Tag Archives: Book Review

Christian pacifism as fully compatible with evangelical theology: Reviewing Ron Sider’s recent books on pacifism

Ronald J. Sider. If Jesus is Lord: Loving Enemies in an Age of Violence. Baker Academic, 2019. Xvi + 240 pages and Speak Your Peace: What the Bible Says About Loving Our Enemies. Herald Press, 2020. 199 pages.

Ted Grimsrud—July 11, 2020

Ron Sider, a longtime theology professor at Palmer Theological Seminary at Eastern University, has added to a long list of writings on social justice from an evangelical Christian perspective a kind of capstone on Christian pacifism. If Jesus is Lord is a solid, comprehensive account of biblically based Christian pacifism. Speak Your Peace is a somewhat more popularly written version of the same book. In this review, I will focus on the first of these two books.

What gives Sider’s books an authoritative heft is his long, sustained commitment to articulating and living out a Jesus-centered commitment to nonviolent engagement. Dating back to his influential bestseller Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (first published in 1977 and revised numerous times, most recently in 2015), Sider has vigorously challenged his fellow evangelical Christians to take the wholistic gospel of peace seriously both with his writing and his organizing work with Evangelicals for Social Action. His first book on pacifism, Christ and Violence, was published way back in 1979 and has been followed by numerous others in the years since.

A Jesus-centered argument for pacifism

As would be expected (and this is a strength of the book), Sider moves immediately to the life and teaching of Jesus. The first four of the 14 chapters focus on Jesus’s practices and teachings that establish that the Bible’s core message is a message that calls upon believers to follow Jesus’s path of mercy, forgiveness, and nonviolent resistance to evil. Sider asserts that orthodox theology (which he defines especially in terms of an affirmation of Jesus’s divinity and identity as the second person of the trinity) actually strengthens the call to Christian pacifism. As the title of the book insists, “if Jesus is Lord” then his message of nonviolent engagement is a mandate for all who trust in him as their savior.

After developing the Christological core of his pacifist convictions, Sider addresses a wide range of issues that often come up in discussions about pacifism. He shows how the rest of the New Testament emphasizes peace and in general reiterates Jesus’s message, while also refuting the claims that the rest of New Testament points away from pacifism. Continue reading

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

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. Continue reading

How the light gets in: A book review

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). Continue reading

A Future for American Evangelicalism: A book review

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. Continue reading

A refreshing reading of Revelation

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. Continue reading

Book Reviews

America’s Shame

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. Continue reading

Learning from the 1940 Debate about War?

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.

Continue reading

A Surprising Critique of World War II

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