Ted Grimsrud

Archive for the ‘Pacifism’ Category

Christian pacifism in brief

In Biblical theology, Jesus, Pacifism, peace theology on December 20, 2016 at 8:30 am

Ted Grimsrud

[This lecture 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 want to start with a hypothesis that you may or may not agree with: A clear convictional commitment to pacifism is very helpful for opposing torture and capital punishment. I’m not going to make an argument for this hypothesis. I merely state it in order to tell you why I am giving this presentation on Christian pacifism as part of an abolish the death penalty event. Non-pacifists certainly may—and should—oppose the death penalty and torture under all circumstances. But it’s probably easier to do so as pacifists. At the least, pacifism may provide one angle for advocating abolition.

What is “pacifism”? Let’s start with a simple working definition: “pacifism” is the in-principled unwillingness to engage in lethal violence, including most obviously the unwillingness to participate in warfare or to support the death penalty. “Pacifism” connotes a complete rejection of warfare, and usually other forms of violence. I will suggest, though, that pacifism understood theologically, is a broader, more positive conviction than simply saying no to violence.

Some examples of those who oppose “pacifism”

Let me start with several examples of what I consider to be misunderstandings of pacifism, and then go on to present the case for Christian pacifism.

Some non-pacifists are strongly anti-pacifist. They see pacifism as a refusal to take responsibility for the use of violence that is necessary to stop evil people in our rough-and-tumble world. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II expressed views equating pacifism with “a cowardly and lazy conception of life” and “peace at any cost,” respectively.

Pundit, Michael Kelly, wrote a widely circulated op-ed essay for the Washington Post shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks. He asserted that, in relation to the war on terror, “American pacifists…are on the side of future mass murderers of Americans. They are objectively pro-terrorist.” Pacifists do not want the U.S. to fight back and neither do the terrorists. Therefore they are on the same side. And since terrorism is evil, he concluded flatly that the “pacifists’ position…is evil.” He defined pacifism primarily as principled opposition to the use of American military might, including opposition to going to war to resist the obvious evils of “global terrorism.”

So, according to these two Popes and to Michael Kelly, pacifism seems largely to be understood as the refusal to fight back (or even to support fighting back) in the face of evil. As such, it is seen as directly complicit in the furtherance of said evil. Read the rest of this entry »

The New Testament as a Peace Book

In Biblical theology, Jesus, New Testament, Pacifism, peace theology on December 18, 2016 at 9:32 am

Ted Grimsrud

[This was the second of a two-part Carol Grizzard-Browning Lecture Series—University of Pikeville—11/12/13 (here’s part 1 on the Old Testament)]

Let me start with a bold claim. The New Testament presents a political philosophy. This philosophy has at its core a commitment to pacifism (by pacifism I mean the conviction that no cause or value can override the commitment to treat each life as precious). This commitment based on the belief that Jesus Christ as God Incarnate reveals the character of God and of God’s intention for human social life.

Jesus’s identity in the Gospel of Luke

In talking about the New Testament as a peace book, I will look first at how the gospels present Jesus. I will focus on the Gospel of Luke. At the very beginning, from Mary, upon her learning of the child she will bear, we hear that this child will address social reality. He will challenge the power elite of his world and lift up those at the bottom of the social ladder. This child, we are told, will bring hope to those who desire the “consolation of Israel.” Those who seek freedom from the cultural domination of one great empire after another that had been imposed upon Jesus’ people for six centuries will find comfort. From the beginning, this child is perceived in social and political terms.

Later, at the moment of Jesus’ baptism, God’s voice speaks words of affirmation, “Thou art my Son” (Luke 3:22). These words should be understood to name Jesus’s vocation more than simply emphasizing his divine identity. “Son of God” was a term for kings (Psalm 2:7). It states that this person is the leader of God’s kingdom on earth, he has the task of showing the way for God’s will for God’s people to be embodied.

Jesus’ baptism was a kind of commissioning service for this vocation. We see that in the events that following shortly afterward. Jesus retreats deeper into the wilderness and there encounters Satan, the tempter. Satan presented Jesus with temptations that all had at their core seductive appeals to his sense of messianic or kingly calling. He could rule the nations, he could gain a following as a distributor of bread to the hungry masses, he could leap from the top of the Temple and gain the support of the religious powers-that-be through his miraculous survival that would confirm his messianic status. That is, Jesus faced temptations concerning how he would be king. He did not deny that he was called to be “Son of God”—that is, king or messiah. But he did reject temptations to be king in ways he knew would be ungodly.

Jesus’s ministry—an upside-down kind of king

Luke then tells of Jesus’ entry back into the world in which he was called to minister. In his home synagogue, Jesus spoke prophetic words from Isaiah that directly addressed social transformation. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Isaiah’s prophecy referred to the installation among God’s people of the provisions of the year of Jubilee, “the year of the Lord’s favor,” that would restore in Israel the socially radical tenets of the Old Testament law: social equality and the empowerment of the oppressed, prisoners, and poor. Read the rest of this entry »

The Old Testament as a peace book

In Biblical theology, Old Testament, Pacifism, peace theology on December 17, 2016 at 12:39 pm

Ted Grimsrud

[This was the first of a two-part Carol Grizzard-Browning Lecture Series—University of Pikeville (Pikeville, KY)—11/11/13 (here’s part 2 on the New Testament)]

What I will do with this lecture on the Old Testament and with 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…. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Revelation’s God a God of peace?

In Biblical theology, God, Jesus, Pacifism, peace theology, Revelation on May 13, 2016 at 7:19 pm

A sermon preached at Community Mennonite Church Lancaster

May 8, 2016 by Ted Grimsrud

The book of Revelation is a mystery, right? Scary, intimidating, fantastic, wacky, off-putting. When Kathleen and I first moved to Harrisonburg 20 years ago, we attended Park View Mennonite Church. We learned there how back in the 1950s, the Mennonites in Harrisonburg had intense conflicts about the interpretation of Revelation. So, in good Mennonite fashion, they decided they needed to stop talking about it. So, those who grew up after that had no exposure to Revelation. However, maybe, also, Revelation is fascinating and even inspiring. I think it’s worth wrestling with, and it may even have special importance for we who live today in the center of the world’s one great superpower.

What are we looking for?

When we take up Revelation, though, just like any other religious text, so much depends on what we are looking for. Let me give some examples from who have written on Revelation. Are we looking for the date of the rapture and the identity of the Antichrist (like with the Left Behind books)? Or are we looking for the lunatic ravings of a hallucinating first-century fanatic (that’s what British novelist D. H. Lawrence thought)? Or are we looking for words of encouragement in face of a vicious authoritarian state (like South African theologian Allan Boesak 30-some years ago)? Or are we looking for a challenge to American imperialism (with the great American prophet of the 1960s and 70s William Stringfellow)?

And what kind of God do we expect to find “revealed” in this book? We all tend to try to find what will reinforce our already existing beliefs. We don’t always look very kindly toward images and ideas that threaten what we think we know. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, from the social thinker John Kenneth Galbraith: “Sometimes we face a choice, do we change our minds or do we prove that we don’t need to. When faced with such a choice, most of us most of the time get busy with the proof.”… We tend not to want to change our minds. So if we expect a mean God in Revelation, that’s likely what we will find.

Still, it is a good idea to at least try to listen to different views. And certainly it’s a good idea to try at least to listen to the Book of Revelation with an open mind, to listen with the possibility that it might have something to say to us a bit different than what we expect—maybe it’s actually meaningful! Or meaningful in a different way that what we have assumed.

My sense with Revelation is that most people start with the assumption that Revelation’s God is violent and judgmental. Some might want that kind of God—some don’t. One of the pivotal moments in my own theological journey came nearly 40 years ago when a couple of friends had a formal debate in our church about pacifism. The non-pacifist drew heavily on the judgment in Revelation. He used it to support his belief that sometimes God is violent and thus may, at times, want us to be as well. That statement challenged me to study Revelation to see for myself. Read the rest of this entry »

Christian pacifism and the “Good War”

In Empire, Just War, Pacifism, peace theology, Politics, World War II on May 30, 2015 at 12:14 pm

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. Read the rest of this entry »

A new book on World War II’s moral legacy

In Just War, Pacifism, peace theology, World War II on December 3, 2014 at 8:33 am

December 3, 2014—Ted Grimsrud

Cascade Books has just published my book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. Here is the home page for the book on my website, with links to other sites where it can be previewed and purchased.9781625641021

This book is, in essence, a pacifist’s attempt to answer the question, “what about Hitler?” or “what about World War II?” using the moral reasoning of the just war tradition and common American values.

How the book is unique, as far as I know, is that it not only interrogates the War itself, it also traces the impact of the War on American national security policy in the generations since—as well as looking closely as the story of the war opponents and their legacy. Read the rest of this entry »

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

In Biblical theology, Empire, Pacifism, Romans on November 16, 2014 at 4:50 pm

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.  Read the rest of this entry »

Paul’s antidote to empire

In Biblical theology, Empire, Pacifism, Romans on October 12, 2014 at 3:29 pm

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. Read the rest of this entry »

The Peace Position During a Time of War

In Anabaptism, Biblical theology, Jesus, Pacifism, Theology on August 20, 2014 at 8:25 am

Ted Grimsrud

[Workshop presentation at the Eastern Mennonite Seminary School for Leadership Training, Harrisonburg, VA, January 17, 2005]

I grew up the child of a father who fought in World War II and a mother who also served in the U.S. military during that war. Our family definitely was not heavily militaristic, but I certainly would willingly have gone into the military myself had I been drafted when I was 19. As it turned out, the draft ended the year I turned 19 as the Vietnam War wound down. In the several years after that, I thought often and intensely about military service and my faith. When I was 22, through a kind of mystical awareness, I came to a clear conviction that I could not, at the same time, be both a follower of Jesus and a participant in or even supporter of warfare.

Only at this point did I first learn of the Mennonite tradition, with its long held refusal to fight in wars. I loved what I learned and, about 25 years ago, joined the Mennonite church. I continue on the process of faith seeking understanding—what does the peace position mean? What’s basis? How might it be put into practice?

Defining “pacifism,” “nonviolence,” and “nonresistance”

The most common definitions of “pacifism” focus on what pacifism rejects, characterizing pacifism as the in-principled rejection of participation in warfare. Some pacifists would say that all war is wrong, others more that they simply themselves will never fight.

Focusing on what pacifism affirms, I define pacifism as the conviction that nothing matters as much as love, kindness, respect, seeking wholeness. Hence, nothing that would justify violence matters enough to override the commitment to love. In my understanding, pacifism is a worldview, a way of looking at reality; there is a pacifist way of knowing, a pacifist way of perceiving, of discerning, of negotiating life.

The term “nonviolence” is recently prominent as a near-synonym for pacifism. I will use the terms interchangeably, though if we trying to be truly precise, we could find nuances that might make us want to differentiate between the two terms. One distinction would be to say that “pacifism” focuses more on underlying principles and values, “nonviolence” more on tactics and actions.

“Nonresistance” is the more traditional term, widely used among Mennonites, for the refusal to fight back against evil. Typically, it has carried the connotation of witnessing to peace more through living as an alternative community in some sense separate from secular politics than through direct engagement.

The Bible’s witness to peace

My definition of pacifism more in positive, worldview terms links more closely with the logic of the biblical story than simply defining pacifism as the rejection of warfare. The Bible, famously, does not overtly reject warfare for believers; in fact, in certain notorious cases the Bible actually commends, even commands, God’s people fighting. Read the rest of this entry »

Question authority

In Anabaptism, Anarchism, Biblical theology, Pacifism, Politics on July 27, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—July 27, 2014—1 Samuel 8:10-18; Romans 13:1-4; Mark 10:42-45

I want to talk this morning about political philosophy. Now, I don’t suppose many Mennonite preachers today—or ever—have done sermons on political philosophy. But like I say to Kathleen when she asks, on occasion, what in the world are you doing, I say, I’m just trying to keep you guessing.

Actually, I think Mennonites should talk about political philosophy—and understand that we have important resources for political philosophy in our tradition. The key theme, I think, is authority. Mennonites are not nearly faithful enough to our Anabaptist heritage in relation to authority. Not that many Mennonites I know have been socialized to question authority—though doing so was essential in the beginning of our movement in the 16th century. I’d like to float a provocative thesis this morning—when we question authority we take a necessary step in developing what we could call an Anabaptist, or , to be more presumptuous, an authentically biblical, political philosophy—that is, to question authority can be an act of faithfulness.

A political awakening

But first, let me tell the story of the beginning of my political awakening. When I was a kid, I lived for sports. Sixth grade was when we first had school sports where we played other schools. After football and basketball, we’d have both baseball and track. In my eighth grade year, we thought we’d have good teams—I was excited.

Then, something terrible happened. I still remember the moment clearly. We walk into our classroom one morning and see this written on the board: “Students who wish to compete on the baseball and track teams must have crew cut haircuts. There will be no exceptions.” Now, Elkton (Oregon) Grade School in the late 1960s was not a hotbed of hippy subversion. I had only recently let my hair grow out from my standard crew cut, but it wasn’t even as long as my hair is now. Nor was anyone else’s. But there were several of us who believed this was an unreasonable demand and refused it. Read the rest of this entry »