Pacifism and saying no to the state: Various motives for refusal [Pacifism today #7]

Ted Grimsrud—April 15, 2022

With a breathtaking rapidity, the United States in the last couple of months has moved decisively in a militaristic direction. As historian Andrew Bacevich recently wrote, many American leaders “welcome the Ukraine War as the medium that will reignite an American commitment to the sort of assertive and muscular approach to global policy favored in militaristic quarters…. Putin … has handed the United States ‘a historic opportunity to regroup and reload for an era of intense competition’—with not only Russia but also China meant to be in our crosshairs.”

The delight of these militarist leaders and the arms dealers who also are profiting so greatly from the new conflict should give people who actually care about peace on earth pause before believing the spin our government and corporate media are giving things right now. We will almost certainly face a continued ratcheting up of militaristic dynamics in our society for the foreseeable future. The warism of our culture has always been bubbling just below the surface even as other crises have demanded attention. For it to move front and center hopefully will clarify that militarism is the problem that must be resolved if we are to make progress in overcoming the climate crisis, the curse of white supremacy, the violence of our policing and mass incarceration regimes, environmental collapse, the functioning of our democracy, and many others.

Effective opposition to the warism seems far from possible at this moment, though. The one single issue that seems to unite Democrats and Republicans is expansion of our war-making capabilities. The apparent impossibility of opposition does not diminish what may be a fact—we turn from warism as a society, or we all go down.  

In face of all this, the witness of pacifism seems more relevant than ever. When there is such uncritical support for pouring weapons of war into Ukraine, Germany greatly expanding its military spending, and the dynamics of confrontation rather than reconciliation with Russia and China, it seems pacifists are some of the few who voice opposition. One hope we might have is that with our nation’s warism so front and center, more people will question whether we actually do want our nation to be so committed to military “solutions” after all. Maybe this will lead to more interest in pacifism.

Continue reading “Pacifism and saying no to the state: Various motives for refusal [Pacifism today #7]”

Is Christian pacifism a thing?

Ted Grimsrud—May 20, 2019

I can imagine several ways that the question I ask in the title of this post could go, so I want to start by explaining what I mean. By pacifism, I have in mind the principled unwillingness to support or participate in warfare or other forms of lethal violence (though I will say a bit more below that will define pacifism in more detail). For the purposes of what I write here, I assume the validity of pacifism. My question has to do with whether there is a type of pacifism that is uniquely Christian—that is, in effect, only available to Christians.

To make this more personal, I can rephrase the question: (1) Am I a pacifist because I am a Christian? Or, (2) Am I a Christian because I am a pacifist? Which comes first? Which is more essential? Now, of course, most Christians are not pacifists. And surely many pacifists are not Christians. As I have thought about this lately, I have come to conclude that though my self-awareness of having an explicitly pacifist commitment came at a time when I would have believed #1 (that I was a pacifist because I was a Christian), I now think that #2 is true for me (that is, to the extent I would see myself as a Christian it is because I am a pacifist and I know of a kind of Christianity that affirms pacifism). I should also say before I go further that I recognize that so much of this kind of discussion depends on how we define our terms. I will try to do that with care as I move along—but I request of the reader some tolerance with the limits of our language. I offer these reflections more as a kind of thought experiment than pretending to present anything definitive. Continue reading “Is Christian pacifism a thing?”

Christianity on war and peace: An overview

Ted Grimsrud—March 15, 2018

[I was recently asked to write up the following brief overview of how Christians tend to view warfare. It will hopefully be published in the forthcoming Bloomsbury Companion to Studying Christians.]

Accounts of how Christians think and act in relation to war have tended to repeat the general typology that was introduced back in 1960 by historian Roland Bainton in Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. Bainton saw three categories: pacifism (the commitment not to participate in war in any form), the just war (the willingness to go to war when certain criteria insuring the justness of the war are met), and the crusade (a sense of call from God to fight in a war that is understood to be divinely required).

However, this typology has been criticized for leaving too many options out and over-simplifying what is left. As an alternative, I propose a revised typology that has two main types: (1) Negatively disposed toward war and (2) positively disposed toward war. Each of these two types has three subtypes.

“Negatively disposed” toward war

What unites the three “negatively disposed” approaches is the conviction that, morally, the benefit of the doubt is always against war.

  1. Principled pacifism. This view is against war based on starting principles. For example, some Christians have said that they can not fight due to their understanding of Jesus’ commands such as “love your enemies.” The relative justice of particular wars is irrelevant. For example, in the United States during World War II those who were morally opposed to fighting were allowed to do alternative service as conscientious objectors. Such conscientious objectors refused military service simply because they believed any possible war was wrong due to their moral principles. Even if their country was to fight in a “just war,” principled pacifists would still refuse to fight.
  2. Pragmatic pacifism. This view is against war based on the evidence of how warfare works in actual practice. These conclusions follow from using just war criteria to conclude that all actual wars are certain to be unjust; that is, this pacifism is based on evidence. This view suggests that each war has violated some if not all the standard just war criteria.
  3. Critical just war. This view differs from “pragmatic pacifism” due by being open to the possibility that just war criteria may be met. These criteria typically are sorted into two categories: “just cause” (e.g., defending against aggression, resisting tyranny, stopping atrocities, declared by a legitimate authority, only undertaken as a last resort, undertaken with the near certainty of victory) and “just means” (e.g., noncombatants are not targeted, the violence used is not out of proportion to the good that the war achieves, of limited duration, the humane treatment of prisoners of war). This view starts with the assumption that any particular war is not just unless proved otherwise. The logical conclusion for those holding this view is that wars that do not overcome that burden of proof should be opposed. Something like this was a common view in the U.S. during the Vietnam War for many draftees who refused to fight went to Canada or prison.

Continue reading “Christianity on war and peace: An overview”

Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 2—A general critique

Ted Grimsrud

I believe that Rod Dreher, in his book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, identifies some genuine problems in American society and proposes a response that in some important ways resonates with biblical faith (see my affirmative first post in this series).  However, that he is partly right actually makes the problems with his proposal more troubling.

The problem: Not enough love

In a nutshell, I would say that the “Benedict Option” ultimately hurts the cause of Christian faith because it does not take Jesus seriously enough. The very core of Jesus’s message points to the path of love—for God, for neighbor, for enemy, for self, and for the rest of creation. Dreher has very little to say in this book about Jesus or about love. It’s fine that this book is about our present day and not a biblical or theological treatise. At the same time, I find it significant that when making his case for what matters most for Christians navigating life “in a post-Christian nation,” Dreher barely references Jesus and the biblical story at all.

It is telling that the one clear call to the path of love does not come until near the end of the book. In the book’s conclusion, Dreher quotes Pastor Greg Thompson, a Presbyterian minister: The Benedict Option ultimately has to be a matter of love. “The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ and dwelling with our neighbors in love, it ceases to be Benedictine” (page 237).

Thompson’s call surely is sincere, and it surely reflects Dreher’s own convictions. However, in the structure of the book, the call to love is clearly on the periphery. Dreher never finds the space to reflect on the meaning of love or to bring Jesus’s life and teaching into the picture. There are other reasons to perceive that love is not the driving force in this project. As I will discuss at more length in my next post, Dreher’s way of focusing on the “problem” of same-sex marriage reflects that marginalization of love.

Ironically, Dreher seems to miss one of the key points in the book that provided him with the image of St. Benedict as standing at the core of his project. In his book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Alasdair MacIntyre seeks to recover the Aristotelian emphasis on the virtues as what is needed to overcome the moral disarray of modern Western culture. But he points out key difference between Aristotle and later Christian appropriation of virtue ethics. Aristotle did not include love (or, an older term, “charity”) as a key virtue. In Aristotle’s moral universe, an emphasis on love is inconceivable. Whereas, for biblical Christianity, “charity is not … just one more virtue to be added to the list. Its inclusion alters the conception of the good for [humankind] in a radical way” (page 174). Continue reading “Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 2—A general critique”

Refuting the evangelical rejection of same-sex relationsips: A response to James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality

Ted Grimsrud—July 5, 2016

Evangelical Christians in North America are evolving—gradually—to become more welcoming of LGBTQ Christians. One indication of this movement is the growth in the number of books that come from a relatively conservative theological perspective arguing on biblical grounds for such welcome. One of the best of these books is Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans, 2013) by James V. Brownson.

Brownson is a long-time New Testament professor at Western Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. The RCA resembles Mennonite Church USA in the wide theological diversity among its congregations. As a whole, it appears to fit into an interesting space between the evangelical world and the “mainstream” Protestant world—active in ecumenical relationships on both sides.

However, as far as I know, Brownson represents a minority perspective in the RCA with his argument for the affirmation of same-sex marriage. His views as expressed in this book surely will evoke strong antipathy from many corners of the RCA world.

A parent’s response

One way to situate this book is to see it as a father’s response to his son coming out at gay. This event, which Brownson calls a “dramatic shock to my life,” challenged him “to re-imagine how Scripture speaks about homosexuality” (p.1). Most fathers in this situation (and I know quite a few who made a move somewhat like Brownson’s—becoming affirming of same-sex relationships as a consequence of one’s child coming out) don’t have the expertise to write a 300-page scholarly treatise that chronicles this “re-imagining.” We should be grateful that Brownson does.

Of course, Brownson’s transparency could lead a suspicious reader to dismiss his book as special pleading. Brownson’s bias of acceptance of his son could be seen as undermining his scholarly objectivity, perhaps fatally. On the other hand, for some of us this confession of personal interest actually helps validate Brownson’s work. It shows that he will understand the human issues involved, in particular the pain caused by restrictive arguments that all too often show a profound disregard for the emotional and relational costs of their agenda. Continue reading “Refuting the evangelical rejection of same-sex relationsips: A response to James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality

Why we should think of God as pacifist—(4) Experience and history

Ted Grimsrud—June 24, 2014

I believe that we should think of God as pacifist. By the nature of the case, though, this is not something we can prove decisively. This is a kind of value judgment or choice—to see God and the world in a certain way. However, I would not call such a conviction a simple leap of faith that flies in the face of the evidence. In fact, I think we have good reasons for such a belief.

I wrote in a previous post why I believe the Bible, ultimately, teaches that God is pacifist, even if the evidence is decidedly mixed. I would say the same thing about creation. The world we live in and our experience as human beings over time in this world, when seen as a whole, does offer support for thinking of God as pacifist—although, again, the evidence is decidedly mixed.

What kind of connection do we see between God and the world around us? One way to think of this is in terms of God as creator whose creation reflects the character of its source. If the world comes from God, we should expect to see evidence to support the idea that a loving, even pacifist, creator made what is. I think we should expect that as we look ever deeper into the world we live in, we will find signs of the presence of our God there since our God is inextricably linked with the deepest truths that we can perceive.

The way my thinking has evolved has been a kind of moving back and forth between the biblical portrayal of Jesus and God and the call to pacifism on the one side and seeing reality as pacifist on the other. In terms of my conscious thought, when I became a pacifist at age 21 and begin to think about other things in light of that pacifism, I started with the biblical message and in light of that began consciously think of the world differently. But in time I realized that my life had been shaped from its beginning by the experience of love in a fundamental way, experience that surely helped prepare me to see Jesus’s message the way I did. Continue reading “Why we should think of God as pacifist—(4) Experience and history”

Why we should think of God as pacifist—(2) The Bible

Ted Grimsrud—June 4, 2014

For Christians, our thinking about God should have at its core the life and teaching of Jesus. Obviously, what Christians think about God has to do with much more than what Jesus said and did, but part of the definition of “Christian” should be that we understand God in terms of Jesus’s teaching about God and how Jesus showed what God is like by his actions.

Sadly, due to what we could call a “christological evasion of Jesus,” the Christian tradition has all too often focused on doctrines about Jesus rather than on what he actually said and did. Thus, Jesus’s own life and teaching have not played a central role in the construction of the Christian doctrine of God.

As I discussed in my previous post introducing this four-part series of blog posts, Christianity is implicated in terrible spirals of violence characteristic of our culture here in the United States (imperialism, nationalism, militarism, punitive criminal justice, sexual violence, homophobia, et al). I believe one of our most important tasks is to rethink our theology in order to recover the deeply peaceable core message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I believe that one important component of such a task is to cultivate an understanding of God as pacifist.

To cultivate such an understanding, we need to wrestle with the biblical materials—source both of evidence for seeing God as violent and of evidence for seeing God as pacifist. In working through the biblical portrayal of God, we must make a decision about how central Jesus’s life and teaching will be—and, of course, develop an interpretation of what we understand the content of the Jesus part of the story to be.

What follows is a brief account of why I see the Jesus material in the Bible as decisive in discerning the pacifism of God. Continue reading “Why we should think of God as pacifist—(2) The Bible”

Why we should think of God as pacifist—(1) Introduction

Ted Grimsrud—June 3, 2014

Christianity for too long has been too implicated in violence. Wars, rumors of war, preparation for war, violently punitive criminal justice practices, violent child discipline practices, violence toward women, sexual minorities, and other vulnerable people, the exploitation of non-human animals and the natural world. There may be no issue as pressing for the viability of the Christian tradition than breaking the spiral of violence that Christians have been all too active in sustaining.

We may easily think of various components of a violence-overcoming expression of Christian faith—including growth in skills of nonviolent conflict resolution, cultivating love for our neighbors (and expanding the definition of neighbor to include even enemies), cultivating peaceable ways of raising children, enhancing the celebration of biblical bases for peace in our congregations, growing in abilities to deny the violence-empowering dynamics of “othering,” and so on.

In a series of four blog posts, I want to reflect on an underlying issue: how might the ways we think of God contribute to overcoming the curse of violence? I will start with a bold hypothesis. We should actually think of God as pacifist. One way we might define how we use the word “God” is that God is what we worship, what constitutes the core of our sense of what matters most in life, what is most essential to our existence, and what empowers us to feel at home in the universe. Thinking of God as pacifist, then, would be a pretty big deal. Continue reading “Why we should think of God as pacifist—(1) Introduction”

John Howard Yoder and anarchism

Ted Grimsrud—July 10, 2013

A number of years ago when I read George Woodcock’s classic history of AnarchismI found the thinking he described quite attractive. I spent some time considering how compatible anarchism would be with my Christian pacifism. I have believed it would be, but never quite found time to pursue the issue in more depth. At some point, though, I was struck with the thought that John Howard Yoder’s “politics of Jesus” could perhaps be understood as a version of anarchism.

I have resolved to spend some time pursuing this line of thought in the months to come. I just started reading a massive, well-written, wide-ranging and fascinating history of anarchism, Peter Marshall’s Demanding the Impossible: A History of AnarchismI plan to write more about that book as I read through it. This fall, when I teach my “Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice” class (which includes reading Yoder’s Politics and Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination), I expect to devote quite a bit of attention to thinking about anarchism in relation to Yoder’s and Wink’s ways of reading the Bible.

Happily, I encountered a recent article that encourages me to pursue this project. This article (Ted Troxell, “Christian Theology: Postanarchism, Theology, and John Howard Yoder,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 7.1 [2013], 37-59) came to my attention at just the right time. It’s already one of my favorite essays on Yoder’s thought.

Troxell helps me understand quite a bit about the current terrain in discussions about anarchism, and better yet confirms my sense that bringing Yoder and anarchism together is a good idea. Continue reading “John Howard Yoder and anarchism”

On thinking like a postmodern Anabaptist (if that’s possible)

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2013

What do you get when you put together an appreciation for well-known postmodern thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas with a self-identification with Anabaptist theology, membership in a Mennonite congregation, a (tentative) commitment to pacifism, and an affirmation of the core theological project of John Howard Yoder? Then you add an academic location that combines the field of social theory with a professorship at a notorious bastion of libertarianism and Republicanism (Hillsdale College)? And for good measure, include some rock and roll….

Well, you could get an incoherent mess. Or, if the person who embodies all these disparate influences (and more) is intelligent and clear-thinking and a good writer and has a whimsical sense of humor, you might get a remarkable and pathbreaking collection of essays. Happily, Pete Blum’s For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought (Herald Press, 2013) fits in the second category.

The value of experiments

Perhaps the operative term in the book’s title is “experiments.” The seven essays here are each characterized by an openness, a tentativeness, and a gentleness of spirit. Blum addresses challenging issues. He’s an amazingly clear writer even as the themes he addresses are not easy or superficial. But there is a humility here, a sense of invitation to a conversation. There is no show-boating or disdain. No sense of seeking to shock or intimidate.

This is a collection of conversations—Blum talking with his thinkers and trying to get them to talk with each other. Some of the conversations are maybe a bit surprising—pairing the biblicist Mennonite pacifist Yoder with the French revolutionary atheist Foucault and then Yoder again with the only slightly less notoriously radical Jacques Derrida. Continue reading “On thinking like a postmodern Anabaptist (if that’s possible)”