God and warism: The dilemma [Theological memoir #12]

Ted Grimsrud—June 7, 2021

I can’t seem to escape the reality that people’s beliefs in and about the divine and their attitudes about war seem to be closely related. On the one hand, it seems obvious that belief in God often underwrites war. Yet, on the other hand, in studying the history of pacifism I am struck with how important religious faith has been for quite a few of war’s most committed opponents. So, this is the dilemma: How do we find a way to navigate this centrality of religious faith in ways that lead to peace and resist warism? Let me illustrate these issues with my story.

“God” and radical politics

When I began my political awakening back in the mid-1970s, I believed very intensely in “God” (meaning the personal, all-powerful, all-knowing, transcendent deity of conservative Protestant Christianity). My belief in “God” gave me the sense that truth in light of this “God” mattered more than anything else. I also believed that Jesus was the incarnation of this “God,” and that we know best what “God” wants through “God’s” revelation in Jesus.

These beliefs gained political significance for me due, first of all, to paying attention to the war in Vietnam that had been destroying so many lives for no good, life-giving reason (I had faced the genuine possibility of being drafted to fight in this war and missed out by being a bit too young). When my disenchantment with the US was emerging, I happened upon a newly arrived sensibility expressed by various younger evangelical Christians that in the name of radical discipleship critiqued the American Empire and called for alternatives (most significant for me was the Sojourners community in Washington, DC, and their monthly magazine). These radical evangelicals helped me see that loyalty to “God” actually stood in tension with loyalty to the nation of my birth.

So, “God” was very important in helping me step outside the lines of the received sense of security and comfort that comes with being a loyal American. Once I did step outside the lines, I easily came to see the profoundly corrupting nature of the American Empire. Vietnam was surely the most egregious case of imperial violence on an incomprehensible scale—but only one case out of many dating back to the very settling of the Western Hemisphere by Europeans (I learned a lot from William Appleman Williams’s book, Empire as a Way of Life). I have become ever more certain about the deeply problematic nature of the United States. Still, I realize that my initial step outside the lines was definitely not inevitable. It had a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time. The Vietnam War, the possibility of being drafted, becoming friends with several returning war vets, entering the evangelical world at precisely the same time as the emergence of the radical evangelicals, gaining a theology that connected “God” with engaged pacifism—all these factors and more coalesced at just the right time for me.

As I think about it now, I am especially intrigued with the significance of the “God” part of this constellation of influences. I tend to think that I never quite believed in “God” in the way I was taught during my fundamentalist and evangelical years (about 8 or so years from the time when I was 17 [1971]). Certainly, it was easy and painless to evolve away from that belief. At the same time, I do think that the belief in “God” that I had was crucial for me having the wit and courage to step away from the Americanness I was raised with and surrounded by.

Moving away from “God”

As it turned out, I did evolve away from belief in “God” fairly quickly. All it took, actually, was exposure to different ways of thinking. I remember at various points being a bit taken aback when challenged to see things differently, but then realizing that the new idea was often better than my old idea. For example, when I was in seminary during the 1980-1 school year, I first heard the idea that Jesus’s death was not about “God” needing a substitute on which to pour “his” wrath in order to make salvation possible. I was shocked at first; this was such a different notion. It went against all that I had been taught. But it didn’t take much thinking to see, first, that the substitutionary atonement idea had little support in the gospels and, second, that Jesus’s own theology centered on mercy and not retribution. By the end of that year at seminary, I had written a lengthy paper focused on the gospels that showed how Jesus’s death was a call to discipleship, not a substitutionary sacrifice.

As a pastor and a college professor at a pretty conservative Christian college, I was called upon to preach and teach to audiences generally made up of people who had fairly traditional beliefs about “God.” So, I thought and spoke within the framework of those beliefs. In time I realized, though, that what I actually believed about “God” was quite a bit different than the traditional understandings. I came to belief that if God is love, God cannot be all-powerful, all-knowing, and transcendent. If God is love, can God possibly be “God”? I tend to think not.

Staying “outside the lines” politically

What I also realized over time was that my sense of the deep problems with the United States and with war has only gotten stronger. I definitely did not need belief in “God” to sustain my pacifism, my anti-imperialism, and my emerging anarchistic political philosophy (not to mention my anti-racism, my anti-capitalism, my anti-sexism, and many other similar convictions). The way I see it now, I have come to embrace the universe as it is with its animating dynamics of love as I have moved away from my belief in “God.” This process has been encouraging and empowering, not scary or even confusing.

But still, I do have the experience of being helped by belief in “God” back in the mid-1970s initially to step outside the lines of Americanism. Would I have become a pacifist and a political radical without the sense of security and obligation, even, that my faith at the time provided? Most likely I would have—I now believe that what actually happened was a fulfilling of ways I was shaped in my early childhood by my loving, open-minded, and even mildly iconoclastic parents. The path I actually took, though, involved a detour through some intense fundamentalist and evangelical territory that ended up linking me closely with “God” in a way that faith convictions decisively trumped patriotic convictions.

I think my political instincts in 1976 were pretty much exactly right. The clarity I felt at the point of my conversion to pacifism has little diminished in the years since, even as my understandings of the why of this conversion have evolved from thinking of it as a response to a direct word from “God” toward thinking of it as a response to my own humanness and the moral character of the universe, guided by Christian symbols.

A complicated thing

I thus have mixed feelings about “God” in relation to warism. I experienced “God” as a basis for rejecting warism. I would see the dynamics of this now mostly as my belief providing a sense of security and a strong push that helped me cross the lines of American conventional wisdom. I think those lines are pretty strong, though. That is a main reason why today in the US we have such a strong bipartisan consensus about military spending and warism in general—a consensus that includes all kinds of Christians (not only fundamentalists and evangelicals!) whose notion of “God” has reinforced their comfort within the lines.

Because of how belief in “God” seems mostly to thicken the lines and actually strengthen people’s loyalty to warist America, it’s attractive to think that we would be better off without “God.” Those who reject religious faith may indeed be freer to think outside the lines and come to reject war and various other forms of domination. I’m not sure about this, though. Quite a few “modern” people (I’m thinking especially, but not only, of professional scientists) have been all too comfortable with serving the warfare state with their expertise and the promise of wealth and professional advancement.

And it is also the case, I have discussed, that some of us have followed our beliefs in “God” right outside of the lines of conventional wisdom in warist America. Even as I myself have shifted my beliefs away from the traditional beliefs about “God,” I know others who still feel comfortable with the traditional view and do embrace the ways of peace, even radical politics.

The dilemma, it seems to me, lies in the challenge to face head on the complications of our religious convictions. We can’t avoid those complications and hope to move forward in our work to find healing in our messed-up world. Religious convictions are powerful and ubiquitous. It is true that they underwrite both warism and pacifism. Yet I think we are in trouble when we simply throw up our hands and exclaim that religion is too personal, subjective, relativistic, et al, to be understood and tamed for healing purposes. I think we have to struggle and strive and wrestle with the way religious convictions work and figure out how to get those convictions to serve our big human project—the healing of creation.

More Theological Memoirs posts

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