Category Archives: Empire

Christian pacifism and the “Good War”

Ted Grimsrud—May 30, 2015

Does Christian pacifism make the claim that everyone should be pacifist? Or is pacifism only a calling for those who affirm Jesus as Lord? This issue can—and should—be addressed on a theological and philosophical level. However, it may also be addressed on a more pragmatic level. Are there wars that should have been fought, that could be considered legitimately justifiable wars? If there are no ways that any actual war could be justifiable, is that a basis for claiming that everyone should be pacifist (defining “pacifism” here as the conviction that one should never take part in or support warfare)?

The one certain “just war”?

One way to begin to address the question about how widely we should advocate for pacifism is to look closely at the one war that most Americans, at least, including even many American pacifists, believe was a “just war”—World War II. Robert Brimlow, a Roman Catholic philosopher and committed pacifist, draws such a conclusion: “The war against Hitler, Nazism, and the atrocities they perpetuated certainly satisfies all the requirements for a just war: even if no other war was justifiable, even if every other dispute could have been settled by nonviolent means, that dispute could only have been solved through violence.”[1]

This statement is part of Brimlow’s argument in favor of pacifism—but it’s a pacifism based on a sense of the special calling of followers of Jesus. The kind of nonviolence Brimlow advocates is based on faithfulness, not on the expectation that it might practically be the best way to deal with conflict.

In the same book with Brimlow’s essay, Methodist theologian Stephen Long makes a similar argument. Long also suggests that World War II may be seen as a just war, where it was shown that “violence and war do sometimes work.”[2] Long argues for what he calls “christological pacifism,” an approach that “only makes sense because of the christological convictions we hold about what God has done in Christ. If Jesus is not the unique and definitive expression of God’s economy, of how God redeems the world and engages it politically through the cross, resurrection, and ascension—if he were not bodily raised from the dead—then pacifism makes no sense.”[3]

However, there is no evidence that I know of of any correlation between Long’s kind of christological convictions and the likelihood of one holding those convictions being a pacifist. World War II was perhaps as true a test of pacifist convictions as could be imagined. Because of the widespread popularity of that war, only those with clear pacifist convictions would have chosen to be legal conscientious objectors. If Long is correct about the link between a high christology and pacifism, you would expect people who affirmed that christology to tend toward pacifism even in face of a popular war. As it turned out, about 12,000 young American men took the CO route, and something more than 12,000,000 entered the military. That is, the number of Americans who responded to the War as pacifists was something like 0.01%. The traditions that tended to emphasize doctrine more (e.g., Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and evangelical Protestants) had few if any conscientious objectors.[4]

To respond to a phenomenon such as World War II as a Christian pacifist, it seems to me, requires a broader sense of how this pacifism works than that provided by Brimlow and Long. To affirm pacifism without condemning World War II as an unjust war weakens the case for pacifism significantly. Continue reading

How churches go wrong: Paul’s message in Romans 2

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—January 11, 2015—Romans 2:1-29

The Bible at times, can be pretty, um, shall we say, “realistic” or “earthy,” sometimes embarrassingly so. For example, what’s going on with Lot and his daughters after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Or the way King David coped when he was “old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes he could not get warm” (1 Kings 1:2). Not to mention the story after story of gruesome violence that all too often goes into very bloody detail. I won’t give more detailed examples, that would too embarrassing….

An “earthy” ritual

And then there is one of the central rituals in the entire story—one with enormous symbolic power in both the Old and New Testaments—the ritual of circumcision, a ritual I generally prefer not to think about too explicitly. It seems to me that this ritual, both in the Bible and in contemporary life, is problematic on several levels. But the Bible obviously sees circumcision as extraordinarily meaningful. And it remains present throughout the story—often on the deeper metaphorical level.

The Apostle Paul thought about circumcision a great deal. He makes it a key image in his wrestling with the life of faith. It’s in the middle of the discernment work as his community of Jesus followers sought to relate their Jewish tradition to the influx of new believers who weren’t Jews.

Paul could be pretty earthy himself on occasion, such as when he wrote about conflicts concerning circumcision and its weighty symbolic legacy. In his letter to the Galatians, he gets salty when he writes about people he believed were disastrous teachers. They legalistically tried to impose circumcision on new, non-Jewish converts to Christianity. This is what Paul wrote: “Whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty…. If I were still preaching legalistic circumcision I would not be persecuted by other Jews like I am…. I wish those who unsettle you, instead of just circumcising, would castrate themselves” (Gal 5:11-12). Continue reading

How empires go wrong: Paul’s message in Romans 1

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—November 16, 2014—Romans 1:16-32

The Apostle Paul was a pretty passionate and opinionated guy. He was also a pretty deep thinker. I have come to conclude that he’s a friend of peacemakers, a friend of justice-seekers. Of course, not everyone agrees….

I argue for a peaceable Paul in these sermons on Romans. Today is the second of maybe sixteen I will do over the next couple of years. A big hurdle in understanding Paul peaceably is today’s passage—the second half of Romans, chapter one.

Before I make my case on Paul’s behalf, I want to read the verses—a bit of a condensed version. As I read, listen and think of a word or two you can share about how Paul’s thoughts here strike you.

I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who is faithful. In it the justice of God is revealed; as it is written, “The one who is just will live by trust.” At the same time, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and injustice of those who by their injustice suppress the truth.

What can be known about God is plain to all people, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world God’s divine nature has been understood and seen through the things God has made. Unjust people are without excuse; for though they can know God, they do not honor or give thanks to God. They become futile in their thinking, and their minds are darkened. Though they claim to be wise, they become fools. They exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.  Continue reading

Paul’s antidote to empire

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—October 12, 2014—Romans 1:1-17

One of the arguments I have had with several of my friends over the years concerns the writings of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. The issue, in essence, has been whether Paul is a friend or enemy for radical, social gospel type Christians. I’d say “friend!”; they would say “enemy!” And on we’d go.

Concerns about Paul

Part of the problem for me has been that many of Paul’s biggest supporters have not been people I necessarily would want to be allied with—those who oppose welcoming gays into the church, those who support patriotic wars, those who teach a gospel of human depravity and the need for an individualistic kind of personal conversion (what I was taught years ago as the “Romans road to salvation”).

Just the other day, in one of my classes a student talked about the kind of deep pleasure he gets when he hears people speak against Paul. And that’s not surprising—Paul’s most famous piece of writing, his letter to the Romans, contains what are surely two of the most hurtful, destructive passages in all of the Bible.

I’m thinking of the part of chapter one that seems to condemn gays and lesbians. These verses are almost always cited when Bible-believers speak against Christians taking a welcoming stance. And I’m thinking of the verses in chapter 13 that begin, “let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” I know from “my scientific research” that Romans 13 is by far the most important part of the Bible for those who argue against pacifism and in favor of “necessary” war.

Yet, still, I want to say, to paraphrase Paul’s own words: “I am not ashamed of the Apostle Paul and his letter to the Romans.” And, beginning today, I want to use my “bully pulpit” here at Shalom to make a case for why this is so. I’m starting another series, this one on the book of Romans. I will show why the typical uses of Romans to support hostility toward gays and to support going to war are misuses (you’ll have to come back for those, though; I won’t get there today).

More than refuting misuses of Romans, though, I want to show how Romans can a powerful resource for peace in our broken world. I want to show how Paul gives us an “antidote to empire.” Paul presents a story that is meant to subvert, counter, even overturn the story the Roman Empire told about what matters most in life. And, sadly, we need this subversion, countering, and overturning of the story of Empire as much today as ever. Continue reading

Why We (Should) Read Revelation

[This is the eighteenth (and last!) in a series of sermons on the Book of Revelation.]

Ted Grimsrud

Shalom Mennonite Congregation—November 17, 2013—Revelation in three minutes

It was, if I remember correctly, September 1982. I was in my late 20s. Kathleen and I were living in Eugene, Oregon. We had recently made the decision to join Eugene Mennonite Church—a decision we made after a wonderful year attending Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries. We had a sense of clarity that we were at home with Mennonites and in that particular, quirky but quite welcoming little congregation.

Full circle with Revelation

The Eugene church’s pastor took a sabbatical attending AMBS and I was asked to fill in as interim while he was gone. One of my main responsibilities was to preach regularly. All I had to do was figure out what to preach about. For some reason, I decided to preach on the book of Revelation.

I can’t remember now why in the world I chose to do that. I am sure the folks in Eugene wondered why in the world, as well. But, Mennonites are pretty polite. Like a friend of mine once said, with Mennonites it’s hard to tell the difference between praise and condemnation. People said nice, polite things—but I have to imagine they were really wondering what this kid preacher was going to try to pull on them.

I feel like I have come full circle now, as I complete this new series of sermons on Revelation. There is definitely some overlap between what I did those many years ago and what I have had to say this time through. But there is always new light to be shed on a fascinating and complicated text such as Revelation—and certainly the world and Ted Grimsrud have changed quite a bit in 30 years. Continue reading

What is Paradise For?

[This is the seventeenth in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly through November 2013.]

Ted Grimsrud

Shalom Mennonite Congregation—October 13, 2013—Revelation 21:1–22:5

Kathleen and I love to read to each other. We sometimes struggle a bit in deciding what to read, though. She wants to read serious fiction and nonfiction. Stuff that is actually literature. That would make us think. That would give us genuine insight into the human condition. You know, Moby Dick. War and Peace. The Brothers Karamazov. The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

The attraction of happy endings

For me, on the other hand, it’s different. I mainly just want something with a happy ending. Not that much genuine literature has a happy ending. So, we read mostly stuff that’s not genuine literature. Books by someone like Carl Hiassen, where you know who the bad guy is from the start by the kind of music he listens to….

It is probably true that books with happy endings have sold a lot more copies than books with tragic endings. And we tend to read the Bible this way. Even though a lot of people don’t like the book of Revelation all that well, it does have a pretty happy ending, depending on how you interpret it.

I’m finally getting to the end of the book of Revelation with my sermon today. Maybe simply to be done with Revelation will itself be a happy ending—though I do plan one more sermon to kind of summarize things next month.

Revelation does end happily, with a vision of paradise. The book contains several allusions going clear back to Genesis, and I think we are meant to read Revelation as in some sense the conclusion to the entire Bible. Let me read a condensed version of chapter 21 and the first part of chapter 22.  Continue reading

The Judgment That’s Not a Judgment

[This is the sixteenth in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly through November 2013.]

Ted Grimsrud

Shalom Mennonite Congregation—September 15, 2013—Revelation 20:1-15

I have an idea that as much as any part of the Bible, the book of Revelation works kinds of like a Rorschach test, you know where you look at an inkblot and tell the therapist what you see—with the idea that what you see reveals things about your psychological makeup.

So, we look at this messy blot of images in the last book of the Bible and what we see there reveals a lot about us. Certainly one of the things many see when they look at Revelation is judgment. But what kind of judgment? Maybe what we see when we see scenes of judgment is itself kind of a Rorschach test. What we make of judgment reveals a lot about our psychological makeup—or at least our theological makeup.

A debate about judgment

I have a memory from back in the late 1990s. I went with a number of people from EMU, faculty and students, to hear a prominent theologian, Miroslav Volf, speak at the Eastern Mennonite Mission Board headquarters in Mt. Joy, Pennsylvania.

Volf, who had just begun teaching at Yale University, wrote a well-received book called Exclusion and Embrace. It drew in poignant ways on his experience as a Croatian with the terrible violence in the Balkans conflicts he had lived in the midst of. He powerfully emphasized the need for forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation in face of brokenness.

However, there was a key element of Volf’s argument, about judgment, that some of us felt uneasy with. He suggested that a major reason why Christians might advocate and practice this radical “embrace,” even of enemies, is because of our trust that in the end God will judge evildoers. This judgment will be punitive. We don’t have to do violence against offenders because we count on God’s violence in the end.

I can picture the room where we met. The audience was in a u-shaped set of chairs with the speaker at the open end of the U. I was directly to one of side of him and one of my like-minded students was clear on the other side. During the discussion we started firing questions from both sides, and Professor Volf was kind of whipping his head first clear in one direction and then, right away, clear to the other direction. Back and forth. It was a friendly if intense debate, and we didn’t resolve it. Continue reading