Category Archives: Politics

Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy

Ted Grimsrud

Two presidential election cycles ago (2004), I published an essay reflecting on how committed Christian pacifists in the Anabaptist tradition might function as citizens of the United States.

I understand my main argument to be that we have to work within three stories: (1) the Anabaptist story of costly commitment to witness to Jesus’ way, (2) the democracy story that reflects a commitment in our country to participation in the social order by all people in a society, and (3) the empire story that all too often has characterized the United States and our way in the world.

I suggest that those committed to story #1 who live in a society that at least to some extent retains a commitment to story #2, should exert all the energy they can to critique and try to counter story #3.

Given present day debates among peace advocates in the United States around our current presidential election, I thought I might take the chance to post this article on this website.

Ted Grimsrud. “Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 78.3 (July 2004), 341-62.

Here also is a post I put up on my Thinking Pacifism blog on September 30, 2012, that explains why I will vote (ambivalently) for Barack Obama this time.

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[Unpublished paper, May 1986]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

Summarizing John Howard Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus”

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.4

[Unpublished paper, July 2008]

Christian pacifism stems directly from the biblical story of God’s revelation to humanity of the normative pattern for human life.  We see this revelation most clearly in the life and teaching of Jesus.  One of our most sophisticated interpreters of this story has been John Howard Yoder.  This essay presents a summary of Yoder’s argument in his classic book, The Politics of Jesus.[1]

The New Testament, centered on the story, presents a political philosophy.  This philosophy has at its core a commitment to pacifism, a commitment based on the normativity of Jesus Christ as the definitive revelation of God and of God’s intention for human social life.  Christians have tended to miss the social implications of the New Testament story because of assumptions about both politics and Jesus.

Christian ethicists and theologians have generally posited that Jesus’ thought as expressed in his teaching and practice could not have intended to speak in a concrete way to social ethics.  Jesus, it has been said, spoke only to the personal sphere or (more recently) he articulated his ethical expectations in the extreme forms he did because he (mistakenly) expected history to end very soon.

Because Jesus does not speak directly to our social ethics, Christian theology has concluded, we must derive our ethical guidance for life in the real world from other sources: common sense, calculation of what will work in a fallen world, non-Christian philosophical sources.

We must ask, though, whether, given Christian belief in Jesus as God Incarnate, should we not rather begin with an assumption that God’s revelation in Jesus’ life and teaching might well offer clear guidance for our social ethics?  We at least should look at the story itself and discern whether it indeed might have social ethical relevance.

Jesus’ identity

We will look first at how the gospels present Jesus, focusing on the Gospel of Luke primarily for simplicity’s sake.  At the very beginning, the song of Mary in 1:46-55 upon her learning of the child she will bear, we learn 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 succor 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. Continue reading

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