How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources (Part One)

[Ted Grimsrud—February 10, 2013]

It’s not easy being a Christian pacifist. We make extraordinary claims (that war is never acceptable) on the basis of our faith convictions, even in the face of the reality that the vast majority of people who share many of those convictions reject these claims. It seems quite quixotic to argue for Christian pacifism when the facts seem to show that being a Christian makes a person less likely to be a pacifist.

Rather than quailing before this scenario, I propose that we Christian pacifists should double down and intensify our emphasis on the pacifist aspects of our belief systems. I think it is a terrible mistake for pacifist Christians to accept as normative the ways of reading Christian sources that ignore or actively oppose pacifism—no matter how widespread and institutionally embedded these non-pacifist readings are.

My main concern in this two-part post is to suggest that Christian pacifists should actively resist the tendency to see our pacifism as something extraneous to our core theological convictions, as a kind of overlay in relation to the “common beliefs” we share with other non-pacifist Christians. Part one will give examples of how pacifists read Christian sources non-pacifistically. And part two will give examples of pacifist readings of these sources.

Reading Christian Sources Non-Pacifistically

(1) One of the most common steps that immediately puts pacifists on the defensive is the acceptance of the assumption that the Old Testament is ultimately a problem for Christian pacifism. What matters most, it is assumed, in reading the Old Testament in relation to issues of violence, peace, and justice are the stories of God commanding warfare and exercising violent judgment. The God of the Old Testament is violent, vengeful, and practices punitive, retributive justice.

With this starting point, the pacifist must explain away the obvious normativity of violence. This is a challenging situation, to say the least. Pacifists have tried various strategies to retain their pacifism, but in general they allow the assumption of the Old Testament as a problem to stand. At best, it seems, the Old Testament is “messy” and gives us mixed messages. We will have to ground our pacifism on other sources—a resignation that invariably weakens the bases for that pacifism.

Continue reading “How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources (Part One)”

Are pacifists moral relativists?

[Ted Grimsrud—December 30, 2012]

I first read Nicholson Baker’s controversial book, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, in the summer of 2008, shortly after it was published. At the time, I thought it was a brilliant book (I reviewed it here). It obviously met with innumerable hostile reviews from both academics and general readers. This was not surprising given how the book challenges head on the assumptions so many make about American and British goodness in entering and fighting World War II. I can hope that many people open-minded enough to question those assumptions found Human Smoke helpful. I sure did.

Partly inspired by Baker’s book, I spent my sabbatical during the 2010-11 school year researching and writing a book on the moral legacy of World War II in the United States (here is some early fruit of that work—I hope to finish the final draft of the book by May 2013). After reading dozens of books and thinking strenuously about these issues and writing several hundred pages, I believe even more in the value of Baker’s work.

The assertion that pacifists are moral relativists

I was just recently stimulated to think more about Baker’s argument while reading Michael Burleigh’s book, Moral Combat: A History of World War II (I have the original British edition—the book was later published in the US as, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II). Burleigh is one who dismisses Human Smoke out of hand—which is not at all surprising or unusual. In seeing his dismissal this time, though, I paused to reflect a bit.

This is from Burleigh’s brief comments about Baker’s book: “A . . . fear of armed force has resulted in a dubious moral relativism, exemplified by Nicholson Baker’s pacifist tract Human Smoke, in which all belligerents were as bad as one another. . . . He implies that because Churchill may have drunk too much, or because Eleanor Roosevelt was an anti-Semitic snob in her youth, they were on par with a dictator who murdered six million Jews. The leaders of the English-speaking democracies allegedly went to war to benefit a sinister arms-manufacturing military-industrial complex, a view which much appealed to extreme US isolationists in the 1930s, and which resonates with the international left nowadays. This [is an] exercise in extreme moral relativism (and crude conspiracy theory)” (p. x). Continue reading “Are pacifists moral relativists?”

One problem (among many) with the just war theory

[Ted Grimsrud—December 9, 2012]

Though I am strongly committed to pacifism (hence the name of this blog!—here are links to many of my writings on pacifism), I am finding myself more and more intrigued with the just war theory. For one thing, the theory provides our language for thinking about war morally, especially for thinking about specific wars. I also think that just war thought has potential for encouraging opposition both to specific wars and to war preparation in general. However, I say “has potential” intentionally, though, because I think the potential has largely been unrealized.

I think one of the big problems most writers on just war have that makes understanding the tradition more difficult is acting as if the two basic options in the Christian tradition in relation to war have been pacifism or just war. What is left out (a huge elephant in the room) is what has been by far the majority view towards war: what I will call (following John Howard Yoder, see Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution) the “blank check.” The blank check is the basic attitude that when it comes to war a citizen should essentially simply obey one’s government (i.e., give the government a blank check in relation to responding to war).

Perhaps we could say that someone such as Augustine argued for “just war” in relation to (a precious few) governmental leaders, though not at all in a rigorous way. By the time of Machiavelli, the overt argument for “realism” mainly simply stated what governmental leaders actually did much more than suggest a change from “just war” to straight self-interest. But from the start (meaning from the time in the fourth century when Christians began thinking of their ethics in terms of being responsible for the state), for ordinary citizens the basic stance toward war was “blank check” not “just war” (Augustine himself insisted that Christians should obey their governmental leaders, leaving discernment of the justness of war to those in charge of the society).

For this reason, we find next to no emphasis throughout the history of Christianity on what people should do when being expected to fight in unjust wars. And the just war theory has mainly played the role of providing bases to evaluate the relative justness of wars after the fact in totally non-binding ways.  Continue reading “One problem (among many) with the just war theory”

More thoughts about voting (or not) for a “warmonger”

Ted Grimsrud

As we draw closer to election day, 2012, I continue to reflect on the voting issue. My October 1, 2012, post asked the question “Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?”  [UPDATE: I posted a third installment on October 28: “Faith and Politics (Including Voting)”] I concluded that though indeed I believe that President Obama’s four years in office have been a time of increasingly distressing militarism, I still will vote for him. I posed this choice not so much as voting for a lesser evil but as voting against a greater evil. That is, I do not understand my vote to be an expression of support for Obama but to be an expression of opposition to the far more distressingly militaristic and destructive-in-many-more-areas policies I would expect from a Romney administration.

The original posts received many thoughtful and perceptive comments. Within the comments section, several other fascinating conversations that went beyond my own contribution emerged. With these responses and numerous conversations with friends and more reading and thinking, I want to take some time to say a bit more—mainly to try to restate and clarify the argument I am trying to develop. Continue reading “More thoughts about voting (or not) for a “warmonger””

Why World War II was a moral disaster for the United States (Part two)

Ted Grimsrud—May 28, 2012

[This post is a continuation of a two-part set of reflections on the moral legacy of World War II. Part one may be found here. An earlier post in the series, “Was World War II an unjust war?” may be found here.]

The national security state and the quest for world hegemony

The years immediately following World War II were determinative for the moral legacy of that war. The rationale given to the American people for the extraordinary costs paid to execute such an all-out war combined a strong dose of fear with an equally potent emphasis on idealism. As postwar events proved, fear won out.

The idealism found succinct voice in President Roosevelt’s State of the Union address on the “Four Freedoms” in January 1941 and in the Atlantic Charter, drawn up by Roosevelt and Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in August, 1941. Out of these statements came the mantra that the U.S. was fighting this war to provide for the self-determination of people from throughout the world, to defeat tyranny and spread the possibilities of democracy.

The public relations efforts of the American and British governments focused on the ideals of these two purpose statements. The Atlantic Charter was agreed upon by all the nations who allied themselves with the Americans and British in the war effort (including the Soviet Union!). These allies took the name, the “United Nations.” After the War ended in an Allied victory, the Charter provided the core values for the formalizing of the United Nations as an international organization of all the nations of the world for the purposes of peace and cooperative relationships.

Many people who had been anxious about negative consequences of total war for democracy and international peace put a great deal of hope in the newly formed United Nations in the immediate postwar years. Regardless of what was thought about the War itself, it could be seen as serving a good end should it lead to an effective and widely embraced United Nations. And the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms ideals provided bases for such hopes.

At the same time, many among the American leadership class believed that decisive victory in the War provided a not-to-be-missed opportunity for establishing their country’s economic and military domination. They faced a crossroads in the years immediately following the War. Would the U.S. demobilize in the dramatic manner that characterized the country after the Civil War and World War I? Or was this instead an opportunity to sustain the extraordinarily powerful status the country had achieved through its war effort (and, of course, through the devastating losses all its possible rivals had sustained)? Continue reading “Why World War II was a moral disaster for the United States (Part two)”

Why World War II was a moral disaster for the United States (Part one)

Ted Grimsrud—May 27, 2012

World War II stands as the greatest event in the history of the United States. The country poured all its energy into an intense effort that resulted in the defeat of one of the odious embodied political philosophies ever. As the years pass and we learn more and more about Nazi Germany, the more grateful we can be for the ignominious end to the “thousand year Reich.” This war also led to an almost equally ignominious end to the extraordinarily vicious Japanese imperial regime.

World War II also proved to be the catalyst that finally brought the deprivation of the Great Depression to and end in the U.S. and ushered in an extraordinary era of economic prosperity—prosperity for once that reached down into the middle classes and beyond. The U.S. not only contributed impressively to the defeat of these terrible enemies, but the country actually came through the War relatively unscathed. At the end of the War, the U.S. stood with unprecedented economic power and unmatched international prestige as the bearer of the ideals portrayed to great effect in statements such as the Atlantic Charter and the initial declaration of the “United Nations.” These statements rallied people to defeat forces in the world that stood implacably against ideals such as self-determination and disarmament.

World War II as a moral disaster?

So, in what senses, then, was World War II after all a moral disaster for the United States? I will suggest that what World War II actually did for the United States was (1) decisively corrupt the American democratic polity, (2) decisively empower the forces of militarism in the country that have since 1945 led the U.S. into foreign policy disaster after foreign disaster and visited so much violence and destruction on major sections of the world that the term “American holocaust” (William Blum, Killing Hope) may not in actuality not be much of a hyperbole, and (3) decisively shift the economic center of gravity in the country toward the corporate sector, setting the country on a path of long-term corruption, exploitation, and—in a genuine sense—economic self-immolation. Continue reading “Why World War II was a moral disaster for the United States (Part one)”

A basic Christian argument for affirming gay marriage (Part three)

Ted Grimsrud—May 22, 2012

In Part One of these three posts, I suggested that Christians should be disposed to affirm gay marriage—and then noted three arguments that tend to be used to override that positive initial disposition. Then, in Part Two, I focused on two of those three arguments that tend to be used as bases for withholding affirmation of gay marriage in Christian churches: that by the nature of it being between people of the same sex, gay marriage is harmful to the people involved and that gay marriage undermines the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. In this final post, I will look at the third argument: the teaching of the Bible.

The discussion of the Bible’s teaching is probably the most contentious of all three of our “debates.” Here are just a few thoughts.

The Bible, on the one hand, contains a great deal of teaching and many stories that indirectly speak to our general theme of affirming gay marriage (or not). Not least are the teachings and stories that speak about hospitality and God’s special concern for vulnerable people. As well, teachings and stories about human relationality (going clear back to the very beginning when God says of Adam that it is not good for this first human being to be alone). We also have teaching and stories about the importance of fidelity in relationships and the problems of socially harmful actions (such as violence, injustice, adultery, abuse in various forms).

On the other hand, the Bible does not say much directly about homosexuality (which is not surprising given that the term “homosexuality” itself is a modern term that seems to reflect a modern awareness of affectional orientation and sexual identity). What do we make, though, of the several texts that have typically been seen as providing a basis for generalizing about a biblical mandate to forbid same-sex intimate relationships (and, certainly, same-sex marriage)?

We should notice three things about these texts (the main ones that interpreters usually focus on are the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18–19, the teaching in Leviticus 18 and 20 against “men laying with men as with women,” and Paul’s references in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 to problems with same-sex sexual behaviors [we could also include 1 Timothy 1:10 which clearly is derivative from I Corinthians 6 and adds no new information to the issues raised in these texts]): (1) the Bible speaks only of male “homosexuality,” (2) the Bible is concerned with various behaviors, not just one “homosexual practice,” and (3) the New Testament contains no direct commands to Christians concerning homosexuality. Continue reading “A basic Christian argument for affirming gay marriage (Part three)”

A basic Christian argument for affirming gay marriage (Part two)

Ted Grimsrud—May 21, 2012

In the first part of this post, I suggested that Christian churches should be disposed toward affirming gay marriage. Two key factors that support this disposition are (1) the sense we have that marriage is a good thing that should be encouraged and supported in the churches and (2) the emphasis the Bible places on hospitality, especially toward vulnerable people, as a central calling of faith communities.

Both of these points speak to a general disposition, that we should be inclined toward affirmation unless there are clear reasons to override this disposition. It would be possible to draw negative conclusions about gay marriage even if one affirms the disposition toward affirmation. We could do so if we were convinced that there is something inherently immoral about the same-sexness of the partnership.

The argument in favor of affirming gay marriage, though, is at its heart an argument in favor of rigorous moral expectations concerning intimate relationships. It is an argument that same-sex couples should be expected to adhere to the moral standards that govern heterosexual marriage. It is not an argument for relaxing those standards or applying different standards to same-sex couples than apply to heterosexual couples.

The challenge for those who would not affirm gay marriage, then, is to show that there is something inherently wrong simply in the partners being of the same sex. I identified three reasons that are often given by those who do withhold affirmation. The relationships are seen to be immoral: (1) if the relationship is harmful to the people involved; or (2) if the relationship undermines the sanctity of marriage; or (3) if the Bible tells us that, even so, this relationship violates God’s will for human beings.

I use the case of the relationship between “Ilse” and “Jennifer” (based on actual people I know) to present the most positive scenario possible on behalf of affirming gay marriage. To withhold such affirmation, one would need to show why this relationship is immoral (and overcome the benefit of the doubt in favor of affirmation based on the positive value we see in marriage and the biblical call for hospitality toward vulnerable people). Continue reading “A basic Christian argument for affirming gay marriage (Part two)”

A basic Christian argument for affirming gay marriage (Part one)

Ted Grimsrud—May 20, 2012

Over the past fifteen years or so, I have given numerous talks and papers in various settings explaining why I believe that Christian churches should take a welcoming or inclusive stance in relation to homosexuality. These talks have evolved over time. The most recent presentation came when I was a guest speaker in a seminary sexual ethics class.

Because it does not seem that this discussion is going to end any time soon (witness the recent juxtaposition of North Carolina’s vote against gay marriage and President Obama’s statement of support for gay marriage), I find it necessary to keep thinking about how to articulate my views. Here, I will offer an expansion of the remarks I made in my seminary class presentation.

Point one: Marriage is a good thing

My first starting point is the belief that marriage is a good thing. Christians should work in their communities to offer support for married people—to help couples in their struggles, to celebrate the beauty of these relationships, to encourage people entering into healthy and life-enhancing covenant relationships. In our contemporary American society, marriage is a difficult undertaking; the odds are tragically high that couples will face major crises and have a strong likelihood of moving into divorce territory. Couples need the resources offered by supportive faith communities.

Now, I recognize that this is all quite complicated. Some marriages are not life-enhancing. People who do go through divorces also need the support of faith communities. And, absolutely, people who are single need support as well. Singleness should not be seen as an inferior state, and churches often have a lot of work to do to become redemptive places for single people. Nonetheless, we do recognize the potential for beauty and life in the context of marriage and believe that the churches should bless and encourage people who choose marriage.

The issue then becomes whether the churches have moral bases for withholding such blessing and support for people in same-sex covenanted partnerships (and now, in many places around the world, actual marriage). Continue reading “A basic Christian argument for affirming gay marriage (Part one)”

Jesus and homosexuality, part 2

Ted Grimsrud—April 27, 2012

I appreciate the several thoughtful responses to my post, “Jesus and homosexuality: What did he do?” They have encouraged me to do some more thinking.

The direct relevance of Jesus’ message for homosexuality

My cyber-friend Bill Samuel suggests that the essay “had no final conclusion” and “seemed to sort of wander away from the original topic.” While I may want to challenge his assessment a bit, I do take this as a challenge to try to complete the circle a bit more forcefully and suggest direct application of the account of Jesus’ “politics of compassion” for how churches today might negotiate the “homosexuality issue” (I have felt uneasy about using the word “homosexuality” for some years, but I have the sense that the word has somewhat less of a negative feel about it more recently—and we still don’t seem to have an alternative single-word term).

I ended the post with four somewhat general points about Jesus’ relevance for our day: his practice of welcome to all kinds of people, his direct challenge to those practicing a boundary-marker-centered faith, his willingness to suffer for the practices of welcome and challenge and call upon his followers to do likewise, and his foundational priority upon healing mercy as the locus of his ministry.

The final, seemingly obvious but admittedly unstated, point would be simply to say that Jesus’ message would seem clearly to require communities of his followers to embody his way of welcome in relation to homosexual people in their midst. Such communities should also make a special point of welcoming into their midst homosexual people who are currently outside their doors. In fact, this issue might well be one of the clearest test cases for how serious Christian communities are about embodying the way of Jesus. Continue reading “Jesus and homosexuality, part 2”