A pacifist reading of The Lord of the Rings

Ted Grimsrud—June 30, 2012

I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in January 1977 when I was working swing shift in a plywood mill in Eugene, Oregon. For two months I had a job that allowed me to have my “lunch” hour by myself. So, I got a lot of reading done. Not only did I read the Lord of the Rings, I also read John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus for the first time.

As far as I remember, it was totally a coincidence that I read these books at the same time. My Lord of the Rings circle of friends and my Politics of Jesus circle did not intersect. But, nonetheless, having just read Yoder made me more interested than I might have been otherwise in the place of violence and warfare in Tolkien.

In the years since, I have continued to read and reread Yoder (and write about his thought). I would have been shocked (but delighted, I’m sure) those January nights 35 years ago to imagine I would end up a Mennonite, a pastor, and a theology professor. Over the next five years or so, I read the Lord of the Rings at least three more times. Two of those were out loud with my wife, Kathleen. Maybe twenty years ago, we read The Hobbit and the trilogy to our son Johan. And we watched the movies when they came out.

Violence in the Lord of the Rings?

I have remained fascinated by the issues of violence and war in the trilogy. About the time we read it to Johan, I also read with great appreciation Walter Wink’s wonderful Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. I learned from that book the phrase “myth of redemptive violence” that has provided a useful analytical tool for understanding books, movies, et al. This leads to my big question about Tolkien’s trilogy: Does “redemption” in this story rely on violence?

I think this is a totally appropriate question to ask of the trilogy as clearly it (or something like it) is a crucial question for Tolkien himself and in this story he gives us a challenging mediation on the place of violence and warfare in dealing with evil.

Just recently, for this first time in about twenty years, Kathleen and I read the trilogy aloud to each other. It was a fascinating experience for me. During the years since the last time we read it, I have continued to focus a great deal of thought and research and writing on issues relating to violence and war. How do I now understand Tolkien’s story in relation to these big issues? Continue reading “A pacifist reading of The Lord of the Rings”

Pacifist apologetics

Ted Grimsrud—June 20, 2012

Christian pacifism faces an uphill climb in contemporary America. Since 1940, our country has embarked on a massive effort at world domination based on military firepower. This could be seen as the logical progression for a country whose founding rests squarely on warfare and other forms of violent conquest. And the Christian churches have, as a rule, joined enthusiastically in this project. Hence, today in the United States people self-identified as Christians are more likely than non-Christians to support war and the death penalty.

And yet, American Christianity has always produced, or at least tolerated, counter-voices. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) established themselves in colonial Pennsylvania in a remarkable effort to try to operate a political system heavily influenced by pacifist convictions. The results were mixed, to say the least. One clear achievement, though, was to establish a haven for religious freedom that drew other Christian pacifists to Pennsylvania—most notably Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren.

In the nineteenth century, some of the world’s first peace societies emerged in Antebellum America, and these often linked with abolitionist efforts. The Civil War more or less put an end to such activist pacifism, but that war also saw pioneering efforts by the state to accommodate conscientious objectors. Still, part of the reason the state could be open to tolerance of pacifists was because their numbers were so small.

In the twentieth-century, in face of terrible, unbelievably destructive world wars, the numbers of Christian pacifists grew significantly, and well beyond the Historic Peace Churches (Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren). However, when the United States entered an enormously popular war against Germany and Japan in 1941, the numbers of legal conscientious objectors totaled about one per 1,000 young men who joined the military—and the large majority of all of these soldiers were Christians.

From the start, Quakers worked hard to convey their convictions to the wider world—one term they used of their work was “publishers of truth.” Other pacifists in more recent generations have also taken up the challenge to try to present attractive and persuasive arguments for their convictions. And some fine literature has been produced. But we always need more.

So this new collection of essays, Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer, eds., A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Nonviolence (Peaceable Kingdom) (Cascade Books, 2012), is to be welcomed. I am not aware of any other single, relatively short, volume that tries to address as many challenges to pacifism. Several of the essays make particularly excellent contributions to the task of defending pacifism, and all the essays are well worth reading. Continue reading “Pacifist apologetics”

Should Anabaptists be evangelicals?

Ted Grimsrud—June 11, 2012

I recently read a fascinating and well executed collection of essays, The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism, edited by Jared S. Burkholder and David C. Cramer (Pickwick Publications, 2012). I interact more explicitly with the book in this review, but here I want to reflect a bit on some thoughts that reading it triggered for me.

One of the basic issues The Activist Impulse takes up is the relationship between “Anabaptism” and “evangelicalism”—especially how closely those in each movement should be linked. As many of the writers in the book acknowledge, each of these terms is difficult to define. Both refer to movements and mindsets, not to clearly delineated organizations.

What one means by “Anabaptism” is probably easier to settle on, at least in a general sense, than what one means by “evangelicalism.” Most of us would agree in linking the term with a particular (though surprisingly diverse and amorphous) movement that arose amidst the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and ultimately found institutional shape in the Mennonite churches, their siblings (such as the Amish and Hutterites), and various cousins (especially the movement that evolved in diverse forms to produce the Church of the Brethren, Brethren Church, Grace Brethren, and German Baptist Brethren).

However, since the term was rehabilitated following Harold Bender’s widely circulated and praised summary statement, “The Anabaptist Vision,” increasingly many non-Mennonites and Brethren have used the terms in a positive sense that speaks more to certain theological and ethical sensibilities—most notably pacifism, a strong emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, simple living, and intentional community. Continue reading “Should Anabaptists be evangelicals?”