The Toxic Sludge in America’s Soul: The Tragedy of Systemic Racism

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2020

As I write this, Joe Biden nears the number of electoral votes needed to become President of the US.  Donald Trump is fighting all out to prevent that outcome, but at this point seems most likely to fall short. However, enough people did vote for Trump—millions more than in 2016—that the contest is close enough that the possibility of Trump’s success can’t be ignored. Something that troubles me deeply is the question of how the election could have been this close.

I suspect that to answer that question will require, among other things, a deepened awareness of American history. How is it that we have an electorate that would offer so much support for a vicious, incompetent, narcissistic individual whose most remarkable feature might be his utter lack of redeemable characteristics? There is literally nothing to like about Trump—no compassion, no empathy, no sense of humor, no insightfulness, no loyalty, no sincerity, no generosity, and nothing else that is attractive on a human level. Trump gained and sustained power by appealing to the worst aspects of this country’s character and ruthlessly exploiting the many weaknesses of its political system.

The Civil War, white supremacy, and their toxic legacy

As I have been studying the American Civil War and the “peculiar institution” (slavery) that triggered it—and the on-going legacy of both that war and its context of white supremacy—I have been impressed with a sense of this large chunk of the nation that has been resolutely opposed to recognizing the humanity of the people forcibly enslaved and exploited and their descendants. The persistence of that opposition is breathtaking once one notices it—and may in significant ways help explain our country’s current political brokenness.

I gained some insights from a book I recently read by Carol Anderson, a historian at Emory University, called White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Political Divide. I don’t particularly like the title, but there is very little else about the book that I am critical of. It’s a concise, highly readable, and actually quite level-toned summary of the persistent and largely successful ways that the United States as a society has refused to give more than a few inches to the efforts of many over the years to create a more just society. It tells the story of how the US has refused to implement the promise of a nation with liberty and justice for all.

As I read this book, I thought of our current situation where about 48% of voting Americans supported our current president, seemingly regardless of how cruel, destructive, and inept his leadership might be. The reading I have been doing lately related to 19th century America, especially focused on the lead-up to the Civil War, the war itself, and its aftermath, leaves me with a strong sense of a deep-seated intractability of white supremacy regardless of how cruel and destructive it might be. Anderson’s book provides a kind of bridge account, showing how the toxic sludge of 19th century Slave Power never went away.

Continue reading “The Toxic Sludge in America’s Soul: The Tragedy of Systemic Racism”

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]”

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]”

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”