Tag Archives: war and peace

A new book on World War II’s moral legacy

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. Continue reading

What is Christian pacifism?

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #A.1

[Published in Christian Early and Ted Grimsrud, eds., A Pacifist Way of Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Nonviolent Epistemology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 1-21.]

What is “pacifism”?  It all depends on who you ask, and when, and in what context.  Let’s start, though, with a simple working definition with the intent of ultimately arriving at a fuller, more adequate understanding.  For now, we may say: “pacifism” is the in-principled unwillingness to engage in lethal violence, including most obviously the unwillingness to participate in warfare.

“Pacifism” has the connotation of a complete rejection of involvement in warfare, and usually other forms of violence.  However, beyond that simple assumption, the term pacifism is used in many different kinds of ways.  John Howard Yoder’s classic analysis, Nevertheless: Varieties of Religious Pacifism, describes twenty-nine different types of religious pacifism.[1]  Given this variety, no one is in a position to make claims for all pacifists because “pacifism” is an essentially contested concept. My intent in this essay is to argue in favor of a particular, contestable understanding of pacifism. It will be helpful to begin with some examples of what I consider to be misunderstandings of pacifism, and then go on to a give a short case for what I will call Christian pacifism.

Pacifism according to its critics

Pacifism is evil.  Some non-pacifists are strongly anti-pacifist.  Pacifism for them is seen as a refusal to take responsibility for the necessary use of violence 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.[2]

The right-wing American pundit, Michael Kelly, wrote a widely circulated op-ed essay for the Washington Post shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  In that essay, 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.”[3] Kelly did not give examples or specify whom he had in mind in his characterization of pacifism.  It would appear that 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 directly complicit in the furtherance of said evil. Continue reading

A pacifist Christian perspective on war and peace

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #A.2

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

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

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

I need to start with some definitions before outlining the biblical grounding for Christian pacifism.  The most common definitions of “pacifism” focus on what pacifism rejects, characterizing pacifism as the in-principled rejection of participation in warfare.  Some pacifists would say that all war is wrong, others more that they simply themselves will never fight.  Focusing on what pacifism affirms, I define pacifism as the conviction that nothing matters as much as love, kindness, respect, seeking wholeness.  Hence, nothing that would justify violence matters enough to override the commitment to love.  In my understanding, pacifism is a worldview, a way of looking at reality;[2] there is a pacifist way of knowing, a pacifist way of perceiving, of discerning, of negotiating life.

The term “nonviolence” is recently prominent as a near-synonym for pacifism.  I will use the terms interchangeably, though if we trying to be truly precise, we could find nuances that might make us want to differentiate between the two terms.[3]

My definition of pacifism more in positive, worldview terms links more closely with the logic of the biblical story than simply defining pacifism as the rejection of warfare.  The Bible, famously, does not overtly reject warfare for believers; in fact, in certain notorious cases the Bible actually commends, even commands, God’s people fighting.[4] Continue reading

James J. Sheehan. Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe.

One of the remarkable dynamics of the past century has been the evolution of Western Europe from the scene of some of humankind’s most destructive wars to a place where now warfare seems almost unthinkable. Stanford University historian James J. Sheehan gives us an explanation of this dramatic change in Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe.  Sheehan presents a carefully articulated, sober account of the exhaustion of European people as a consequence of the unthinkable destruction they visited on themselves–and their ability finally to begin to move decisively away from war as a way of life.

Continue reading

Eric Hobsbawm. On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy

When Eric Hobsbawm writes about empire and the United States, people with strong interests in peacemaking should pay attention. The nice thing about his 2008 book, On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy is that it is short, sweet, and to the point. This book includes four concise essays, totaling 91 pages–small, with lots of white space. So it’s a quick read. That does not mean that it’s lightweight, though.

Hobsbawm, who was born in 1917 and still remains a keen interpreter of current events and their historical contexts, compares the American empire with the British empire. As his classic one-volume history of the “short twentieth century,” Age of Extremes shows (along with many of his other works), he is not fan of the British empire. But he sees the American empire as even more problematic.

However, On Empire is not a polemic so much as a brief but perceptive taking account of the recent past, present, and possible future of America’s militaristic imperialism. Hobsbawm argues against the efficacy and moral legitimacy of “humanitarian armed intervention.” He points out that with the emergence of ever-stronger drives for self-determination among the world’s people, “would-be empires can no longer rely on the obedience of their subjects….[Hence,] there is no prospect of a return to the imperial world of the past, lel alone the prospect of a lasting global imperial hegemony” (pp. 12-13).

The impossibility of the U.S. sustaining its global hegemony should be encouraging news. However, Hobsbawm (who indeed does think it is good news) also points out the bad news: “There is now…a complete absence of any effective global authority capable of controlling or settling armed disputes” (pp. 24-25). That is, we have no basis for optimism in the foreseeable future that we have much hope of solving the violence problem.

This book is not a call to arms so much as a pessimistic but insightful snapshot of our current situation. It’s readable and seems trustworthy.