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 ed. PM 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.”]