Ten books for radical Christians: Faithful living in the Trump era, part 6

Ted Grimsrud—December 14, 2016

One of my responses shortly after Trump’s election was to think about a reading list of books I have found helpful as I seek to understand how my Christian faith might help me understand and respond to this new phase in American history. My thought in sharing this list is not that I am providing any definitive guidance. As with my previous post on helpful news sites, here I am also hoping to stimulate sharing. What is a book (or few) that you think would be helpful for these times?

This is a fairly random list. I thought about it just long enough to come up with ten titles I feel good about. In time, with more thought, I would formulate a much different list. My hope though, is simply to get some ideas out there. I am confident that each of these books is worth paying attention to. I don’t actually think they are the ten best or most important books. If we’re serious about understanding our situation, along with listening to each other, along with keeping up with the news and analysis, we will need to read more than ten books.

As a rule, these books are quite readable and written for educated non-specialists. A few are overtly theological; the others provide useful awareness of our setting where Christians are trying to live out our theology.

(1) Walter Wink. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in an Age of Domination. Fortress Press, 1992.

This remarkable book still stands as a unique multi-disciplinary effort. A quarter of a century after its publication, it remains the best example of the fruitful combining of biblical theology, social analysis, and transformative activism I’ve ever seen. Wink writes out of a passion for nonviolent social transformation that he expressed through his own activism. He understands the social dynamics of the “domination system” within an America enslaved to the myth of “redemptive violence” (Wink coined both of these quoted terms in this book). Like precious few other thinkers, Wink combined a commitment to social transformation (and a profound structural analysis) with an awareness of the need for a vital personal spirituality. Though a long book, Engaging the Powers is quite readable, and it’s inspirational. It’s scholarly and practical at the same time.

(2) Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed. Fortress Press, 2001 [original edition 1978].

Brueggmann is a wonder, an extraordinarily prolific writer still going strong well into his ninth decade of life. Probably his main importance for this list is that like no other writer, he gives us message of the political radicalism of the Old Testament as a necessary resource for present-day Christians (and all other people of good will). Just about any of his books is worth reading for this message. I cite this older volume (the second edition adds little to the first) as a basic introduction to a prophetic reading of the Bible. One of his key insights (if a bit simplistic) is the distinction in biblical writing between the “prophetic consciousness” and the “royal consciousness.” The Bible itself contains a debate between these two viewpoints, though in the life and message of Jesus it ultimately sides decisively with the prophetic—a crucial insight to keep in mind in our day.

(3) John Howard Yoder. The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed. Eerdmans, 1994 [original edition 1972]

Different people have liked this classic text for different reasons. It’s on this list because it makes a quite persuasive case for Jesus as a political guide. It’s a politics of love, not of coercive power. The key point, though, is the argument that Jesus meant his politics of love to be normative for people of faith at all times in all areas of life. It’s amazing that a book written so long ago could remain so fresh and relevant. Yoder was motivated by a desire to contribute to a peaceable world, borne out of his first-hand awareness of the failure of European Christendom to avoid the devastation of the total wars of the first half of the twentieth century. He felt the universal message of Jesus could be a key to such a contribution. This is even more true now than it was in the 1970s (or the 1940s). As great as this book is, it is sad that it did not stimulate more works of the same caliber by other writers in the decades since.

(4) Grace Jantzen. Violence to Eternity. Routledge, 2009.

This fascinating and challenging book is sadly too little known and hard to find. It’s worth the effort to seek it out. Jantzen grew up in Canada in a traditional Mennonite family and ended up as a liberal Quaker, feminist religion scholar, and prophetic thinker who sadly died at too young of an age with her big project unfinished. Happily, this volume was nearly completed at the time of her death. It’s a biblical, theological analysis, critical of scripture itself and of the Christian tradition because of an over-emphasis on death. For the flourishing of life we need an explicit theology of “natality” (life). Jantzen finds such a theology in scripture, especially when read through a feminist lens. Though it’s only a sketch, Violence to Eternity provides essential assistance for our work of bringing theological analyses to bear on the task of resisting empire and fostering humane living.

(5) Alan Taylor. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. Penguin, 2002.

I more or less stumbled onto this book by accident. It’s part of multi-volume set on the history of the United States. It turned out to be a great book. It’s long and scholarly, while also being well-written and quite engaging. I list it as an essential book because the author, who I now have learned is an elite U.S. historian, pays close and unflinching attention to the role of violence in the “settling of North America.” He gives an excellent account of the dynamics of slavery and the conquest of the native North Americans, and sets them in the context of the larger colonial enterprise. We can’t hope to have a sense of our current dilemmas without having some understanding of how we got here.

(6) Peter Marshall. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, 3rd edPM Press, 2010 [originally published in 1992].

It is pretty clear that our current political system has run out of steam, to put it mildly. Though the profound crises of American politics have been apparent for some time to critical observers, with Trump’s election the crises have become acute and obvious. So we need to imagine alternatives. It is a time to take the anarchist tradition more seriously. This long, fascinating, and frustrating (due to just how unruly the tradition is) book is an important guide to this diverse and ever-evolving tradition. Perhaps few of us will be willing to swallow anarchism as a complete political philosophy, but everyone who recognizes the need for radical transformation will find things in Marshall’s story to learn from. He gives a solid narrative account of the tradition and then goes into detail to describe the various branches of anarchist thought and the important thinkers and actors. He’s a reliable guide—as much as any one person could be given the wide diversity of anarchistically-inclined people and movements.

(7) Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010.

An eye-opening account of how the American criminal justice system has expanded exponentially—since 1970, the imprisonment rate in the U.S. has multiplied by more than seven times. Alexander, with devastating clarity, shows that the main driving force of the expansion has been the targeting of African-American young men, caught up in the “war on drugs.” She suggests that just as the Jim Crow era of legal segregation in the South followed upon the end of slavery, this new practice of disenfranchising African Americans followed after the gains of the Civil Rights movement. This is another of those books that, while focusing on a particular issue, actually serves has an extraordinarily insightful window into our broader social world.

(8) James Carroll. House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power. Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

A lively, wide-ranging account of the creation and history of the Pentagon that argues that this center for American military power stands as the transforming point of the United States into a national security state—with devastating consequences for the nation and the world. A fascinating combination of insider access (Carroll’s father was an admiral who worked for many years in the Pentagon) and radical sensibility (Carroll was a Catholic priest who became a peace activist during the Vietnam War—he tells this story in his powerful book, An American Requiem). With the story of Pentagon as its core, this book takes up a variety of themes (e.g., World War II bombing tactics, the use of the Bomb, the origins of the Cold War, the near use of nuclear weapons in the Cuba crisis, the anti-nuclear movement, and the end of the Cold War), thereby becoming an excellent (and quite critical) history of American militarism. A nice sub-theme is Carroll’s account of radical Catholic peace activism.

(9) Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. 2nd ed. Pantheon Books, 2002 [originally published in 1988].

Chomsky (like Walter Brueggemann, mentioned above) is wonder. Extraordinarily prolific and still going strong well into his ninth decade of life, Chomsky is an indispensable guide into the actual realities of American national security policies and practices. He attributes his prophetic fire to studying the Old Testament prophets in Hebrew School back in the 1930s. Just about any of his dozens of political books is worth reading. The one I list here is actually co-written with Edward Herman, another crucial anti-war intellectual. It offers excellent insights in accounting for how, in a nation with a bedrock commitment to free speech and a free press, American people are so accepting of their nation’s imperialism.

(10) Naomi Klein. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Metropolitan Books, 2007.

An engaging, accessible portrayal of the dynamics of global capitalism that have so undermined efforts to create a more just, peaceable, and equitable world. With cases studies from Latin America, Central Europe, and South Africa, Klein gives us the details of how corporate and political leaders have, time after time, exploited natural and social catastrophes to tighten the grip of capital and subvert democratic practices. Because of her wide vision, this book also works as a broader political and economic history of the past generation. It helps us understand how the world actually works.

(bonus) Ted Grimsrud. The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. Cascade Books, 2014.

In this book, I make the argument that World War II actually was a terrible event for the United States (not to mention the rest of the world). The implicit point of the book is to show that war is always a bad idea. With World War II, the United States, though seemingly the one actual winner, put itself in a situation where winning or losing would be devastating. Certainly, to lose to the Germans and Japanese would have destroyed the nation. However, as this books shows, winning led to a longer term destruction of most of the ideals that the nation was allegedly founded on and fought the War to further (democracy, peace, self-determination for everyone). The answer is war prevention—a lesson the nation shows no sign of learning. The final of the book’s three sections traces the emergence of peace movements that point to a way to break free of the cycle of violence.

Sorry, I ended up with eleven titles. Maybe my fudging can been seen as a symbol for our need to expand the list—well beyond eleven titles.

[This is the sixth of a series of six posts reflecting on the election and its aftermath. The first post was “What happened?” The second post was “What to expect and what to hope for.”  The third post was, “The book of Revelation and America’s election.” The fourth, “The book of Revelation on living in Empire.”  The fifth post was “On being informed.”

14 thoughts on “Ten books for radical Christians: Faithful living in the Trump era, part 6

  1. Wow! Many thanks for this list and the great summaries! While I’m familiar with most of the authors and some of the specific books, sadly, I’ve not read any of them. However, I HAVE studied many of the issues covered via other writings. So, I’ll throw in a few other books and/or authors on the same general themes that I think are particularly cogent and helpful. BTW, Wink has been on my “must read” list for some time, as has your book. I’d also love to read some Chomsky beyond the few articles I’ve read. And Yoder, for sure.

    Before I get to my additions, a personal sidebar: I didn’t know of Grace Janzen, but she may have been a distant relative. The bulk of my mother’s family carried the same name, though with the original “t” in the middle. (My German and my history isn’t good enough to be sure, but I think some Jantzen’s dropped the “t” after arriving here… my family mostly came in the 1870s or thereabouts, straight from Georgia, Russia, bringing hard red winter wheat to Kansas. But I have some rel’s who also landed (directly or later) in Canada.

    I’d certainly want to add something that deals in some depth with 9/11, it being so instrumental to ongoing war-making. And so blatantly (and thus far “successfully”) a massive, brutal crime against a country’s own citizens. (I’m not suggesting who helped pull it off, but the clear and compelling physical/scientific evidence is of controlled demolition as to the fall of all THREE towers, the most UNambiguous of them being “Building 7” which many don’t even know fell later the same day, never struck by a plane and not structurally compromised by damage or fire.) I’m NOT widely read re. all this, but somewhat followed the work on 9/11 of a top Process theologian, David Ray Griffin, who devoted many years and several books to the topic. So I’d nominate his “Christian Faith and the Truth behind 9/11: A Call to Reflection and Action” as a top 10. The best “go to” source re. the science surrounding 9/11 is http://www.ae911truth.org (led by a large group of architects and engineers.)

    Another author, any of several of whose books I’d want included, would be Brian McLaren. I personally don’t like that he (last I knew) continues to ID himself with Evangelicalism, as I see his thought as too far from it to accurately be included. Be that as it may, his last several books have all roundly critiqued both the theology and “orthodoxy’s” buy-in to domination systems (his terminology, I believe… and he does a great job of describing these and their evils, and how Jesus’ way is opposite).

    I’d also definitely include “Jesus Against Christianity: Reclaiming the Missing Jesus” by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer (2001). I’m on my 2nd reading right now… one of the “packed” books I’ll come back to twice or more. I like him partly bec. he will cite people like Wink, Horsley and others in support, but then also point out where he believes they became inconsistent (particularly in not going all the way to a nonviolent, non-coercive God, and supports his case quite thoroughly). Though the book is footnoted and indexed, I would admit, for the truly scholarly, that it may not rate high on the scholarship (being “scholarly”) scale, in terms of referencing. But it IS readable and raises many, many questions seldom addressed in depth even in progressive churches.

    I think I’d add a work by Crossan to the list also. But I’ve not read a lot by him, and his “God and Empire” had strong points but I’m not sure rises to this level… perhaps something that’s more germinal from his long list would.

    As to the basis of everything in teachings of Jesus and understanding of actual Christian origins (not the slanted stories of Luke [Acts] and Eusebius, and those building mainly on these two), I’d add a work by L. Michael White… either “From Jesus to Christianity” (almost a textbook) or “Scripting Jesus”. Then definitely something representing Mack’s and Jonathan Z. Smith’s work on “social interest theory” as applied to Xn origins… perhaps Mack’s anthology titled: “The Christian Myth”, or the very packed classic, “Who Wrote the New Testament?”

    1. Thanks, Howard. It’s great to get some new ideas.

      I can’t recommend Wink highly enough, even all these years after it was published.

      It’s interesting how you and I could come to similar views on lots of things without a lot of overlap in our reading. I have read Nelson-Pallmyer’s book, though. I didn’t think of it while making my list, but it would probably at best be “honorable mention.” I think he’s a little too critical of the Bible. But I love his overall theology and his politics.

      1. Well, I’m convinced re. Wink, and see that book is available at the nearby Westminster Sem. Library… May get it today. The Nelson-Pallmeyer book I have not found the equivalent of, tho it may well exist, in terms of making clear and emphatic what I think is right and critical: That it is not consistent nor actually biblically supported (per his “higher critical” reading of Jesus, admittedly) that Jesus was nonviolent yet rightly believed in a violent, vengeful God. Can you add to my knowledge here?

  2. Great list of 11 books Ted! Most of them have had a huge influence on me too. At the top of the list among many other books/authors I recommend, is John Paul Lederach’s The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2005) and anything by JPL, who lives the great integration of theorist, scholar, teacher, practitioner, activist. Weldon

      1. Monkracer, as Ted rightly picked up from my most recent and other comments, I’m not widely read in pacifist or peacebuilding lit. I have strong bkgd. in human sciences and theology/biblical studies… at a “professional” and grad school level, tho I’ve not been a professional academic. I have, however, had and pursued SOME exposure to peace studies and to the theology underlying it (i.e., Christian-based theology). This is background for this q. for you, as a person apparently well read where I’m not (as is Ted of course, so Ted I’d love your or others’ input as well):

        What is a good source or 2 on this (a longer list is o.k., tho I can’t get to much in the near future)?: A fairly detailed outline for how the US (or any democracy, but espec. us) could arrange its national defense strategy and resources to align much closer to a real commitment to peacebuilding? Plus how this would relate to international relations and institutions such as the UN. And, of course, the necessary supporting commitments in education and various proactive institutions (e.g., a genuine, activist dept. of Peace).

        And with this, what kinds of mental, cultural and political structures would we also need to build to enable this and make it stick? I’m also interested in the role Christian churches would have in this but if someone has a plan and has shown it reasonable and workable without significant input from religious institutions, I’d like to know about that, too.

  3. Thank you, Ted, for including a book by Grace Jantzen. In my albeit limited exploration of writers dealing with religion and peace issues, I have been disappointed at the few references to/discussions of her work, especially within the Anabaptist tradition into which she herself was born. Her grasp is wide and her thinking challenging, especially in how gender factors into such discussions. The book Ted mentions, “Violence to Eternity” is the middle volume of a triad. The first, “Foundations of Violence,” deals with the classical Greek/Roman tradition. The second with the Jewish/Christian tradition. The third, “A Place of Springs,” put together from some of her notes and writing after her death, offers Quaker spirituality such as exemplified by George Fox and Margaret Fell as a salutary alternative to the rationalism of early modernism. Amazon offers all three in new, used, kindle editions; they are expensive but well worth it. I have also very much appreciated her “Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism” as well as “Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian.”

  4. Interesting. But the words “transformation” and “radical” sound to me completely hollow – they can describe worsenings as well as ameliorations.

    As for ways of speech, we have as always to distinguish between pre-Jesus and post-Jesus (Jesus being a turning point which led to a different path). The great post-Jesus invention was the humble admonitio fraternalis (fraternal admonishing) as practised by early Anabaptists, among others. This tradition of humility is completely lost under the modern infatuation with pre-Jesus “prophetic speech” which is of course much more attractive, insofar as the speaker gives himself an air of grandiosity (“I’m the megaphone of God and what lower creature are you?”).

    I also distrust Jantzen’s polemics against Christian “over-emphasis of death”. Isn’t this a case of “the cross, a stumbling-block to the Jews and a stupidity to the Greeks”?

    Naomi Klein, by the way, didn’t write so much about “Central Europe” but about Russia under Yeltsine, where American advisers directly took part in the plundering of the Russian population.

  5. Ted, this is for you or anyone…. I just came back to re-look at your book list and got to re-reading comments. I noted that I’d replied to Monkracer and asked him/her a question that IS an ongoing and serious one to me. But no reply, nor from anyone else.

    I realize if I were to read broadly in the pacifist and peacebuilding lit I’d probably get some answers. But IF those issues are being addressed somewhere, why are there not more prominent summaries of that thinking and/or activism? I believe these (my) questions are the kinds of questions that may not be consciously in mind for most people, but are probably at least subconsciously behind why they tend to NOT be motivated toward either study or action…. They have at least a vague feeling that anything other than “peace through strength” and meeting force with force is not a viable national posture and therefore not worth pursuing. Seems to me that this is perhaps the cruz point, in terms of mentality, that has to be reversed. I’m sure that such a reversal is what you and many are working on, but I’m still wondering if there may not be a large “hole”, as it were, in what is being produced, in terms of this “pragmatism” issue, and more specific strategy matters.

      1. Thanks, Ted. As I get time, I’ll look for that one. It has a good and memorable title. BTW, re. Wink’s book. After I checked out a book of his I thought was from your list, I realized it’s another, bit earlier (I believe) one with similar title: “Unmasking the Powers”. Have read about half, and find it very wise and insightful. For example, his treatment of demonic powers lines up well with my fairly extensive reading and some small experience (from the same general period of his research/writing). It’s a complex and nuanced thing, with tendencies on both “secularist” and “theistic” sides to oversimplify… and either dismiss or overly “empower” and spiritualize it (when it may well be part of a person’s own psyche or “shadow side”…. cf. Jung, especially). Mishandling in either direction can be damaging, so his careful treatment is much appreciated.

      2. I’m delighted you made that “mistake,” Howard. The book I mentioned, Engaging the Powers is actually the third of a trilogy. All three are excellent and Engaging makes most sense when read third. The first, Naming the Powers is a biblical study on the “powers” language in the NT.

  6. With apologies to Prof. Grimsrud and other theologians, I momentarily drag the discussion down to politics and morality, if there’s any relation between them, by adding this title to the list:
    MORAL POLITICS. How liberals and conservatives think. George Lakoff
    U of Chicago Press, 2nd Edition, 2002

    The author, a professor of cognitive Science at Berkeley and occasional political commentator, draws a sharp contrast between the Democrats and the Republicans. His book provides insights into the political news on an almost daily basis. He is much harder on the GOP, though in doing so he may put Democrats in a more favorable light than they deserve. He contrasts the approach of the two parties on numerous big issues. I won’t reveal his general conclusion, but say only that it seems to me quite a good fit to American political reality. At 450 pages, the book could have used some editing, because he repeatedly reaches the same conclusion.

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