Ted Grimsrud

Posts Tagged ‘pacifism’

Christian pacifism in brief

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

Ted Grimsrud

[This lecture was given at the June 28, 2015, Action by Christians Against Torture, USA, annual meeting, at Pleasant Hill Community Church, Pleasant Hill, TN, June 28, 2015]

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

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

Some examples of those who oppose “pacifism”

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

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

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

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

Christian pacifism and the “Good War”

In Just War, peace theology, Politics, World War II on December 16, 2016 at 5:16 pm

Ted Grimsrud—June 1 2015

[This essay was written for what appears now to be an aborted book that was to collect essays from various writers on Christian pacifism.]

Does Christian pacifism make the claim that everyone should be pacifist? Or is pacifism only a calling for those who affirm Jesus as Lord? This issue can—and should—be addressed on a theological and philosophical level. However, it may also be addressed on a more pragmatic level. Are there wars that should have been fought, that could be considered legitimately justifiable wars? If there are no ways that any actual war could be justifiable, is that a basis for claiming that everyone should be pacifist (defining “pacifism” here as the conviction that one should never take part in or support warfare)?

The one certain “just war”?

One way to begin to address the question about how widely we should advocate for pacifism is to look closely at the one war that most Americans, at least, including even many American pacifists, believe was a “just war”—World War II. Robert Brimlow, a Roman Catholic philosopher and committed pacifist, draws such a conclusion: “The war against Hitler, Nazism, and the atrocities they perpetuated certainly satisfies all the requirements for a just war: even if no other war was justifiable, even if every other dispute could have been settled by nonviolent means, that dispute could only have been solved through violence.”[1]

This statement is part of Brimlow’s argument in favor of pacifism—but it’s a pacifism based on a sense of the special calling of followers of Jesus. The kind of nonviolence Brimlow advocates is based on faithfulness, not on the expectation that it might practically be the best way to deal with conflict.

In the same book with Brimlow’s essay, Methodist theologian Stephen Long makes a similar argument. Long also suggests that World War II may be seen as a just war, where it was shown that “violence and war do sometimes work.”[2] Long argues for what he calls “christological pacifism,” an approach that “only makes sense because of the christological convictions we hold about what God has done in Christ. If Jesus is not the unique and definitive expression of God’s economy, of how God redeems the world and engages it politically through the cross, resurrection, and ascension—if he were not bodily raised from the dead—then pacifism makes no sense.”[3] Read the rest of this entry »

Christian pacifism and the “Good War”

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

Ted Grimsrud—May 30, 2015

Does Christian pacifism make the claim that everyone should be pacifist? Or is pacifism only a calling for those who affirm Jesus as Lord? This issue can—and should—be addressed on a theological and philosophical level. However, it may also be addressed on a more pragmatic level. Are there wars that should have been fought, that could be considered legitimately justifiable wars? If there are no ways that any actual war could be justifiable, is that a basis for claiming that everyone should be pacifist (defining “pacifism” here as the conviction that one should never take part in or support warfare)?

The one certain “just war”?

One way to begin to address the question about how widely we should advocate for pacifism is to look closely at the one war that most Americans, at least, including even many American pacifists, believe was a “just war”—World War II. Robert Brimlow, a Roman Catholic philosopher and committed pacifist, draws such a conclusion: “The war against Hitler, Nazism, and the atrocities they perpetuated certainly satisfies all the requirements for a just war: even if no other war was justifiable, even if every other dispute could have been settled by nonviolent means, that dispute could only have been solved through violence.”[1]

This statement is part of Brimlow’s argument in favor of pacifism—but it’s a pacifism based on a sense of the special calling of followers of Jesus. The kind of nonviolence Brimlow advocates is based on faithfulness, not on the expectation that it might practically be the best way to deal with conflict.

In the same book with Brimlow’s essay, Methodist theologian Stephen Long makes a similar argument. Long also suggests that World War II may be seen as a just war, where it was shown that “violence and war do sometimes work.”[2] Long argues for what he calls “christological pacifism,” an approach that “only makes sense because of the christological convictions we hold about what God has done in Christ. If Jesus is not the unique and definitive expression of God’s economy, of how God redeems the world and engages it politically through the cross, resurrection, and ascension—if he were not bodily raised from the dead—then pacifism makes no sense.”[3]

However, there is no evidence that I know of of any correlation between Long’s kind of christological convictions and the likelihood of one holding those convictions being a pacifist. World War II was perhaps as true a test of pacifist convictions as could be imagined. Because of the widespread popularity of that war, only those with clear pacifist convictions would have chosen to be legal conscientious objectors. If Long is correct about the link between a high christology and pacifism, you would expect people who affirmed that christology to tend toward pacifism even in face of a popular war. As it turned out, about 12,000 young American men took the CO route, and something more than 12,000,000 entered the military. That is, the number of Americans who responded to the War as pacifists was something like 0.01%. The traditions that tended to emphasize doctrine more (e.g., Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and evangelical Protestants) had few if any conscientious objectors.[4]

To respond to a phenomenon such as World War II as a Christian pacifist, it seems to me, requires a broader sense of how this pacifism works than that provided by Brimlow and Long. To affirm pacifism without condemning World War II as an unjust war weakens the case for pacifism significantly. Read the rest of this entry »

A new book on World War II’s moral legacy

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

December 3, 2014—Ted Grimsrud

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

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

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

The Christian Alternative to Vengeance

In Justice, Pacifism, Restorative justice, Salvation, Theology on June 19, 2012 at 10:45 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #E.3

[Presented at Theologica Pacis conference, Akron, PA, January 2007]

The faith community is central to biblical religion.  In the Bible, from the start (the calling of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12 to bring forth a community meant to bless all the families of the earth) to the end (the vision in Revelation 21–22 of the churches witness leading to the healing of the nations), this community has the vocation not simply to serve its own interests but to serve the interests of all the families of the earth.

I have written a little book reflecting on this vocation as a central theme of the Bible as a whole, suggesting what I call “God’s healing strategy” as a narrative key for interpreting the overall message of the Bible.[1]  The “strategy” is simply that God has called together a faith community to know God’s healing love in its common life and to witness to that healing love in a way the serves to bless all the families of the earth, that brings healing to the nations.

This motif recognizes the need the human family has for healing.  We hurt each other.  We violate each others’ dignity, sometimes in terribly destructive ways.  A key aspect of the healing motif then may be seen as the issue of how to we respond to the inevitable harm we do to each other in ways that does not add to the harm.  Based on the Bible’s core message, the community of faith is central in the effort to respond redemptively to harm.  And a key part of redemptive responses, of course, is forgiveness.

When Michael Hardin asked me to prepare a discussion paper for this conference that would discuss the theme of “how the church might look if it was grounded not in victimage but in forgiveness,” I said sure, that I would be happy to since I was in the midst of teaching a course at Eastern Mennonite University I called “Topics in Theology: Vengeance and God.”  I figured I could draw on materials from that class.  This was a new class for me and back in mid-September when Michael contacted me, I wasn’t quite sure where the class would go.

As it turned out, the class pretty much did go the direction I hoped it would – concluding with a lively discussion on forgiveness and the centrality of the church in the embodiment of forgiveness as the ultimate Christian response to harm-doing.

Forgiveness may most usefully be understood not simply as pardon, a letting of wrongdoers off the hook, so much as a way of life, a set of practices, that brings an end to the cycle of enmity but also effects transformation in the wrongdoer, the survivors of the wrongdoing, and the broader community that is effected by the wrongdoing.

When we look at the dynamics loosed by the manifold violations of human dignity in our world today, we may easily recognize how crucial reflection on and, much more importantly, putting into practice forgiveness has become.  Much more common, it would seem, that seeking to break the cycle of harm triggered by violating acts, human beings tend to heighten the cycle with the “automatic” (?) quest for vengeance.  From the perspective of the Bible and its account of God’s healing strategy, we may want to claim, as Christians, that our tradition offers powerful resources for freeing human beings from the spiral of violence.  As we should.  But, of course, Christianity has, as Michael’s wording in his request implies, all too often embodied vengeful, violent dynamics more than healing, forgiving dynamics. Read the rest of this entry »

A pacifist critique of just war thought

In Just War, Justice, Pacifism, Politics on June 17, 2012 at 8:48 am

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Summarizing John Howard Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus”

In Anabaptism, Biblical theology, Jesus, John Howard Yoder, Pacifism, Politics, Theology on June 16, 2012 at 9:40 am

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. Read the rest of this entry »

My journey to pacifism as a way of knowing

In Pacifism, Theology on June 15, 2012 at 9:53 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #E.1

[Published in Mennonite Life 56.1 (March 2001)]

In the late 1980s, when I was pastoring a Mennonite congregation on the west coast, I became friends with a Lutheran pastor.  Soon after we met, when he realized I was a Mennonite, he asked (with a glint in his eye), “So you must be a pacifist?”  That triggered several friendly but intense debates about the theological and practical possibility of Christian pacifism.

My friend’s automatic link of Mennonites with pacifism is typical.  I well know that the history of pacifism among Mennonites is more ambiguous than my friend realized.[1]  However, I affirm the designation of the Mennonite church as a “peace church,” and I believe one of the most important tasks for Mennonite theologians remains that of understanding the full implications of our pacifist convictions for all aspects of our life and thought.

I write this essay as one small attempt to take on the task of Mennonite peace theology.  I will set pacifism in the context of the ferment in the contemporary world which many see as characterizing a time of transition between the modern and postmodern eras.[2]  I will do this initially through some autobiographical reflections that illustrate the connection between pacifism and critiques of modernity.  I will then summarize a few elements of what I will call “postmodern sensibilities” that I believe dovetail with a pacifist perspective on life.

I believe that the postmodern situation in which we find ourselves is potentially friendly to a pacifist way of knowing.  Those of us with pacifist commitments should welcome the deconstruction of the modern worldview, and with renewed commitment, we should seek to think and act in all areas of life in light of our peaceable convictions.

Autobiography

It has been a little more than twenty-four years since I first made a pacifist commitment.  I am more convinced all the time that this choice (or “acceptance”) was truly one of the two or three definitive personal commitments of my life.[3]

Pacifism, for me, meant, first of all, a realization that I could never participate in warfare.  In time, my pacifist commitment expanded greatly.  I came to understand pacifism to mean a positive affirmation of shalom (peace, in a broad sense, as kindness, respect, justice, restoration of brokenness).  Ultimately, I came to understand pacifism as a way of knowing, a way of understanding God and all of reality. Read the rest of this entry »

Is God Nonviolent?

In Anabaptism, Mennonites, Pacifism, Theology on June 14, 2012 at 10:22 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.1

[Published in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-first Century (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 47-53.]

The importance of self-conscious theological reflection for Christians in the Anabaptist tradition may be illustrated by considering an issue at the heart of Christian ethics, the moral acceptability (or not) of the use of violence.[1] From its beginning in the 16th century, the Anabaptist movement has as a rule affirmed pacifism as the will of God. However, this affirmation has not generally stemmed from sustained theological reflection so much as from a more existential belief that Jesus’ commands to love enemies apply in all circumstances. What has sustained this belief has generally been the on-going existence of pacifist communities that have claimed a loyalty from its members higher than the loyalty given to nation-states that might ask involvement in warfare of its citizens.

However, in the 21st century, the close-knit, homogenous, rural communities that sustained Anabaptist pacifism in a way that did not require sustained theological reflection are disintegrating. If pacifism is to remain a central aspect of Anabaptist convictions, such theological reflection will become more important—including, at its heart, reflection on the character of God.

God and violence? The urgency of the question

In our day of heightening sensitivity to the role of religion in violent conflict—“terrorism,” “wars on terrorism,” retributive criminal justice practices, religious-supported nationalist movements—the question of how we understand God in relation to violence has never been more urgent.

Certainly, not only pacifists have a stake in this question.  And not only religious people have a stake.  The urgency of the question stems not so much from the need to “get it right” about how God actually is (as if human beings could actually nail this down).  Rather, the urgency stems from the reality that our view of what God is like greatly shapes our behavior.  How people act in relation to their view of God affects us all.

The connection between our view of God and our behavior in relation to violence may be understood in four possible ways.  Most people who believe in God believe God is violent and that human beings thus are also appropriately violent, at least in morally justifiable circumstances.  As human existence grows ever more precarious, though, this simple assumption grows more problematic—violence, it becomes increasingly clear, leads to more violence.  The spiral of violence is more clearly all the time becoming a threat to the very viability of human life itself.[2]  And, of course, for Anabaptist Christians, the assumption that human violence is appropriate has always been questioned.

As a second logical possibility, one could presumably believe that God is nonviolent but that human beings need not be, though I am not aware of anyone taking this stance.

A third view would be that God is not nonviolent – but human beings should be nonviolent. Some of those who believe human beings are called to nonviolence, understand this calling to stem more directly from the specific teaching of Jesus, not God’s own pacifism.[3]  Perhaps based on the biblical portrayal of the “warrior God,” perhaps based on the need to allow God freedom from anthropocentric moral restraints, perhaps based on the necessity of recognizing God’s need to use violence in effecting final justice in relation to a rebellious creation, perhaps based on an awareness of nature itself as “red in tooth and claw” – for these reasons many pacifist Christians answer our question, “is God nonviolent?” with a clear “No, but we should be.”

Other pacifist Christians hold a fourth view, that God is nonviolent (or, more precisely, that we should view God as nonviolent) and that human beings are called also to be nonviolent.  In this view, human nonviolence is both what God through Jesus commands us to embody and what has become a necessity for the sake of our survival in the contemporary world.  And, God’s nonviolence is the necessary grounding for human nonviolence.[4]  If nonviolence does not go with the grain of universe, if our deepest ethical imperative does not cohere with God’s very character, we are in the end hopeless romantics to think that nonviolence is a realistic human possibility.  And if nonviolence is not a realistic human possibility, pacifism is indeed parasitic idealism of the worst sort – calling us to live in ways that are impractical, irresponsible, counter-productive, needlessly guilt-inducing, and (ironically) conflict fostering. Read the rest of this entry »

Pacifism and Truth: The Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder

In John Howard Yoder, Pacifism, Theology on June 13, 2012 at 9:16 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.4

 [Published in Mennonite Quarterly Review 77.3 (July 2003): 403-415.]

For John Howard Yoder, pacifism[1] was unequivocally true.  But what would this statement have meant for Yoder—“Pacifism is unequivocally true”?  What would have been Yoder’s basis for making such a claim?  And how did this “truth” work for him?

Reflecting on these questions is a useful way to consider even bigger questions – How do we find our way between foundationalism and relativism?  How do we best argue for a hierarchy of values?  How do we avoid a coercive rationalism where, in the words of Robert Nozick, one seeks to construct arguments so powerful that one’s interlocutors must either give in or have their brains explode?[2]  On the other hand, how do we avoid the paralysis of many contemporaries who cannot find a way to condemn evil and do not have the clarity of conviction that would empower them to suffer, even to die, for the cause of peace.

In his posthumously published essay, “‘Patience’ as Method in Moral Reasoning,” Yoder provides in a sentence the basic outline for my paper.  He wrote, “Nonviolence is not only an ethic about power, but also an epistemology about how to let truth speak for itself.”[3]

These are the issues I will address:  (1) How is nonviolence (or pacifism; in this paper I will use these two terms interchangeably, as Yoder often did) an “epistemology”?  (2) What is the “truth” of which Yoder speaks here?  (3) What is involved in letting “truth speak for itself”?  I will conclude by reflecting how Yoder’s understanding of these issues might contribute to working with present-day struggles the churches are facing.

To state my central argument in a nutshell: Yoder’s pacifist epistemology is clearly an alternative to the Western epistemological tradition.  For Yoder, the way we approach knowing as Christian pacifists qualitatively differs from the approach to knowing that has over the centuries relied in one way or another on coercive power – either literally as in the use of the sword against “heretics” or more intellectually, as in the use of logical arguments that everyone who plays by the epistemological rules must assent to.

How is nonviolence (or pacifism) an “epistemology”?

Let us define epistemology as “that branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, its possibility, scope, and general basis.”[4]  In line with this understanding, we may say that when Yoder speaks of pacifism as an epistemology, he asserts that a pacifist commitment actually shapes how a person knows.  A pacifist sees the world in a certain way, understands in a certain way.  The commitment to nonviolence is a life-shaping, mind-shaping kind of conviction – a conviction that shapes all other convictions.[5] Read the rest of this entry »