The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?

Ted Grimsrud—November 29, 2016

To “break bad” can mean to “go wild,” to “defy authority” and break the law, to be verbally “combative, belligerent, or threatening” or, followed by the preposition “on,” to “completely dominate or humiliate.” [from Wikipedia]

It is difficult to write about the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. It seems certain that the US is entering uncharted waters. It also seems certain, to me at least, that what is coming will be worse than what most of us can imagine. The American Empire is entering a new phase, likely with little pretense of self-restraint or of serving the general human welfare or the wellbeing of the natural world. We are about openly to become the rogue nation—”breaking bad” indeed.

The impending storm

A memory comes to mind. Many years ago, Kathleen and I were on a road trip. As evening neared, we approached Clovis, New Mexico from the west. To the east we saw a huge dark, dark purple horizon. As we got closer, the darkness grew. We clearly were heading into a storm. It turned out to be a big one. Hail, heavy rain. We inched into town and the streets were awash with several inches of water. We had a similar experience more recently, driving home from the northeast. Here the dark, dark purple horizon was near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia come together along the Potomac River.

In both cases, there was this strong uneasy, fearful, feeling as we approached the storm. We felt some wind but basically things were calm. But we knew we were heading into trouble and there was no place to go to avoid it. And, in both cases, the storm turned out to be worse than we even imagined.

This is how I feel right now. We’ve got these few weeks before the fury of the new Republican unified power on the federal level will hit us. I see no reason not to expect that the impact of that power won’t be even worse than the most fearful imaginings we might have right now.

Still, this is a time to try to think seriously and deeply—and I believe it is also a time to think theologically for those so inclined. The United States, the world’s one superpower, is in deep trouble. It is nearly impossible to imagine that the next four years won’t be a disaster in almost every sense of the word. And even should the nightmare end at that point, something that right now seems less than likely, the damage that will be done will be difficult to repair.

The importance of core convictions

I believe that one of things we should  be doing now—and this will remain important for as long as I can foresee—is think deeply about core convictions, about the meaning and purpose of life, about our orientation toward life. We are going to face severe stresses, and conflicts, and fears, and deep discouragement. What will guide us as we struggle to move ahead? Continue reading “The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?”

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A pragmatic case for voting Green

Ted Grimsrud—November 7, 2016

My post on Friday, “Why, in the end, I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton,” elicited quite a bit of discussion both here on the blog, on Facebook, and on the Mennonite World Review site where it was reblogged, as well as the MWR Facebook page.  I found most of the conversation to be discouraging. The Clinton supporters who responded, mostly personal friends, mostly Mennonites, mostly political progressives, mostly inclined toward pacifism, rarely if ever addressed the heart of my argument.

Problems with Clinton

My argument was not about Trump vs. Clinton but it was about the concerns posed by a potential Clinton presidency, most importantly (I suggest) in the areas of militarism and imperialism. I didn’t imply anything less than a deeply negative view of Trump. I stated that the question about voting for Clinton or not was for me a question that depended on being in a state where Clinton is almost certain to win (or, even more, in a state where Trump is certain to win)—not a truly contested state. Given that dynamic, I suggested that for me a vote for Jill Stein has the virtue of affirming a vision that actually affirms peace as a core commitment.

However, almost all of the negative comments turned it back to Clinton vs. Trump. There was hardly a hint that anyone is deeply troubled by Clinton’s warism—and interestingly, no one felt the need to challenge my assumptions about this warism. So, the basic sense is that yes, indeed, Clinton is committed to greater militarism and imperialism, but this is nothing to be worried about.

Now, my argument did rest on the premise that Clinton almost certainly would win Virginia. One of the ways I supported this premise was to point out that neither Trump nor Clinton was campaigning here, with the implication that both campaigns were accepting that Clinton would win Virginia. Well, since I wrote that, it turns out that Trump is coming here. As I said I would under those circumstance, I am reconsidering my vote. Continue reading “A pragmatic case for voting Green”

Why, in the end, I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton

Ted Grimsrud—November 4, 2016

Few of the people I know, even those who strongly supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, are agonizing about their presidential vote next week. It is clear to just about everyone in my circles, it seems, that Donald Trump’s unacceptability as president could not be more clear. Hence, a vote for Clinton is a no-brainer.

Thinking in the context of the electoral college

I have been unsure, however. Not that I would imagine voting for Trump. Not that I don’t believe that Trump would be a complete disaster as president, a horror beyond imagining. But it seems important to me to recognize that our presidential election, given the undemocratic reality of the electoral college, is actually 50 different elections. As we learned in 2000, the winner of the national popular vote will not necessarily win the election.

So, the particular election I am voting in is the election that will determine the votes of Virginia’s members of the electoral college. This fact is important to keep in mind as I reflect on my struggle to discern how to cast my ballot. It is altogether possible that if we did go by the popular vote, I might decide to vote for Clinton—not so much as a vote for her as for a vote that would prevent Trump’s election (I made this kind of argument for voting for Obama in 2012—whereas in 2008 I happily [and naively] voted for Obama, believing at least a little in the hopey, changey stuff).

It is also altogether possible that if I lived in a state such as Ohio or Florida, where the outcome seems very much in doubt and whose electoral votes will be crucial to the outcome, I would vote for Clinton.

But those are irrelevant considerations for me as a resident of Virginia. In a stark contrast to 2000, when I voted for Ralph Nader because Virginia was in the bag for George Bush (meaning a vote for Albert Gore seemed like a wasted vote), now it seems as if Virginia is in the bag for Clinton. I am glad for this for two reasons—one is that I do want Trump to lose, the second is that I feel freer to think of my vote as one I can cast based on my ideals than simply a vote to prevent a worse evil happening. Continue reading “Why, in the end, I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton”

A simple way to world peace? Recognize America as “Beast”

Ted Grimsrud—September 19, 2016

I offer what follows as a thought experiment, an attempt to flesh out a recent late night rumination. I finished reading a fine book, Douglas Fry, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. Fry, who is an anthropologist, seeks to refute the notion of “man as warrior” that assumes that human beings are innately hardwired to fight wars. Fry focuses on hunter-gatherer societies; he argues that some of these societies, presumably more revelatory of human nature, are not warriors.

I like Fry’s argument, though since I don’t know much about hunter-gatherer societies, I mostly have to take his word for it on the evidence he cites. But what he suggests fits well with other things I have read over the years. At the very end of the book he tries briefly to draw broader implications. Here he speaks of the need for a stronger, UN-type organization to help nations avoid warfare.

That suggestion made me think. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with that kind of approach—I’d like to see the peacemaking work of the UN be strengthened and more effective, as well as a stronger and more effective international law regime. But then I thought, surely the most powerful force that resists that kind of movement is the United States. If the US were committed to UN peacemaking work and international law, then we’d have a much more peaceable world. Continue reading “A simple way to world peace? Recognize America as “Beast””

Misconstruing the Trump Crisis

Ted Grimsrud—September 5, 2016

We are in the middle of what seems certain to be one of the worst presidential campaigns in United States’ history. We have the two candidates with the highest negativity ratings in the history of measuring that indicator.

Trump as disaster

And the thing is, the negative ratings for Donald Trump are not nearly as high as they should be. In this blog post, I take it for granted that Trump is a terrible person, remarkably unsuited to be president of the USA. He’s dishonest, narcissistic, mean-spirited, bigoted, ignorant, irreverent, thin-skinned, controlling, sexist, racist, and surrounded by yay-sayers. A disaster in every way; a world-class con-man in the words of Matt Taibbi.

Something else I take for granted in this post is that Hillary Clinton’s negative ratings are too high. She’s not nearly as bad as her public image would imply—at least in the sense that she has been for years and continues to be unfairly vilified, disrespected, slandered, and the like in large part due to her being a woman. At the least, she is vilified often for the wrong reasons.

So, Trump is a disaster who shouldn’t be the candidate of a major political party and as his party’s candidate should not be nearly as close to leading the race as he is. And Clinton is unfairly discriminated against because she is a woman.

And yet, the way the campaign seems to be unfolding is quite troubling for other reasons. As awful as Trump is, he is not the reincarnation of Hitler. There is debate among “experts” whether the invocation of Hitler in relation to Trump violates Godwin’s Law (the idea that internet debates, if they go on long enough, tend to end with references to one’s opponent being like Hitler—a move that in some settings leads to a declaration that in invoking Hitler, one loses the debate).

Regardless, one could argue that the Trump-is-like-Hitler references exaggerate both Trump’s power and his darkness. Trump actually differs from Hitler in crucial ways—maybe most significantly in having nothing even remotely like Hitler’s Nazi Party to implement his inhumane ideology, not to mention also having nothing even remotely like Hitler’s coherent, long-standing, and well-articulated ideology.

Continue reading “Misconstruing the Trump Crisis”

The missing peace in the Democratic Party convention

Ted Grimsrud—August 1, 2016

It seems that the recently concluded Democratic Party convention (DNC) was a success. Clearly, the convention was orchestrated to show a direct contrast with the Republican Party convention the previous week—highlighting diversity, care for the poor, positive hope for the nation, and the like. And unity. The threat of major disruption from supporters of Bernie Sanders proved to be minimal—beyond some random “no more war” chants that were ignored by the people in charge. Sanders helped with his explicit support for Clinton.

Sanders’s speech was a model in how he affirmed Clinton’s candidacy going forward while he also reemphasized the core themes of his campaign. He received a kind of affirming echo from Clinton in her speech, as she lifted up many Sandersian points. Surely, the success of his insurgency campaign pulled her in his direction—and one can fantasize that Sanders and many others will help keep her to her word on many of the issues: vs. harmful free trade agreements, for economic justice, for greater access to higher education, for an increased minimum wage, for criminal justice reform, challenging the big banks, et al.

However, there was something crucial missing from Sanders’s speech—and he perhaps lost the one opportunity possible at the convention to challenge the worst of Clinton’s politics. Sanders said nothing about opposition to war and militarism. And, so, the empire continues to hurtle toward brokenness—and to take all of us with it. There are many angles one could take in decrying this lack of opposition—I write as a Christian theologian. Though it was indeed remarkable how visible explicit Christian faith was at the DNC, I take little comfort in a phenomenon I normally might have welcomed. This Christian presence runs the danger of being just another baptism of empire, even if “kinder and gentler” (ironic allusion to George H.W. Bush intended) than previous baptisms, if it won’t lead to an explicit commitment to “no more war.” Continue reading “The missing peace in the Democratic Party convention”

The case for Bernie Sanders

Ted Grimsrud—May 27, 2016

Yesterday on Facebook, a friend of mine, Jessica Penner, raised a question to me in a conversation about our current presidential campaign:

Okay, let’s say Bernie gets the nomination and wins the election. HOW will he get done half (or even a quarter) of what he plans with a congress that won’t vet a Supreme Court justice for the sitting president, with a congress that stripped Obamacare to a shadow of what the sitting president envisioned, with a congress that works to get rid of what good Obamacare does (and hurt people like me–a person working full-time but without benefits who also has pesky pre-existing conditions) that our sitting president created. HOW WILL HE DO IT? NO ONE HAS ANSWERED THIS QUESTION. I told your grandson several months ago that Bernie has my heart, but Hillary has my head. Tell me how he will do it, and maybe Bernie might creep into my head.

I don’t have a quick and decisive answer to this challenge, but I think it is worth taking a little time to respond. For me, both my heart and my head tell me that Sanders is the best serious presidential candidate that we have had since Jesse Jackson and that if he were elected at the least his presidency would be way less destructive than a Clinton presidency. I’m not sure Sanders would be all that effective in terms of his agenda, but I am sure Clinton would be devastatingly worse.

I think our current system is failing at an ever faster speed. I don’t have much hope that a Sanders presidency would prevent a catastrophe. However, I do see a glimmer of hope; on the other hand, to me the main difference between a Clinton presidency and a Trump presidency would be about levels of despair. So, really, the case for Sanders has mostly to do with the case against Clinton. However, Sanders is long committed to a positive agenda that truly would bring about major changes and might turn the direction of the system around. Even if he has little chance of implementing much his agenda, if he were president there would be some chance. A Clinton presidency would at best push us just a bit more slowly down the slide into catastrophe than a Trump presidency.

Some specific themes:

(1) I don’t think it’s fair to imply that Sanders couldn’t get his agenda approved by a Republican Congress while Clinton could. We can completely agree that the current Congress is set up to foil any legislative initiative any Democratic president would pursue. This is not, in any sense that I can see, a point in Clinton’s favor. She would go into office with a much deeper and longer-established level of antipathy from Republicans than Sanders would, so it seems at least as likely that she would not be able to get her goals passed.

The difference I see would be more on the level of the things the president can accomplish in spite of Congress. It seems like Obama finally at the end of his time in office has decided to push his agenda more forcefully and to some positive effect (e.g., stronger environmental oversight, the opening to Cuba). I’m more confident of Sanders being assertive in this way than Clinton. Plus, even more, I’m more confident of Sanders appointing a Cabinet that would pursue more progressive policies—most obviously with his commitment to resisting the domination of Wall Street we have seen among many of Obama’s appointees (and likely Clinton appointees). Continue reading “The case for Bernie Sanders”

The humane person’s dilemma regarding the “war on terror”

Ted Grimsrud—December 14, 2015

At the beginning of one of my classes the other day, a student asked me what I thought we should do about ISIS? He said he was writing a paper on the topic. My main response was to say that I didn’t have a quick answer ready that I could give in 30 seconds. I said I would get back to him.

Later that day I sent him a link to Juan Cole’s recent short essay that gives some sensible pointers—(1) Don’t accept that the best response to the actions of ISIS is to “declare war.” Actual states should not grant such legitimacy to small bands of violent criminals. (2) Welcome refugees. To characterize all Syrian refugees as potential combatants and to refuse to help them is to play into the hands of ISIS recruiters. (3) Take a public health response to the radicalization of youth in Europe’s bidenvilles—focus on community policing and proactive governmental intervention to improve the dignity of the people.

However, as I thought of about the question, I was troubled with the implications of how this kind of question is usually phrased. What should we do about ISIS? What should we do about Saddam Hussein? What should we do about the Communist threat? What should we do about Hitler?

Who is the “we”?

What troubles me is that this comfortable use of “we” raises what is often seen to be an irresolvable dilemma for pacifists and other people who prioritize peace. The implied answer to this kind of question is almost always that “we” must resort to military force.

We should pause to think about what “we” means here. Who are the possible “we’s” in such a question? (1) Certainly one “we” could refer to the leaders of the United States—after all, we live in a representative democracy and as citizens of this nation what our leaders choose to do does reflect on us. This is what “we” in this context usually seems to refer to.

But the “we” could also mean something such as: (2) we who as citizens of this country have a patriotic duty to advocate for what best serves the nation as a whole (with the recognition that most of the time the policies pursued by national leaders are not in the best interests of the nation as a whole, but more in the best interests of the power elite—the people who profit from war, such as the recent war on Iraq).

There are other possible “we’s” as well. I’m a Mennonite Christian. (3) Shouldn’t my “we” be centered more on my community of faith (which transcends national borders) and my sense of God’s will, not my nation-state? As well, I identify as an international citizen, a person who especially makes common cause with other people who share many of my convictions about pacifism, anarchism, egalitarianism, economic justice, and similar ideals. (4) Isn’t the sense of “we” I share with such other (let me suggest the term) “humane people” more important than particular national identities?

Continue reading “The humane person’s dilemma regarding the “war on terror””

Pacifism when “life happens”: Further thoughts

Ted Grimsrud—October 2, 2014

Christian pacifism seems to be an issue that people care about a lot, even if they aren’t always very sympathetic toward it. I’m still trying to figure out how to think about it and talk about it, and I’ve been working on that for a long time and with a lot of energy.

I appreciate the stimulus to thought that the exchanges concerning Christian pacifism this week have provided. Thanks to Rachel Held Evans for her initial brief but stimulating Facebook comments that pushed me to write the blog post I put up on Monday (“Is pacifism for when life happens? A response to Rachel Held Evans”). And thanks to her for putting up a link to that post on her Facebook page, to those who commented there, and especially to those who commented directly on my blog and my Facebook page.

As always, when this kind of thing happens, my mind races. I have a few thoughts that seem like new thoughts for me that I would like to add to the conversation.

The meaning of “Christian pacifism”

In my “Is pacifism…” post I tried to make two main points—that (1) Jesus does call Christians to pacifism, which is for all times and places according to his teaching, and that (2) since the United States military is not an agent for genuine justice, Christians should not look to it as a possible answer to the question of what to do about ISIS (which is what I understood to be the trigger for Rachel’s original Facebook comments last week).

This is what I mean by Christian pacifism: Basically, in my mind, thinking of myself as a Christian pacifist is the same thing as thinking of myself as a Christian. Not because I want to add a pacifist ideology onto basic Christian faith. Rather, I believe that “pacifism” is simply a shorthand way to say “Christianity as if Jesus matters.”

I explain this in the other day’s post where I use the story of the Good Samaritan as the central image for summarizing Jesus’s teaching (and his living). What matters the most? What is the ultimate “salvation issue” for Jesus? It’s the call to love God and neighbor. And who is the “neighbor”? Anyone in need and anyone who cares for someone in need—even if one or the other might be considered an enemy.

The term “pacifism” is useful because it reminds us that the kind of love Jesus calls us to is love that does not allow for exceptions. It is love that does not allow for killing, preparing to kill, or supporting those who kill others (that is, it does not allow for warfare). However, it appears that at times this term can be misunderstood. The point for Christian pacifism as I understand it not to insist on the necessity of the term “pacifism” but to remind Christians of the core message of our faith. Continue reading “Pacifism when “life happens”: Further thoughts”

Reversing World War II’s moral legacy (part two)

[This is the second of two parts of the final section of the conclusion to a just completed book: The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. The first part of this section is here.]

Ted Grimsrud—June 4, 2013

I believe that the critical reflection on the story of World War II that I have offered in this book might help in the needed (if impossible) work of redirecting our overwhelming spiral of militarism. I will briefly mention ways this story might help us reverse World War II’s moral legacy. Reversing this moral legacy will help us create space to be human—work that is not dependent upon the state, an institution in our current setting that seems unalterably wed to the dynamics of the National Security State.

Speak accurately about the War. We may start by naming World War II for what it actually was. It was not a necessary war, certainly not a good war, for the United States. It did not serve the roll of protecting American from invasion, of saving Jews in the midst of genocide, or of resisting tyranny and furthering actual democracy around the world. It was an exercise in extraordinary and largely out of control violence that transformed the United States into a militarized global hegemon and severely undermined American democracy.

Rigorously apply Just War principles. As we name World War II for what it was—an exercise in mass killing and unleashed militarism, we might also resolve to use the Just War philosophy that many people claim to honor in a way that has teeth. One of the assumptions of this philosophy has commonly been that we apply the philosophy in order to identify and reject unjust wars. In this book, I have attempted to apply criteria such as just cause, non-combatant immunity, and proportionality to the events of America’s involvement in World War II. I have concluded that the American war effort did not satisfactorily meet those criteria and hence that World War II was an unjust war. Continue reading “Reversing World War II’s moral legacy (part two)”