Category Archives: Justice

Healing Justice

Ted Grimsrud

[This sermon was given at the June 28, 2015, Action by Christians Against Torture, USA, annual meeting, at Pleasant Hill Community Church, Pleasant Hill, TN, June 28, 2015]

 

I am grateful for the invitation to be with you this morning. And I am grateful for your witness for life. I find it truly distressing to live in a nation—admirable in so many ways—where state-sponsored violence remains so common. This violence becomes terribly ironic given the reputation the United States of America has of being a “Christian” nation. And, in fact, survey show that being a self-identified Christian makes it more likely that an American citizen will support war, the death penalty, and torture. What the hell?

So, this is an opportunity. If we oppose war, the death penalty, and torture—and if we identify as Christians—we have some theologizing to do. At least that’s what I think. One area where we might get somewhere is with a biblically grounded theology of justice—of, what I will call restorative justice. Such a theology provides tools for opposing the theology of retributive justice that is so popular in America, the theology that underwrites so much of the violence we decry.

What is justice?

Before I go to work on my theology of justice, though, I would like to start with word associations from you after I read three short Bible passages that speak of justice. As I read, think about what you think of when you think of “justice.”

Psalm 85:8-13: God the Lord will speak peace to God’s people who turn to God in their hearts. Surely salvation is at hand. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and justice will look down from the sky. Justice will go before the Lord, and will make a path for the Lord’s steps.

Amos 5:6-7, 21-24: Seek the Lord and live, you who turn justice to poison. God says this to you: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your sacrifices, I will not accept them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Romans 3:21-24: Now, separate from works of the law, the justice of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the justice of God through [the faithfulness of] Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they all are now justified by God’s grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

So, “justice”—what do you associate with justice?… Continue reading

Pacifism, God, and the punishment of children

Ted Grimsrud—May 18, 2014

[This paper originated as a presentation at the conference, “Mennonites and the Family,” at Goshen College in October 1999. It has been published in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying Peace: Collected Pacifist Writings, Volume 4: Historical and Ethical Essays (Harrisonburg, VA: Peace Theology Books]

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 discuss six points 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

The Old Testament as a peace book

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the first of two lectures in the Carol Grizzard-Browning Lecture Series at the University of Pikeville (Pikeville, Kentucky). It was presented November 11, 2013. The second lecture was “The New Testament as a peace book” and is posted here.]

What I will do in this lecture on the Old Testament and my second lecture on the New Testament is share about some things I have been passionately engaged with now for about 40 years.

A journey to pacifism

When I went to college in the mid-1970s, the Vietnam War was coming to an end. I registered for the draft, and was ready to fight if called. The draft ended, though, before I was called. That marked a turning point in my life, nonetheless.

I had just become a Christian. I was taught a Christian should be patriotic and be willing to fight for one’s country. However, I was also urged to read the Bible, especially to read the story of Jesus my savior in the gospels. The gospel story presented Jesus as a peacemaker. This challenged me as I struggled with the possibility of going to war. I also learned to know a number of veterans returning from Vietnam. They told horrific stories—and themselves quite often were traumatized. War didn’t seem so attractive.

About the time I finished college, I came to a clear conviction that I could not fight in war, that I was a pacifist. This conviction came shortly after I had deepened my commitment to live as a Christian—the two went together, as I resolved to be a serious Christian I committed myself to be a pacifist. What I meant by “pacifist” first was “the conviction that it is never morally acceptable to fight in or support war.” My current definition is more like this: “The conviction that no causes or values can override the commitment to treat each life as precious.” In either case, to be a Christian pacifist is to affirm these convictions due to one’s understanding of Jesus’s message.

My task then became—and remains—one of faith seeking understanding. What does it mean to be a Christian pacifist? How should I read the Bible in relation to these convictions? What about all the questions and problems—and the stubborn fact that just about all Christians for hundreds and hundreds of years have not accepted pacifism?

It helped that I had some experience being a minority. I was the only boy with four sisters. I was the only University of Oregon fan in a community filled with Oregon State fans. I was used to being a bit different, so being part of the tiny pacifist minority in a religion filled with warriors was not itself enough to make me think I was wrong….

Not long after my moment of clarity, I discovered a Christian tradition with a long history of pacifist belief and practice—and in time my wife Kathleen Temple and I joined with these Christians and became Mennonites. It has been crucial to not feel totally alone—to have a little bit of critical mass—in these strange beliefs. 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

The Christian Alternative to Vengeance

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. Continue reading