Category Archives: Politics

A Christian Pacifist Response to World War II

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #C.6

[Presented as Keeney Peace Lecture, Bluffton University, Bluffton, Ohio, October 25, 2011]

World War II was the biggest catastrophe ever to befall humanity. Think of it like this: say a meteorite crashes into my hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia, and kills everyone, around 40,000 people. This would be incredible news. America’s worst ever natural disaster. But then, imagine that something like this happens every single day for five years. You can’t imagine that? Well, that’s what World War II was—40,000 people killed every single day for five years.

But World War II wasn’t a natural catastrophe—it was something human beings did to each other. These 75 million people didn’t just die due to impersonal nature run amok. They were killed by other people. World War II was an intensely moral event. Human choices. Human values. Human actions.

And World War II has cast a long shadow. We’re still in its shadow. As William Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Just one example. In Barak Obama’s acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, he alluded to the necessity for America to fight in Afghanistan—and cited the war against Hitler as one key rationale. That war was obviously a necessary war, our nation’s “good war,” and it helps us see our current war as necessary as well.

Because World War II was—and is—so big and devastating and epoch shaping, it is a theological issue. But we aren’t getting a lot of theological reflection on it. I am just completing the first phase of a long-term project on responding theologically to this war.

I have not yet actually begun to address one big type of question—what does World War II tell us about God? Where do we see God in this oh-so-big event—and what about the ways in which we don’t see God?

I have begun with another type of question—stated a bit facetiously: What does God tell us about World War II? But I haven’t really gotten to the “God” part. That will be step two, to reflect on this war and its long shadow in light of my explicitly Christian and explicitly pacifist convictions.

Moral values that justified World War II

Step one, though, is to ask the question more in terms of general and, we could say, public, convictions. What do key stated moral values in the United Stated say about World War II? Let’s start with this more general moral theology, which, I believe, gives us enough substance to begin a critical evaluation that could speak to many Americans.

The key moral values were stated famously on two occasions during 1941 by president Franklin D. Roosevelt. These statements were circulated widely and provide us with stable moral criteria for our reflections on the moral legacy of World War II. Continue reading

Jesus’ Confrontation with Empire

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.7

[Published in Nathan E. Yoder and Carol A. Scheppard, eds., Exiles in the Empire: Believers Church Perspectives on Politics (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2006), 27-41.]

 At the core of the believers church ideal, as I understand it, lies an unequivocal commitment to follow Jesus Christ.  When we discuss “God, Democracy, and U.S. Power” in light of the believers church ideal, part of our task surely must be to ask, What might we learn from Jesus’ own confrontation with empire that might speak to ours?  James McClendon, in his discussion of the believers church ideal—what he called the (small-b) baptist vision – identifies a key element as the sense of close connection between the present-day believer and the biblical narrative.  We are part of the same story; what happened then is still going on now; “this is that.”[1]

I will reflect on the story of Jesus as part of the broader biblical story with the assumption that our story is part of the same story. What the Bible tells us about people of faith and the great powers has great relevance for our lives. Though I will, except for a few points at the end, focus on the biblical story, I want to be clear that I consider Jesus’ confrontation with empire as directly relevant for North American residents of our world’s one great empire.

This is a big issue for U.S. Christians. We have so much to appreciate in this country—religious freedom not least. However, many of our nation’s practices resemble all too closely the imperialism of the biblical empires. It is as if we have two Americas, America the pioneer democracy and America the dominant empire.[2]  I believe that attention to the Bible’s empires can help us as we discern how we respond to the latter America.

First, I will make the point, obvious once we notice it but rarely part of how we actually read the Bible, that the entire Bible, including most definitely the four gospels but actually ranging all the way from the Genesis creation story (written, at least according to some, to counter Babylonian influences during the sixth century BCE) to the final vision of God’s saving work in the Book of Revelation (written, most scholars agree, to counter Roman influences in the late first century CE), reflects the setting of God’s people amidst the various empires, or great powers, of the biblical world—from Egypt and Babylon down to Rome.

Jesus’ confrontation with the empire of his day must be seen in the much broader context of the biblical faith community’s confrontation with various empires. Some of the elements of our modern-day believers church ideal echo key elements of the biblical story: (1) a commitment to sustaining a faith community that seeks to maintain a free space over against the domination of empire; (2) a conviction that this faith community has the vocation of witnessing to the surrounding world of God’s healing love and against the violence and oppression of empires; and (3) a hope that this vocation of showing love actually will have a transforming impact on the entire world, including the great powers themselves. When Jesus bumps up against Rome—a “bump” that cost him his life—he continues in the prophetic tradition of his people, a tradition going back to Israel’s earliest days. 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

Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essay #c.8

[Published in Mennonite Quarterly Review 78.3 (July 2004), 341-62.]

Heirs of the Radical Reformation continue to face basic questions about citizenship.  What does it mean to be “in the world and not of it” (John 17:14-17)?  What in our lives should we give to Caesar and what should we give to God (Matthew 22:15-22)?

Anabaptists living in the United States are challenged by these questions in complex ways.  We find ourselves, on the one hand, in the land of freedom.  The first Anabaptist generations in the 16th century, facing severe persecutions, sought desperately for safety; many groups migrated widely in this quest.  Beginning in the late 17th century, many established communities in the United States.  Despite periodic flaring of wartime persecutions, we may now look back with gratitude for our forebears’ opportunity to find a safe home in America.[1]

We have a great deal to be grateful for in terms of religious toleration.  We also, not coincidentally, have opportunities totally unimaginable for the 16th century Anabaptists to participate in political life in one of the world’s pioneering democracies.  That is, not only are Mennonites tolerated, we may vote, run for office, speak out, serve on school boards, be fully participating members in American democratic processes.

On the other hand, American Mennonites are also tax-paying citizens in one of the world’s greatest-ever empires, if we define “empire” in terms of a country’s exercise of domination over many other parts of the world.  Perhaps the US does not overtly possess foreign colonies in the manner of old empires such as Great Britain.  However, in terms of the actual expression of power over others, the US surely greatly surpasses even the largest reach of the British Empire.  America is now the world’s one great superpower, spending more on our military than just about all the rest of the world’s countries combined.

The Anabaptist tradition early on expressed a strong suspicion of empires, power politics, and trust in the sword.  Present-day Mennonites surely are being faithful to that tradition when we refuse to participate in, or even support, the wars of America.

However, what about the “good America,” the America of religious freedom and participatory democracy?  Is the traditional Mennonite “two-kingdom” stance adequate for determining our understanding of citizenship today?  In our time, people throughout the world plead for participants in American civil society to seek to influence American foreign policy to be more peaceable.  Do American Anabaptist Christians have responsibility aggressively to seek to take their pacifist convictions into the public square in a way that might influence our government? Continue reading

Reading Revelation (and the whole Bible) as a book of peace

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.10

[Published in Ted Grimsrud and Michael Hardin, eds. Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 3-27.]

 Eschatology all too often means judgment, vengeance, the bad guys and gals getting their “just desserts.”  Probably at least in part because of the titillating allure of violence, and in part because of the attraction of being part of a story when our side wins and the other side loses, eschatology is pretty popular.

But is this kind of eschatology Christian? What might Christian eschatology look like if it is done as if Jesus matters?  If we look at Jesus’ own life and teaching, we won’t find a clearer statement of his hierarchy of values than his concise summary of the law and prophets: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul—and, likewise, you shall love your neighbor as you love your own self.  This love of God and neighbor is why we are alive.  It is what matters the most.  The “end” that matters is our purpose for being here, not any knowledge we might think we have about future events.  Our purpose is to love—that purpose is the eschatological theme that is central if we do eschatology as if Jesus matters.[1]

To talk about the “end of the world” biblically points us to our purpose for living in the world.  The word “end” can have two different meanings.  (1) “End” means the conclusion, the finish, the last part, the final outcome.  In this sense, “the end of the world” is something future and has to do with the world ceasing to exist.  (2) “End” also, though, means the purpose, what is desired, the intention.  “End of the world,” in this sense, is, we could say, what God intends the world to be for. In this sense of “end,” the “end times” have to do with why we live in time.[2]

The book of Revelation is usually seen as the book of the Bible most concerned with “the end times.”  The book of Revelation has always vexed interpreters.  Rarely has it been seen as an indispensable source for Christian social ethics; often it has been seen more as an ethical problem.[3]  I want to suggest, though, that Revelation has potential to speak powerfully to 21st-century Christians about our purpose in life.

The Bible generally speaks in the future tense only in service of exhortation toward present faithfulness.  The Bible’s concern is that the people of God live in such a way that we will be at home in the New Jerusalem—not with predictions about when and how the future will arrive.

How do we relate “eschatology” with “apocalyptic”?  Let me suggest that biblical apocalyptic (which I will differentiate from the genre “apocalyptic literature” that modern scholars have developed) actually is best understood similarly to eschatology.  The biblical use of apocalyptic language, like the broader use of prophetic and eschatological language, serves the exhortation to faithfulness in present life.  Continue reading

A Pacifist Critique of the Modern Worldview

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays E.2

[Published in Ray Gingerich and Ted Grimsrud, eds. Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice, and the Domination System: Engaging Walter Wink (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 53-64.]

I have been learning from Walter Wink for years, going back half my lifetime to when I read his little book, The Bible in Human Transformation,[1] which came at a crucial time for me as I was emerging from the literalistic fundamentalism I had been taught as a young Christian.

In the early 1980s I eagerly awaited his books on the Powers – I had been fascinated by John Howard Yoder’s work on the Powers in The Politics of Jesus[2] and was delighted when I learned that Wink would be developing the analysis further.  I was not disappointed.  Naming the Powers[3] took the exegetical work done by Yoder and others to new depths, and Unmasking the Powers[4] provided new and exciting applications to social and psychological issues.  However, impressed as I was by these books, I still could never have imagined the kind of book with which Wink would conclude his Powers trilogy.

That book, Engaging the Powers,[5] has energized me ever since I first read it in 1992, and more than any book I can think of has directed my own thinking and research in the last number of years.  Wink’s analysis provides two especially crucial insights.  The first is that one of the main effects that the fallen Powers have in the modern world is concealment; that is, they distort and hide from us the true nature of reality, the true nature of what binds us, and the true sources for our liberation.  And the second is that the best criterion for discerning what is truth and what is deception in the swirl of ideas and values and theories and biases in which we are immersed in our world is nonviolence.

In this essay I will reflect on the way we look at the world around us (our modern worldview) as a major expression of “concealment” in our culture today.  Using the criterion of nonviolence (or, my preferred term, “pacifism”), I want to suggest that our culture’s very worldview itself serves to alienate us from truth and life.  Perhaps we fragile human beings feel the power of the fallen Powers most profoundly in the concealed assumptions of our worldview that lead to violence – violence against human beings, for sure, but even more fundamentally, violence against creation itself.

I conclude from this analysis that one of the major tasks of pacifists is simply to bring that which is concealed to awareness.  That is, we are challenged to foster dis-illusionment with the modern worldview.  We are challenged to discern how this worldview distorts and disguises and conceals and to expose such distortions for all people of good will to see.  Such work plays a crucial role in human transformation and the healing of creation. 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

Christian Pacifism Encounters the Old Testament

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.2

[Previously unpublished. From a 1983 lecture. Slightly revised in 1991.]

The Old Testament has been enormously influential in Christian thinking about warfare, especially for its use in justifying involvement in warfare.  Sociologist Ray Abrams, in his study of American Christian support for World War I makes the strong statement: “It may be safely predicted that as long as Christian ministers and Sunday School teachers continue, as the majority of them now do, to defend the crude ethics in parts of the Old Testament, the Bible will continue to be used as the greatest defense of war in history.”[1]  Unfortunately, many pacifists react to such uses of the Old Testament by dismissing it and neglecting the positive resources it offers for Christian peacemaking and social thought in general.

We do not have to explain away the Old Testament’s wars in order to remain pacifists and at the same time accept all of the Old Testament as scripture.  Looked at on its own terms, and seen as a record of the historical movement of God’s people in history, the Old Testament can provide us with a great deal of insight.  For one thing, it can help us to see that we are pacifists primarily not for negative reasons (it is wrong to kill) but for positive reasons.  We are called to be agents of God’s redemptive working in human history and that working moves in the way of the suffering servant, not in the way of power politics and violence.

Certainly, we are not left without problems.  But all areas of Christian theology leave us with problems.  The Bible is a very human book, presenting human history.  Just as human history is neither unambivalent nor unambiguous, neither is the Bible.  And the Bible, with its ambivalence and ambiguity, addresses us in our ambivalent and ambiguous contexts with words and images which nonetheless mediate the word of God for us.

The Old Testament texts should be seen first within their historical contexts.  In the age of Joshua, for example, the question of whether the taking of human life is morally permissible would never have been asked.  The key concept during the holy wars for the participants was not bloodshed, but rather the question of whether Israel would trust in God or not.  If it would trust and follow God’s will, then the occupants of the land would be driven out in ways which would make it clear that it was God and not military might or large numbers which won the victory.[2]

When we look at the historical development rather than directly comparing Jesus with Joshua, we see evolution.  First we can see novel aspects of holy war itself (e.g., dependence on God for one’s existence) and in legislation (e.g., rejection of indirect retaliation and greater dignity given women and slaves).  Progressively the prophetic line represented by writers such as Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah underlines these same emphases.  Progression continues through incorporation of persons of non-Israelite blood into the tribe, expansion of world vision to include other nations, prophets’ criticism of and history’s destruction of kingship and territorial sovereignty as definitions of peoplehood.[3] Continue reading

A pacifist Christian perspective on war and peace

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #A.2

[This essay is based on a paper presented to a conference on World Religions and Peace, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, April 11, 2005]

As a pacifist Christian theologian, I find it more than a little ironic that many Christians in the United States compare Christianity to other religions, especially Islam and Judaism, by asserting that Christianity is more peaceful.  They presumably base such a claim on the teachings of Jesus, who they affirm as central to their faith.  However, looking at the message of Jesus only underscores how much blood we Christians actually have on our hands over the past two millennia, how far most Christians over most of Christianity’s history have moved from our namesake’s words such as “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” and “Father, forgive them” when it comes to issues of war and peace.

This is to say, as I discuss a Christian perspective on war and peace today I recognize just how tiny of a minority within the Christian tradition I represent.  Most Christians are not pacifists; only a few have ever been, at least in the years since 300 CE.  However, I will suggest that pacifism has strong grounding in the basic storyline of the Christian Bible, that pacifism is in fact the original (or default) position of Christianity, that pacifism has always existed as an option for Christian believers, and that following the 20th century, the century of total war, Christian pacifism has more relevance (and more adherents) than ever before.[1]

I need to start with some definitions before outlining the biblical grounding for Christian pacifism.  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;[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] Continue reading

A Tribute to Walter Wink

Ted Grimsrud—May 12, 2012

Walter Wink, one of the greatest peace theologians of the past half-century, has passed from the scene. He died in his home in Massachusetts Thursday, May 10, 2012. He was 76 and had suffered for some years from dementia.

Wink has been one of the thinkers who has influenced me the most. On two different occasions I wrote short summaries of what I found most profound in his thought. As a tribute to his life and work, I offer excerpts from each of these.

Engaging Walter Wink

[In March 2001, Eastern Mennonite University hosted a conference that featured Wink as the main speaker. My colleague Ray Gingerich and I gathered a number of the papers from the conference and published the resultant book: Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice, and the Domination System (Fortress Press, 2006).]

Walter Wink is that rare, and much appreciated, cross-disciplinary scholar and committed activist who informs and inspires.  Trained as a New Testament specialist, Wink’s first publications in the late 1960s made still-cited contributions to the study of John the Baptist. John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition remains in print.  He began reaching a wider audience with his provocative The Bible in Human Transformation that forecast his broadening his concerns to psychological and ethical ramifications of how we read the Bible.  Transforming Bible Study emerged from Wink’s work as Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, work paying special attention to the study of the Bible among lay people.

Fortress Press published the first volume of Wink’s “Powers trilogy,” Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament in 1984.  As Wink recounts in that book’s preface, it originated as a book review, critiquing another book on the principalities and powers in the New Testament that Wink disagreed with.  Wink had been working on the theme of the powers for a number of years, originally stimulated by the pioneering work of the notorious Episcopalian lawyer and lay theologian William Stringfellow.

What eventually emerged were two additional full-scale books, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (1986) and the magisterial Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (1992), and several shorter works fleshing out the trilogy’s core insights. Continue reading