clear “No, but we should be.”

Other pacifist Christians hold a fourth view, that God is nonviolent (or, more precisely, that we should view God as nonviolent) and that human beings are called also to be nonviolent.  In this view, human nonviolence is both what God through Jesus commands us to embody and what has become a necessity for the sake of our survival in the contemporary world.  And, God’s nonviolence is the necessary grounding for human nonviolence.[4]  If nonviolence does not go with the grain of universe, if our deepest ethical imperative does not cohere with God’s very character, we are in the end hopeless romantics to think that nonviolence is a realistic human possibility.  And if nonviolence is not a realistic human possibility, pacifism is indeed parasitic idealism of the worst sort – calling us to live in ways that are impractical, irresponsible, counter-productive, needlessly guilt-inducing, and (ironically) conflict fostering. Read the rest of this entry »

Pacifism and Truth: The Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder

In John Howard Yoder, Pacifism, Theology on June 13, 2012 at 9:16 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.4

 [Published in Mennonite Quarterly Review 77.3 (July 2003): 403-415.]

For John Howard Yoder, pacifism[1] was unequivocally true.  But what would this statement have meant for Yoder—“Pacifism is unequivocally true”?  What would have been Yoder’s basis for making such a claim?  And how did this “truth” work for him?

Reflecting on these questions is a useful way to consider even bigger questions – How do we find our way between foundationalism and relativism?  How do we best argue for a hierarchy of values?  How do we avoid a coercive rationalism where, in the words of Robert Nozick, one seeks to construct arguments so powerful that one’s interlocutors must either give in or have their brains explode?[2]  On the other hand, how do we avoid the paralysis of many contemporaries who cannot find a way to condemn evil and do not have the clarity of conviction that would empower them to suffer, even to die, for the cause of peace.

In his posthumously published essay, “‘Patience’ as Method in Moral Reasoning,” Yoder provides in a sentence the basic outline for my paper.  He wrote, “Nonviolence is not only an ethic about power, but also an epistemology about how to let truth speak for itself.”[3]

These are the issues I will address:  (1) How is nonviolence (or pacifism; in this paper I will use these two terms interchangeably, as Yoder often did) an “epistemology”?  (2) What is the “truth” of which Yoder speaks here?  (3) What is involved in letting “truth speak for itself”?  I will conclude by reflecting how Yoder’s understanding of these issues might contribute to working with present-day struggles the churches are facing.

To state my central argument in a nutshell: Yoder’s pacifist epistemology is clearly an alternative to the Western epistemological tradition.  For Yoder, the way we approach knowing as Christian pacifists qualitatively differs from the approach to knowing that has over the centuries relied in one way or another on coercive power – either literally as in the use of the sword against “heretics” or more intellectually, as in the use of logical arguments that everyone who plays by the epistemological rules must assent to.

How is nonviolence (or pacifism) an “epistemology”?

Let us define epistemology as “that branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, its possibility, scope, and general basis.”[4]  In line with this understanding, we may say that when Yoder speaks of pacifism as an epistemology, he asserts that a pacifist commitment actually shapes how a person knows.  A pacifist sees the world in a certain way, understands in a certain way.  The commitment to nonviolence is a life-shaping, mind-shaping kind of conviction – a conviction that shapes all other convictions.[5] Read the rest of this entry »

A Christian Pacifist Response to World War II

In Current Events, Empire, Just War, Pacifism, Politics, World War II on June 12, 2012 at 9:03 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #C.6

[Presented as Keeney Peace Lecture, Bluffton University, Bluffton, Ohio, October 25, 2011]

World War II was the biggest catastrophe ever to befall humanity. Think of it like this: say a meteorite crashes into my hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia, and kills everyone, around 40,000 people. This would be incredible news. America’s worst ever natural disaster. But then, imagine that something like this happens every single day for five years. You can’t imagine that? Well, that’s what World War II was—40,000 people killed every single day for five years.

But World War II wasn’t a natural catastrophe—it was something human beings did to each other. These 75 million people didn’t just die due to impersonal nature run amok. They were killed by other people. World War II was an intensely moral event. Human choices. Human values. Human actions.

And World War II has cast a long shadow. We’re still in its shadow. As William Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Just one example. In Barak Obama’s acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, he alluded to the necessity for America to fight in Afghanistan—and cited the war against Hitler as one key rationale. That war was obviously a necessary war, our nation’s “good war,” and it helps us see our current war as necessary as well.

Because World War II was—and is—so big and devastating and epoch shaping, it is a theological issue. But we aren’t getting a lot of theological reflection on it. I am just completing the first phase of a long-term project on responding theologically to this war.

I have not yet actually begun to address one big type of question—what does World War II tell us about God? Where do we see God in this oh-so-big event—and what about the ways in which we don’t see God?

I have begun with another type of question—stated a bit facetiously: What does God tell us about World War II? But I haven’t really gotten to the “God” part. That will be step two, to reflect on this war and its long shadow in light of my explicitly Christian and explicitly pacifist convictions.

Moral values that justified World War II

Step one, though, is to ask the question more in terms of general and, we could say, public, convictions. What do key stated moral values in the United Stated say about World War II? Let’s start with this more general moral theology, which, I believe, gives us enough substance to begin a critical evaluation that could speak to many Americans.

The key moral values were stated famously on two occasions during 1941 by president Franklin D. Roosevelt. These statements were circulated widely and provide us with stable moral criteria for our reflections on the moral legacy of World War II. Read the rest of this entry »