Trump and US Democracy (Looking West #2)

Ted Grimsrud—February 16, 2019

For some months I have been reading about the American Civil War. It’s been fascinating for many reasons, and I expect to be writing about what I am learning and thinking for a long time. One thread will be how sobering it is for me to read about the US past in relation to our current national political stormy waters. One of the premises of the Trumpian proclamation is that America used to be “great.” Well, it certainly wasn’t great in the middle part of the 19thcentury. And, painful as it is to realize this, many of the ways it wasn’t great back then are still with us—white supremacy, economic inequality, warism. And, of course, Trump’s agenda to “make America great again” seems only to exacerbate those problems from long ago.

Surreal, but not necessarily utterly exceptional?

It is surreal to have a president like Donald Trump, likely the most repellant person ever to hold that office. I don’t know of any president whose policies and philosophies I disagree with as much as Trump’s. I know of no other president who was as dishonest, as self-centered, as oblivious to other people’s feelings, as closely linked with the most corrupt elements of the broader American society. But at the same time, I realize that just about every other American president has also had disagreeable policies and philosophies, has been dishonest, self-centered, oblivious, and linked with corruption.

I think it is a mistake to view Trump as utterly exceptional. I get the sense, among people I talk with and read, that Trump is this foreign element in our political system and all we need to do is get rid of him or, at worst, wait him out for two more years, and then things will be ever so much better. I’m not so sanguine about our political system and about the state of democracy here. I wonder if the Trump presidency might be most useful not as a contrast to how things normally are but as a vulgar, veneer-stripped-away exposure of how broken the system has become (and maybe always has been). Continue reading “Trump and US Democracy (Looking West #2)”

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A Civil War Question: Can One Hate Both Slavery and War Equally?

Ted Grimsrud—January 7, 2019

I have long been interested in a quite challenging moral issue: How can we overcome evil without adding to the evil? This issue is central to the philosophy of nonviolence, and I think it should be central to any sense of ethical truthfulness. This is a good way to get at the heart of Gandhi’s philosophy as well as that of Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the big problems idealistic human beings have struggled with is the problem of working for social change or working to resist injustice and finding oneself actually contributing to making things worse.

Of course, our wider culture in North America (and presumably elsewhere) is not all that interested in this question. We Americans tend to take a pretty narrow and superficial view of social dynamics, constantly barraged as we are by American exceptionalism and corporate feel-goodism in our mass media. So, we have to stop and turn away in order to get a sense of what we actually face in terms of systemic brokenness and cycles of injustice.

But when we do pay attention, we realize that warism, racism, economic inequality, sexism, and many other problems remain all too present and each has a long history of intractability. Gandhi sought, with only partial success, to break a spiral that is all too apparent in liberation movements of responding to violence with violence in ways that have only led to more centralized power and continued injustice.

This moral question about evil lays at the heart of my energized interest in the American Civil War. This is how I would characterize the conventional wisdom in our society as I have encountered it: The Civil War was indeed a terrible thing with a lot of death and destruction. But slavery was an unacceptable evil that had to be stopped. It was costly, but ultimately worth the cost, to end that plague in our land. So, one of the lessons to be learned is that war can be a force to defeat evil. It is sad that it is necessary because it certainly is destructive. But sometimes war is our only option. Another lesson, then, that follows is that we have to prepare for such possibilities of a necessary war by maintaining the readiness of our military.

Questioning conventional wisdom

As a pacifist (one who denies the moral validity of war under any circumstances and who also rejects the preparation for war), I question this “wisdom” that accepts the acceptability of the Civil War. But I think anyone who desires to take a morally serious view towards war should also question that “wisdom”—even if they might not be as sure as I am about a negative assessment of the Civil War. The just war tradition at times has made the important claim (not taken nearly seriously enough) that humanity’s benefit of the doubt is against any particular war—in part simply because of the enormous destruction that each war causes. In thinking about any war—past, present, or future—according to this claim we have an obligation to assess its cost and to insist on a clear rationale for why that cost is worthy of being borne. If the costs are not worthy of being borne, almost certainly the war will once again be a matter of a response to evil that only adds to the net moral dynamics of evil. Continue reading “A Civil War Question: Can One Hate Both Slavery and War Equally?”

Wondering about the American Civil War

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2018

I grew up in western Oregon. Until I was 17, the farthest east I had ever been was Wallowa Lake in the northeastern corner of the state. Then, the summer after my junior year in high school, my family took a road trip out to Virginia to meet my new niece. My dad, who was a history teacher with deep interest in the Civil War, was thrilled to get to visit battlefields, museums, and other key Civil War sites. It was pretty interesting, but we had to leave to return home way too soon and only scratched the surface.

Ever since Kathleen, Johan, and I moved to Harrisonburg, VA, in 1996, I have felt guilty that I have not given much thought to the Civil War. My dad (who died in 1984) would be furious if he knew how I had wasted my time here by not paying more attention to Civil War places and materials. My apathy might finally be ending.

Did slavery actually end?

In the past few years I have learned about the impressive work of Bryan Stevenson. In his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014), Stevenson details his work as an attorney who has devoted his energy to saving the lives of people treated unjustly by our criminal justice system. He established the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, as the headquarters for his work.

Living in Montgomery has exposed Stevenson to the long and deep history of American violence toward people of color. He led an effort to establish a museum that would recognize the terrible toll of lynching in our country. This museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and its accompanying Legacy Museum opened their doors in late April this year. With this opening, Stevenson has been asked to talk in various settings about the legacy of such terroristic violence. He is extraordinarily clear and straightforward in the story he tells. A few weeks ago, I listened to an extended interview he gave the Washington Post.

Stevenson made a comment that got my attention. He stated that slavery never actually ended in the United States. It only evolved. This statement came simply as an observation, not as a strong thesis that he laid out a detailed rationale for. But his discussion of the tradition of Jim Crow segregation and lynchings by the thousand in the generations following the legal ending of slavery following the Civil War and his allusions to the ongoing plague of mass incarceration that has especially targeted black Americans offer anecdotal support for his statement about slavery’s evolution (and correlate with Michelle Alexander’s arguments about the dynamics of mass incarceration, especially in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness). Continue reading “Wondering about the American Civil War”

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”

What would Jesus say about the Russians?

Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2017

“What would Jesus say?” is a common questions Christians ask when they are in the midst of discerning what they themselves should say or do. For it to be a helpful question, I think we do better to think in terms of Jesus’s general moral outlook more than looking for specific verses to apply directly to our time.

I’m not sure I would say that people of good will (not only professing Christians) must ask this question—but I think it would almost always serve us well. And, clearly, if we draw from Jesus’s general moral outlook, we retain a large measure of responsibility to think and reason and act for ourselves. Jesus’s moral outlook gives us guidance but it does not give us a direct blueprint.

Currently, in the United States, we are badly in need of careful moral discernment. We are badly in deed of a moral outlook that gives us a stable set of moral convictions that will resist our tendency to look for guidance that justifies our own actions or simply allows us to condemn our enemies because they are our enemies. That is, we are in need of moral guidance that demands that whatever criteria for morality we use apply equally to ourselves as they do to our opponents.

It is risky right now to appeal to Jesus because so many people in power present themselves as “Christians” while acting and speaking in ways that are very much in tension with the actual life and teaching of Jesus. So, to evoke Jesus makes one vulnerable to be dismissed as simply another pious-sounding hypocrite. At the same time, appealing to Jesus’s actual moral outlook might provide a basis for challenging the approaches of self-professing Christians. That is what I hope to do with this blog post.

Continue reading “What would Jesus say about the Russians?”

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?”

A pragmatic case for voting Green

Ted Grimsrud—November 7, 2016

My post on Friday, “Why, in the end, I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton,” elicited quite a bit of discussion both here on the blog, on Facebook, and on the Mennonite World Review site where it was reblogged, as well as the MWR Facebook page.  I found most of the conversation to be discouraging. The Clinton supporters who responded, mostly personal friends, mostly Mennonites, mostly political progressives, mostly inclined toward pacifism, rarely if ever addressed the heart of my argument.

Problems with Clinton

My argument was not about Trump vs. Clinton but it was about the concerns posed by a potential Clinton presidency, most importantly (I suggest) in the areas of militarism and imperialism. I didn’t imply anything less than a deeply negative view of Trump. I stated that the question about voting for Clinton or not was for me a question that depended on being in a state where Clinton is almost certain to win (or, even more, in a state where Trump is certain to win)—not a truly contested state. Given that dynamic, I suggested that for me a vote for Jill Stein has the virtue of affirming a vision that actually affirms peace as a core commitment.

However, almost all of the negative comments turned it back to Clinton vs. Trump. There was hardly a hint that anyone is deeply troubled by Clinton’s warism—and interestingly, no one felt the need to challenge my assumptions about this warism. So, the basic sense is that yes, indeed, Clinton is committed to greater militarism and imperialism, but this is nothing to be worried about.

Now, my argument did rest on the premise that Clinton almost certainly would win Virginia. One of the ways I supported this premise was to point out that neither Trump nor Clinton was campaigning here, with the implication that both campaigns were accepting that Clinton would win Virginia. Well, since I wrote that, it turns out that Trump is coming here. As I said I would under those circumstance, I am reconsidering my vote. Continue reading “A pragmatic case for voting Green”

Why, in the end, I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton

Ted Grimsrud—November 4, 2016

Few of the people I know, even those who strongly supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, are agonizing about their presidential vote next week. It is clear to just about everyone in my circles, it seems, that Donald Trump’s unacceptability as president could not be more clear. Hence, a vote for Clinton is a no-brainer.

Thinking in the context of the electoral college

I have been unsure, however. Not that I would imagine voting for Trump. Not that I don’t believe that Trump would be a complete disaster as president, a horror beyond imagining. But it seems important to me to recognize that our presidential election, given the undemocratic reality of the electoral college, is actually 50 different elections. As we learned in 2000, the winner of the national popular vote will not necessarily win the election.

So, the particular election I am voting in is the election that will determine the votes of Virginia’s members of the electoral college. This fact is important to keep in mind as I reflect on my struggle to discern how to cast my ballot. It is altogether possible that if we did go by the popular vote, I might decide to vote for Clinton—not so much as a vote for her as for a vote that would prevent Trump’s election (I made this kind of argument for voting for Obama in 2012—whereas in 2008 I happily [and naively] voted for Obama, believing at least a little in the hopey, changey stuff).

It is also altogether possible that if I lived in a state such as Ohio or Florida, where the outcome seems very much in doubt and whose electoral votes will be crucial to the outcome, I would vote for Clinton.

But those are irrelevant considerations for me as a resident of Virginia. In a stark contrast to 2000, when I voted for Ralph Nader because Virginia was in the bag for George Bush (meaning a vote for Albert Gore seemed like a wasted vote), now it seems as if Virginia is in the bag for Clinton. I am glad for this for two reasons—one is that I do want Trump to lose, the second is that I feel freer to think of my vote as one I can cast based on my ideals than simply a vote to prevent a worse evil happening. Continue reading “Why, in the end, I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton”

A simple way to world peace? Recognize America as “Beast”

Ted Grimsrud—September 19, 2016

I offer what follows as a thought experiment, an attempt to flesh out a recent late night rumination. I finished reading a fine book, Douglas Fry, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. Fry, who is an anthropologist, seeks to refute the notion of “man as warrior” that assumes that human beings are innately hardwired to fight wars. Fry focuses on hunter-gatherer societies; he argues that some of these societies, presumably more revelatory of human nature, are not warriors.

I like Fry’s argument, though since I don’t know much about hunter-gatherer societies, I mostly have to take his word for it on the evidence he cites. But what he suggests fits well with other things I have read over the years. At the very end of the book he tries briefly to draw broader implications. Here he speaks of the need for a stronger, UN-type organization to help nations avoid warfare.

That suggestion made me think. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with that kind of approach—I’d like to see the peacemaking work of the UN be strengthened and more effective, as well as a stronger and more effective international law regime. But then I thought, surely the most powerful force that resists that kind of movement is the United States. If the US were committed to UN peacemaking work and international law, then we’d have a much more peaceable world. Continue reading “A simple way to world peace? Recognize America as “Beast””

The missing peace in the Democratic Party convention

Ted Grimsrud—August 1, 2016

It seems that the recently concluded Democratic Party convention (DNC) was a success. Clearly, the convention was orchestrated to show a direct contrast with the Republican Party convention the previous week—highlighting diversity, care for the poor, positive hope for the nation, and the like. And unity. The threat of major disruption from supporters of Bernie Sanders proved to be minimal—beyond some random “no more war” chants that were ignored by the people in charge. Sanders helped with his explicit support for Clinton.

Sanders’s speech was a model in how he affirmed Clinton’s candidacy going forward while he also reemphasized the core themes of his campaign. He received a kind of affirming echo from Clinton in her speech, as she lifted up many Sandersian points. Surely, the success of his insurgency campaign pulled her in his direction—and one can fantasize that Sanders and many others will help keep her to her word on many of the issues: vs. harmful free trade agreements, for economic justice, for greater access to higher education, for an increased minimum wage, for criminal justice reform, challenging the big banks, et al.

However, there was something crucial missing from Sanders’s speech—and he perhaps lost the one opportunity possible at the convention to challenge the worst of Clinton’s politics. Sanders said nothing about opposition to war and militarism. And, so, the empire continues to hurtle toward brokenness—and to take all of us with it. There are many angles one could take in decrying this lack of opposition—I write as a Christian theologian. Though it was indeed remarkable how visible explicit Christian faith was at the DNC, I take little comfort in a phenomenon I normally might have welcomed. This Christian presence runs the danger of being just another baptism of empire, even if “kinder and gentler” (ironic allusion to George H.W. Bush intended) than previous baptisms, if it won’t lead to an explicit commitment to “no more war.” Continue reading “The missing peace in the Democratic Party convention”