Category Archives: Justice

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

A pacifist critique of just war thought

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #C.7

[Unpublished paper, May 1986]

[Preface, 2012] This paper was written in the latter days of the Cold War. Hence, it has a context that is quite different from our contemporary setting. As well, it focuses on the generation of just war thinkers that came of age in the midst of the nuclear arms race and Vietnam War—most of whom have passed from the scene (though Michael Walzer and James Turner Johnson are still active).

Also, the paper does not, of course, take into account the recent flurry of writing on the just war: see, for example: Daniel M. Bell, Jr., Just War as Christian Discipleship (Brazos, 2009); Mark Allman, Who Would Jesus Kill?(Anselm, 2008); W. Michael Slatterly, Jesus the Warrior? (Marquette University, 2007); A. James Reimer, Christians and War (Fortress, 2010); J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy, War, Peace, and Christianity (Crossway, 2010); and Andrew Fiala, The Just War Myth (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).

However, I believe the issues I address here are perennial issues and the perspective I offer remains relevant.

Historical introduction

From the time of Augustine until now, the so-called “just war theory” has been the more-or-less official Christian doctrine regarding involvement in warfare.  I say “more-or-less official” because the just war system does not begin as a system in the strong sense of a group of thoughts that hang together.  It was never adopted by a church council.  It was not until the Reformation in the sixteenth century that it is mentioned in church confessions, and then only in passing.  This is to say that the “just war theory” was the norm in practice for the vast majority of Christians, the assumed position.

Ambrose, the late fourth century church leader, was the first to articulate a Christian “ethics of war”–before him it was always an ethic against war.  He furnished two of the ingredients of the Christian theory of the just war:  that the conduct of the war should be just and that monks and priests should abstain from fighting.

What Ambrose roughly sketched, his student Augustine amplified.  However, he never systematized his thought on warfare.  There was no debate among the church leaders of Augustine’s time about a coherent proposal for a Christian ethic of war that could be either accepted or rejected.  Since this was the case, there was no official acceptance of criteria that could lead to a clear decision as to whether the war was justifiable or not.

Rather, what happened is that the events occurred, wars happened, and the church leaders followed along, responding in an ad hoc fashion.  The acceptance of war and of the just war tradition simply happened.  No individual or group of individuals ever directed it.  There was no debate, no votes taken. Continue reading

A Theology for Restorative Justice

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #E.5

[Co-authored with Howard Zehr; published in Journal of Offender Rehabilitation. 35.3/4 (Fall 2002), 259-285.] 

“The whole trouble,” Leo Tolstoy wrote about the criminal justice system, “is that people think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love, but no such circumstances ever exist.  Human beings cannot be handled without love.  It cannot be otherwise, because mutual love is the fundamental law of human life.”[1]

Our criminal justice system certainly is troubled by tendencies to treat some people (offenders and victims) without love; the consequences are costly.[2] From a Christian perspective, and simply for the sake of social wellbeing in our society, we need to challenge those tendencies.

This paper will address three issues:  (1) On what bases do people think they can deal with offenders without love?  That is, what views of God, ultimate reality, and justice justify unloving (retributive) approaches to criminal justice?  (2) Is it possible to construct an understanding of God, ultimate reality, and justice, based on the founding texts of the Christian tradition (i.e., the Bible), which supports Tolstoy’s assertion about the fundamental law of life being love?  (3) Is it possible in “real life” to approach criminal justice issues from the point of view of Tolstoy’s assertion that love is foundational?

Concepts of God and retributive justice:  A summary and critique

Despite the widespread occurrence of inter-human violence throughout most of recorded history, few people would deny that most human beings have an inclination to avoid violence toward other human beings.  In human experience we usually need some overriding reason to go against this inclination.  That is, to act violently toward, especially to kill, other human beings, is serious business, undertaken because some other value, commitment or instinct overrides the inclination not to be violent.

Punishment involves, by definition, the intentional infliction of pain and the use of coercion and thus must be seen as a form of violence.  Punishment by the state, then, is morally problematic as it involves the state doing things that are normally considered morally and socially unacceptable.  The problematic nature of punishment has given rise to a huge variety of justifications for delivering such pain.

In the criminal justice tradition of the Western world, the overriding justifications given for violently punishing offenders, even to the point of death, have and continue to be tied to a certain understanding of ultimate reality.  In this view, ultimate reality requires retributive justice when fundamental natural or divine laws are violated.  Such “retributive justice” is seen to restore the moral balance.  Continue reading

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