Ted Grimsrud

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Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy

In Anabaptism, Current Events, Empire, Jesus, Mennonites, Pacifism, Politics on October 1, 2012 at 9:28 am

Ted Grimsrud

Two presidential election cycles ago (2004), I published an essay reflecting on how committed Christian pacifists in the Anabaptist tradition might function as citizens of the United States.

I understand my main argument to be that we have to work within three stories: (1) the Anabaptist story of costly commitment to witness to Jesus’ way, (2) the democracy story that reflects a commitment in our country to participation in the social order by all people in a society, and (3) the empire story that all too often has characterized the United States and our way in the world.

I suggest that those committed to story #1 who live in a society that at least to some extent retains a commitment to story #2, should exert all the energy they can to critique and try to counter story #3.

Given present day debates among peace advocates in the United States around our current presidential election, I thought I might take the chance to post this article on this website.

Ted Grimsrud. “Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 78.3 (July 2004), 341-62.

Here also is a post I put up on my Thinking Pacifism blog on September 30, 2012, that explains why I will vote (ambivalently) for Barack Obama this time.

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 »

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 »

Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism

In Anabaptism, Current Events, Jesus, Justice, Mennonites, Pacifism, Politics, Theology on June 8, 2012 at 9:20 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.3

[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?”[1]  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 the evil 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 we do, at the heart of our lives, 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.

Yet, on the other hand, we recognize that all too often efforts to overcome evil end up exacerbating the brokenness.  We recognize that resisting evil all too often leads to the use of tactics that end up adding to the evil—and transform the actors more than the evil situation.

So, how might we act responsibly while also remaining not only 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” 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,[2] “just policing,”[3] and projects such at the 3-D Security Initiative[4] and Mennonite Central Committee’s “Peace Theology Project.”[5]

One way of setting up the tension seemingly inherent for peacemakers in these efforts at responding to evil is 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 the tension 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 this tension as a call to devote our best energies to finding ways actually to hold together our nonviolence with creative responsibility? Read the rest of this entry »

Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy

In Anabaptism, Current Events, Mennonites, Pacifism, Politics on June 7, 2012 at 9:40 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essay #c.8

[Published in Mennonite Quarterly Review 78.3 (July 2004), 341-62.]

Heirs of the Radical Reformation continue to face basic questions about citizenship.  What does it mean to be “in the world and not of it” (John 17:14-17)?  What in our lives should we give to Caesar and what should we give to God (Matthew 22:15-22)?

Anabaptists living in the United States are challenged by these questions in complex ways.  We find ourselves, on the one hand, in the land of freedom.  The first Anabaptist generations in the 16th century, facing severe persecutions, sought desperately for safety; many groups migrated widely in this quest.  Beginning in the late 17th century, many established communities in the United States.  Despite periodic flaring of wartime persecutions, we may now look back with gratitude for our forebears’ opportunity to find a safe home in America.[1]

We have a great deal to be grateful for in terms of religious toleration.  We also, not coincidentally, have opportunities totally unimaginable for the 16th century Anabaptists to participate in political life in one of the world’s pioneering democracies.  That is, not only are Mennonites tolerated, we may vote, run for office, speak out, serve on school boards, be fully participating members in American democratic processes.

On the other hand, American Mennonites are also tax-paying citizens in one of the world’s greatest-ever empires, if we define “empire” in terms of a country’s exercise of domination over many other parts of the world.  Perhaps the US does not overtly possess foreign colonies in the manner of old empires such as Great Britain.  However, in terms of the actual expression of power over others, the US surely greatly surpasses even the largest reach of the British Empire.  America is now the world’s one great superpower, spending more on our military than just about all the rest of the world’s countries combined.

The Anabaptist tradition early on expressed a strong suspicion of empires, power politics, and trust in the sword.  Present-day Mennonites surely are being faithful to that tradition when we refuse to participate in, or even support, the wars of America.

However, what about the “good America,” the America of religious freedom and participatory democracy?  Is the traditional Mennonite “two-kingdom” stance adequate for determining our understanding of citizenship today?  In our time, people throughout the world plead for participants in American civil society to seek to influence American foreign policy to be more peaceable.  Do American Anabaptist Christians have responsibility aggressively to seek to take their pacifist convictions into the public square in a way that might influence our government? Read the rest of this entry »

A Pacifist Critique of the Modern Worldview

In Current Events, Pacifism, Politics, Theology on May 30, 2012 at 8:37 am

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Violence as a theological problem

In Current Events, Justice, Pacifism, Politics, Restorative justice, Salvation, Theology on May 29, 2012 at 10:04 am

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). Read the rest of this entry »

Thinking Morally (and Theologically) About World War II

In Current Events, Just War, Pacifism, Politics, World War II on October 28, 2011 at 8:30 am

Ted Grimsrud—Bluffton University lecture—10/25/11

World War II was the biggest catastrophe ever to befall humanity. Think of it like this: say a meteorite crashes into Findley 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 80 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 in the public mind, our nation’s “good war,” and thus 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.

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Pacifist Reflections on the Just War Tradition

In Current Events, Just War, Pacifism, Politics on October 6, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Ted Grimsrud—October 5, 2011

Often discussion about the morality of warfare sets in opposition just war philosophy with pacifism. My intent in this paper is to challenge just war adherents to work within their tradition to overcome the scourge of war. I believe that the just war tradition, if vitalized, could become a powerful resource for overcoming the scourge of war. Though I am a pacifist myself, I believe that it is likely only through a vitalized just war approach that the power of militarism in United States society can be reduced.

The “Blank Check”

In practice, in the West throughout the past couple of thousand years two views concerning participation in warfare have been prominent—pacifism (characteristic of a tiny minority) and what I will call the “blank check.” The “blank check” says it is the citizen’s duty to do what the state asks. If the state says go to war, the citizen’s job is to obey, essentially without question. The just war philosophy has existed in the gray area between these two other views. Just war has mainly been about the ivory tower-type discussions of moral philosophers, usually about particular wars after the fact.

Augustine himself, considered the father of the just war doctrine, actually also taught a version of the blank check. Only the nation’s leaders had the role of determining a particular war’s justness; for the citizen, the task was simply to obey and assume that the leaders will suffer the consequences if they are fighting unjust wars. Read the rest of this entry »

Why We Christians Don’t Love Our Enemies

In Biblical theology, Current Events, Jesus, Pacifism, Politics, Theology on September 24, 2011 at 10:09 am

Ted Grimsrud—September 24, 2011

If there is one passage in the entire Bible that points to both the glory and the shame of Christianity, it is this famous statement by Jesus: “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:44-45).  Here we have a direct statement of a profound ideal, a call to break the cycle of violence that so bedevils our world.  And here we have as stark a reminder as we could imagine of just how far Christianity tends to have strayed from the will of its founder.

“Love Your Enemies”: An Obvious Need in Our World

“Love your enemies,” such an obvious statement of what our world needs.  We see so clearly in our present day how hatred of enemies fuels war with simply incredible costs – in the name of stamping out “terrorists” our country spends billions upon billions to pour violence upon the nation of Iraq, diverts resources in a way that made the Gulf Coast more vulnerable to devastation from recent hurricanes, alienates people throughout the world, sends hundreds upon hundreds of our soldiers to their death along with thousands upon thousands of Iraqis.  This hatred fuels a spinning cycle, eye for an eye for an eye leading to more and more blindness.

Hatred of enemies fuels our nation’s prison-industrial complex, sending millions behind bars where they are all too often brutalized, infected with devastating diseases such as hepatitis, permanently disenfranchised as stakeholders in civil society (as someone said, no matter how long a convicted criminal’s official sentence might be, it is invariably a “life sentence” in terms of the impact going to prison has on one’s life).  In the name of “security,” we only increase the spiral of destruction and alienation.

In many other ways as well, hatred of enemies leads to unhappiness, brokenness, pain being visited upon pain – and the cycle of creating only more hatred.  So, Jesus’ words cut like a warm knife through butter.  He gets to the heart of things – we need to find ways to love instead of hate.  We need to find ways to forgive instead of simply punish.  We need to find ways to heal when there is brokenness, not simply retaliate. Read the rest of this entry »