The eclipse of Mennonite peace theology? A diminishing tradition faces questions [Theological memoir #15]

Ted Grimsrud—August 25, 2021

I first learned about Mennonites in the late 1970s, right after I finished college. I was part of a small, independent evangelical Christian church and became interested in theology, first, and then pacifism. I found the peace position I was introduced to by the first Mennonites I met to be enormously attractive. The desire to be part of a peace church tradition led my wife Kathleen and me first to attend a Mennonite seminary and then join a Mennonite congregation. Both of us ended up becoming Mennonite pastors and then teaching at a Mennonite college. Peace theology was always a central part of our engagement.

After all these years, I am sensing that what seemed to be a vital community of activists and academics and ministers seeking, often together, to develop and put into practice Jesus-centered pacifist convictions has become much less vital. At least that is a hypothesis I want to test in this blog post. First, I want to describe what I mean by “peace theology” and then I will suggest a number of factors that may be contributing to the loss of vitality.

The emergence of Mennonite peace theology

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the experience of US conscientious objectors during World War II. As one of my central learnings, I analyzed how Mennonites managed to find in those challenging years resources that actually generated creativity and the expansion of their peace witness in the years following the War. A crucial dynamic was the investment Mennonite churches were willing to make to support their young men seeking conscientious objector status and performing alternative service in the Civilian Public Service program. Mennonite leaders joined with Quakers and Brethren to help shape the legislation that established the option for alternative service for young men who were conscientiously disposed not to join the military.

A key victory for the peace church lobbyists in relation to what had happened during World War I came when the CPS program was established as an entity separate from the military. This meant that prospective conscientious objectors would not have their quest for CO status subject to military oversight (a part of the World War I system that led to extreme difficulties for many pacifists). On the other hand, a key defeat came when the legislation required that funding for CPS come from non-governmental sources. That meant that the COs themselves would have to provide funding for their living expenses. For Mennonites, this meant that a great deal of fundraising among the churches would be necessary. As it turned out, people in the churches were extraordinarily generous, especially given that Mennonites tended to be people of modest means.

Continue reading “The eclipse of Mennonite peace theology? A diminishing tradition faces questions [Theological memoir #15]”

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.

Continue reading “God and warism: The dilemma [Theological memoir #12]”

Our need for the book of Revelation’s peace message (Peaceable Revelation #4)

Ted Grimsrud—January 5, 2021

I’ve been interested in the book of Revelation for a long time. Of course, others have also found Revelation interesting over the years. But not that many have perceived Revelation to be a positive resource for peaceable living in our warring world. So, I hope to make the case for the value of a peaceable approach—and that this is actually the most accurate way to read Revelation.

What we need in 2021

As a way to begin, let me reflect for a bit on our current historical moment. Is it possible that we are in a time and place where a new reading of Revelation could actually be especially helpful and empowering? I suspect so.

One of our big problems in the US right now (as always) is the destructive influence of embedded biases, fears, and idolatries that we grow up absorbing—our institutions, ideologies, structures, and the like shape us toward violence, hostility, and stereotyping and othering people. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, nationalism, consumerism, classism. The list goes on.

Continue reading “Our need for the book of Revelation’s peace message (Peaceable Revelation #4)”

The pacifist ache: What’s missing in our politics? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #2]

Ted Grimsrud—July 6, 2020

At this stage in my life, especially during our new era of social distancing, I am more an observer than active participant in American politics. Even from a bit of a remove, though, I have experienced this year, 2020, as an emotional roller coaster. It has made me think of the old ABC Sports show, “Wide World of Sports,” and its iconic opening with brief glimpses of “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

The ups and the downs

I was thrilled when Bernie Sanders won the Nevada primary, looked to be the leader in the race for the Democratic nomination, and appeared to be showing that a candidate advocating for policies such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal actually could realistically hope to be elected to the presidency. Then, all too quickly, came the triple whammy of Joe Biden snatching victory from the jaws of defeat versus Sanders, the emergence and shocking spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Donald Trump continuing his descent into unfathomable presidential malfeasance and incompetence. Trump’s failures were made all the more devastating in face of our need for a constructive governmental response to the pandemic.

More recently, though, I have again been thrilled with the emergence of what seems like one of the most radical popular uprising in our nation’s history—a direct challenge to the ever-strengthening hold of militarized policing and an empowering of the victims of our nation’s centuries-old plague of white supremacy.

So, it has been and continues to be an emotional yo-yo. It’s quite a time for political junkies—and for everyone else who is interested in what is going to become of our society. In all this, there is always a tension for me, what I will call a “pacifist ache.” I felt even in the height of my hopefulness about Bernie’s chances, and I feel it even when I am most hopeful about our current uprising. It has to do with lack of interest in pacifism (by which I mean the conviction that all of life is precious which leads to a rejection of war and other forms of lethal violence). Of course, this is not surprising. Pacifism has almost always been ignored or dismissed in American politics. Still, it’s too bad. I have spent a lot of time over the past 45 years imagining how a pacifist sensibility could help things out a lot in our society. Continue reading “The pacifist ache: What’s missing in our politics? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #2]”

Pacifist questions during an uprising [Pacifism/Peace Theology #1]

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2020

Since we are in the midst of the turmoil, we don’t yet fully understand just how earthshaking this first half of 2020 will turn out to be. Right now, though, it feels as if we are in the midst of rapid and dramatic events that will change the world as we know it. It’s exciting but also unnerving. I wonder what thoughts those with pacifist convictions might have to offer.

What do I mean by “pacifist convictions”? I think of pacifism as an aspiration to live and think as if nothing matters as much as love. This leads on the one hand, to a commitment to resist domination and injustice, and on the other hand, to a commitment to avoid violence. I don’t think of pacifism as a quest for purity and total consistency so much as holding ahead of us the goals of healing, of justice, of compassion and recognizing, with Gandhi (perhaps our most important theorist of pacifism), that the means of achieving those goals must be consistent with the goals themselves.

This blog post will be the first of many as I try to return to more regular blog activity during our time of upheaval. I am being challenged to revisit my core convictions and try to imagine their relevance to the world I am observing. It’s a good time to try to think one’s thoughts through. Let me reflect on three pacifism-inspired questions: (1) What about the impact of property destruction during the current demonstrations? (2) Is it possible for people seeking change to resist the polarization that seems so pervasive in American society right now? (3) Is it important to raise issues related to our nation’s warism even as we deal with more immediate crises? Continue reading “Pacifist questions during an uprising [Pacifism/Peace Theology #1]”

Why the Bible need not be a problem for pacifists (Theological memoir #6)

Ted Grimsrud—December 16, 2019

I well remember the moment, though not the precise day. It was late in my final term of college in the spring of 1976. After quite a bit of thought and emotional struggle, I decided to affirm pacifism. I now find a bit surprising how little I knew about what it was I decided. I don’t remember having a serious discussion about the issue with anyone else, or hearing a sermon or lecture on the topic, or having read anything explicitly about pacifism.

The context for a conversion

Something was in the air, though, in our culture. The Vietnam War had just ended. I just escaped the draft as it was ended the year that I became eligible for it. I had learned to know several vets who told horror stories of their experience in the military. Perhaps more than any time before or since, precisely at the moment I became a pacifist the US military was unpopular. Society saw war as pretty problematic.

Both my parents served in World War II and my oldest sister married an Army officer—so I certainly did not grow up in an anti-military family. But I never wanted to join in. My dad, brother-in-law, and high school guidance counselor all urged me as a high school junior to try to get into a military academy. But I did not for one second have interest in that path. I knew nothing about the conscientious objection option, but I always dreaded the idea of going to war.

I had had a Christian conversion about a month after my 17th birthday. A huge event in my life, it shaped everything I did after it happened. Interestingly, at first, becoming a Christian moved me away from my vague anti-war sensibility. The church I soon joined viewed the military quite favorably. I heard sermon after sermon that presented going to war as a noble endeavor for a patriotic American Christian. For me, though, my seemingly innate reluctance to embrace violence kept me from internalizing that Christian warism. The fundamentalist theology that congregation taught me never did sink very deep into my soul, but it did dull my intellectual curiosity for my first several years of college.

Finally, during my senior year of college I began to expand my horizons. I discovered Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul. Surely their pacifist sensibilities effected me even if I did out realize it. I did realize that I truly did want to have an intellectually rigorous faith and that I saw what Bonhoeffer called “discipleship” as the most faithful manifestation of biblically oriented Christianity. I also discovered Sojourners magazine and Francis Schaeffer and his acolytes, especially Os Guinness.

While reading Guinness’s book, The Dust of Death, I took the step of embracing pacifism. Later, I realized that Guinness did not actually advocate full blown pacifism. He drew on Ellul’s book, Violence (which actually does essentially espouse pacifism), to argue against a certain kind of violence—the revolutionary violence of the Left. So it wasn’t that Guinness persuaded me to be a pacifist so much as that his critique of violence served as a catalyst to crystallize various currents that had been coming together in my heart. Continue reading “Why the Bible need not be a problem for pacifists (Theological memoir #6)”

Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery [Civil War #6]

Ted Grimsrud—September 4, 2019

A new book challenges many of my assumptions about the role of violence and nonviolence in resistance to white supremacy and enslavement in American history. Kellie Carter Jackson, a historian who teaches at Wellesley College, in Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) argues for the centrality of necessary violence in the work of resisting and ending slavery. Though she alludes only briefly to the more recent Civil Rights Movement, she seems to believe that violence was a necessary part of the positive gains made in the 1950s and 1960s as well.

An interesting book

I found this book quite interesting—which, unfortunately, is a comment I make only partly as a compliment. One of Carter Jackson’s achievements that I fully affirm is how she draws attention to the numerous black advocates for abolition in the several decades prior to the Civil War. All too often, the story of the abolitionist movement has focused almost exclusively on the white leaders with the addition of Frederick Douglass. Carter Jackson helps us see how vital and widespread the movement among black activists in the North actually was.

As well, Carter Jackson provides an insightful account of the evolution of the abolitionist movement in face of the extraordinary intransigence of white supremacists in the South and the North. At the beginning of the William Lloyd Garrison-led “formal” abolitionist movement in the early 1830s, the emphasis was on “moral suasion” that was self-consciously opposed to the use of violence to effect liberation for the enslaved. Over the following several decades, as the regime of enslavement became more entrenched—with the deep-seated collaboration of Congress, various pro-slavery presidents, and the Supreme Court—those committed to its eradication became increasingly impatient with the emphasis only on “suasion.” Belief in the necessity of violence for the liberation of the enslaved became increasingly widespread.

However, I do not believe that Carter Jackson has successfully made the case for her more wide-ranging claims (albeit usually only implicitly stated) that violence was indeed necessary, then and ever since, for achieving both liberation from slavery and social equality. In her epilogue she tellingly quotes Cynthia Washington of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from the 1960s, “I was never a true believer in nonviolence.” Washington “carried a handgun in her bag. And though she never fired it, she made it clear that she was willing to do so” (p. 160). Carter Jackson clearly sees Washington’s views on nonviolence as reflecting her own—that is, she doesn’t really give nonviolence a chance. Continue reading “Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery [Civil War #6]”

War of words: The key to understanding the book of Revelation (Peaceable Revelation #2)

Ted Grimsrud—July 22, 2019

A high percentage of people who are interested in the book of Revelation believe that it is a book about violence and God’s punitive judgment. They take, for example, the imagery of blood flowing for miles as high as a horse’s bridal (14:20) in some literal sense as a vision of a future total war that will destroy God’s enemies and lead to the coming of New Jerusalem. Some of those who interpret Revelation in this way are horrified by such imagery and believe that its presence is a good reason to dismiss Revelation out of hand. Part of the vehemence of this dismissal follows from the presence of many more interpreters who actually welcome this violent vision as evidence that they will be united with God in eternity and that God’s enemies will be condemned to everlasting torment.

I think this future-prophetic approach is simply wrong. It fails to recognize the symbolic character of the imagery of Revelation. Partly this is due to a failure properly to understand the message of Jesus from the gospels as being a message of peace for this world. These interpretations then add another failure to that failure, which is to fail to recognize that the character of the Lamb in Revelation reveals that this imaginative book itself also brings a message of peace. I am convinced that we read Revelation appropriately as being in full harmony with the life and teaching of Jesus presented in the gospels. When Revelation 1:1 tells us that what follows is a “Revelation of Jesus Christ,” it makes a point that is indeed to be taken literally: the purpose of the account of this “revelation” is to help us better to follow the way of the Jesus of the gospels.

The “harshness” of Revelation

Of course, Revelation does contain some harsh appearing imagery (such as the flowing blood of 14:20, the devastating fall of the “Great Harlot” in chapter 17, the destructive sword of 19:11-21, and numerous others). However, the book makes it clear that its governing image is that of the Lamb, who wins the victory the book celebrates with his self-giving love (see especially 5:5-14 and 12:10-11). If we read the book in light of this governing image, then we will come to a different understanding of the “war” that is portrayed in the book—and of the means to fight that war that the book advocates.

The book does use the image of the “Lamb’s war” (17:14). When we note all the other violent imagery, it is understandable that peaceable people would find it difficult to embrace the war image. Several years ago I gave a paper on Revelation at a conference on “compassionate eschatology” (“Biblical Apocalyptic: What is being revealed?”) making the case for the Lamb’s war being a peaceable image. One audience member argued strongly with me, and I never did convince her. I respect her sense that we need to reject the use of war imagery of Jesus because that imagery is irredeemable in our modern world. At the same time, this is the imagery we have, and I tend to think that by embracing the imagery in Revelation and orienting it in light of how the book actually uses that imagery we may find important resources for actively resisting the domination system we live in the midst of. Continue reading “War of words: The key to understanding the book of Revelation (Peaceable Revelation #2)”

Revelation for post-Christians (Peaceable Revelation #1)

Ted Grimsrud—June 27, 2019

Let’s imagine a bright, compassionate, spiritual-not-religious churchgoer—I’ll call him “Justin.” “Justin” is a person who grew up in a fairly traditional Christian home. He experienced church as a relatively benign part of his life, though he never took the belief system very seriously. He got married fairly young to someone with a similar background, became a schoolteacher, and had a couple of kids. He’s politically progressive and likes hanging around with like-minded people.

“Justin” would not necessarily call himself a Christian—he’s repulsed by the current expression of popular conservative Christianity with its support for Trump. But he also wouldn’t call himself an atheist and he is comfortable being active in his local congregation. We could say he’s a “post-Christian” (in distinction from anti-Christian atheist, secular humanist, or even unaffiliated agnostic). What would you expect that “Justin’s” attitude about the book of Revelation would be?

If he has given it any thought, I would assume that “Justin” would think Revelation is pretty bad. He wouldn’t feel any obligation to give it the benefit of the doubt because he has no loyalty to each book in the Bible as inherently authoritative and normative. He may know about how Revelation is used as predictive prophecy by conservative Christians to, for example, justify blind support for Israel’s vicious policies toward Palestinians. He also may know that Revelation is often cited as a basis for belief in a near future terrible “Tribulation” that will lead to great punitive judgment for most of the world—and the miraculous rescue in the Rapture of conservative Christians. All this seems quite repulsive to “Justin,” and he has no reason to doubt that these views are an accurate interpretation of Revelation itself.

I would like to invite “Justin” to give Revelation a chance. I think there are good reasons for post-Christians (as well as pre-Christians and current Christians!) to look to Revelation for hopeful and inspiring guidance. I will sketch a few of those in this post, recognizing that a positive appreciation of Revelation is a learned disposition—and one that requires some nuanced reading. I can only be suggestive in the short space I have allotted myself here, and point to further explanations I have given elsewhere. Continue reading “Revelation for post-Christians (Peaceable Revelation #1)”