Ted Grimsrud

Posts Tagged ‘Book Review’

New thinking on nonviolence: A review of Advancing Nonviolence and Social Transformation: New Perspectives on Nonviolent Theories

In Book reviews, Nonviolence, violence on March 4, 2017 at 10:11 am

Heather Eaton and Lauren Michelle Levesque, eds. Advancing Nonviolence and Social Transformation: New Perspectives on Nonviolent Theories. Equinox Publishing, 2016. Xiii + 364pp. 

The 20th century has been called the century of total war. The incredible expansion of the devastating power of war, the heretofore unimagined globalization of warfare, and the creation of new weapons of mass destruction have left humanity on a precipice of vulnerability that renders the survival of our species in jeopardy. Many other expressions of violence have also continued to undermine human and ecological wellbeing.

On the other hand, one glimmer of hope arises from the reality that the 20th century also saw the emergence of strategies of self-conscious nonviolent action that provides ways to imagine overcoming the scourge of out of control violence. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are the two great prophets of nonviolent action who consistently show up on lists of the world’s most influential people of the 20th century.

Gandhi famously stated that nonviolence is a very young and immature “science” that can only get stronger and more effective with practice. Erica Chenoweth is a more recent thinker who has researched social change movements and argues, based on her data, that nonviolence is noticeably more effective than violence for bringing about change.

Nonetheless, our understanding of nonviolence remains rudimentary. The literature is expanding, as is the broadening sense of the applicability of nonviolence to a wide range of human endeavors—not only with political action but also education, criminal justice, and many more areas. Read the rest of this entry »

How the light gets in: A book review

In Book reviews, Theology on December 15, 2016 at 7:28 pm

Graham Ward. How the Light Gets In: Ethical Life I. Oxford University Press, 2016. xv + 354 pages.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud—December 2016

How the Light Gets In is the first of a projected four-volume systematic theology by Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. Ward is pulling together his wide range of research and writing interests into an integrated whole that will emphasize the ethical dimension of Christian theology.

This first volume serves as a kind of prolegomena. It addresses a wide variety of themes in order to establish the grounding for what Ward calls “engaged systematic theology.” Volume II (which will be called, Another Kind of Normal: Ethical Life II) will focus on christology, and in light of christology take up themes such as revelation, anthropology, and creation. Volume III (The Vision of God: Ethical Life III) will deal with ecclesiology, pneumatology, and the doctrine of God. The series will conclude with a fourth volume (Communio Santorum: A Theology of Religions) that will consider both world Christianities and non-Christian religions in light of the systematic account Ward will provide in volumes II and III.

This series promises to be a distinctive take on these crucial themes given Ward’s emphasis on Christianity’s engagement with culture, his “radical orthodox” sensibility, and his practical concerns.

In volume one, Ward begins with a historical survey that traces the evolution of Christian systematic theology from the creedal formulations through the emergence of the Summa and culminating in the creation of Protestant dogmatics. He chooses somewhat surprising exemplars to illumine these three approaches: Cyril of Jerusalem (died 386), Hugh of St. Victor (died 1141), and Philip Melanchthon (died 1560).

He then explains what he means by “engaged systematics.” He sees his approach as a “corrective” to the “disembedded” and adversarial character of most Christian systematic theology ever since it emerged. He hopes for a theology that will empower “a life of embodied practices all of which can be summed up as prayer” (p. 117). Read the rest of this entry »

A Future for American Evangelicalism: A book review

In Book reviews, Evangelicalism, Theology on December 14, 2016 at 11:18 am

Harold Heie. A Future for American Evangelicalism: Commitment, Openness, and Conversation. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015. xvii + 156 pp.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud—August 2016

Harold Heie, a retired college administrator (Gordon College, Messiah College, Northwestern College), has embarked on a second career as the coordinator of a series of impressive conversations among evangelical Christian thinkers on important and oven conflicted issues.

Heie has created a website (Respectful Conversation) that hosts these conversations. The archives are a fascinating record of conversations on issues such as same-sex relationships, political philosophies, biblical authority, human origins, and numerous others. Remarkably, these conversations are respectful—but also honest and in-depth, revealing differences and agreements in insightful ways.

In A Future for American Evangelicalism, Heie provides an account of a number of these conversations. The chapters are each titled “Evangelicalism and …” and cover topics such as the exclusivity of Christianity, the modern study of scripture, morality, politics, human origins, and higher education. Each conversation included several invited participants, selected in large part to provide a fair amount of diversity in perspective.

To Heie’s immense credit, he has chosen topics that genuinely matter, and he has chosen participants who do differ from one another. The book is Heie’s report on the conversations, not a transcript of the conversations (though those are available on the website). As such, it is a good summary on current thinking on these various issues.
Perhaps more importantly to Heie, though, the book is a report on a process. Clearly, at the heart of this work is a desire to help evangelical Christians not only examine particular issues but even more, to learn how to talk together respectfully and honestly. This is an excellent challenge, and Heie’s book gives us a good sense that such conversations are possible and when engaged in with good will, thought provoking and insightful.

So, for example, in the chapter, “Evangelicalism and the Modern Study of Scripture,” we learn from a spectrum of thinkers about what’s at stake in current debates about how biblical authority does and should work. Heie emphasizes that all the participants affirm the centrality of “biblical authority,” but they disagree on the meaning of that commitment. Read the rest of this entry »

A refreshing reading of Revelation

In Biblical theology, Book reviews, Eschatology, Revelation, Theology on February 11, 2012 at 11:21 am

A review of Nelson Kraybill. Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation (Brazos Press, 2010).

Ted Grimsrud—published in The Conrad Grebel Review 29. 3 (Fall 2011), 107-109

Nelson Kraybill, New Testament scholar, former missionary in Europe, former president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and currently pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana, has written a fine book that displays abilities honed in each of his roles just mentioned.

Apocalypse and Allegiance combines solid scholarship, an accessible style, theological depth, spiritual encouragement, and social critique. Kraybill packs an impressive amount of content in a relatively small space, addressing both general readers and scholars with a refreshing perspective on the book of Revelation.

Kraybill’s scholarly strength is his understanding of the historical setting for the book of Revelation, with particular expertise in political and economic dynamics. So we get information and visuals that put us back into Revelation’s first century environment.

In particular, Kraybill does an excellent job in presenting Revelation as resistance literature that challenges the imperial ambitions of Rome with a vision of a humane, peaceable alternative politics. And, to the reader’s benefit, Kraybill does not simply describe a fascinating ancient document but also makes perceptive applications to the present day. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Reviews

In Book reviews on July 4, 2010 at 11:33 am

America’s Shame

In Book reviews, Current Events, Politics on July 4, 2010 at 11:21 am

Tim Weiner. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Anchor Books, 2008.

This is both an illuminating and frustrating book. Tim Weiner is a long-time reporter for the New York Times whose beat has been the American intelligence community. This book won numerous rewards, is engagingly written, and draws on a remarkable selection of sources—including direct interviews with many involved in intelligence work and wide-ranging examination of archival materials.

Weiner probably is uniquely qualified to write this book. To his credit, he names names, cites his sources, lays the materials openly on the table. I think we should, to a large extend at least, believe the tales he tells. And hair-raising tales they are. Weiner shows us that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Central Intelligence Agency has from its beginning in the aftermath of World War II been a force for incredible evil in the world.

At the same time as we learn of the CIA’s mostly uninhibited zeal for murder and mayhem, generally in the context of the denial of self-determination for innumerable peoples around the world, we also learn of the extraordinary failures of the Agency. Most notably, the CIA utterly failed to gain understanding of the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. In the first couple of decades, the CIA left the American government pretty much completely in the dark concerning Soviet activities and intentions. It’s amazing and extremely distressing to realize that the entire first generation of American cold warriors, who shaped our nation in tragic ways toward domination by militarism, beat the drums of warning against the Soviet threat with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of what was actually going on with the Soviets. It truly boggles the mind.

Then, at the end of the Cold War, with the CIA continuing to feed its political masters the analyses that were desired to sustain the Cold War that had become so profitable for the American Military-Industrial Complex, our “intelligence” service complete missed the signs of the impending collapse of the Soviet system.

However, sadly, the book is not nearly as good as it could have been. Weiner is a good storyteller, and he treats us to some extraordinary stories—most profoundly distressing. The sum is less than the parts, though. We mostly just get one story after another, numbing and troubling details one on top of the other. But Weiner does little to put it all in perspective. Part of the problem is how Weiner gives us some swashbuckling details about various nefarious projects such as the overthrow of governments in Iran and Guatemala, the attempt to overthrow the government of Indonesia, and involvement in the overthrow of Chile’s government—but he doesn’t give us much followup on the long-term devastation wrought by these actions. And he does little to connect the dots between the CIA’s original violence and the blowback over time in terms of ensuing wars and conflicts (seen, most obviously, in Iran and Afghanistan).

Weiner doesn’t himself seem to accept the logic of the account he gives. Simply based on this book, we would have to conclude that the CIA has been hopelessly flawed from the start, embarking upon one disastrous mission after another, combining incompetence with malevolence. But in the end, inexplicably, Weiner leaves us with a pretty benign conclusion—the U.S. needs the kind of intelligence the CIA could provide for the well-being of our nation, so let’s hope for constructive reform. Strangely, as he recounts the demise of the CIA in the 21st century, Weiner acts as if the earlier history included many successes—even though he has not told us of those and in fact tells stories of one failure after another.

With all the shortcomings of this book, Legacy of Ashes nonetheless paints a devastating picture of American foreign policy. From its beginnings, the CIA has constantly subverted democracy both within the US and around the world.

The story of its involvement in Iran captures the utter corruption of America’s ways in the world. First of all, in the years immediately following World War II, Iran was being blatantly robbed by British and American oil companies as the global petroleum economy took off. Understandably, the Iranians desired to exercise some self-determination in the use of their nation’s natural resources. This was unacceptable. So, the ball got rolling when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill expressed flatly the desire that the moderate, democratically established Iranian government be overthrown. For various reasons, the task of accomplishing this overthrow fell to the CIA. The CIA bumbled and stumbled, but did manage in the end violently to get rid of the democratic government, to install the Shah as Iran’s dictator, and stand behind what became an extraordinarily repressive government that fed millions of petro-dollars to Western oil companies. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and the Shah ultimately was overthrown and Iran became part of what came to be known as the “Axis of Evil.”

Even though Weiner does not give us a lot of direct help in making sense of present-day Iran in relation to this terrible history, he gives us enough information to undermine completely any alleged moral high ground that American might take vis-a-vis the “Islamicist regime” in Iran. If we go to war on Iran, it will simply be a continuation of the destructive imperialism we have been practicing there for more than half a century.

Weiner also makes it clear, though with too little elaboration, that all post-World War II American presidents have been utterly disdainful of the ideals of democracy and self-determination whenever it suited their interests to “turn the CIA loose” in messing with other countries. One story I was unfamiliar with was President Eisenhower’s orders that the CIA overthrow the government of Indonesia in the 1950s. Due to incompetence, the Americans failed initially; but the stage was set for one of this centuries worse bloodbaths several years later when General Suharto came into power and under his leadership (and with CIA complicity) hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were slaughtered. Weiner doesn’t give us much on the followup, and doesn’t mention at all a later directly related bloodbath when Indonesia massacred hundreds of thousands of Timorese.

The big irony of Weiner’s story, which he completely misses, is that with all its malevolence and incompetence, the CIA utterly failed in its stated task of serving American national security—yet, the sky did not fall! America didn’t need the kind of “intelligence” the CIA was supposed to provide after all. The CIA’s is indeed a “legacy of ashes,” but its extraordinary failures did not result in severe damage to the United States. We more or less managed just fine without the CIA’s “product.” In fact, to the extent that America’s genuine national interests have been at risk in the past sixty years, it has not been because of the failures of the CIA to protect us from our “enemies,” but because of how the CIA has created enemies due to its violent and destructive deeds (see Chalmers Johnson’s excellent recent books for more on this point).

Learning from the 1940 Debate about War?

In Book reviews, Current Events, Pacifism, Politics, World War II on June 24, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Joseph Loconte, ed. The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm. Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.

“Even though you meant it for evil, God intended it for good.” These words, a paraphrase of Joseph’s finals words to his brothers in Genesis 50:20, came to mind as I read this book that Joseph Loconte, a scholar on the staff of the Heritage Foundation, put together. Loconte meant for this book to serve the rhetorical campaign American militarists are waging to garner and sustain support for the “war on terrorism.” Though these purposes are highly problematic, the book (excepting Loconte’s introduction) is actually fascinating and important—though not for the purposes indended.

Loconte has gathered an extensive collection of writings from prominent American Protestant leaders (plus one Jewish writer) who engaged in a passionate debate in 1939-41 about the role the United States should play in relation to the war being waged in Europe between the Nazis and British. The first half of the book includes pieces from those who opposed military intervention, generally on pacifist grounds; the second half gathers materials from those who supported taking sides with the British and offering material aid for the Allied cause (though, since the materials all were published before Pearl Harbor in December 1941, even these latter writings do not overtly advocate American direct military engagement).

So, we have an important resource here that sheds light on Christian perspectives during what was a momentous time in American history. Despite his present day agenda, to Loconte’s great credit the introductions to the various writings are models of objective description that do a nice job of putting the articles in historical perspective.

“Part I: The Peacemakers” contains articles from seven pacifist authors making the case for the US remaining neutral in the European war, a case presented in explicitly Christian pacifist terms. These articles make it clear that their writers were not isolationists (a much more widespread and influential party in the wider American debate, but unrepresented in this collection) but rather internationalists, even interventionists of a non-military sort. The intervention they advocated, though, was not one seeking to aid a military victory but rather seeking to further humanitarian ends for all affected by the war.

It is also clear that the “peacemakers” definitely understood that Nazi Germany was perpetrating great evil in the world; they did not place the Nazis and the British on the same moral level. Several hint at a hope that the Allies would win the war. But they all fear that the outcome of the war would echo the outcome of World War I—only continuing the cycle of violence. So they advocate efforts to break that cycle. They didn’t really have much to offer in concrete terms, however.

Probably the greatest weakness in the pacifists’ arguments was their inability to separate the moral responsibility people of good will had to challenge evil and seek peace from the possible actions of nation-states. That is, they address all their “advice” to the US government and offer little in the way of specific guidance for those with pacifist convictions in the face of possible decisions by their governments to join the war. We are left with a sense that the main moral discernment that matters is that of public policy makers alone.

“Part II: The Prophets,” in turn, also has seven writers contributing articles advocating direct support for military engagement with Nazi Germany. This section includes several writings from theological giants Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth (Barth’s “letters” to French Protestants and to Great Britain were new to me and of great interest in revealing his pro-war sentiments)—and also contributions from the great social thinker Lewis Mumford.

These writings are characterized by great passion, strong certainty concerning the moral imperative of armed conflict in response to the Nazi threat, and dire warnings of complete disaster should Great Britain fall to the Nazis. The term “prophets” probably is meant to have the connotation of predictive insight and maybe even divine inspiration. Certainly the events that ensued during the next several years culminating in the unconditional surrender of the Nazis meant that the “prophets” won the debate and their perspective became conventional wisdom in the West.

A couple of questions came up for me, though, in reading the pieces from the military advocates. Were they not guilty of unhelpful fear-mongering in their characterization of what was at stake in the German/British conflict? It seems highly doubtful that their scenario of German total conquest was ever a possibility. Hitler only reluctantly entered into war with Britain (it was actually the British and French who declared war on Germany following the latter’s invasion of Poland), and he seemed always ready to come to some kind of accommodation with the British that would actually allow Britain considerable self-determination and even continued control of the Empire. This was certainly not a desirable outcome for Britain—or for anyone who valued democracy over totalitarianism. And it would not have been a stable outcome, with future conflict with the US highly likely. But it seems scarcely to have been the case, as presented in these articles, that should Britain fall Germany would simply run roughshod and exercise complete over dominance over most of the world with fortress America facing a hopeless future.

And this leads to a second question—where is the Soviet Union in this book? It’s simply never mentioned. I’m not sure what to make of this. Does the silence on the Soviet Union reflect Loconte’s agenda of selection because to add the Soviets to the mix would unhelpfully complicate the straightforward narrative of Allies:good vs. Axis:evil and thereby lessen the applicability of that story to our present story of US:good vs. Terrorists:evil? Or, is it more simply a fact that all the “prophets” thought simply in terms of Germany vs. Great Britain as the locus of concern in this war for the ages?

Regardless, to leave out the Soviet Union of any kind of accounting of World War II in Europe and the moral lessons to be discerned from those events is greatly to distort the story and also whatever lessons one hopes to draw from it. In fact, the Nazis’ agenda always had at its heart the destruction of the Soviet Union. Hitler turned to the West after invading Poland mainly as a tactic to lull the Soviets into complacency before springing his surprise attack to the East—an attack that did nearly succeed (but if it had, it would have been at a devastating cost to the Nazis that would have made them unable to turn around again and conquer the US). In the end, 75% of German casualties came on the Eastern Front. The Nazis were defeated most of all by the Soviets.

And, in terms of a moral reckoning of World War II, what do we make of the reality that in opposing Nazi tyranny in the name of “Western civilization” (a term highly favored by the “prophets”) we linked so closely with Soviet tyranny?

It is also interesting to note that the major figures among Loconte’s “prophets” were all people of the Left (e.g., Niebuhr, Barth, Mumford, John Bennett). Those who survived into the 1960s all were outspoken in their opposition to the US war on Vietnam. It is impossible to imagine any of these thinkers not turning in their graves to be drawn on by Loconte as allies in the current endless “war on terrorism.”

Where this collection sheds some of its most telling light is at a point totally missed by Loconte. To a large degree, what we have here is an authentic debate. Even if the weight of the pacifist voices are greatly exaggerated by linking them with the quite different impulses of America-first isolationists who were anything but pacifists, nonetheless, people such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, Charles Clayton Morrison, and John Haynes Holmes played a prominent role in the public debate.

We can move forward nearly thirty years to the late 1960s and the debate about American involvement in Vietnam. Probably the only comparable voice in the public debate at that time that articulated a Christian pacifist perspective was Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s perspective was significantly more sophisticated than the pre-World War II pacifists both in its analysis of the issues related to the war and in its grounding in his vindication of the truthfulness of pacifism in his own public life. Nonetheless, his public stance met mostly with scorn and hostility. By 1967, the US was no longer capable of allowing pacifism to play a role in public debate.

In a little more than thirty years later, in the run up to America’s invasion of Iraq, we had no voices at all in the public debate overtly arguing from a pacifist perspective. Even those arguing against the war framed their case pretty much exclusively in pragmatic, just-war terms, seemingly assuming that appealing to pacifist sentiments would be a non-starter.

So, The End of Illusions, probably ironically given Loconte’s agenda, actually witnesses to a time when pacifism could be part of the public discussion in our society. If it could have been once, perhaps it could be again.

Our big question, then, is to understand what has changed since 1939-41. The main factors, I’d suggest, are (1) the mythology of World War II as proof of the moral efficacy of war and (2) the creation in our culture of overwhelmingly powerful institutions whose reasons for existence are war and militarism.

When President Franklin Roosevelt worked to make the case for American military intervention in what became World War II he could not draw upon the power and authority of the Pentagon because it did not yet exist. He did not have the Central Intelligence Agency to create and spin pro-war propaganda because it did not yet exist. He did not have a corporate mass media owned by major military contractors. He did not have a military-industrial complex that made immense profits from preparation for and execution of war. These entities emerged only during World War II or as a direct outcome of that war.

That is, FDR and his supporters in the quest for military intervention faced the challenge of making their case more on its own merits. So, in amazing contrast to our recent history, you had what was surely the strongest case ever in our country for a morally justifiable military intervention struggling to win the day. Only the direct attack on the American military base in its Hawaiian colony by Japan followed immediately by Germany’s declaration of war on the US overcome the extreme reluctance of the American people to enter this war.

With the success of the American war effort and the emergence and high prestige of the institutions of permanent militarism, the American government would never find itself in such a state again. So, though there was debate about the Vietnam War and about the invasion of Iraq, these actually had very little influence on the American government’s (disastrous) commitment to military intervention.

This book is strange in the sense that Loconte’s fears about the nefarious influence of Christian pacifism on the execution of the “war on terrorism” seem completely unfounded. And the parallels between now and the lead-up to World War II are non-existent. However, in a delicious irony, these writings can serve as an inspiration for present-day pacifists to intensify our efforts to challenge the forces of militarism. The militarists’ case in 1939-41 was not persuasive—and without a doubt the case in favor of American military intervention has in the years since never come close to being as persuasive as it was then.

A Surprising Critique of World War II

In Book reviews, Current Events, Pacifism, Politics, World War II on June 16, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Patrick J. Buchanan. Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World. Crown Publishers, 2008.

This is a surprising book, at least to me. I’ve not read much of Pat Buchanan’s stuff. I know him mainly by reputation—a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, self-labeled paleo-conservative, critic of empire, quasi-isolationist, third party presidential candidate in 2000 whose candidacy would have cost George Bush the election had the votes in Florida been accurately counted. And, now, a sharp critic of America and British involvement in World War II.

Buchanan surely is not a pacifist, but there is little here that wouldn’t give the reader the impression that he leans in that direction. He does not come across as a Nazi sympathizer. He greatly dislikes Winston Churchill (with good reason) and Joseph Stalin (also with good reason). One does sense a somewhat extreme hatred of Soviet communism, but this antipathy does not come directly to the surface very often.

Buchanan is not a professional historian—a fact that probably works more in his favor than against him. It’s just that the reader must recognize that what this book gives us is a somewhat speculative essay on what didn’t have to be with numerous historical illustrations (not an exercise in careful archival research tested with professional historian peers). However, the strength of the book is the clarity of its argument which is not overly burdened with qualifications, or with careful delineation of minute arguments, or with “on the one hand/on the other hand” summaries. Certainly, Buchanan’s points need to be viewed cautiously and should stimulate further efforts on the interested reader’s part to test them against the evidence and other opinions. But that’s all to the good.

In a nutshell, Buchanan suggests that Great Britain should not have gone to war against Nazi Germany—which would have meant that the United States would not have gone to war with Germany either. If this had happened (or, rather, not happened), Germany and the Soviets would basically have ground each other to dust, the British Empire would not have disintegrated so quickly, and—probably most important for Buchanan’s purposes—the United States would not have succumbed to the hubris of striving to be the world’s one superpower and followed its current path to self-destruction.

Buchanan’s agenda is surely different than mine. As a Christian pacifist, I am pretty suspicious of Buchanan’s style of American-first patriotism. However, I am willing to walk quite a ways down the path he articulates in this book outlining the hugely problematic dynamics of the American and British participation in World War II and the disastrous consequences (for American democracy and the well-being of millions of victims of American imperialism in the past 65 years) of the aftermath of that war.

So, I am grateful to Buchanan for this stimulating and mostly well-written book. I recommend it, only now I have to figure out if I dare cite it when I try to articulate some of my critical views about World War II and its consequences.

Book Reviews

In Book reviews, Current Events, Justice, Mennonites, Pacifism, Politics, World War II on May 8, 2010 at 11:53 am

Book Reviews

In Book reviews, Current Events, Pacifism, Politics, World War II on March 8, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Here’s a list of books I have recently reviewed, linked to the reviews.

Harry S. Stout. Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (May 3, 2010)

Theron F. Schlabach. War, Peace, and Social Conscience: Guy F. Hershberger and Mennonite Ethics (March 15, 2010)

Joseph Kip Kosek. Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy (March 8, 2010)