Category Archives: Justice

Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism

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? Continue reading

The prophet Amos and restorative justice

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.3

[Published in Ted Grimsrud and Loren L. Johns, Justice and Peace Shall Embrace: Power and Theo-Politics in the Bible: Essays in Honor of Millard Lind (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 1999), 64-85]

When I was a doctoral student in the mid-1980s, I had the privilege of taking a year-long seminar on justice from Professor Karen Lebacqz of Pacific School of Religion.  At the time, Lebacqz was in the process of writing a two-volume theological study on justice.[1]  As we read and discussed works such as John Rawls’s classic, A Theory of Justice[2], and Robert Nozick’s critique and alternative, Anarchy, State, and Utopia[3], I found myself increasingly disenchanted with these modern philosophical theories.

I was uneasy with both points of view, and I saw them having many problems in common—things that were particularly troubling to me in light of my own faith commitments. They both share certain assumptions (or faith commitments) that are problematic.  I will mention a few, in general terms, not so much in an attempt to criticize them significantly, but more as a means of expressing part of my immediate motivation in seeing if an alternative might be constructed.

Briefly, these assumptions (sometimes more true of one than the other, but largely applicable to both) include:

(1) a fundamental rationalism, an assumption that we can come up with a notion of justice which all “reasonable” people can accept;

(2) an emphasis on self-interest, a kind of faith that a balance of self-interest can lead to the common good for society;

(3) individualism, a locating of the basic unit of moral discernment with the autonomous individual;

(4) an emphasis on what seem to be quite abstract principles such as “equality,” “fairness,” “liberty,” “entitlement,” etc.;

(5) a utopianism (in the sense of utopia = “nowhere”) which is ahistorical and not closely tied to historical developments concerning genuine injustices and genuine practices of justice;

(6) a bracketing of any discussion of religious and faith and rejection of any notion of “particularlism;”

(7) a focus on western consumptive goods and notions of liberty as if these are the ultimate human values.

Out of my unease with this general approach to justice, I decided to look at the Bible to see if it might contain something that might provide help in formulating an alternative approach.  I wrote a letter to my seminary Old Testament professor, Millard Lind of the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, asking if he had any help to offer.  Professor Lind kindly sent me several papers, including a most helpful unpublished (at that time) essay, “Transformation of Justice:  From Moses to Jesus.”[4] Lind is one of the few pacifist theologians and biblical scholars I am aware of who has accepted the challenge to attempt to rethink justice.  A pacifist theory of justice that would serve as an alternative to the problematic approaches mentioned above continues to be an urgent need.[5]

This essay is only one more fragmentary attempt to point toward a thorough-going Christian pacifist approach to justice.  One of my main arguments, following Lind, is that the Old Testament is a crucial resource for such a resource.  In fact, if we can get beyond what Canadian social theorist George Grant called “English-speaking justice”[6] (or, said in other words, beyond the western philosophical tradition represented in recent years by Rawls and Nozick) and look at the biblical materials concerning justice (including the Old Testament) on their own terms, we will find that they are a tremendous resource for a pacifist approach to justice. Continue reading

Justice Apart from the Law (and Empire): Paul’s Deconstruction of Idolatry

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.8

[Paper presented to the Bible, Theology, and Postmodernity group, American Academy of Religion annual meeting, Chicago, November 10, 2008]

This paper comes out of my interest in Christianity and violence, focused especially on biblical and theological materials that point toward ways of overcoming violence.  The biblical story often portrays violence and injustice having roots in idolatry.  Trusting in things other than the creator God who made all human beings in the divine image leads to a diminishment of the value of some human beings—a prerequisite for injustice and violence.  Torah, the prophets, and Jesus all emphasize the centrality of loving the neighbor as part of what it means to love God above all else.

The struggle against idols characterizes the biblical story from the concern with “graven images” in the Ten Commandments down to the blasphemies of the Beast in Revelation.  Certainly at times the battle against idols itself crosses the line into violence and injustice.  However, for my purposes here I will assume that those accounts stand over against the overall biblical story.  When anti-idolatry takes the form of violence, a new idolatry has taken its place.  In Walter Wink’s terms, our challenge is to seek to overcome evil without becoming evil ourselves.[1]

I would like to suggest that we find in the biblical critique of idolatry perspectives that are important, even essential for responding to the problems of violence in our world today.  If we use violence as our criterion, we could say that whenever human beings justify violence against other human beings they give ultimate loyalty to some entity (or, “idol”) other than the God of Jesus Christ.

It could well be that forces that underwrite violence today—loyalty to warring nations, labeling those outside our religious or ethnic circle as less than fully human, placing a higher priority on gathering wealth than on social justice—are contemporary versions of the idolatrous dynamics that biblical prophets condemn.

In the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans, Paul offers an analysis and critique of idolatry that I believe remains useful today.  Paul takes on two types of idolatry.  First, he criticizes what I will call the idol of lust in the Roman Empire that underwrites violence and injustice.  And, second, he critiques the claims of those (like Paul himself before he met Jesus) who believed that loyalty to the Law requires violence in defense of the covenant community.

Our present-day analogs of the forces Paul critiques—nationalism, imperialism, religious fundamentalism—all gained power with the rise of modernity in the Western world.[2]  The much-heralded turn toward post-modernity may offer a sense of awareness to help us break free from such totalisms that foster so much violence in our world.  These various “’isms” all have been thrown into question in popular consciousness.

This task of resisting demands for ultimate loyalty unites biblical prophets (including Paul) with present-day Christians seeking to further life in the face of death-dealing violence.  Modernity did not create death-dealing idolatries so much as give them new impetus.  The task of breaking bondage to the idols of injustice that Paul engaged in remains ours today. Continue reading

Violence as a theological problem

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). Continue reading

The justice of God in the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.11

[This essay was published in Willard M. Swartley, ed. Essays on Peace Theology and Witness (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988), 135-52.]

For the person seeking to gain a Christian theological perspective on justice, it is likely not self-evident that the Book of Revelation would be a crucial source.  For example, Jose Miranda’s well-known study, Marx and the Bible,[1] only tangentially refers to Revelation, and the biblical chapter in the United States Catholic bishops’ 1985 pastoral letter on the US economy does not refer even once to Revelation.

We can paraphrase Tertullian’s famous question: What has Patmos to do with Rome?  What do these obscure and seemingly fanciful visions have to do with justice in the real world? I will attempt to show that they have a great deal of relevance.

Does Revelation picture God and God’s justice in such a way as to make it illegitimate to apply Jesus’ teaching about God being the model of Christians’ loving their enemies to a rejection to a rejection of Christian involvement in warfare? Is the justice of God in Revelation punitive, angry, and vengeful in such a way that it becomes a warrant for acts of human “justice” such as just wars, capital punishment, a harsh and strictly punitive prison system, and a “big stick” foreign policy that seeks to punish “ungodly” and “unjust” enemies.

Is this really the view of God’s justice presented in Revelation?  My thesis is that it is not, that just as Jesus and Paul give us a picture of God’s justice that is different from the justice of “the nations,” so too does John. Continue reading

Justice in the New Testament

Ted Grimsrud

In the Christian tradition, “justice” has often been seen as something far removed from Jesus’ life and teaching. However, when we posit a polarity between Jesus’ message and justice we undermined both our ability to understand justice in more redemptive and restorative terms and our ability to see in Jesus a political approach that indeed speaks directly to the “real world.”

Jesus and God’s Healing Strategy

Several Old Testament terms describe God’s healing work—shalom (peace), hesed (loving kindness), mispat and tsedeqah (righteousness/justice) prominent among them.  These terms often cluster together in a mutually reinforcing way.

Just a few examples include Micah 6:8 (“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness?”), Psalm 85:10-11 (“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.”), and Psalm 89:14 (“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.”).

Jesus understood himself (and was confessed thus by early Christians) to fulfill the message of Torah.  He makes the call to love neighbors, to bring healing into broken contexts, and to offer forgiveness and restoration in face of wrongdoing central.

As he began his ministry, Jesus clarified his healing vocation in face of temptations to fight injustice with coercion and violence.  He made clear that genuine justice has not to do with punishing wrongdoers nor with a kind of holiness that cannot be in the presence of sin and evil. Rather, genuine justice enters directly into the world of sin and evil and seeks in the midst of that world to bring healing and transformation—a restoration of whole relationships. Continue reading

Beyond Vengeance

Ted Grimsrud—June 22, 2011

When human beings are violated in major ways, profound needs are created in the survivors.  By “survivors” we mean people who survive violent acts themselves and those left when one of their loved ones’ lives is taken in violence.  Major violations create for survivors the need to restore their dignity, sense of identity, selfhood, and honor.  We have several ways we might restore our dignity: taking personal revenge, relying on the state’s retribution, and seeking some sort of vindication that restores the sense of selfhood without exacting vengeance on the wrongdoer.  I believe the third path best opens the way to restored wholeness.

Revenge

I will define “revenge” and “retribution” as pointing toward two distinct, though overlapping, responses to violations.  Revenge occurs when people, in response to violations, seek to retaliate, responding to wrongdoing apart from “official” governmental channels.  Retribution occurs when the state takes over for the victim (and victims’ associates).  State involvement brings formal procedures to apprehend, try, offer judgment, and punish the offender.

A major violation leads to the victim feeling diminished.  When people feel damaged, they tend to want to get even.  Being violated leads to a loss of dignity and a powerful sense of shame.  A violated person may feel a powerful drive to do something that will restore their sense of honor.  In many cultures, people assume that ones restore this lost sense of honor by retaliating against the violator.  Social pressure plays a large role in pushing people to seek vengeance, especially in contexts where a high premium is placed on reputation and honor. Continue reading

“Romans 13 supports pacifism!” and other recent reflections

For my blog writing on May 8 at ThinkingPacifism.net, I addressed the issue of how Romans 13 actually might be read as supporting pacifism—instead of serving as the main anti-pacifism prooftext.

I faced Easter this year with a questioning spirit, I’m afraid. So I wrote a blog post about it: “Resurrection ‘Faith’?” I posted that piece at ThinkingPacifism.net.

The previous week I wrote on some issues related to the role of the American military in “peacebuilding” activities—and whether “military peacebuilding” might not actually be an oxymoron. The post is called “Can the Military Do Peace?”

On April 10, I rekindled my long-standing interest in the Book of Revelation, an interest that does not seem to be diminishing. Like all great literature, Revelation yields new insights the more it is read and considered. I have just posted reflections on Revelation under the title, “The Book of Revelation and the End of Christianity.”

These are some other recent posts: April 3, 2011— “What’s really at stake in the debate about universalism?” I argue that the most important issue is not about whether everyone goes to heaven after they die (or not), but is actually something else.

Please note that it is very easy to start an email subscription to the blog posts—just use the email subscription link on the top right of any Thinking Pacifism page.

The two prior blog posts were: “Why did Jesus die?” (March 28) and “What do you do with those who ask what to do about a bully?” (March 20).

My March 13 blog was called “Pacifism and the Civil Rights Movement.” On March 6, I put up another post outlining an article I hope to write where I  critique the “just war theory” in light of World War II. My previous entry was an essay on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as interpreted by Mark Thiessen Nation.

My February 20 blog entry reflects on World War II’s moral legacy. In my post, “World War II and America’s Soul: Christian Reflections,” I respond to a pro-World War II editorial in The Christian Century. I argue ultimately that if we place our priority on the preciousness of life we will recognize why we can’t affirm that war. On January 21, I posted “How Should a Pacifist View World War II?”, where I reflect on the ways that just war reasoning can be helpful even for pacifists in thinking about the War.

Peace Theology continues to serve as a repository of my more formal writing.

Old Testament Bases for Christian Peace Theology

Ted Grimsrud

[Paper presented to the Scripture and Contextual Ethics Section at the American Academy of Religion annual meetings, Atlanta, Georgia—November 1, 2010]

The “just peacemaking” project that brought together Christian ethicists holding both to pacifism and to versions of the just war theory but united in the goal of “abolishing war”[1] has made a great start in a practical effort to overcome the curse of war. The desire to expand the project beyond Christianity is welcome—in fact absolutely necessary.

My paper points in two mutually reinforcing directions—one is to challenge Christians in our understanding of the bases for our peace theology, the second is to work at finding common ground between Christian peace theology and other traditions (most obviously Judaism, but potentially beyond).

The Old Testament as a Problem

Christian peace theology tends to be New Testament centered, especially drawing on the gospels. Most Christians would seem to assume that the Old Testament has little to offer for the work of overcoming war and violence. The comment of a friend of mine many years ago may be representative. We were in a Bible study group together and when someone suggested we study something from the Old Testament, my friend snorted and stated flatly, “I don’t want anything to do with that bloody book!” And many Christians who have wanted something to do with the Old Testament, going back to Augustine, have mainly used it as a justification for the acceptability of warfare. Continue reading

Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism

Ted Grimsrud

[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?”[i] 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 it 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 at the heart of our lives we 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.  On the other hand, we recognize that efforts to overcome evil all too often end up exacerbating the brokenness.  We recognize that resisting evil can lead to the use of tactics that add to the evil and transform the actors more than the evil situation.

So, how might we act responsibly while not only remaining 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” (R2P) 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,[ii] “just policing,”[iii] and projects such at the 3D Security Initiative[iv] and Mennonite Central Committee’s “Peace Theology Project.”[v]

The tension seemingly inherent for peacemakers in these efforts at responding to evil appears in 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 it 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 the tension as a call to devote our best energies to finding ways to hold together our nonviolence with creative responsibility?

I affirm the need (and the realistic possibility) of taking the “tension-as-opportunity-for-creative-engagement” path. A number of the people and writings cited in notes 2 through 5 below have been embodying just this kind of path; I do not mean to imply that peace church practitioners haven’t make significant progress in understanding and applying our peacemaking convictions to the “real world.”[vi] However, I am not content that we have yet done the necessary work at sharpening our understanding and articulation of the “faithfulness” side of the responsibility/faithfulness dialectic. Our creativity in engaging these issues may be drawing on increasingly depleted traditions of principled pacifism that found their roots more in traditional communities than in carefully articulated theological ethics. We may not have the resources to live creatively with this dialectic unless we do more work on clarifying and solidifying our understanding of our peace ideals.

With this essay I will articulate a perspective on pacifism that might be usable for thoughtfully engaging human security issues. My contribution is mostly as a pastor and theologian, not a practitioner. My hope is to help with the philosophical underpinnings, not to direct a program of engagement — though I will conclude with a few thoughts on how I see the pacifist perspective outlined here possibly applying to our present situation. Continue reading