What does Romans 13 actually teach?

Ted Grimsrud—June 18, 2018

What does it mean for the United States to be a “Christian nation”? For many, it seems to mean that people should support the political status quo, and they will quote the 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans to support that support (“be subject to the governing authorities”). We find this most often when Christians want to offer “biblical support” for obeying the state’s call to go to war. But it comes up in many other circumstances as well.

Just lately, our evangelical Attorney General used Romans 13 as a basis to demand acceptance of Donald Trump’s policy of separating would-be immigrant children from their parents when they are arrested trying to cross the border into the US. Many commentators have noted that such a use of Romans 13 is not appropriate. I agree, but I also think that when this passage comes up in a public and controversial way, it is good to take the opportunity to offer some suggestions for how this oft-cited text might best be read.

The message of Jesus

The first step for thinking about the issues that Romans 13 are purported to address (our relationship to the state, our responsibilities as citizens, et al) is to start with Jesus—just as the New Testament itself does. Though Paul wrote Romans decades before the gospel writers wrote the gospels, the early church used these writings in a way that placed the gospels first. I think we can assume that the stories about Jesus that make up the core of the gospels circulated from the time of his death.

Paul himself insisted he simply reinforced Jesus’ message. If our basic question in looking at Romans 13 is a question of social ethics, we need to set the context for Paul’s own life and thought by taking note of what Jesus did and said that establish his own approach to social ethics. Continue reading “What does Romans 13 actually teach?”

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The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—May 8, 2018

I have read with great appreciation many of the books John Dominic Crossan has written over the years and have heard him speak several times. A few years ago he published a book I found pretty helpful and relevant to my interests, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015). I don’t know for sure whether Crossan, who is Catholic, shares my pacifist convictions, but he clearly cares deeply about peace on earth.

The right agenda

I believe that Crossan has exactly the correct agenda for this book. He argues, “escalatory violence now directly threatens the future of our species and indirectly undermines solutions to other survival problems such as global warming, overpopulation, and resource management” (p. 244). He writes this book in order to address that problem, to show how the Bible can be used in ways that contribute to violence, and to suggest ways the Bible might be read that will actually help us move toward peace.

Crossan’s book may be read alongside Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). Boyd and Crossan happily share deep convictions about helping Christians deal with the violence in the Bible in way that will empower Christians to be peaceable today. They approach the issues quite differently, though. The differences are significant, for sure. I would recommend reading both works as a way of getting a sense of the breadth of possibilities for Bible-centered peace theologies.

One big difference between these two thinkers is how they think of biblical inspiration. Boyd affirms what he understands to be a very high view of inspiration, and as a consequence he undertakes to construct a quite detailed and elaborate argument for how he can see the Bible as truthful throughout and yet also argue that the Bible is consistently a book of peace. I have written a lengthy critique of Boyd’s argument. I see it as way too convoluted. But I find his work enormously instructive.

Crossan, on the other hand, has no trouble with asserting that parts of the Bible simply are untrue. This makes his argument much simpler and more straightforward than Boyd’s—though not without problems of its own. I am not fully happy with Crossan’s approach, either. I think he too quickly accepts the presence of major internal contradictions within the Bible and thus misses some insights that an attempt to read the Bible’s overall message as largely coherent might provide. However, in this blog post I want to focus my criticisms of Crossan elsewhere. Continue reading “The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation”

What if Revelation 14 is about punitive judgment after all?

Ted Grimsrud—May 4, 2018

For the past several months I have been putting most of my writing energy into a study of the book of Revelation, and have not met my goals for blog posting frequency. I finally realized that I need to combine thinking so much about Revelation with writing blog posts. So I expect to share several sets of reflections that draw heavily on Revelation in the next few weeks.

Punitive judgment in Revelation

One of my ongoing interests is the issue of punitive judgment—in the Bible and in life. I feel that I have developed a pretty strong argument that shows that the book of Revelation as a whole emphasizes mercy and healing much more than punitive judgment. However, some passages in Revelation have been rather persistently interpreted in punitive terms. Perhaps the most notorious comes at the end of chapter 14. This is what is written:

“Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle. ‘Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.’ So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.” (Revelation 14:17-20, NRSV)

After reading through several dozen commentaries and other book and articles on Revelation, I recognize that there is a pretty strong consensus that these verses are talking about God’s punitive judgment against humans who have turned against God. There is one important stream of interpretation, starting with the influential 1966 commentary by George B. Caird, that reads this paragraph in a non-punitive way. In general, though, even commentaries that read other difficult passages in non-punitive ways, tend to see John teaching violent retribution here. Continue reading “What if Revelation 14 is about punitive judgment after all?”

An authentic witness: Remembering Norman Kraus

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2018

As I appreciatively joined in the memorial service yesterday (April 28) for my friend Norman Kraus, who died on April 6 at the age of 94, I reflected on my first encounter with his writing. Back in the Spring of 1976, if I had imagined that 42 years later I would be sitting in a Mennonite church in Virginia grieving the loss of the author of The Community of the Spirit as one who had been my good friend for over 20 years I would have been pretty shocked.

My final term attending the University of Oregon, Spring 1976, was when I decided not to pursue journalism as a career. I went ahead and graduated that term, but with no intent to stay with journalism. I had gotten intensely involved in a small evangelical congregation, gotten bitten by the theology bug, and read with great attention writings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul among others.

I took to browsing the shelves at Northwest Christian College, next door to the UO, looking for books to help me deepen my theological understanding. I happened upon a small volume written by a man named C. Norman Kraus who was identified as a Mennonite professor at a college in Indiana. Not only did the name Goshen College mean nothing to me, the term Mennonite also meant nothing to me.

However, when I started looking at the book, I quickly was hooked. Kraus spoke a language I understood—”discipleship,” “community,” “the gospel of peace.” I read the book thoroughly a couple of times and began to look for other Mennonite writings. That lead to Guy Hershberger, John Howard Yoder, and Millard Lind. It also led us to going to hear Myron Augsburger when my wife Kathleen and I visited her family in Arizona. One thing led to another, we visited the Mennonite congregation in Eugene, headed for Elkhart, Indiana, to attend the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, and by 1981 we joined the Mennonite church and embarked on a long surprisingly fraught journey.

The writings of Norman Kraus were the starting point for all this. For better or worse, he played a foundational role in my life as a Mennonite. I personally would say absolutely for the “better.” I am deeply grateful for the role Norman played in my theological development, and in more recent years in my remaining in good standing as a college professor and pastor in the Mennonite world. Some who do not appreciate his theological journey (or mine) might say for the “worse.” Continue reading “An authentic witness: Remembering Norman Kraus”

Christianity on war and peace: An overview

Ted Grimsrud—March 15, 2018

[I was recently asked to write up the following brief overview of how Christians tend to view warfare. It will hopefully be published in the forthcoming Bloomsbury Companion to Studying Christians.]

Accounts of how Christians think and act in relation to war have tended to repeat the general typology that was introduced back in 1960 by historian Roland Bainton in Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. Bainton saw three categories: pacifism (the commitment not to participate in war in any form), the just war (the willingness to go to war when certain criteria insuring the justness of the war are met), and the crusade (a sense of call from God to fight in a war that is understood to be divinely required).

However, this typology has been criticized for leaving too many options out and over-simplifying what is left. As an alternative, I propose a revised typology that has two main types: (1) Negatively disposed toward war and (2) positively disposed toward war. Each of these two types has three subtypes.

“Negatively disposed” toward war

What unites the three “negatively disposed” approaches is the conviction that, morally, the benefit of the doubt is always against war.

  1. Principled pacifism. This view is against war based on starting principles. For example, some Christians have said that they can not fight due to their understanding of Jesus’ commands such as “love your enemies.” The relative justice of particular wars is irrelevant. For example, in the United States during World War II those who were morally opposed to fighting were allowed to do alternative service as conscientious objectors. Such conscientious objectors refused military service simply because they believed any possible war was wrong due to their moral principles. Even if their country was to fight in a “just war,” principled pacifists would still refuse to fight.
  2. Pragmatic pacifism. This view is against war based on the evidence of how warfare works in actual practice. These conclusions follow from using just war criteria to conclude that all actual wars are certain to be unjust; that is, this pacifism is based on evidence. This view suggests that each war has violated some if not all the standard just war criteria.
  3. Critical just war. This view differs from “pragmatic pacifism” due by being open to the possibility that just war criteria may be met. These criteria typically are sorted into two categories: “just cause” (e.g., defending against aggression, resisting tyranny, stopping atrocities, declared by a legitimate authority, only undertaken as a last resort, undertaken with the near certainty of victory) and “just means” (e.g., noncombatants are not targeted, the violence used is not out of proportion to the good that the war achieves, of limited duration, the humane treatment of prisoners of war). This view starts with the assumption that any particular war is not just unless proved otherwise. The logical conclusion for those holding this view is that wars that do not overcome that burden of proof should be opposed. Something like this was a common view in the U.S. during the Vietnam War for many draftees who refused to fight went to Canada or prison.

Continue reading “Christianity on war and peace: An overview”

Trump as “Anointed One”: But who’s the anointer?

David L. Myers—February 27, 2018

[I am happy to welcome my old friend, David Myers, to Thinking Pacifism as the author of this guest post. David served a number of year as a Mennonite pastor in Kansas and Illinois and as a social service administrator in Chicago. He also worked in the Obama administration for about eight years. We attended the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary together in the early 1980s and before that both grew up in Oregon. He is especially interested in public theology.]

Okay, Evangelicals of a certain type; let’s play a little game of mix and match.

First, a little about the game itself, whose genesis was a headline: “Why is it so hard for Trump to say that evil things are evil?” (Washington Post, February 15, 2018)

Hmmm…why, indeed, I wondered. How can so many (though not all) Evangelicals, who believe someone like Trump has been anointed or been put in the presidency by God, have such a difficult time condemning what they themselves believe to be evil? (I’ll save you the mind-numbing list from Trump’s own twittering fingers and prevaricating tongue—it’s in the public domain.)

Then a series of thoughts fell into place, as if the right key finally unlocked the tumblers. God’s anointed. That’s the key—but not in the way you may think.

The root of Jesus the Christ means Jesus the Anointed One. Here’s the recently deceased R.C. Sproul, a leading Evangelical theologian, commenting on the Gospel of Matthew’, chapter 16:

Then Jesus asked the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 15b). Peter answered with what is known as the great confession, a statement of his belief as to the identity of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (v. 16). With these words, Peter declared that Jesus was the Christos, the Mashiach, the Anointed One.

Jesus: Tempted in the wilderness

A seminal moment in the life of Jesus was his baptism in the River Jordan. It was then that the Holy Spirit announced his Sonship, his anointing. The life of Jesus the Christ, the life of the Anointed One, was publicly inaugurated. And what happens immediately thereafter? The Synoptic Gospels agree: he was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the Slanderer (The New Testament, A Translation by David Bentley Hart).

There were three temptations and there are a variety of interpretations of their respective meanings. I’ll go with Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud’s take on Luke 4:3-13 (from personal email correspondence). Continue reading “Trump as “Anointed One”: But who’s the anointer?”

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”

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”