How does Christian pacifism work? [Questioning faith #15]

Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2023

My definition of pacifism starts with the conviction that no belief or commitment or loyalty matters more than loving all others. It follows from such a conviction that participating in or preparing for or supporting warfare would never be acceptable. A key element, then, of this kind of conviction is that it requires a break from the widely held assumption that we should allow our nation to decide for us when war is okay. This assumption I call the “blank check”—the willingness (generally simply assumed more than self-consciously chosen) to do what our nation calls upon us to do, to give it—in effect—a blank check.

I have studied the responses American citizens had to their nation’s all-in call for fighting World War II. Only a tiny handful refused to take up arms, and I would say that almost universally those “conscientious objectors” shared a sense of loyalty to some higher moral conviction than accepting the blank check—and those who weren’t COs did not share that loyalty. Those who went to war did accept that their highest loyalty was owed to their nation.

If I add the modifier “Christian” to the term pacifism, the basic definition remains the same, but it adds the source of the conviction about the centrality of love. “Christian pacifism,” I would say, is the conviction that loving others is our never to be subordinated moral commitment, and this is due to the message of Jesus. Christians who aspire to have love be their central moral conviction (that is, “Christian pacifists”) look especially to Jesus’s teaching that love of God and neighbor is the heart of God’s will for human beings.

Why self-consciousness about pacifism matters

The two main inter-related reasons for why it is so important actually to understand Christian pacifism are: (1) in the long history of Christianity, hardly any Christian groups have in fact been committed to pacifism despite it being so central to Jesus’s message and (2) in the long history of human civilization hardly any Christians seem to have seriously questioned the validity of giving the state a blank check when it comes to warfare despite war being so obviously a violation of Jesus’s core message.

Continue reading “How does Christian pacifism work? [Questioning faith #15]”

Is Christian theology war theology? [Question faith #14]

Ted Grimsrud—January 9, 2023

The kind of theology I believe in is what I call “peace theology.” By “peace theology” I mean the conviction that love of God and of all neighbors are the center of faith. No other conviction or commitment is as important as love. As a result of this conviction, violence, warfare, injustice, and domination are all rejected as acceptable behaviors—that is, I believe we are called to a pacifistic way of life. One of the main emphases of peace theology is to seek to understand all of our key convictions in light of this core conviction of love.

I also recognize that the Christian tradition has not affirmed peace theology. The vast majority of Christian teaching and Christian practice has found war and other forms of violence to be acceptable for most of its history. However, I believe that peace theology is the original Christian theology—it follows directly from the life and teaching of Jesus. So, for me, one of the key questions that arises in relation to Christianity is: Why did things change (see my earlier blog post, “Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus?”)?

The social context for thinking about peace theology

The question that just now has intrigued me is this: In recognizing that Christian theology (defined here in terms of what most Christians believe) is no longer peace theology, does that mean that Christian theology is “war theology”? In this post, I want to reflect on that question. I will start with an assumption that not everyone will share. I suspect it is impossible to be neutral about war in our current world, at least in the United States. That is, the momentum in our society it towards war. Public spending, policy decisions, and the message of popular culture all are prowar, pro-preparation for war, pro-military response to conflicts. Peace theologian Walter Wink used the term “myth of redemptive violence” to describe the general disposition of American culture (and most other cultures). Americans believe that violence works to solve problems, that often it is the only thing that works. So, we are drawn to orient ourselves toward violence and warfare. Another coined term fits in describing our general disposition in the US: “warism.” By “warism” I have in mind the belief in war, a belief that leads to the acceptance of making preparation for war-making the most important focus of our society (as measured, say, by public expenditures).

In a warist world that is shaped by the myth of redemptive violence, theological neutrality is impossible. To say nothing and to ignore the dominant mythology in our society is actually to offer implicit support and affirmation. To say nothing also seems to be blind to the ways that warism shapes everything about how we perceive the world—including our theology. I tend to think we either self-consciously notice and oppose warism or we, at least implicitly, affirm it. We can’t avoid it.

Continue reading “Is Christian theology war theology? [Question faith #14]”

Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus? [Questioning faith #7]

Ted Grimsrud—November 21, 2022

From the time I made a commitment to Christian pacifism in the mid-1970s, I have believed that Jesus and the Bible as a whole support that commitment. In the years since, I have learned a lot more about how this “support” is complicated and at time ambiguous. However, I still believe that the general message of the Bible and more clearly the message of Jesus obviously point toward peace, compassion, care for the vulnerable, and what we now refer to as restorative justice—even if some may quibble about whether it explicitly teaches pacifism.

A few years after my turn toward peaceable Christianity, my wife Kathleen and I spent a year at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. We gained a terrific foundation there of biblical peace theology, especially from Old Testament professor Millard Lind and New Testament professor Willard Swartley. I have preached through much of the Bible in the 40 years since attending AMBS, each year during my 20-year teaching career at Eastern Mennonite University I taught a class called “Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice,” and I have written several books on peace based on the Bible. I feel quite established in my sense that the Bible (especially, but not only, Jesus) gives us a strong message of peace.

The difference between the Bible and Christian practice

So, that leads to the obvious question. What happened to Christianity? The history of Christianity is a history full of wars and militarism, conquest and domination, crusades and the embrace of empire. One statistical piece of evidence comes from the United States. In 1940, after several years of intense lobbying by peace advocates, the legislation passed to begin a military draft included allowance for pacifists to be exempt from joining the military. So, this proved to be kind of a test case.

From my analysis, I would estimate that about one out of 1,000 American Christians chose the conscientious objector route. For the vast majority of the young men who were drafted, the option to be a CO—and the sense that Jesus would support such a stance—seemingly never even entered the realm of possibility. Not only have Christians around the world almost always supported their nations’ wars, even when they would be fighting other Christians, it actually seems to be the case at least in the United States that Christians are more likely than non-Christians to support wars and preparation for wars. It doesn’t seem farfetched to call Christianity a pro-war religion—the opposite of Jesus’s message.

So, again, the question: Why the transformation? This is a question that has interested me for a long time, but I have never devoted serious attention to it. I have come up with a preliminary list, though, of what seem to be key elements of the evolution away from Jesus’s teaching.

Continue reading “Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus? [Questioning faith #7]”

Pacifism and saying no to the state: Various motives for refusal [Pacifism today #7]

Ted Grimsrud—April 15, 2022

With a breathtaking rapidity, the United States in the last couple of months has moved decisively in a militaristic direction. As historian Andrew Bacevich recently wrote, many American leaders “welcome the Ukraine War as the medium that will reignite an American commitment to the sort of assertive and muscular approach to global policy favored in militaristic quarters…. Putin … has handed the United States ‘a historic opportunity to regroup and reload for an era of intense competition’—with not only Russia but also China meant to be in our crosshairs.”

The delight of these militarist leaders and the arms dealers who also are profiting so greatly from the new conflict should give people who actually care about peace on earth pause before believing the spin our government and corporate media are giving things right now. We will almost certainly face a continued ratcheting up of militaristic dynamics in our society for the foreseeable future. The warism of our culture has always been bubbling just below the surface even as other crises have demanded attention. For it to move front and center hopefully will clarify that militarism is the problem that must be resolved if we are to make progress in overcoming the climate crisis, the curse of white supremacy, the violence of our policing and mass incarceration regimes, environmental collapse, the functioning of our democracy, and many others.

Effective opposition to the warism seems far from possible at this moment, though. The one single issue that seems to unite Democrats and Republicans is expansion of our war-making capabilities. The apparent impossibility of opposition does not diminish what may be a fact—we turn from warism as a society, or we all go down.  

In face of all this, the witness of pacifism seems more relevant than ever. When there is such uncritical support for pouring weapons of war into Ukraine, Germany greatly expanding its military spending, and the dynamics of confrontation rather than reconciliation with Russia and China, it seems pacifists are some of the few who voice opposition. One hope we might have is that with our nation’s warism so front and center, more people will question whether we actually do want our nation to be so committed to military “solutions” after all. Maybe this will lead to more interest in pacifism.

Continue reading “Pacifism and saying no to the state: Various motives for refusal [Pacifism today #7]”

Reflecting morally about the conflict in Ukraine [Pacifism Today #6]

Ted Grimsrud—April 10, 2022

[In early March, as the conflict in Ukraine gained the world’s attention, I wrote a blog post, “Thinking as an American pacifist about the Russian invasion.” In the weeks since then, I have continued to think—and posted several shorter reflections on Facebook. I have gathered those pieces into this blog post essentially unchanged.]

Some different concerns in response to the Russian invasion [3.9.22]

Like most people I know, I am heartsick about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the possibility of an expanding and continuing conflict. However, I don’t notice many other people voicing some of my main concerns.

It was almost 50 years ago that I first learned that my country’s leaders regularly, and to devastating effect, lied to justify engagement in unjust and disastrous military actions around the world. When I was in college, I learned to know numerous Vietnam War vets who told me stories that made my hair stand on end. To a man, they bitterly spoke of the lies we Americans were being told about that war.

Continue reading “Reflecting morally about the conflict in Ukraine [Pacifism Today #6]”

Thinking as an American pacifist about the Russian invasion [Pacifism Today #5]

Ted Grimsrud—March 3, 2022

Times of war fever are always challenging for those who are disposed to oppose most if not all war. Tragically, we are in the midst of such a time now. So, it seems timely to reflect a bit on how an American pacifist might think about our current crises. By “think about,” I mainly have in mind thinking about the underlying core peace-oriented convictions and how they might shape how we see our current situation.

I have in mind a pretty general definition of “pacifism” here. I’m thinking of it as roughly equivalent to, say, being a humane person, a person who supports social and political self-determination for all the people, a person who affirms the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The key points would be a belief that supporting war is antithetical to humane values, to the practice of self-determination, and to an affirmation of universal human rights.

A pacifist, in this sense, would be suspicious of all those who do support the practice of and preparation for warfare. This suspicion is especially strong toward those who profit from such preparation and practice. We would not, for example, assume that those leaders in our society who are positive about preparation for war are to be trusted as truthtellers. That is, we are distrustful toward our most powerful media outlets and the spokespeople for our military policies and military-oriented responses to crises. We also recognize we need to be self-conscious about the impact of the mass media in shaping people in our society to be positive about America’s military policies and practices and preparations. It takes an effort to resist that shaping.

In what follows, I will organize my thoughts in a series of brief reflections.

Continue reading “Thinking as an American pacifist about the Russian invasion [Pacifism Today #5]”

The eclipse of Mennonite peace theology? A diminishing tradition faces questions [Theological memoir #15]

Ted Grimsrud—August 25, 2021

I first learned about Mennonites in the late 1970s, right after I finished college. I was part of a small, independent evangelical Christian church and became interested in theology, first, and then pacifism. I found the peace position I was introduced to by the first Mennonites I met to be enormously attractive. The desire to be part of a peace church tradition led my wife Kathleen and me first to attend a Mennonite seminary and then join a Mennonite congregation. Both of us ended up becoming Mennonite pastors and then teaching at a Mennonite college. Peace theology was always a central part of our engagement.

After all these years, I am sensing that what seemed to be a vital community of activists and academics and ministers seeking, often together, to develop and put into practice Jesus-centered pacifist convictions has become much less vital. At least that is a hypothesis I want to test in this blog post. First, I want to describe what I mean by “peace theology” and then I will suggest a number of factors that may be contributing to the loss of vitality.

The emergence of Mennonite peace theology

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the experience of US conscientious objectors during World War II. As one of my central learnings, I analyzed how Mennonites managed to find in those challenging years resources that actually generated creativity and the expansion of their peace witness in the years following the War. A crucial dynamic was the investment Mennonite churches were willing to make to support their young men seeking conscientious objector status and performing alternative service in the Civilian Public Service program. Mennonite leaders joined with Quakers and Brethren to help shape the legislation that established the option for alternative service for young men who were conscientiously disposed not to join the military.

A key victory for the peace church lobbyists in relation to what had happened during World War I came when the CPS program was established as an entity separate from the military. This meant that prospective conscientious objectors would not have their quest for CO status subject to military oversight (a part of the World War I system that led to extreme difficulties for many pacifists). On the other hand, a key defeat came when the legislation required that funding for CPS come from non-governmental sources. That meant that the COs themselves would have to provide funding for their living expenses. For Mennonites, this meant that a great deal of fundraising among the churches would be necessary. As it turned out, people in the churches were extraordinarily generous, especially given that Mennonites tended to be people of modest means.

Continue reading “The eclipse of Mennonite peace theology? A diminishing tradition faces questions [Theological memoir #15]”

God and warism: The dilemma [Theological memoir #12]

Ted Grimsrud—June 7, 2021

I can’t seem to escape the reality that people’s beliefs in and about the divine and their attitudes about war seem to be closely related. On the one hand, it seems obvious that belief in God often underwrites war. Yet, on the other hand, in studying the history of pacifism I am struck with how important religious faith has been for quite a few of war’s most committed opponents. So, this is the dilemma: How do we find a way to navigate this centrality of religious faith in ways that lead to peace and resist warism? Let me illustrate these issues with my story.

“God” and radical politics

When I began my political awakening back in the mid-1970s, I believed very intensely in “God” (meaning the personal, all-powerful, all-knowing, transcendent deity of conservative Protestant Christianity). My belief in “God” gave me the sense that truth in light of this “God” mattered more than anything else. I also believed that Jesus was the incarnation of this “God,” and that we know best what “God” wants through “God’s” revelation in Jesus.

These beliefs gained political significance for me due, first of all, to paying attention to the war in Vietnam that had been destroying so many lives for no good, life-giving reason (I had faced the genuine possibility of being drafted to fight in this war and missed out by being a bit too young). When my disenchantment with the US was emerging, I happened upon a newly arrived sensibility expressed by various younger evangelical Christians that in the name of radical discipleship critiqued the American Empire and called for alternatives (most significant for me was the Sojourners community in Washington, DC, and their monthly magazine). These radical evangelicals helped me see that loyalty to “God” actually stood in tension with loyalty to the nation of my birth.

So, “God” was very important in helping me step outside the lines of the received sense of security and comfort that comes with being a loyal American. Once I did step outside the lines, I easily came to see the profoundly corrupting nature of the American Empire. Vietnam was surely the most egregious case of imperial violence on an incomprehensible scale—but only one case out of many dating back to the very settling of the Western Hemisphere by Europeans (I learned a lot from William Appleman Williams’s book, Empire as a Way of Life). I have become ever more certain about the deeply problematic nature of the United States. Still, I realize that my initial step outside the lines was definitely not inevitable. It had a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time. The Vietnam War, the possibility of being drafted, becoming friends with several returning war vets, entering the evangelical world at precisely the same time as the emergence of the radical evangelicals, gaining a theology that connected “God” with engaged pacifism—all these factors and more coalesced at just the right time for me.

As I think about it now, I am especially intrigued with the significance of the “God” part of this constellation of influences. I tend to think that I never quite believed in “God” in the way I was taught during my fundamentalist and evangelical years (about 8 or so years from the time when I was 17 [1971]). Certainly, it was easy and painless to evolve away from that belief. At the same time, I do think that the belief in “God” that I had was crucial for me having the wit and courage to step away from the Americanness I was raised with and surrounded by.

Continue reading “God and warism: The dilemma [Theological memoir #12]”

A moral analysis of America’s civil war: A response to Harry Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation [Civil War #9]

Ted Grimsrud—February 11, 2021

Although most people who think about warfare in the modern world accept with little question the assumption that Americans operate within the moral framework of the “just war theory,” relatively little writing has been done that elaborates on the application of that theory to America’s wars. In recent years, I’ve been reading quite a bit about our civil war in the US. Since I have many moral questions about that war, I have been attentive to moral concerns as they arise in my reading—or, as I should say, as they don’t arise. The most notable moral stance by the vast majority of writers has been that, of course, this was a “just war” and that reality ends any additional moral reflection.

However, there is at least one important exception. Harry S. Stout’s Upon The Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking Press, 2006) is an important and interesting book, well-written and deeply concerned with its subject matter. Stout, professor of American religious history at Yale, tries to take head on the challenge of looking at the most destructive war (in terms of American casualties) our country has ever fought—the American Civil War—from a moral perspective. He argues, and gives plenty of evidence to support his argument, that the moral dimension was missing during the war itself and, by and large, in analyses of the war ever since.

How did its contemporaries view the morality of the Civil War?

Stout focuses on the military campaigns of the Civil War, with only a brief introduction and afterword considering the run up to the War and its aftermath. We read how contemporaries viewed these battles, getting a clear sense that just war concerns rarely entered the picture on either side. Neither the political and military leaders nor religious leaders brought moral concerns drawn from the just war theory (e.g., a sense of proportionality and noncombatant immunity) to bear on their responses to the war. Instead, Stout reports mostly jingoistic cheerleading, especially from the churches, and pragmatic strategies to win the War at all costs from the political and military leaders.

It is not as if Americans, especially military leaders, were ignorant of the just war theory and other moral considerations in relation to war. Stout traces the inexorable evolution among the Union leaders from what he calls the “West Point Code” (a philosophy of limited war taught at the U.S. Military Academy) to the scorched earth campaigns of Union generals Sherman and Sheridan that brought the South utterly to its knees. In the midst of its commitment to total war and victory at all costs, the Union simply disregarded without much debate any old fashioned just war ideas. He also makes it clear that the Confederacy also was perfectly willing to leave the West Point Code behind.

Continue reading “A moral analysis of America’s civil war: A response to Harry Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation [Civil War #9]”

Our need for the book of Revelation’s peace message (Peaceable Revelation #4)

Ted Grimsrud—January 5, 2021

I’ve been interested in the book of Revelation for a long time. Of course, others have also found Revelation interesting over the years. But not that many have perceived Revelation to be a positive resource for peaceable living in our warring world. So, I hope to make the case for the value of a peaceable approach—and that this is actually the most accurate way to read Revelation.

What we need in 2021

As a way to begin, let me reflect for a bit on our current historical moment. Is it possible that we are in a time and place where a new reading of Revelation could actually be especially helpful and empowering? I suspect so.

One of our big problems in the US right now (as always) is the destructive influence of embedded biases, fears, and idolatries that we grow up absorbing—our institutions, ideologies, structures, and the like shape us toward violence, hostility, and stereotyping and othering people. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, nationalism, consumerism, classism. The list goes on.

Continue reading “Our need for the book of Revelation’s peace message (Peaceable Revelation #4)”