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”

Pacifism in America, part four: Pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement

Ted Grimsrud—June 7, 2019

The 20th century has accurately been called the century of total war. The massive death and destruction visited upon the people of the world especially in the first half of that century (with the constant threat of exponentially more death and destruction with the possibility of nuclear war) obliterated the basic human belief in the preciousness of life. One of the pillars of authentic human civilization is organizing society in light of the belief in the preciousness of life. That is why we put so many resources into, for example, healthcare, education, sanitation, and agriculture. We seek to make it possible for human life to thrive.

Powerfully countering all this momentum toward enhancing life, war and the preparation for war treats human life as shockingly expendable. The best and most creative resources of western civilization are focused on killing, not on enhancing life. Yet we still face profound injustices. One of the major justifications for war is the assertion that war is necessary as a means to resist evil. Are there alternative ways to resist evil without relying on violence?

As historian Joseph Kip Kosek wrote, “the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of violence. It was not, as such, Fascism, Communism, economic inequality, or the color line, though all of these were deeply implicated. It was, above all, the fact of human beings killing one another with extraordinary ferocity and effectiveness”(Joseph Kip Kosek, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy, 5).

The massive resources the United States devoted to resisting fascism and communism in World War II did in fact not result in enhanced human wellbeing. Those efforts did not recognize as fundamental the profound problem of violence. By using violence to counter those twin ideologies over the past seventy years, the U.S. found itself on a rapid descent toward militaristic self-destruction. We do have one example, though, of significant progress in overcoming injustice without extreme violence.

The Civil Rights Movement

The American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in important respects, reflected an attempt to keep the problem of violence at the forefront and to challenge a devastating social problem in light of the centrality of the problem of violence. By refusing to subordinate the problem of violence to some other problem, for a brief but extraordinarily fruitful moment, the American Civil Rights movement actually made enormous progress in genuine social transformation. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part four: Pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement”

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?”

The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (III—An Alternative)

Ted Grimsrud—November 8, 2018

Greg Boyd’s book on reading the Bible nonviolently, Cross Vision (CV), sets before us a challenge. Is it possible to accept the Bible’s truthfulness while also affirming a consistently pacifist worldview? I conclude, after reading both CV and its more scholarly companion, Crucifixion of the Warrior God, that indeed the best, most respectful, reading of the Bible does support a pacifist commitment. However, I think the case for this might be made more persuasively following a somewhat different approach than Boyd’s. In this post I will sketch an alternative approach to Boyd’s for a biblical theology that also places God’s nonviolent love at the center.

Starting with God’s nonviolence

Like Boyd, I begin with God’s nonviolence (see my blog post, “Why we should think of God as pacifist”). I believe that the fundamental reality in our world is love. And God is love. So my interest in writing this piece is not to try to persuade people who might think otherwise that God is nonviolent. Rather, I want to explain why I think the Bible supports that conviction. What in the Bible leads to confessing God’s nonviolence? And what should we think about the parts of the Bible traditionally cited as the bases for denying that God is nonviolent?

Let me first, though, say just a bit about what saying “God is nonviolent” means for me. In a nutshell, to make such an affirmation is to confess that the Bible teaches that God created what is out love and for the sake of love. It also teaches that God participates in the world most directly in how God brings healing in the face of brokenness, binding wounds, reconciling alienated relationships, and empowering creativity and compassion.

And also like Boyd, I believe that the Bible’s definitive portrayal of God is found in the story of Jesus. That is, God is most clearly and reliably known to humanity in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. My affirmation of God’s nonviolence finds its strongest grounding in my affirmation of Jesus’s nonviolence. Just as it is unthinkable to me that Jesus would punish, hate, exploit, or violently coerce, so is it unthinkable that God would. Continue reading “The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (III—An Alternative)”

The centrality of God’s love: A response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (Part 2: An assessment)

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2018

 Greg Boyd’s book, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Fortress Press, 2017), deserves praise simply for being a book of serious theological scholarship with an original and creative argument about a crucially important issue that is written for a wide audience. I don’t find Boyd’s effort totally successful, but even as I raise some sharp criticisms I want to emphasize how grateful I am for Boyd’s book. This post is the second of three. The first summarizes Boyd’s argument and the third sketches an alternative view on the issues Boyd addresses.

For many years, I have been deeply troubled about the role Christianity plays in the acceptance of state-sponsored violence in the United States—to the point where self-professing Christians are quite a bit more likely to support wars and capital punishment than those who make no such profession. I’ve concluded that a key problem that contributes to this undermining of the message of Jesus Christ is theological—convictions Christians have that actually make acceptance of violence more likely.

Boyd may not fully share my critique, but he certainly is aware of the problem. And he is willing to write some gutsy and accessible books that take the problem on head on. Cross Vision (CV) is a much shorter and less academically rigorous adaptation of his two-volume work, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). I recommend starting with the shorter book, which does a nice job summarizing Boyd’s argument—but the longer book is also pretty accessible and contains a wealth of analysis that those who are attracted to Boyd’s argument will want to explore (I have written a long series of blog posts that summarize and critique CWG).

What Boyd gets right

The main contribution CV makes is actually an assumption Boyd starts with more than a proposition he demonstrates. He asserts that Jesus Christ is the central truth for Christianity, that Jesus shows us the character of God more definitively than anything else, and that because Jesus was (and is) resolutely nonviolent we should recognize that God also is nonviolent—and always has been. Making such an affirmation about God a starting point means that Boyd does not equivocate when he comes face to face with difficult biblical materials. He focuses on how those materials might be understood in relation to the core convictions about God as nonviolent. This clarity is bracing and empowering. What the world needs now, I believe, are people who are committed to embodying healing love, not people who struggle over whether or not to kill others or whether or not to support the killing of others. It’s that simple, and Boyd gives us an important resource for following such a path. Continue reading “The centrality of God’s love: A response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (Part 2: An assessment)”

A response to Old Testament violence

Ted Grimsrud—September 17, 2018

The issue of the violence in the Old Testament has troubled and fascinated me for years. How do we reconcile the violent portraits of God with an affirmation that Jesus is our definitive revelation of God and calls us to a pacifist commitment? I have felt pretty resolved for some time that this issue is not a deal breaker for Christian pacifism. But I have yet to sit down and write out a full explanation of how I think we best think about how the OT and pacifism go together. I’m not yet ready to do that, but I think I recently moved a bit closer to doing it.

The two general historic approaches to OT genocide

I recently read and briefly reviewed a new book, Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide: Christian Interpretations of Herem Passages by Christian Hofreiter (Oxford University Press, 2018). Hofreiter surveys various ways Christian writers have “made sense of OT genocide” over the past 2,000 years. He suggests they break down into two broad categories.

One we might associate with Origen (arising in the 3rd century CE, a time when church leaders were essentially pacifist) and simplify by describing it as a view that ultimately suggests that the OT text does not accurately describe historical reality. There are two different versions of this approach—the first, echoing Origen’s own views, reads “beneath” the surface level on an allegorical or theological level, suggesting that a surface, more historical reading gives us an unacceptable view of God as a terrible killer and enabler of killers. The second version of the non-historical approach, much more modern, is to divide the OT between revealed portions (such as the stories that show God in ways consistent with the message of Jesus) and non-revealed (and non-historical) portions such as the genocide texts.

The second general approach we associate with Augustine (and arose after the 4thcentury “Constantinian shift” when church leaders affirmed the moral validity of Roman wars) and simplify as a view that suggests God has the prerogative to command (or intervene with) violent actions to serve God’s own purposes. This approach reflects the views of most Christians over most of history since Augustine’s time in their willingness to fight in and support wars.

However, many pacifists have also affirmed a version of this approach with the notion that God indeed has the prerogative to intervene with violence even while God also chooses to command Christians themselves not to use violence. This approach has the advantage of straightforwardness, in being able to accept the truthfulness of the OT stories as historical events.

Holding together (or not) five key propositions

Hofreiter helpfully provides a set of five propositions that gives us a framework for thinking about these issues (p. 9). An interpretation of the OT genocide texts must in some way come to terms with each of these propositions and with the set of five as a whole.

  • God is good.
  • The Bible is true.
  • Genocide is atrocious.
  • According to the Bible, God commanded and commended genocide.
  • A good being, let alone the supremely good Being, would never command or commend an atrocity.

Continue reading “A response to Old Testament violence”

Pacifism and violence in the struggle against oppression

Ted Grimsrud—October 29, 2017

Is pacifism a viable social philosophy? I believe that it is, though I also recognize that arguments in favor of the possibility that at times violence might be appropriate can seem pretty persuasive. Nevertheless, as I will outline later in this post, I think the moral and practical problems with violence are ultimately insurmountable.

The impact of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the twentieth-century put principled nonviolence on the table as a possible option for those who desire social transformation. As well, the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren) have sought in recent generations to apply their long tradition of Christian pacifism to social issues. But many have questioned whether pacifism is an adequate approach in the real world—whether it might even be unhelpful to the quest to overthrow injustice.

Principled pacifism may be defined as the conviction that it is never morally acceptable to use lethal violence against other people. This conviction has never been widely held, even though in the United States it has been present in a fairly prominent way dating back to the establishment of the Pennsylvania colony in the 1680s. The main impact of pacifist convictions in the US until the 20th century was the refusal of pacifists to join the military and fight in wars. The possibility of self-consciously nonviolent direct action did not gain widespread acceptance until the 20th century.

Changing notions of peacemaking

I write as a Mennonite Christian pacifist, though I believe that pacifism is a valid commitment for anyone. Several 20th century factors combined to transform the understandings and practices of principled pacifism among “peace church” Christians. World War I showed just how widespread and utterly destructive modern war could be (though much worse was soon to come), so a pragmatic case for rejection of war became more widespread. The philosophy and practice of nonviolent direct action as a means to bring about social change gained currency especially through the work of Gandhi in South Africa at the turn of the century and a couple of decades later in India. And peace church people became more acculturated and more likely to feel a sense of responsibility for having an impact in the wider world. Continue reading “Pacifism and violence in the struggle against oppression”

Exorcising the ghosts of fundamentalism

Ted Grimsrud—February 27, 2017

It is common in my circles of friends and acquaintances to encounter people who are former fundamentalist or evangelical Christians and who now distance themselves from that past faith perspective. Often, the rationales for the changes have to do with the Bible. For the sake of opposition to violence, to religious arrogance and exclusivism, to judgmentalism and the like, my friends will say the Bible is so hurtful, so damaging. Maybe they will add that they like Jesus but they see the Old Testament as profoundly problematic—and maybe Paul and Revelation too.

 I am sympathetic with such sentiments. I spent a period of my life in my late teens and early twenties as first a fundamentalist and then evangelical Christian. Starting with my embrace of pacifism at the time of my 22nd birthday, I fairly quickly came to distance myself from those traditions (I tell the story of that evolution here). And I agree that the way the Bible is used by many conservative Christians is problematic and helps underwrite violence and other hurtful attitudes and actions. And I do think it is true that there are materials in the Bible that do lend themselves to hurtful uses.

However, at the same time I love the Bible and most of my theological work consists of engaging the Bible as a positive resource for peace (several of my books focus on the Bible and peace: see, for example, Triumph of the LambGod’s Healing StrategyInstead of Atonement; and Arguing Peace). I often have been told by post-fundamentalist friends (and others) that while they admire my attempts to wring some peace from the Bible, they think I am engaged in spin, at times even in ways that seem dishonest or at least overly and misleadingly optimistic.

I had one such conversation just recently after preaching a sermon. As we talked, I realized that my friend was actually still reading the Bible in a quite conservative way. It’s just that now she disagrees with what she finds there. So I suggested that it would help if she could move past her fundamentalist hermeneutic. She agreed, but also noted that such a move is very difficult. Not so much because she still wants to believe in that approach, but that it is so deeply ingrained in her psyche that she can’t simply by a quick and easy decision get rid of it.

One small aid to help a post-fundamentaist move away from a fundamentalist biblical hermeneutic might be simply to articulate what a post-fundamentalist approach to affirming the Bible as a peace book might look like. Continue reading “Exorcising the ghosts of fundamentalism”

The left/right schema must go: The task of moral political analysis

Ted Grimsrud—February 7, 2017

We in the United States enter into uncharted waters in these early days of the Trump regime. It seems clear that in the months and years to come, the United States will be the location of political strive of an intensity not seen for a long time within the boundaries of our nation. The kinds of conflictual social struggles that most of us have only observed from a distance are almost certain to become very close to hand.

I believe it is important to note a couple of qualifications to the generalizations I made in the above paragraph. For people of color in the US, and members of other vulnerable groups, the United States has not been a place of comfort and tranquility. We don’t know what kinds of suffering will emerge as a result of the takeover of the federal and most state governments in all their branches by anti-democratic reactionary forces. However, we do well to keep these sufferings in perspective given our nation’s legacies of the intense violence visited on indigenous peoples, on imported slaves, and on sexual minorities—among others. For those still today who have lived with the consequences of such violence over generations, the word to we frightened middle class mostly white folks could legitimately be “welcome to our world.”

Likewise, an awareness of political turmoil around the world over the past 125 years reminds us that for many areas of the world that have suffered from interventions from the American Empire, such turmoil has been fostered by the projection of American force. The words from such locations to us might also appropriately be “welcome to our world.”

However, even as we don’t magnify our own sense of uncertainty and anxiety with claims for their unprecedented significance, it should be cold comfort to those who already know the dynamics of vicious prejudice, authoritarian governance, economic dislocation, and environmental degradation. That’s because they will also likely have their suffering enhanced in the days to come. The Trumpian agenda surely will not be tempered by compassion for the historical sufferings of the vulnerable.

The left/right analytical framework

It seems to me that one important element of resistance for all of us is to think carefully about how to frame our political dynamics. One framework that has become conventional wisdom is to think in terms of a left/right spectrum. Some are saying that after eight years of a leftist government with the Obama administration (admittedly greatly constrained by the legislative power of the right) we are moving to a rightest government with Trump. One’s response to Trump, et al, is said to reveal where one stands on the left/right spectrum. Continue reading “The left/right schema must go: The task of moral political analysis”

The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?

Ted Grimsrud—November 29, 2016

To “break bad” can mean to “go wild,” to “defy authority” and break the law, to be verbally “combative, belligerent, or threatening” or, followed by the preposition “on,” to “completely dominate or humiliate.” [from Wikipedia]

It is difficult to write about the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. It seems certain that the US is entering uncharted waters. It also seems certain, to me at least, that what is coming will be worse than what most of us can imagine. The American Empire is entering a new phase, likely with little pretense of self-restraint or of serving the general human welfare or the wellbeing of the natural world. We are about openly to become the rogue nation—”breaking bad” indeed.

The impending storm

A memory comes to mind. Many years ago, Kathleen and I were on a road trip. As evening neared, we approached Clovis, New Mexico from the west. To the east we saw a huge dark, dark purple horizon. As we got closer, the darkness grew. We clearly were heading into a storm. It turned out to be a big one. Hail, heavy rain. We inched into town and the streets were awash with several inches of water. We had a similar experience more recently, driving home from the northeast. Here the dark, dark purple horizon was near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia come together along the Potomac River.

In both cases, there was this strong uneasy, fearful, feeling as we approached the storm. We felt some wind but basically things were calm. But we knew we were heading into trouble and there was no place to go to avoid it. And, in both cases, the storm turned out to be worse than we even imagined.

This is how I feel right now. We’ve got these few weeks before the fury of the new Republican unified power on the federal level will hit us. I see no reason not to expect that the impact of that power won’t be even worse than the most fearful imaginings we might have right now.

Still, this is a time to try to think seriously and deeply—and I believe it is also a time to think theologically for those so inclined. The United States, the world’s one superpower, is in deep trouble. It is nearly impossible to imagine that the next four years won’t be a disaster in almost every sense of the word. And even should the nightmare end at that point, something that right now seems less than likely, the damage that will be done will be difficult to repair.

The importance of core convictions

I believe that one of things we should  be doing now—and this will remain important for as long as I can foresee—is think deeply about core convictions, about the meaning and purpose of life, about our orientation toward life. We are going to face severe stresses, and conflicts, and fears, and deep discouragement. What will guide us as we struggle to move ahead? Continue reading “The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?”