Pacifism as a way of knowing

[This is the fourth in a series of four posts on Christian pacifism. The previous one, posted on November 7, was “The Politics of Engaged Pacifism.”]

Ted Grimsrud—November 10, 2017

I believe that pacifism is unequivocally true. But what does this statement mean? How does “truth” work? How do we best argue for a hierarchy of values? How do we avoid a coercive rationalism where, in the joking words of one philosopher, one seeks to construct arguments so powerful that one’s opponents must either give in or have their brains explode? Or, 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?

I will address three questions in this post: (1) How is pacifism (or nonviolence; I will use these two terms interchangeably here) a “way of knowing”? (2) What is the “truth” of which a pacifist epistemology speaks? (3) What is involved in letting truth speak for itself?

To state my central argument in a nutshell: We may imagine a pacifist way of knowing as an alternative to the Western epistemological tradition. 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 intellectually as in the use of logical arguments that everyone who plays by the epistemological rules must assent to.

How is pacifism a “way of knowing”?

Let’s define epistemology as “that branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, its possibility, scope, and general basis.” In line with this understanding, we may say that to speak of pacifism as an epistemology is to say that a pacifist commitment shapes how a person knows. A pacifist sees ands understands the world in a certain way. The commitment to nonviolence is a conviction that shapes all other convictions.

Gandhi and King help us see that pacifism is more than a tactic. Pacifism is a way of knowing that has at its center the decisive commitment to, we could say, offer good news for the other. Gandhi and King both shaped their pragmatic strategies in line with their underlying core commitment to nonviolence. They practiced a process of knowing that is unwilling to rely on coercive power over others. This is a major move away from western philosophy’s coerciveness where one “knows” on the basis of logically compelling justifications irresistibly following from certain absolutes or foundations. One has no “choice;” one must assent to such knowledge.

So, epistemological pacifists reject seeking truth linked with a sense of possession. Instead of seeking a kind of truth that requires defending one’s ownership of it, pacifists take an approach that accepts relative powerlessness. Christian pacifists take our cues from Jesus, especially Jesus’ vulnerability where he modeled a willingness to respect others’ freedom either to accept or reject his message. Continue reading “Pacifism as a way of knowing”

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The Politics of Engaged Pacifism

Ted Grimsrud—November 7, 2017

[This is the third in a series of four posts on Christian pacifism. The previous one, posted on November 4, was “Some biblical bases for pacifism.”]

“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?’” (Walter Wink). This question points in two directions at once.

On the one hand, human beings of good will assume that we have a deep 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?

One way of setting up this tension that seems inherent for peacemakers is that we incline in one of two very different directions. The first is that we may move towards “responsibility” in ways that compromise our commitment to nonviolence and the inherent worth of all human beings, even wrongdoers. Or, on the other hand, we may move 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? I affirm the need (and the realistic possibility) of taking the “tension as opportunity for creative engagement” path. Let me suggest the term “engaged pacifism” to describe this commitment to peace that sees at its heart seeking to be agents of healing in the entire creation. Continue reading “The Politics of Engaged Pacifism”

Some biblical bases for pacifism

Ted Grimsrud—November 4, 2017

This post follows-up my October 30 post, “Pacifism and violence in the struggle against oppression.” In that post I critiqued the openness to the use of violence on the part of many who seek social justice. At the end of the post I wrote that I would continue with several posts that develop a positive argument in favor of pacifism, beyond simply a critique of violence.

With the term “pacifism,” I have two convictions in mind. The “negative” conviction is that a pacifist is a person who would never participate in or approve of the use of lethal violence, most obviously warfare. The “positive” conviction is that a pacifist believes that our most important commitment is the commitment to love each person, friend and enemy and everyone in between. What I don’t have in mind is pacifism as a purity project or a boundary marker that separates people between the “righteous” and the “unrighteous.” I think of pacifism as an aspiration and as a way of seeing. I will elaborate on these points in the posts to come.

In this post, I will focus on the Bible. There are many entry points into a pacifist commitment. For me, the key entry point has been the Bible. However, I recognize that the vast majority of Christians, including most of those with the strongest views of biblical authority, are not pacifists. So I offer this reading of the Bible simply as one possible way of reading the Bible.

I will mention four basic biblical themes that find clarity in Jesus, but emerge throughout the biblical story. These provide my foundational rationale for Christian pacifism. They include first and most basic, the love command that Jesus gave as a summary of the biblical message. The second theme is Jesus’ vision for love-oriented politics in contrast to the tyranny of the world’s empires. The third theme is Jesus’ optimism about the human potential for living in love. And the fourth theme is the model of Jesus’ cross that embodies self-suffering love and exposes the nature of the structures of human culture as God’s rivals for the trust of human beings. Continue reading “Some biblical bases for pacifism”

Pacifism and violence in the struggle against oppression

Ted Grimsrud—October 29, 2017

Is pacifism a viable social philosophy? I believe that it is, though I also recognize that arguments in favor of the possibility that at times violence might be appropriate can seem pretty persuasive. Nevertheless, as I will outline later in this post, I think the moral and practical problems with violence are ultimately insurmountable.

The impact of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the twentieth-century put principled nonviolence on the table as a possible option for those who desire social transformation. As well, the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren) have sought in recent generations to apply their long tradition of Christian pacifism to social issues. But many have questioned whether pacifism is an adequate approach in the real world—whether it might even be unhelpful to the quest to overthrow injustice.

Principled pacifism may be defined as the conviction that it is never morally acceptable to use lethal violence against other people. This conviction has never been widely held, even though in the United States it has been present in a fairly prominent way dating back to the establishment of the Pennsylvania colony in the 1680s. The main impact of pacifist convictions in the US until the 20th century was the refusal of pacifists to join the military and fight in wars. The possibility of self-consciously nonviolent direct action did not gain widespread acceptance until the 20th century.

Changing notions of peacemaking

I write as a Mennonite Christian pacifist, though I believe that pacifism is a valid commitment for anyone. Several 20th century factors combined to transform the understandings and practices of principled pacifism among “peace church” Christians. World War I showed just how widespread and utterly destructive modern war could be (though much worse was soon to come), so a pragmatic case for rejection of war became more widespread. The philosophy and practice of nonviolent direct action as a means to bring about social change gained currency especially through the work of Gandhi in South Africa at the turn of the century and a couple of decades later in India. And peace church people became more acculturated and more likely to feel a sense of responsibility for having an impact in the wider world. Continue reading “Pacifism and violence in the struggle against oppression”

The Book of Revelation and the Problem of Violence: A Response to John Dominic Crossan

Ted Grimsrud—October 10, 2017

Prominent Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan has written an interesting and helpful book addressing what I believe are some of the most important issues in Christian theology. In this book, How to Read the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015), Crossan seeks to provide what is essentially a pacifist approach to the perennial question about how to understand the Bible’s notorious pro-violence teaching in light of Jesus’s message of nonviolent love.

Crossan’s antipathy toward Revelation

I greatly appreciate it any time a theologian argues in favor of nonviolence, so I am grateful for Crossan’s effort. However, I have some concerns as well that were triggered by the book’s first chapter. I became aware from reading an earlier Crossan book, God and Empire, that he is not a fan of the book of Revelation. Right away in How to Read the Bible, Crossan makes his antipathy toward Revelation apparent. Sadly, Crossan profoundly misreads Revelation—at least in my opinion. And his misreading weakens the overall argument of the book.

Crossan begins the book by describing how he was motivated to write it by questions he received from audiences on various speaking engagements. So he set out to respond to those questions and to make the case that the Bible can be read to support nonviolence—especially if we understand the message of the historical Jesus as the core.

One difficult set of questions concerns the book of Revelation. Crossan was continually asked: “What about that Apocalypse from John of Patmos, what about the book of Revelation, and what about the second coming of Jesus Christ? No matter what I said about the nonviolence of the first coming, questioners objected that the second coming was to be supremely violent, was to be a war to end all wars. Put bluntly, the nonviolent Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount seemed annulled and dismissed by the later Jesus in the book of Revelation” (p. 9).

Such questions about Revelation are indeed common for me, too, whenever I speak about the Bible and peace. Although Crossan and I share the same desired outcome—an embrace of the nonviolence of Jesus as the norm for all Christians—we see Revelation’s role in contributing to that outcome in drastically different ways. Continue reading “The Book of Revelation and the Problem of Violence: A Response to John Dominic Crossan”

A Positive Reading of the New Testament

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the fifth in a series on salvation and human flourishing. Here’s a link to the fourth in the series, “A Positive Reading of the Old Testament.”

Ted Grimsrud—October 8, 2017 [Luke 7]

There are some standard assumptions that Christians tend to have about the Bible—the Old Testament is old, outdated, primitive, problematic, violent and judgmental. And the New Testament is new, fresh, merciful, useful, peaceable and about forgiveness.

Well, I have spent a lot of time over many years trying—in sermons, classes, discussions, and writings—to show that the Old Testament is actually pretty good, that it’s an asset for faith and a guide for our quest for peace and justice in our hurting world. I know I have not persuaded everyone of this, but I’ll keep trying, though not this morning.

The New Testament’s dark side

The other side of the coin, though, is that the New Testament itself also has a dark side. It’s much shorter and not nearly as detailed in its accounts of political struggles. It covers just a short bit of time, unlike the hundreds of years the Old Testament has to do with. So the dark elements are perhaps a bit more subtle.

But we have things such as Jesus’s sharp, dare I say, even violent, dressing down of the Pharisees: “You blind guides, you white-washed tombs, you children of hell, you brood of vipers!” And his threats about God sending people to hell: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

And then there are the writings of Paul and of the book of Revelation. It is kind of uncanny that three times, just in the past couple of weeks, I have kind of randomly gotten into fairly intense arguments with friends–good, pious Mennonites—about whether Paul is an asset or a liability for Christian faith. I defend Paul, but apparently not very persuasively for my friends. And those of you who sat through what probably seemed like interminable sermons that I preached on Revelation here several years ago know that I go against the stream and present Revelation as a book of peace, not a book of judgment and violence. But the New Testament does present challenges.

One other difficult New Testament text is the story in the book of Acts about the early Christian married couple, Ananias and Sapphira. They are struck dead when they are caught lying and not giving the church the full price of some property they sold. Continue reading “A Positive Reading of the New Testament”

Why it is important to recognize that Paul does not write about “homosexuality”: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 2]

Ted Grimsrud—October 4, 2017

Over the past several decades, as North American Christians have sought to discern the way forward amidst differing convictions concerning the acceptance of LGBTQ Christians and of same-sex marriage, one of the arenas of debate has been what to make of the writings of Paul the Apostle. Several different perspectives have been argued for, in a general sense breaking down into three broad options.

Paul and “homosexuality”*: Three options

*[I will use quotes around “homosexuality” throughout this post to signify my uneasiness with using the word because of the pejorative connotations it has in general usage. What I will mean by “homosexuality” is the general phenomenon of people being attracted to others of the same sex. Part of the difficulty with the language is due to the fluidity of human sexual attraction in general that shows that our reality cannot be reduced to two simple categories, “heterosexual” and “homosexual.”]

(Option 1) Paul may not have written a great deal about “homosexuality,” but what he did write is clear and utterly damning. In Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 Paul makes it clear that same-sex sexual intimacy is always wrong. And, for those who hold this view, Paul’s views remain normative for today. Hence, Christians are bound to oppose same-sex marriage and to restrict the involvement of LGBTQ Christians in the churches.

(Option 2) Others mostly agree with the interpretation of Paul’s writings given by the people in the first group, but they would strongly disagree about the application of Paul’s perspective for today. They would say that Paul was simply wrong; that he was bound by his cultural limitations to hold to views that we no longer need accept. So, in spite of Paul, we should affirm same-sex marriage and full LGBTQ involvement in the churches.

(Option 3) Yet others argue Paul was not writing about we today call “homosexuality” at all. He simply did not address the phenomenon we know today of people whose affectional orientation is toward people of their same sex. Rather, in both Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, he had in mind the kinds of behaviors that are also wrong for heterosexual people—not a condemning of a class of people for the inherent wrongness of their same-sex orientation. Continue reading “Why it is important to recognize that Paul does not write about “homosexuality”: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 2]”

Why the creation story can’t carry the weight the restrictive view puts on it: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 1]

Ted Grimsrud—October 2, 2017

[The following short essay was my contribution to a recent discussion among several Mennonite scholars concerning the Bible and LGBTQ inclusion in Mennonite churches. Our assignment was to reflect on the significance of the biblical creation story for our discernment. We had to keep the papers quite short, so were unable to address many of the various ambiguities and complexities with these issues. The background for my piece is the argument in opposition to same-sex marriage and in favor of restricting the involvement of LGBTQ people in the churches (e.g., opposition to the ordination of LGBTQ pastors) that centers on the idea of the creation story establishing an irrevocable norm of opposite-sex marriage—without exception (here is a critique of one such argument based on “God’s design for marriage”). I give several reasons why I don’t think is argument works.]

(1) Same-sex marriage is not the agenda of Genesis 1–2

The intent of the story in its own context was not to posit male/female marriage as the only valid marriage. It had other purposes. This is not to say that the gender distinction in the story is irrelevant, but that is not the story’s agenda—so it is making too big a deal of that distinction to use it as the central biblical teaching relevant to same-sex marriage.

It seems also that the male/female element is descriptive not exclusive. It is simply the case that procreation happens through male/female sex. But only a tiny fraction of such sex leads to procreation. Clearly sexual intimacy has other important purposes. Genesis 2 would indicate that one purpose is companionship or friendship—an intimate physical and emotional connection with one other person. And, again, this is not implying that every person is required to do this.

My point would not be to deny that it could be a valid interpretation that the creation story presents male/female marriage as the expected or normal arrangement for humanity and links such marriage with the bearing of children. However, it is not self-consciously trying to make an argument for male/female marriage with children for life is the only allowable arrangement. Continue reading “Why the creation story can’t carry the weight the restrictive view puts on it: The Bible and LGBTQ inclusion [Part 1]”

The Mennonite Failure to Find Common Ground on LGBTQ Inclusion: Appendix on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Ted Grimsrud—September 1, 2017

I conclude my four-part series with this post that interacts closely with a second essay by Harold Miller. Previously, I commented at some length on Harold’s essay, “Romans 1:26-27 – Interpretations I have known.” He followed that essay with a shorter account of his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. After my close reading of that essay, I will finish with some more general reflections on the state of the conversation on LBGTQ inclusion.

The context for 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

In his discussion of this second text that those of a restrictive persuasion see as central to the New Testament message about “homosexuality,” Harold states that he is seeking a “strong understanding.” By “strong understanding,” Harold says he means “each text guiding us has strong exegetical certainty (though never ‘total certainty,’ for all texts have uncertainties).” So, he sets a pretty high standard for what he expects to achieve with his essay.

After two brief paragraphs about the “context” of 6:9-11, Harold zeroes in on verse 9 and the meanings of two words in that verse. In his “context” paragraphs, he does mention that the problem Paul addresses in this verse is that people in the Corinthian congregation are suing other people within the congregation. However, he does not explore how that problem might effect how we interpret the verse and the individual words he focuses on. In fact, he never again refers back to that “context.” He treats the meaning of the words in 6:9 as contained fully within the words themselves and not shaped by how they are used in the sentences that surround them.

Harold states that the two words he wants to focus on are “crucial.” But he does not explain why they are crucial. It could appear that he thinks they are crucial because he is looking for something that will support his views about “homosexuality.” But he does not explain why in a list of terms that serve Paul’s agenda of challenging the Christians in Corinth not to take their disputes to the secular courts, Paul would be giving us definitive teaching concerning “homosexuality.”

I understand the proper way to interpret biblical texts is not to focus on individual words as having what we could call autonomous or self-contained meaning, but we rather look carefully at the context that surrounds those words. The meaning of individual words is shaped a great deal by the sentences, paragraphs, and sections of which they are part. Especially with this text, the verse that Harold focuses on is simply a list without any elaboration within the list of what the words might be referring to. Just taken as individual words, the meaning of the terms is often unclear.

So, if we want accurately to discern the meaning of the particular terms, we would need always to keep Paul’s broader argument in mind. How does the specific word he uses in his list of characteristics of the “wrongdoers” support his argument that Christians should not take their disputes to the magistrates? Continue reading “The Mennonite Failure to Find Common Ground on LGBTQ Inclusion: Appendix on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11”

The Mennonite Failure to Find Common Ground on LGBTQ Inclusion: Appendix on Romans 1:26-27

Ted Grimsrud—August 28, 2017

The first two posts in this series on “The Mennonite Failure to Find Common Ground on LGBTQ Inclusion” tell the story of my thirty-year journey as an advocate for welcome and offer reflections on some of what I have learned from that journey. I told there how I was stimulated to write about these subjects again by an assertion by Mennonite pastor Harold Miller in a blog post discussion on the Mennonite World Review site that I had failed to “engage with the strongest biblical arguments” (“My Denomination Swings Left,” [July 19, 2017]). Challenged by that assertion, I initially set out to demonstrate that I did want to (continue to) engage such arguments. I figured I would do that with an extended engagement with Harold’s own articulation of those arguments.

As it turned out, I ended up writing something quite a bit different. However, as a two-part appendix to those first two articles, I want to go ahead an offer my response to Harold’s version of the biblical arguments. What follows may seem dry and overly detailed to many people, so I offer a “reader beware.” Unless you are particularly interested in close-grained debates about the meaning of a few verses in the New Testament, what follows might not really be worth your time. That warning given, I do think there is quite a bit at stake in this part of the discussion. A lot hinges on the restrictive reading of these particular verses, since these are two of the main biblical bases for their views. The soundness of “the strongest biblical arguments” would seem closely connected, then, to the soundness of the restrictive perspective in general.

In this first post, I will respond to Harold’s essay, “Romans 1:18-32 – Interpretations I Have Met” from his Interacting with Jesus blog (July 8, 2016), and in the second post, I will respond to a somewhat shorter post on the same blog, “1 Corinthians 6:9-11 – A Strong Interpretation” (July 12, 2016). My main interest with my two additional posts is to illustrate the kinds of arguments I have been using in exploring the meaning of the biblical passages. I have and do understand myself to be responding to “the best biblical arguments” that support the restrictive approach—and here I will do so in some detail with regard to those arguments as presented by Harold. I am open to further discussion concerning the interpretation of these texts, of course. But that is not my main intent here. It’s merely to show the kind of thing I have been doing the past 30 years as I have sought to have a conversation around the Bible with other Mennonites about issues many of us disagree about. My website, Peace Theology, contains many other examples. Continue reading “The Mennonite Failure to Find Common Ground on LGBTQ Inclusion: Appendix on Romans 1:26-27”