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)”

Why the Bible need not be a problem for pacifists (Theological memoir #6)

Ted Grimsrud—December 16, 2019

I well remember the moment, though not the precise day. It was late in my final term of college in the spring of 1976. After quite a bit of thought and emotional struggle, I decided to affirm pacifism. I now find a bit surprising how little I knew about what it was I decided. I don’t remember having a serious discussion about the issue with anyone else, or hearing a sermon or lecture on the topic, or having read anything explicitly about pacifism.

The context for a conversion

Something was in the air, though, in our culture. The Vietnam War had just ended. I just escaped the draft as it was ended the year that I became eligible for it. I had learned to know several vets who told horror stories of their experience in the military. Perhaps more than any time before or since, precisely at the moment I became a pacifist the US military was unpopular. Society saw war as pretty problematic.

Both my parents served in World War II and my oldest sister married an Army officer—so I certainly did not grow up in an anti-military family. But I never wanted to join in. My dad, brother-in-law, and high school guidance counselor all urged me as a high school junior to try to get into a military academy. But I did not for one second have interest in that path. I knew nothing about the conscientious objection option, but I always dreaded the idea of going to war.

I had had a Christian conversion about a month after my 17th birthday. A huge event in my life, it shaped everything I did after it happened. Interestingly, at first, becoming a Christian moved me away from my vague anti-war sensibility. The church I soon joined viewed the military quite favorably. I heard sermon after sermon that presented going to war as a noble endeavor for a patriotic American Christian. For me, though, my seemingly innate reluctance to embrace violence kept me from internalizing that Christian warism. The fundamentalist theology that congregation taught me never did sink very deep into my soul, but it did dull my intellectual curiosity for my first several years of college.

Finally, during my senior year of college I began to expand my horizons. I discovered Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul. Surely their pacifist sensibilities effected me even if I did out realize it. I did realize that I truly did want to have an intellectually rigorous faith and that I saw what Bonhoeffer called “discipleship” as the most faithful manifestation of biblically oriented Christianity. I also discovered Sojourners magazine and Francis Schaeffer and his acolytes, especially Os Guinness.

While reading Guinness’s book, The Dust of Death, I took the step of embracing pacifism. Later, I realized that Guinness did not actually advocate full blown pacifism. He drew on Ellul’s book, Violence (which actually does essentially espouse pacifism), to argue against a certain kind of violence—the revolutionary violence of the Left. So it wasn’t that Guinness persuaded me to be a pacifist so much as that his critique of violence served as a catalyst to crystallize various currents that had been coming together in my heart. Continue reading “Why the Bible need not be a problem for pacifists (Theological memoir #6)”

Pacifism in America, part seven: A pacifist agenda

Ted Grimsrud—June 19, 2019

Escaping war’s long shadow

Past American wars, especially World War II and its long shadow, have played a central role in the expansion and hegemony of our National Security State. The domination of the institutions of militarism and the ideology of necessary violence seem nearly irresistible. The strength of the current moving the American nation state toward the abyss of self-destruction seems overwhelmingly powerful (see Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy).

Until we actually reach the abyss, people who hope for genuine peace on earth will (must!) always hope that the current may be slowed enough that it may be redirected. Such people will devote their best energies to such a redirection. However, I see very little hope that the current toward the abyss will be redirected. This is our paradoxical, almost unbearable, situation: We must redirect our culture (American culture, for sure, but truly all other dominant cultures throughout the world) away from the abyss toward which institutionalized redemptive violence pushes us. But we actually have very little hope of doing so—at least on a large scale.

Creating space to be human

The movement in Central Europe that in the 1970s and 1980s resisted Soviet totalitarianism gives us a crucial image. Activists recognized that large-scale, top-down reform seemed impossible. Violent resistance against the systemic domination of the Communist regimes tended strictly actually to empower the sword-wielding state. So thoughtful resisters, recognizing that acquiescing to the System was intolerable while overthrowing it through direct resistance was impossible, articulated their hopes is exceedingly modest terms.

They spoke simply of creating spaces to be human. In doing so, they self-consciously rejected the story of reality told by the System, but they did not devote their energies to reforming it or ever to overthrowing it through violent direct action. More so, they focused on establishing relatively small spaces where they could build communities, express creativity, and patiently chip away at the portrayal of reality that filled the official media.

As it turned out, these small acts of resistance and counter-culture formation coincided with large-scale crises of legitimacy at the top of the Soviet empire. The System crumbled and major changes happened—though sadly the changes did not go as far as hoped in enabling self-determination and disarmament (for example, the U.S.-led militarization of Western alliances through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization absorbed several of the former Soviet-bloc nations who provided large markets for military hardware).

However, this emphasis on creating spaces to be human remains instructive and inspirational. If it is the case that a top-down transformation for peace is impossible in our current militarized national milieu, the possibilities for small-scale spaces for “being human” in peaceable ways do exist. And we never know what impact cultivating those spaces might have on the bigger picture. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part seven: A pacifist agenda”

Pacifism in America, part six: Peacebuilding and civil society

Ted Grimsrud—June 17, 2019

Efforts to resist racism and nuclearism show how deeply entrenched these problems are in the U.S. Powerful efforts that mobilized thousands upon thousands of people who sought change brought only grudging and fragile improvements. In the case of both sets of issues, the gains sadly were followed by losses and our situation today remains one of peril and injustice.

Only grudging progress

World War II marked a bit of progress in racial justice. Yet many black soldiers left the military frustrated by facing racism even as they answered their country’s call to serve. More so, they encountered oppression as they returned to a profoundly racist country that continued to treat these veterans as second-class citizens. They not only returned to the same old same old in terms of on-going discrimination, they also found themselves deprived of many of the benefits white veterans received due to their service.

Out of these experiences, many blacks deepened their resolve to work for change. So the Civil Rights movement that emerged in force in the second half of the 1950s owed some of its energy to the common experience of the contradictions in American culture where the demand for military service for the sake of “freedom” was accomplished by the denial of basic freedoms to those who served.

The nuclear threat directly arose from World War II. The U.S. was not capable of turning away from the use of these weapons nor from attempting to develop them and to seek a monopoly on their possession. As Garry Wills argues, this willingness by American policy makers to devote such extraordinary amounts of resources to the weapons of death drastically undermined American democracy as well as placed the entire world in enormous peril (see Garry Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State). Then, after the American “victory” in the arms race in the early 1990s, the country proved unable to end the pouring its treasure into systems of destruction.

Nonetheless, despite the seeming intractability of these problems, movements to overcome them contain important lessons for the future of humanity. The violent legacy of World War II has been challenged, effectively. And the challenges to this legacy have created momentum toward change—even if this momentum may not always be obviously discernable. Rosa Parks’ initiating the sit-in in December 1955, and the emergence of an international mass movement opposing nuclear weapons when American policy makers pursued the hydrogen bomb, marked key moments of resistance to the trajectory toward more and more violence. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part six: Peacebuilding and civil society”

Pacifism in America, part five: Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War

Ted Grimsrud—June 12, 2019

Pacifists in the United States in the mid-20th century sought to influence the world toward a more peaceable future following the massive destruction of World War II. We saw in Part Four of this series how this work took the form of widespread service work. In this post, we will look at a few large-scale efforts to resist war.

The initial response to nuclear weapons

Except for the small handful of people involved in its creation, the advent of nuclear weaponry with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 came as a shock to everyone. Overall, the American public strongly affirmed the use of these bombs. Those few who had opposed the War itself responded to Hiroshima and Nagasaki with unqualified horror. Selling out to warfare, they argued, has led to the possibility that now we can bring an end to human life itself. However, at first the pacifists offered a somewhat muted outcry in that they tended to see the nuclear bombs, terrible as they were, mainly as the logical outworking of the war spirit, just one more step toward the abyss, but not necessarily something qualitatively new.

For a brief time, some “prowar liberals” expressed opposition to nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons seemed to go beyond what was necessary. Lewis Mumford, a leading liberal pro-war advocate, stated, “our methods of fighting have become totalitarian; that is, we have placed no limits upon our capacity to exterminate or destroy. The result was moral nihilism, the social counterpart of the atomic bomb.” A report called “Atomic Warfare and the Christian Faith” prepared by liberal Protestant leaders came out in 1946 and expressed opposition to the use of nuclear bombs on Japan.

The other main expression of dissent about bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from within the very community that had created these terrible weapons (see Lawrence Wittner, One World or None: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement Through 1953). The one scientist who left the top secret Manhattan Project over moral objections was Joseph Rotblat. “When it became evident, toward the end of 1944, that the Germans had abandoned their bomb project,” Rotblat wrote, “the whole purpose of my being in Los Alamos ceased to be, and I asked for permission to leave and return to Britain.” Rotblat helped found the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. As part of the Pugwash organization, he won the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part five: Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War”

Pacifism in America, part one: The roots of war resistance

Ted Grimsrud—May 31, 2019

The United States has an extraordinarily ambivalent legacy when it comes to war and violence. On the one hand, we originated, in the view of many, as the victor in a war of rebellion against the British Empire; we have engaged in war and after war throughout our history; we are the only country ever to drop a nuclear weapon on another country; and now we are the world’s one “superpower” that spends more on its military than virtually all the other countries in the world combined.

Yet, on the other hand the United States has a long legacy of peace movements, acceptance of the rights of conscientious objectors, and the development of philosophies of nonviolent social action. The US from its early years provided a home for members of the “historic peace churches” and provided them a largely persecution free home in contrast to many other places in the world that had driven pacifists out.

I recently listened to an interesting series of podcasts on the history of nonviolence that reminded me of much of the peace legacy in the US. The third season of “The Thread” focused on the history of nonviolence. In six episodes, the series discussed key figures in that “thread,” moving backwards from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Bayard Rustin to Mohandas Gandhi to Leo Tolstoy to William Lloyd Garrison. There are many details in this series that I could nitpick about, but overall I found it interesting and inspiring—and I would recommend it.

One inspiration that emerged for me was to post some things I have learned about this history. I will share some thoughts in several installments about the history of pacifism in America, starting today with background to the emergence of pacifist opposition to World War II—opposition that obviously had little impact on the execution of that war but that planted seeds for a number of significant efforts to oppose war and injustice nonviolently in the decades that followed. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part one: The roots of war resistance”