Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery

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”

What grief teaches us about God (Theological memoir #4)

August 18, 2019—Ted Grimsrud

As I reflect back on how I have understood God, I have recently noticed a connection that I had not thought of before. Though I have not thought of there being a lot of continuity between how I thought of God fifty years ago and the present, the moment that got me started back then turns out to be closer to what I think now than I have realized. The key connecting point is grief.

Questions and faith

I grew up in Oregon in rural Oregon. Though conservative and very rural, it was quite a non-church oriented environment. As a kid, I always had questions; I always wanted to understand better. That quest led to a Christian conversion when I was a teenager that dropped me into a fundamentalist Baptist congregation that, ironically, didn’t welcome questions. But I began a long process of learning and opening up, and I moved on quickly from fundamentalism. I eventually found Mennonites and had a career as a Mennonite pastor and theology professor. I have continued to “open up” and have moved right to the very margins of the Mennonite world.

I started my journey in my mid-teens with a sense of the presence of the divine that came to me in the midst of grief—as I was attending the funeral of a friend who had died in his late twenties of cancer. In a time of prayer, I felt that God was real and was with us. I had been thinking a lot about whether I believed in God or not, and from that point on I affirmed that I did. I find it interesting now, that what could have been an insight into the characteristics of God (as one especially present in sharing our grief) essentially passed by me. For years, I would look back at the moment and say that my sense of God was pretty vague and needed my education in Christian theology (such as it was in those years) to understand who God is. Now I think it is too bad that I couldn’t have pursued the insight about God’s close connection with grief.

From that funeral on, I was trying to understand what to believe about God. The Baptists gave me some answers. I never quite felt comfortable with what they told me, but they did help me begin. I have gone in directions I would never have expected back fifty years ago. Now I think grief is one of the best ways to get a sense of how to think about God. Continue reading “What grief teaches us about God (Theological memoir #4)”

Are we living in “the Great Tribulation”? (Peaceable Revelation #3)

Ted Grimsrud—August 13, 2019

I first became interested in theology when I was in high school and began attending our small town’s Baptist church. My early education in theology included at its center the conviction that we were living in the End Times, the period shortly before Christ’s return. Virtually every sermon I heard and every Bible study I participated in touched on Jesus’s second coming. Someday I’d like to figure out why this was such a popular topic in that context.

One of the big ideas in this future-prophetic take on Christianity is the expectation of a catastrophic time just before Jesus’s return filled with massive violence and destruction. This event has often been called “the Great Tribulation.” I was taught that, happily, genuine Christians would be raptured out of their present life in order to be with God and to miss this terrible ordeal. In this view, the Tribulation would be a just act of God’s judgment against sinful and corrupt humanity—regardless of the carnage that would ensue.

I was taught to be attentive to the downward spiral of human history, looking for signs that the Great Tribulation was at hand. This was all pretty heavy stuff, and it does not surprise me that I, a young man about to head out into the big, scary world, would have taken all the teaching quite seriously. I read Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth over and over again, along with numerous other similarly themed books.

Rethinking the End Times

Then I went away to college. It was easy enough to live a kind of compartmentalized life —my fundamentalist theology in one compartment, my non-religious academic studies in another. However, that separation actually left me quite passionless about both compartments. When I was a junior in college, I found a congregation that started me on the path of bringing things together.

One of the key moments was a conversation with a mentor about our shared future-prophetic theology. With my minimal exposure to Christianity, I had assumed that what I was taught about the End Times was simply what all Christians believed. My friend said no, actually, the majority of Christians don’t believe the same thing I do. I was kind of stunned. That realization opened up everything. Almost immediately I encountered other views and soon dropped the future-prophetic schema. And during my senior year, I did find a strong passion for integrating my theology and my academic studies. Continue reading “Are we living in “the Great Tribulation”? (Peaceable Revelation #3)”

How reading Hans-Georg Gadamer prepared me for heartbreak (Theological memoir #3)

Ted Grimsrud—July 29, 2019 

When, at the age of 17, I decided to become a Christian, the main motivation that I remember was that I wanted to know the truth. I realize now that that was more an emotional than intellectual motive. It took me some time, though, to discern the nature of this “truth” that I sought. From the start, I did not focus on finding a secure resting place nearly so much as on understanding more and more. As it turns out, of course, a quest for truth-as-understanding never ends.

Glimmers of uncertainty

The first lessons I learned on this quest had to do with Christianity being the one true faith. I didn’t have objections to that notion; I really did want to be part of the truth faith and if there was only one I was okay with that. However, I did not instinctively gravitate toward Christianity because of exclusive truth claims; I just didn’t know there were different notions of “true religion.”

At some point I did learn that indeed, the truthfulness of Christianity is contested. At first, I learned that from Christian exclusivists who insisted that their version of Christianity was the only true faith in contrast to other versions. They did inform me, though, that theirs were not the only views (even if the other views were wrong). I have mentioned Francis Schaeffer, the “evangelist to intellectuals,” as an important thinker for me at that time. Schaeffer taught me about the “Christian” notion of absolute and exclusive Truth.

I remember a couple of moments that opened my eyes a little. A mentor of mine in the small non-denominational church I had recently joined talked with me about end-times theology. He introduced me to what he presented as the two main options: “dispensational” and “covenant” theologies. These were new terms for me, but I was clearly in the dispensational camp (though I had thought it was simply the only true view; it was kind of like going through life and only later on learning that one speaks in “prose”—you’d been doing it all along but never had a word for it). The stunning moment came when my friend told me that in fact most Christians followed the covenant view. Whoa! This was the first time I realized that what I had been taught was not the only viewpoint, not even the majority viewpoint. That realization was an important step in coming to realize that my quest for understanding truth actually meant that things were pretty wide open. I didn’t simply have to accept the one view I was taught. As it turned out, I soon realized that I no longer wanted to accept the dispensational perspective as truthful. Continue reading “How reading Hans-Georg Gadamer prepared me for heartbreak (Theological memoir #3)”

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)”

Losing inerrancy (Theological memoir #2)

Ted Grimsrud—July 10, 2019

When I was 17 years old, almost exactly 47 years ago, I made a decision to become a Christian. At the time, my motivation was that I wanted to know the truth. As a thoughtful, idealistic adolescent, I thought about truth a lot. I didn’t have many people to discuss this with, hardly any actually. But I was thinking and thinking.

I was ready to make a move, though, and I did get an explanation from one close friend that I found persuasive. So I took the step of asking Jesus to be my savior. I truly meant it, and my life did change—mainly, I’d say now, in terms of consciously thinking of myself as a Christian and getting involved in a local church and trying to follow the guidance I was then given in that church. I also began to pray and to read the Bible.

As I think about it now, I find it helpful to separate two basic ways of entering Christianity with a desire to “know the truth.” There may be others, perhaps many, but these are the two that come to mind now.

The first, is that Christianity offers a truthful explanation for the meaning of life that one accepts as authoritative. The Christian’s task is to grow in acceptance of that explanation, that authoritative teaching of what is true. This approach offers a sense of certainty and security along with the comfort of knowing that one is on God’s side and will spend eternity with God. The Bible works as a repository of facts, definitive commands, direct guidance, the way God speaks to human beings—a detailed blueprint that offers absolutes that are over against other truth claims.

The second way is to think of the truthfulness of Christianity as a prod to the imagination, a kind of lens for looking at life in the most perceptive way possible. In this approach, Christianity offers a story that helps connect with other stories. The Bible is perceived to be a master story that helps uncovers truths told in other stories.

Without realizing it at the time, I was looking for truthfulness in the second sense, I was looking for a way to feed my imagination—and I found myself in a community that presented Christianity as being truthful in the first sense. I’d say now that I experienced enough of the kind of truthfulness that I was looking for to keep my faith alive. However, my first four years or so as a Christian were pretty uninteresting, even stilted. These years included my senior year in high school and my first three years in college. I have a hard time remembering ever being excited about anything intellectual. I feel like I was kind of in a daze during that time, more or less sleepwalking through my classes and reading light stuff just for fun in my spare time. As I think of my experience of the Bible, it illustrates what my overall Christian experience was like. Continue reading “Losing inerrancy (Theological memoir #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)”

Pacifism in America, part three: Making peace through service

Ted Grimsrud—June 5, 2019

 The resilient response to World War II by those few who retained their pacifist commitments insured that when the war finally ended, there would be peacemakers to devote themselves to overcoming the effects of the massive violence. As we will see, these efforts often took the shape of nonviolent direct action for social change. However, the experience of a world at war also greatly stimulated expanded works of service from pacifist groups.

The Civil Rights and nuclear disarmament movements sought directly to transform American culture through social activism. They were ad hoc uprisings made up of a variety of citizens whose energies ebbed and flowed over the time of the movements’ activities. Their significance lies in their quest, at times remarkably successful, for genuine democracy from the bottom up, based not on coercive force but on the exercise of self-determination.

Alongside these transformation-seeking movements, we should also be attentive to several long-term efforts, largely motivated by pacifist sensibilities, to work for self-determination and disarmament through acts of service. The first of these “service committees” was the American Friends Service Committee. I will also discuss two other quite different but parallel service-oriented groups, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Catholic Worker.

American Friends Service Committee

AFSC established a presence in numerous international locations during the inter-war years, but also invested significant time and money in working inside the U.S. in relief and development work during the Great Depression. AFSC leaders worked skillfully with government officials—even to the point that long-time AFSC director Clarence Pickett developed a strong working relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and through her had significant contact with President Roosevelt himself.

AFSC had links with numerous Quaker centers throughout Western Europe that had begun with the post-World War I relief work. With the rise of Nazism, these Quakers, with support from AFSC, sought to facilitate the emigration of beleaguered Jews. They met with resistance from the American and British governments, so were unable to help nearly as many people as they wanted to. But they helped some, they sounded the alarm (too seldom heeded) about the increasing danger faced by Jews, and they challenged (not successfully enough) the political structures in the U.S. to respond to this crisis. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part three: Making peace through service”

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?”