An interview on justice, mercy, and God’s love

Ted Grimsrud—June 17, 2015

In February, 2015, I was privileged to be a guest on a radio show, Community Justice Talks, on KHEN-FM, Salida, Colorado. The show’s host, Molly Rowan Leach, interviewed me for about half an hour. We talked about an article I had written, “Violence as a Theological Problem” and my two books, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Justice, and The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy.

The recording of that interview is now available. Here’s a link to a page that allows visitors to listen to the interview directly or to download a podcast. Or it can be listened to here as well. What follows is an edited written transcript of the interview.

Molly Rowan Leach—This is Community Justice Talks. And I’m your host, Molly Rowan Leach. And you’re listening to KHEN-LP Salida, Colorado, 106.9 FM. You can stream us at It’s great to be here today and I am really looking forward to the conversation that we’re about to have with Professor Ted Grimsrud from Eastern Mennonite University. He’s on the line live with us, coming from his university back east in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Here on Community Justice Talks we like to talk with people from local and statewide as well as nationwide movements towards solutions in conflict and crime. This show aims to provide hope, solutions, and to have an open, honest dialogue about justice that is unfiltered—at the very personal as well as communal and national levels.

We are focusing today on unpacking violence as a theological problem. Ted had a blog post that was published just last week on Open Democracy, which is an excellent blog and news site. You can get more information and read blogs and news there at His post, on the 16th of February, was called “Violence as a Theological Problem.” It has a lot of inspiring details that unpack why we in the United States seem to justify violence. He writes: “Deeply ingrained in the religious consciousness of the United States is the belief that retribution is God’s will. According to the logic of retribution, holiness governs God’s behavior. As a holy God, God cannot stand to be in the presence of impurity, of human sin. Human beings invariably violate that holiness because all of us are sinners. God is bound to respond to sin with punishment because to forgive would violate God’s holiness. Compassion without satisfaction is not possible for God in this tradition.”

Further on in the article, Ted talks about restorative justice. And of course at Eastern Mennonite University, there’s a powerful program called the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice that was spearheaded by Dr. Howard Zehr, who is considered and honored as one of the wayshowers and leaders of the movement here in the United States, at least of the modern movement.

Ted is Professor of Theology and Peace Studies. Prior to teaching at EMU, beginning in 1996, he served ten years as a pastor in Mennonite churches in Oregon, Arizona, and South Dakota. He is especially interested in the connection between Christian theology and pacifism. He teaches classes in theology, peace studies, ethics, and the Bible. His books include, most recently, published just this last November, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War II. He also blogs at and has a website that gathers his writings at

Ted, such a warm welcome to you. Why don’t we start out with that blog post that was so inspiring to me and thousands of others, I know. Please share with us a little bit more about what that post meant to you and the title, even, “Violence as a Theological Problem.”

Ted Grimsrud—I think the core of my concern or interest is the realization that in the United States, according to surveys, people who identify themselves as Christian are more likely than those who don’t to support capital punishment, to support punitive criminal justice practices, and to support wars. It troubles me as a Christian that that would be so. I understand Christianity to be very much a nonviolent, anti-punishment faith. I have decided to try to understand why it would be so that Christians would tend to be more positive about state violence.

I came to the conviction, based on my research, that one major reason is a core theological view of God, how God responds to wrongdoing, and what humans who want to follow God should do in response to wrongdoing. There’s a big tension there, or even conflict, between this one understanding of God that seems to underwrite violence based on theological grounds and another theological understanding of God, that would be my understanding, that God is a God of peace who calls upon God’s people to be nonviolent and peace loving.

Molly—Let me tie in last week’s conversation that we had with Jeanne Bishop. It was an extraordinary journey, one that had me in tears quite a few times as I’m sure it probably had quite a few of our listeners. Her sister and brother-in-law, as well as their unborn child, were murdered by a young man over twenty years ago. Her story is profound. In a nutshell, it is along these lines of bringing in that faith that, Robert Browning might say, man’s faith must exceed his grasp, or her grasp. The mercy that you’re touching on, God’s mercy, is her path. She actually is very good friends with the very young man who killed her sister and brother-in-law. So I wonder if you could talk a bit about God’s mercy and how that should hopefully inform us and outweigh this strange need to be so punishing when it only makes more violence.

Ted—If we Christians would start with the life and teaching of Jesus. How did he respond to wrongdoing, to people who hurt other people, to people who were considered outside the expectations of the society. One of the key things in the story is his remarkable willingness and commitment to forgive people. In fact, that got him into a lot of trouble. There was a whole system of how your dealt with sin in that context, which was to go to the temple, do sacrifices, submit yourself to the religious structures. Jesus simply bypassed that system. He presented a picture, as he understood and embodied the will of God, that God was basically, fundamentally, a God of mercy, a God of healing.

Seeing that view of God as the starting point helps me then look back at the story in the Bible as a whole. Then it becomes apparent that Jesus was not doing something new or different. He portrayed God, in his life and teaching, as God was presented in the Bible.

Now of course there are lots of other pictures of God in the Bible, too. That’s one of the challenges and complicating things, that God in the Christian Old Testament is a God of mercy but is also at times presented as a God of wrath, a God of judgment. I believe many people make a big mistake to assume that this God of wrath and God of judgment is the God of the Old Testament. When you look at the basic story of the Old Testament, the main plot, over and over again it shows God initiating healing, merciful action. In the story of the exodus, in the giving of the Torah, in the bringing people out of exile later on. In all of these cases, there was nothing the people had to do to pay God back. God simply chose to give them life, to give them forgiveness. Then they were challenged to live faithfully in response to that.

What Jesus did was simply give that same kind of message. What happens with Christianity, the Christianity that is more retributive, is that we just don’t really take Jesus’s own approach that seriously. In terms of why that is, that’s a very complicated question.

Molly—Yes. An important question that you seem to be trying to tackle, too. Why is it so difficult for us to see this message about mercy and thus live our way out of the hypocrisy and into truly living the principles that are illuminated as you have just mentioned? That’s a really big question.

Ted—It is. And it’s a really important question. And it’s a hard question to answer quickly and easily. I think we have to think about our broader cultural dynamics. In our particular culture in the United States, we have a long history of what you could call redemptive violence. We get our security, we get our freedom, because of using violence. It is a myth that, I would say, is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the society.

Molly—That’s such a good point. I just want to underline that. We seem to be making false connections with justifications, as you talk about in that blog post I mentioned a moment ago.

Ted—In terms of the history of Christianity, it’s very interesting that the basic theological move toward retributive justice that gets made happens kind of late, really, in the history. It’s not among the original, first Christians and certainly, I believe, not in the New Testament. What happens is that you from the first have this understanding of God, which I would see as the strongest message in the Bible, as fundamentally merciful. In the biblical picture, justice is subordinate to mercy. Justice is the work to heal or bring about restoration when there is brokenness.

In the biblical picture, when you have brokenness, what has to happen? What has to happen is some kind of healing, some kind of restoration that allows people who have been hurt and the perpetrators to come together. All of that is for the sake of the wholeness of the community.

What happens later, and probably it’s the influence of Roman, Greek thought and culture, is justice comes to be separate from mercy. Justice is an independent reality. So you have justice and mercy in tension, even in conflict at times. With that then comes an understanding that God can’t simply be merciful. God is a God of holiness, a God who is connected with the moral nature of the universe. In this understanding, the moral nature of the universe requires retribution or payback or satisfaction of God’s justice if there is some violation.

In that kind of moral universe, things kind of get turned on their head in relation to the biblical picture. In order for God to be merciful God has to be satisfied through some kind of payment. The theology that didn’t really emerge until the Middle Ages is called the doctrine of atonement or the meaning of Jesus’s death as a sacrifice to God to satisfy God’s justice. That theology accepts that the fundamental nature of the moral universe is one that requires payback, that requires retribution. Mercy gets marginalized or moved to the side.

The irony seems obvious once you think about it. This is not what Jesus did or taught at all. However, this theology of satisfaction, of the need for retribution, fits with many cultural dynamics. Yes, we have to get revenge and all that.

Molly—As if it is unsafe to take another route. As if it’s unsafe and even unheard of to allow voice for the offender and for there to be even possible dialogue where it’s wanted, in whatever form that may come, whether it’s through written letters or through a mediator or however that might work.

Ted—I think part of that is because there’s a sense of security or stability or something that comes with that kind of retributive way of thinking. To say, no, we’re going to humanize the offender, we’re going to not just think of punishment throws everything open.

Molly—As if we’re condoning the actions, by default.

Ted—Right, exactly. Part of that, on a more philosophical or theological level, is that that threatens our way of understanding the moral universe. So you’ll get theologians, academic theologians who write about this, will say that for God simply to forgive and simply to offer mercy would undermine the moral fabric of the universe. So there’s a lot at stake.

Molly—Let’s talk for a moment about your book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, published by Cascade Books in 2013. Could you share with us a little bit about the book.

Ted—That book is actually an in-depth discussion of what we’ve just been talking about. What I do there is start with this problem of retributive justice and our American criminal justice system as an example of the spiral of violence. For example, we have gone in the last forty years from an imprisonment rate from around 100 people per 100,000 in the broader population to around 700. So we’ve increased the rate of imprisonment by seven times. This extraordinary rush to imprison brings great damage to people and society.

With the criminal justice dynamics as the example, I turn to the basic question of why is it that Christians, as a group, are part of the problem instead of being part of the solution. I argue that we’re part of the problem, for one reason, because of how we think about God and how we think about how God deals with sin. This is, basically the issue of salvation, of what salvation is about. In the book I develop the idea that we should read the Bible in terms of the basic story that the Bible tells. The main plot that holds it together, with all its diversity, is the story of God bringing salvation through God’s initiative of mercy. Salvation, in the Bible, does not come through this dynamic of retribution and satisfaction. Then I say that point about salvation provides theological warrant to rethink our whole response to wrongdoing.

Molly—So, let’s talk about restorative practices. You hail from a fabulous university, Eastern Mennonite University, a very strong peace and justice program. Its Summer Peacebuilding Institute brings people from all over the world for training opportunities. You have folks doing extraordinary work to unpack violence, punishment. So thank you for your contributions as a part of that university. Part of this is the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice, co-founded by Dr. Howard Zehr, who’s considered the grandfather of the modern restorative justice movement here in the United States. I have met with him quite a few times in person. He’s just an extraordinary human being, someone who seems to really practice the walk of restorative justice as much as he talks about it. Let’s hear your thoughts on restorative justice. Feel free to share anything you’re seeing happen on campus and all the great things that EMU is doing.

Ted—I work with undergraduate students and don’t have much directly to do with the graduate programs in justice and peacebuilding. Not long after the graduate program began in the mid-1990s, we started an undergraduate major in Justice, Peace, and Conflict Studies. A colleague and I were the first co-directors of that major. From the start, we sought to bring together theology, practical skills, and on the ground experience. That program continues to thrive.

One activity for our undergrad students that Howard Zehr initiative in the late 1990s was a visit to Graterford, a state prison in Pennsylvania. Prisoners there have created a program in creative nonviolence that they run themselves. Our students spend several days in the prison taking part in the nonviolence training with the prisoners as their teachers. Every year, students site this as a powerfully transformative experience.

Maybe a little bit ironically, we are grappling with how to implement that kind of philosophy, especially in relation to restorative justice, to on-campus, student discipline issues. How do we work at protecting the identity, the mission of the school, while at the same time truly respecting the people who violate some boundaries? It’s been hard to do. It’s in some ways more difficult perhaps working that close at home. But certainly a lot of energy and creativity is going into trying to find ways to be redemptive consistently in our internal life as well as our external work.

Molly—I know from speaking with people in the field of restorative justice, a big issue is how we think about forgiveness. Can you share with us your take on that?

Ted—This is a complicated issue because there are circumstances where people are really hurt, egregiously hurt, by some action. As I understand restorative justice—especially through Howard Zehr’s work and talking with Howard—one of the main concerns is with the wellbeing of the victim and helping that person find wholeness. The assumption, ultimately, is that wholeness does involve forgiveness and reconciliation. However, the danger has been that sometimes the forgiveness part of it is rushed. Somebody is really hurt and they are working to reconstruct their life and then they are told, well you need to forgive. As I understand restorative justice thinking, the move toward forgiveness needs to be very cautious, very slow.

The ultimate ideal, the ultimate vision, though, points toward a sense of wholeness that includes the possibility of forgiveness, the possibility of reconciliation. Such reconciliation would be the ultimate goal, as opposed to retribution and a cycle of bitterness. Hurt people will talk about how they are really in pain themselves, or a loved one is, and the punishment of the perpetrator didn’t actually help. Living with anger and hatred doesn’t help. Somehow, there needs to be a way to work through that and move ahead. This vision of wholeness, including forgiveness on some level anyhow, seems essential to moving in that way.

Molly—I love how, for those who are victims, of any form of crime and conflict, and we all have been at some point, have an opportunity to be empowered. We may be empowered in the sense that we may communicate by letter or with an intermediary between ourselves and the “offender.” A victim need not be afraid. In fact, their needs, although we can not say what those are for someone else, are honored and very important for the restoration process.

Ted—Certainly at the heart of process is a sense of restored power as a human being.

Molly—Right. And an ability to even move on, perhaps.

In the time we have left I would love to hear more about your other book. It’s profound. Tell us about it. It’s called The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. Give us an outline.

Ted—The book’s basic agenda is to challenge what you could call the present life of World War II as our society’s decisive example of how war at times is necessary, even good. Because of this example we know we always have the possibility that the need for war might happen again. So, we need to prepare for the next such war.

What I wanted to do was to scrutinize World War II. To test how does it really stack up. Like many Americans, I certainly grew up with belief in that war as necessary and even good. Both of my parents were veterans of that war. In the United States, we don’t really to defend our positive assumptions about World War II.

Even though I am a pacifist personally (and it’s even possible that only a pacifist would want to write this book), I tried to approach the discussion in terms of what were the statements that the US made to justify going to war and to support the war. What were the “purpose statements”? Why are we doing this? I tried to take those seriously and then evaluate how the were achieved or not.

The core of the articulation of the purpose of the war was a speech given by President Roosevelt called the “Four Freedoms” speech just prior to the US going to war. As well, there was a agreement that Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill from Great Britain put together called the Atlantic Charter. These two statements outlined the purposes. The two key promises were self-determination for people all around the world and disarmament—both quite positive kinds of hopes.

The war itself did not actually seem to fulfill the promises. I draw heavily on the just war tradition—in terms of just tactics and just causes—and then argue that if you look at World War II in terms of the costs, it fails to withstand moral scrutiny. An incredible number of people were killed, and the United States was transformed in problematic ways. Before World War II began, we were around the sixteenth or seventeenth largest military in the world (about the size of Portugal or Romania). Because of World War II, we created the Pentagon, the CIA, and the nuclear weapons program. These institutions have kept us on a permanent war footing ever since. And we have participated in the last seventy years in many conflicts that in no way measure up to the just war expectations. So, in the book I talk about the war and then I talk about the aftermath, in terms of how the war changed the United States.

Then, not wanting to just leave it with only the critique, or the negative, I then talk about the resistance to the war, the small amount of resistance at the time, and how that opposition grew into other movements, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement as well as a huge expansion of service work by agencies such as the American Friends Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee, and Catholic Worker. Out of that massive violence did come the generation of alternatives to war.

Molly—In closing I have a kicker for you. You can choose to take it anywhere you wish. If Jesus were here today, with us, what do you think he’d want us to discover from this conversation and live forward?

Ted—Oh, that one seems fairly easy. Jesus would like us to be clear on the reality that forgiveness and mercy are fundamental to the moral nature of the universe. And, God does not require satisfaction through punishment and retribution but is merciful all the way down.

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