Thinking of the United States as foundationally racist [American politics #5]

Ted Grimsrud—June 29, 2020

People in this country have greatly differing deep-seated views of the very meaning of the story of the US. I suspect these differences make achieving healing amidst our current crises extremely difficult. This is true especially as related to what the great thinker W.E.B. DuBois in 1900 looked ahead foresightedly to call the problem of the 20th century—the problem of the color line (from The Souls of Black Folk). This problem clearly remains one of the main problems of the 21st century, and it affects all our other crises.

Two versions of the story of the United States

Let me suggest that, even with all our diversity, we think of two main general perspectives on the United States story that are held by those who oppose racism and see the legacy of slavery in this country as a bad thing. The first perspective sees the United States as foundationally and systemically racist from the beginning down to our present day in spite of scattered attempts to move toward freedom for all. The second perspective sees the United States ultimately as a nation of freedom and justice, in spite of scattered missteps along the way. (I recognize that there are some in the nation who are not all that negative about either racism or slavery; my concern here is with people who would say racism and slavery are bad.)

The term “racism” is complicated—and later in this essay I will probably make it even more complicated. For now, I want to use “racism” in the sense defined by Ibram X. Kendi in his book, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America: “My definition of a racist idea is a simple one: it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. I define anti-Black racist ideas as any idea suggesting that Black people, or any group of Black people, are inferior in any way to another racial group” (p. 5).

My thoughts about these two perspectives were helped by a recent essay by Masha Gessen, “Why are some journalists afraid of ‘moral clarity’?” (on the New Yorker website, June 24, 2020). Gessen interacts with commentator Andrew Sullivan. She summarizes Sullivan’s description of the first view (which he opposes) that sees the US as “systemically racist, and a white-supremacist project from the start.” In this view, “the ideals about individual liberty, religious freedom, limited government, and the equality of human beings” were always secondary to the white supremacy project. “The liberal system is itself a form of white supremacy—which is why racial inequality endures.”

The second view (with which Sullivan agrees) tells the story of the United States as “primarily one of a nation of immigrants, the story of a society that, over time, enfranchised an ever-greater number of its members, and where the arc of history has bent toward justice.” This view then assumes a legacy of progress even against racism, witness the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Continue reading “Thinking of the United States as foundationally racist [American politics #5]”

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]”

Hope, Despair and Environmentalism’s Failures: A Response to “Planet of the Humans”

Ted Grimsrud—April 30, 2020

Planet of the Humans, a just-released documentary by Jeff Gibbs with backing by Michael Moore, is a fascinating, challenging, messy, deeply flawed film. It is also free to watch on You Tube for several more weeks. Since it’s free on You Tube, I encourage people to watch it. Some of the questions it raises are real and too often ignored. That said, I do not have the expertise to evaluate many of the explicit and implicit claims in the movie. But even if the film misrepresents many things, the issues it raises are urgent and badly in need of our attention.

I would describe the film as one person’s account of his struggle to understand the lack of success of the American environmental movement in turning the tide against the destruction of the planet. I think Gibbs is taking the evil of the fossil fuel industry as a given. His focus is on the other side of the equation—the movement to resist the fossil fuel industry and the other forces leading to destruction. Why hasn’t it been more successful? That seems like a valid and important question.

Because it addresses such an important question, the film had my sympathetic attention from the beginning. I found it to be engaging, interesting, and deeply unsettling. Unfortunately, and surprisingly given its association with Michael Moore, the film is utterly lacking in humor (this factor seems to indicate that Moore had little to do with the content of the film). However, sadly, Planet is also pretty superficial, unclear, and slanted. It allows itself to be too vulnerable to the inevitable defensive and hostile criticism from the mainstream environmental movement that it is critical of. So, I will not defend the film. However, I still will encourage people to watch it. I’m glad I did.

Key concerns from the film

There were two main themes that especially captured my attention. The first is the question of how effective “big green energy” (my term) is at actually making a difference. The second is the question of whether the “big green energy” movement is too closely tied with big corporations and the neo-liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The film is not nearly as clear and helpful as it could be in addressing these two issues. It seems altogether possible, perhaps easily, to cast doubt on the arguments that are made in the film, especially in relation to the first theme. That seems almost beside the point to me. What I am interested in is how the mainstream environmental movement responds to the questions themselves—not simply a flat rejection of the possibly deeply flawed ways the film brings them up. Continue reading “Hope, Despair and Environmentalism’s Failures: A Response to “Planet of the Humans””

Is “schism” okay? What to make of the Methodist split [Theological memoir#7]

Ted Grimsrud—January 3, 2020

I just read a news report in the Washington Post, “United Methodist Church is expected to split over gay marriage disagreement, fracturing the nation’s third-largest denomination.” According to this article, the decision appears to have been a mutual one among the two major UMC factions, one that seemingly gives both sides much of what they want. That is, of course, if the new proposal is affirmed by the denomination’s legislative process.

I don’t have any close contacts in the UMC and have not been following the drama closely these past several years. So this article comes as a bit of a surprise to me. I don’t have any insights to offer on the Methodist drama. But the news strikes me as very interesting, and it has triggered a few reflections.

Can “schisms” be good?

I experienced first-hand, in a very small way, some of the anxiety related to churches splitting about 30 years ago. I began my first pastorate in a tiny Mennonite congregation in Eugene, Oregon, in 1987. After my first year, I was up for consideration for ordination. Conservative elements in the regional conference had an advocate on the conference leadership committee who blocked my ordination. One of the tools in his arsenal that gave him some power was the threat that a number of conference congregations would leave the conference if I were ordained.

After three years of painful deliberations, I was finally ordained. About the same time, two women pastors (one a congregational minister, the second a chaplain) were also ordained (the first women to be ordained in the conference, over the objections of many conservatives). As threatened, a couple of congregations did leave the conference. However, in a delicious irony, the congregation the leadership committee member pastored refused to leave the conference. Instead that pastor was asked to leave the congregation.

This was all pretty traumatic for me, and when the opportunity arose to pastor elsewhere, I did so—leaving Oregon in 1994. Over a quarter of a century later, I still deeply miss living in the state of my birth. However, I am grateful for the opportunities that opened up after we moved on. Continue reading “Is “schism” okay? What to make of the Methodist split [Theological memoir#7]”

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)”

Why God doesn’t intervene (theological memoir #5)

Ted Grimsrud—November 18, 2019

You would think that given how important most people think God is that it would be easier to talk about God. But it often seems that people act as though, of course, God is real and we all know what we mean by God, very people are very articulate when they actually try to talk about God. It’s even difficult to find good jokes about God—when I searched the internet, this is the best I could do:

God was talking to an angel and said, “I just figured out how to rotate the Earth so it creates this really incredible 24-hour period of alternating light and darkness.” The angel said, “That’s great. So, what are you going to do next?” God says, “I think I’ll call it a day.”

Talking about God

I suppose for most of us, our understanding of God has evolved quite a bit as we have gone through life. I know mine has. One of the things I have come to believe is that we too easily forget that our language about God is always metaphorical. We are saying what we think God is like, not what God for a fact is. It is our concept of God that we talk about. But we have the habit of saying simply, “God is this or God is that.” I will share about the evolution of my thinking about God—and it seems more authentic to use the kind of language about God that I used in the past. But I recognize that all I say here is metaphorical, even if I don’t use qualifiers such as “God is like…”.

I was stimulated to think about how my thinking about has changed recently when I heard a helpful sermon on God from a Unitarian minister, Paul Britner. What do I think about God, especially about God’s power?

As a starting point, I think most of us would actually agree that God hardly ever (if ever) directly intervenes in the affairs of human beings. Even most pious Christians have experienced enough tragedy and brokenness to know that God simply does not step in and stop bad things from happening. My buddy Rod getting killed in a car wreck at age 17. My dad dying suddenly of a brain aneurism at age 67. My mom’s sister having a fatal appendicitis attack when she was four. Not to mention wars, famines, pestilences.

We know God lets things go. So, the question, then, for many of us is: Why? Why does God allow so much terrible stuff to happen? At least this is the question for those who believe that God is loving and good. And most of us who believe in God do believe that. I suspect as well that for most of those who don’t believe in God, the God that is not believed in is a God who allows terrible things to happen.  My thinking about this issue has evolved a lot…. Continue reading “Why God doesn’t intervene (theological memoir #5)”

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]”

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)”