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?”

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Christianity on war and peace: An overview

Ted Grimsrud—March 15, 2018

[I was recently asked to write up the following brief overview of how Christians tend to view warfare. It will hopefully be published in the forthcoming Bloomsbury Companion to Studying Christians.]

Accounts of how Christians think and act in relation to war have tended to repeat the general typology that was introduced back in 1960 by historian Roland Bainton in Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. Bainton saw three categories: pacifism (the commitment not to participate in war in any form), the just war (the willingness to go to war when certain criteria insuring the justness of the war are met), and the crusade (a sense of call from God to fight in a war that is understood to be divinely required).

However, this typology has been criticized for leaving too many options out and over-simplifying what is left. As an alternative, I propose a revised typology that has two main types: (1) Negatively disposed toward war and (2) positively disposed toward war. Each of these two types has three subtypes.

“Negatively disposed” toward war

What unites the three “negatively disposed” approaches is the conviction that, morally, the benefit of the doubt is always against war.

  1. Principled pacifism. This view is against war based on starting principles. For example, some Christians have said that they can not fight due to their understanding of Jesus’ commands such as “love your enemies.” The relative justice of particular wars is irrelevant. For example, in the United States during World War II those who were morally opposed to fighting were allowed to do alternative service as conscientious objectors. Such conscientious objectors refused military service simply because they believed any possible war was wrong due to their moral principles. Even if their country was to fight in a “just war,” principled pacifists would still refuse to fight.
  2. Pragmatic pacifism. This view is against war based on the evidence of how warfare works in actual practice. These conclusions follow from using just war criteria to conclude that all actual wars are certain to be unjust; that is, this pacifism is based on evidence. This view suggests that each war has violated some if not all the standard just war criteria.
  3. Critical just war. This view differs from “pragmatic pacifism” due by being open to the possibility that just war criteria may be met. These criteria typically are sorted into two categories: “just cause” (e.g., defending against aggression, resisting tyranny, stopping atrocities, declared by a legitimate authority, only undertaken as a last resort, undertaken with the near certainty of victory) and “just means” (e.g., noncombatants are not targeted, the violence used is not out of proportion to the good that the war achieves, of limited duration, the humane treatment of prisoners of war). This view starts with the assumption that any particular war is not just unless proved otherwise. The logical conclusion for those holding this view is that wars that do not overcome that burden of proof should be opposed. Something like this was a common view in the U.S. during the Vietnam War for many draftees who refused to fight went to Canada or prison.

Continue reading “Christianity on war and peace: An overview”

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”

“Peace Theology” and “Peacebuilding”: How Strong is the Connection?

Ted Grimsrud—September 26, 2016

Back last January, I wrote a post on this blog called “Have Mennonites Moved Past Peace Theology? A Response to From Suffering to Solidarity. I reflected on a recently published, well-executed collection of essays on Mennonite peacebuilding edited by Andrew Klager, From Suffering to Solidarity: The Historical Seeds of Mennonite Interreligious, Interethnic, and International Peacebuilding. This book purports to take a historical approach to Mennonite peace work. My comments were quite laudatory of the book itself, with a few questions, but then I used the book as a jumping off point for reflecting on the relationship (or lack thereof) between Mennonite theological convictions and the current discipline called “peacebuilding.”

The post triggered some useful conversation in the comments section for a few days, which for my blog is a sign of success. I had occasion to reread the post just lately because I learned of a response to my reflections written some seven months ago by the editor of the book, Andrew Klager. The post, “Ted Grimsrud’s Response to ‘From Suffering to Solidarity’: Continuing the Conversation—By Andrew Klager,” raises some interesting points that I think might be worth further reflection.

Some disappointments

I am disappointed that I only now learned of Andrew’s post, and that my learning of it was totally by accident, the result of activating Google alerts on my name. Though Andrew, as the title of his post indicates and as is reflected in the post itself, wrote his piece in service of “continuing the conversation,” he didn’t let me know that he had written it, and so I didn’t have a chance to converse with his thoughts until now.

However, because I remain quite interested in the issues these posts address, I want to think a bit more about them here (and I’ll send Andrew a Facebook message so he knows I have written this!). As I reread my original piece, I find myself pretty happy with what I wrote. I think I clearly raised some important concerns about how the lack of attention to the faith-based convictions that underlie Mennonite peace practices threatens to cut off those practices from their cultural and theological roots—with possible problematic consequences down the line.

So, I am also disappointed that Andrew’s response to my reflections was mainly defensive and, actually, in the end actually seems to confirm some of my concerns. In a nutshell, he reiterates the assumption I find all too common among many the peacebuilding advocates that I know and know of, namely, that the presence of fruitful present-day peace work among Mennonites is strong evidence in itself that of course this work is grounded in Mennonite theology—without responding to my main point that by not self-consciously expressing their convictions, Mennonite peacebuilders may be in danger of  separating the practices from the convictions in ways that will eventually lead to a withering of the practices. Continue reading ““Peace Theology” and “Peacebuilding”: How Strong is the Connection?”

A note on Romans 13 and Christian “warism”

Ted Grimsrud—November 30, 2015

One of the sessions I attended at the recent annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta was a conversation among those identified with the just war approach and those identified as pacifists on how to respond to terrorism. Three of the five speakers were what I would call “warists” and the other two were “pacifists.”

By “warism” I mean the assumption that war is morally acceptable, often necessary, and appropriately prepared for and utilized as the centerpiece of national security policy. Christian warists might use the language of “just war” to characterize their position, but they do not share the traditional just war presumption against the moral validity of particular wars.

In my rethinking the typology concerning attitudes toward war (revising the standard approach originally defined by Roland Bainton), I suggest two basic views—”negatively disposed” (including principled pacifism, pragmatic pacifism, and skeptical just war) and “positively disposed” (including favorable just war, blank check, and crusade). Because of their positive starting assumption concerning war, I would call the three views under “positively disposed” different versions of “warism.”

Our session in Atlanta confirmed an impression I have had on other occasions. Though those holding the  “favorable just war” view claim to represent the just war tradition, they actually are hostile to forms of just war thought that insist that the just war presumption is against war. They reject the idea that acceptance of a particular war as “just” requires that the benefit of the doubt against war be overcome with clear evidence based on just war criteria that that specific war would be just. One of the panelists, who expressed disdain toward pacifism, characterized what I call “skeptical just war” thought as a sell out to pacifism. Continue reading “A note on Romans 13 and Christian “warism””

MC USA’s “Membership Guidelines,” part one: A history

Ted Grimsrud—July 15, 2015

Mennonite Church USA had its biennial general assembly in Kansas City the week of the Fourth of July. Most of the attention before and afterwards seems to have been paid to the discussion of whether the denomination should strengthen the role of the 2001 Membership Guidelines that were part of the founding agreement the merger that created MC USA from the former General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church. These Guidelines were formulated in order to single out the alleged “sin” of LGBTQ Mennonites and to forbid pastoral participation in same-sex weddings.

This is the first of three posts that will respond to the passing of the resolution that re-affirmed the Membership Guidelines. Here I will give some historical background to the Guidelines and describe what they say. The second post will offer a theological critique of the content of the Guidelines, and the third post will reflect on the relationship between the Guidelines and the Mennonite peace position.

Reaffirming the Membership Guidelines

While it is likely that for most who attended this year’s convention, the experience was about much more than the official business that was done, Kansas City ’15 maybe will nonetheless be linked with the decision about the Membership Guidelines in the same way that Saskatoon ’86 and Purdue ’87 continue to be remembered for the statements on sexuality that were approved then by delegates—and whose reverberations continue.

I actually hope that this will not be the case, that the delegate approval of the MC USA Executive Board’s resolution that enlarged the role of the Membership Guidelines will prove to be the last gasp of a failed attempt to underwrite a restrictive approach to the presence of LGBTQ Mennonites and their supporters in MC USA. As it is, the presence of the Membership Guidelines as an official part in MC USA’s structure signals a tragic failure of Mennonite pacifism, or, as it has traditionally been called, the Mennonite “peace position.”

This blog post is a continuation of a series of reflections that have allowed me an opportunity to think out loud about the current struggle over whether MC USA will be welcoming and compassionate. I wasn’t at the Kansas City assembly, and I don’t write as one particularly well informed about the inside dynamics of MC USA politics. My sense of what happened at Kansas City is mainly filtered through the laments expressed on social media by those who hoped the Membership Guidelines would not pass. What I mainly have to offer, I think, is a historically-informed analysis of some of the underlying theological and ethical issues—more than insight into what actually happened on the ground in Kansas City. Continue reading “MC USA’s “Membership Guidelines,” part one: A history”

What I learned from Millard Lind

Ted Grimsrud—April 27, 2015

I was saddened to learn that Millard Lind died last Friday at the age of 96. Millard was a long time Old Testament professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and made a singular contribution to Mennonite peace theology. More than anyone before him (and few since), he struggled to bring together Christian pacifism with a strong commitment to the authoritative message of the Old Testament.MillardCLind

Millard was certainly not completely successful in his effort to develop a pacifist theology of the Old Testament, but he made a powerful contribution to this essential task. I was privileged to study with Millard. Like most of his other students, I am sure, I have vivid memories of a passionate, respectful, humble, and insightful teacher. Millard was small in stature but large in energy and intellect.

As much as any of the great AMBS profs from the “golden era” of the 1960s–1980s, Millard elicited affectionate “remember when Millard…” stories. Many of these stories concerned is absent-minded professor persona (utterly non-affected). My favorite is the story of the time he and his wife Miriam hosted a group of students in their home. Toward the end of the evening, Miriam circulated her guest book for the students to sign. When the book completed its rounds, amidst the student names was Millard’s almost illegible scrawl, “Millard Lind, thanks for the nice evening.”

A pioneering scholar and thinker

Millard accepted the daunting challenge of articulating an affirmative view of the teaching of the Old Testament that overcame the antipathy with which many pacifist Christians (not to mention most other Christians) viewed those materials. Millard turned toward an academic career rather late, having served as a congregational pastor and publishing house editor. Maybe it was this maturity that emboldened him to break new ground in biblical interpretation. Continue reading “What I learned from Millard Lind”

A New Book on World War II’s Moral Legacy

December 3, 2014—Ted Grimsrud

Cascade Books has just published my book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. Here is the home page for the book on my website, with links to other sites where it can be previewed and purchased.9781625641021

This book is, in essence, a pacifist’s attempt to answer the question, “what about Hitler?” or “what about World War II?” using the moral reasoning of the just war tradition and common American values.

How the book is unique, as far as I know, is that it not only interrogates the War itself, it also traces the impact of the War on American national security policy in the generations since—as well as looking closely as the story of the war opponents and their legacy. Continue reading “A New Book on World War II’s Moral Legacy”

Pacifism when “life happens”: Further thoughts

Ted Grimsrud—October 2, 2014

Christian pacifism seems to be an issue that people care about a lot, even if they aren’t always very sympathetic toward it. I’m still trying to figure out how to think about it and talk about it, and I’ve been working on that for a long time and with a lot of energy.

I appreciate the stimulus to thought that the exchanges concerning Christian pacifism this week have provided. Thanks to Rachel Held Evans for her initial brief but stimulating Facebook comments that pushed me to write the blog post I put up on Monday (“Is pacifism for when life happens? A response to Rachel Held Evans”). And thanks to her for putting up a link to that post on her Facebook page, to those who commented there, and especially to those who commented directly on my blog and my Facebook page.

As always, when this kind of thing happens, my mind races. I have a few thoughts that seem like new thoughts for me that I would like to add to the conversation.

The meaning of “Christian pacifism”

In my “Is pacifism…” post I tried to make two main points—that (1) Jesus does call Christians to pacifism, which is for all times and places according to his teaching, and that (2) since the United States military is not an agent for genuine justice, Christians should not look to it as a possible answer to the question of what to do about ISIS (which is what I understood to be the trigger for Rachel’s original Facebook comments last week).

This is what I mean by Christian pacifism: Basically, in my mind, thinking of myself as a Christian pacifist is the same thing as thinking of myself as a Christian. Not because I want to add a pacifist ideology onto basic Christian faith. Rather, I believe that “pacifism” is simply a shorthand way to say “Christianity as if Jesus matters.”

I explain this in the other day’s post where I use the story of the Good Samaritan as the central image for summarizing Jesus’s teaching (and his living). What matters the most? What is the ultimate “salvation issue” for Jesus? It’s the call to love God and neighbor. And who is the “neighbor”? Anyone in need and anyone who cares for someone in need—even if one or the other might be considered an enemy.

The term “pacifism” is useful because it reminds us that the kind of love Jesus calls us to is love that does not allow for exceptions. It is love that does not allow for killing, preparing to kill, or supporting those who kill others (that is, it does not allow for warfare). However, it appears that at times this term can be misunderstood. The point for Christian pacifism as I understand it not to insist on the necessity of the term “pacifism” but to remind Christians of the core message of our faith. Continue reading “Pacifism when “life happens”: Further thoughts”

Why we should think of God as pacifist—(4) Experience and history

Ted Grimsrud—June 24, 2014

I believe that we should think of God as pacifist. By the nature of the case, though, this is not something we can prove decisively. This is a kind of value judgment or choice—to see God and the world in a certain way. However, I would not call such a conviction a simple leap of faith that flies in the face of the evidence. In fact, I think we have good reasons for such a belief.

I wrote in a previous post why I believe the Bible, ultimately, teaches that God is pacifist, even if the evidence is decidedly mixed. I would say the same thing about creation. The world we live in and our experience as human beings over time in this world, when seen as a whole, does offer support for thinking of God as pacifist—although, again, the evidence is decidedly mixed.

What kind of connection do we see between God and the world around us? One way to think of this is in terms of God as creator whose creation reflects the character of its source. If the world comes from God, we should expect to see evidence to support the idea that a loving, even pacifist, creator made what is. I think we should expect that as we look ever deeper into the world we live in, we will find signs of the presence of our God there since our God is inextricably linked with the deepest truths that we can perceive.

The way my thinking has evolved has been a kind of moving back and forth between the biblical portrayal of Jesus and God and the call to pacifism on the one side and seeing reality as pacifist on the other. In terms of my conscious thought, when I became a pacifist at age 21 and begin to think about other things in light of that pacifism, I started with the biblical message and in light of that began consciously think of the world differently. But in time I realized that my life had been shaped from its beginning by the experience of love in a fundamental way, experience that surely helped prepare me to see Jesus’s message the way I did. Continue reading “Why we should think of God as pacifist—(4) Experience and history”