Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery

Ted Grimsrud—September 4, 2019

A new book challenges many of my assumptions about the role of violence and nonviolence in resistance to white supremacy and enslavement in American history. Kellie Carter Jackson, a historian who teaches at Wellesley College, in Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) argues for the centrality of necessary violence in the work of resisting and ending slavery. Though she alludes only briefly to the more recent Civil Rights Movement, she seems to believe that violence was a necessary part of the positive gains made in the 1950s and 1960s as well.

An interesting book

I found this book quite interesting—which, unfortunately, is a comment I make only partly as a compliment. One of Carter Jackson’s achievements that I fully affirm is how she draws attention to the numerous black advocates for abolition in the several decades prior to the Civil War. All too often, the story of the abolitionist movement has focused almost exclusively on the white leaders with the addition of Frederick Douglass. Carter Jackson helps us see how vital and widespread the movement among black activists in the North actually was.

As well, Carter Jackson provides an insightful account of the evolution of the abolitionist movement in face of the extraordinary intransigence of white supremacists in the South and the North. At the beginning of the William Lloyd Garrison-led “formal” abolitionist movement in the early 1830s, the emphasis was on “moral suasion” that was self-consciously opposed to the use of violence to effect liberation for the enslaved. Over the following several decades, as the regime of enslavement became more entrenched—with the deep-seated collaboration of Congress, various pro-slavery presidents, and the Supreme Court—those committed to its eradication became increasingly impatient with the emphasis only on “suasion.” Belief in the necessity of violence for the liberation of the enslaved became increasingly widespread.

However, I do not believe that Carter Jackson has successfully made the case for her more wide-ranging claims (albeit usually only implicitly stated) that violence was indeed necessary, then and ever since, for achieving both liberation from slavery and social equality. In her epilogue she tellingly quotes Cynthia Washington of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from the 1960s, “I was never a true believer in nonviolence.” Washington “carried a handgun in her bag. And though she never fired it, she made it clear that she was willing to do so” (p. 160). Carter Jackson clearly sees Washington’s views on nonviolence as reflecting her own—that is, she doesn’t really give nonviolence a chance. Continue reading “Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery”

Is Christian pacifism a thing?

Ted Grimsrud—May 20, 2019

I can imagine several ways that the question I ask in the title of this post could go, so I want to start by explaining what I mean. By pacifism, I have in mind the principled unwillingness to support or participate in warfare or other forms of lethal violence (though I will say a bit more below that will define pacifism in more detail). For the purposes of what I write here, I assume the validity of pacifism. My question has to do with whether there is a type of pacifism that is uniquely Christian—that is, in effect, only available to Christians.

To make this more personal, I can rephrase the question: (1) Am I a pacifist because I am a Christian? Or, (2) Am I a Christian because I am a pacifist? Which comes first? Which is more essential? Now, of course, most Christians are not pacifists. And surely many pacifists are not Christians. As I have thought about this lately, I have come to conclude that though my self-awareness of having an explicitly pacifist commitment came at a time when I would have believed #1 (that I was a pacifist because I was a Christian), I now think that #2 is true for me (that is, to the extent I would see myself as a Christian it is because I am a pacifist and I know of a kind of Christianity that affirms pacifism). I should also say before I go further that I recognize that so much of this kind of discussion depends on how we define our terms. I will try to do that with care as I move along—but I request of the reader some tolerance with the limits of our language. I offer these reflections more as a kind of thought experiment than pretending to present anything definitive. Continue reading “Is Christian pacifism a thing?”

What’s wrong with how we view the Civil War?

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2019

As I continue to read and think about the American Civil War, I am continually impressed with how little questioning of the legitimacy of warfare as the default way to resolve conflicts I have encountered. I have seen even less skepticism about the Civil War as a tool for the good than I found in relation to World War II. I tend to think that so long as people accept those wars, they will continue to accept our present-day warring and preparation for warring.

A representative view of the Civil War

I encountered a representative view of the Civil War that illustrates my concern when I listened to an April 16, 2019, interview with Andrew Delbanco, history professor at Columbia University and author of The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, on a program called “Letters and Politics.”

I was impressed with Delbanco. He is knowledgeable and insightful about the Civil War era. He has good values and seems to be a reliable analyst. He makes helpful connections with the present. It is because he seems perceptive and humane that his comments about the “validity” of the Civil War seem especially useful (and troubling) for me. If someone with his general sensibility has these views, I think it is safe to imagine most other historians of the US do, too (and probably most people in the wider society). The comments that especially struck me came at the end of the interview as he was drawing some conclusions. Delbanco said:

In retrospect, I think most of us would say the price was worth paying. A million dead for the emancipation of four million human beings whose ancestors had been enslaved and whose descendants would have been enslaved if the war had not taken the course it took. But again I would suggest, how many of us today would willingly send our sons and brothers and friends to their deaths for any moral cause? How many of us on the progressive side of the political spectrum would be willing to contemplate war of that scale and savagery as a method to achieve a better society? I’m not sure I would. So, supporting the Civil War in retrospect is easy. Committing oneself to a war like that in prospect may not be so easy. Continue reading “What’s wrong with how we view the Civil War?”

The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (III—An Alternative)

Ted Grimsrud—November 8, 2018

Greg Boyd’s book on reading the Bible nonviolently, Cross Vision (CV), sets before us a challenge. Is it possible to accept the Bible’s truthfulness while also affirming a consistently pacifist worldview? I conclude, after reading both CV and its more scholarly companion, Crucifixion of the Warrior God, that indeed the best, most respectful, reading of the Bible does support a pacifist commitment. However, I think the case for this might be made more persuasively following a somewhat different approach than Boyd’s. In this post I will sketch an alternative approach to Boyd’s for a biblical theology that also places God’s nonviolent love at the center.

Starting with God’s nonviolence

Like Boyd, I begin with God’s nonviolence (see my blog post, “Why we should think of God as pacifist”). I believe that the fundamental reality in our world is love. And God is love. So my interest in writing this piece is not to try to persuade people who might think otherwise that God is nonviolent. Rather, I want to explain why I think the Bible supports that conviction. What in the Bible leads to confessing God’s nonviolence? And what should we think about the parts of the Bible traditionally cited as the bases for denying that God is nonviolent?

Let me first, though, say just a bit about what saying “God is nonviolent” means for me. In a nutshell, to make such an affirmation is to confess that the Bible teaches that God created what is out love and for the sake of love. It also teaches that God participates in the world most directly in how God brings healing in the face of brokenness, binding wounds, reconciling alienated relationships, and empowering creativity and compassion.

And also like Boyd, I believe that the Bible’s definitive portrayal of God is found in the story of Jesus. That is, God is most clearly and reliably known to humanity in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. My affirmation of God’s nonviolence finds its strongest grounding in my affirmation of Jesus’s nonviolence. Just as it is unthinkable to me that Jesus would punish, hate, exploit, or violently coerce, so is it unthinkable that God would. Continue reading “The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (III—An Alternative)”

The centrality of God’s love: A response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (Part 2: An assessment)

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2018

 Greg Boyd’s book, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Fortress Press, 2017), deserves praise simply for being a book of serious theological scholarship with an original and creative argument about a crucially important issue that is written for a wide audience. I don’t find Boyd’s effort totally successful, but even as I raise some sharp criticisms I want to emphasize how grateful I am for Boyd’s book. This post is the second of three. The first summarizes Boyd’s argument and the third sketches an alternative view on the issues Boyd addresses.

For many years, I have been deeply troubled about the role Christianity plays in the acceptance of state-sponsored violence in the United States—to the point where self-professing Christians are quite a bit more likely to support wars and capital punishment than those who make no such profession. I’ve concluded that a key problem that contributes to this undermining of the message of Jesus Christ is theological—convictions Christians have that actually make acceptance of violence more likely.

Boyd may not fully share my critique, but he certainly is aware of the problem. And he is willing to write some gutsy and accessible books that take the problem on head on. Cross Vision (CV) is a much shorter and less academically rigorous adaptation of his two-volume work, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). I recommend starting with the shorter book, which does a nice job summarizing Boyd’s argument—but the longer book is also pretty accessible and contains a wealth of analysis that those who are attracted to Boyd’s argument will want to explore (I have written a long series of blog posts that summarize and critique CWG).

What Boyd gets right

The main contribution CV makes is actually an assumption Boyd starts with more than a proposition he demonstrates. He asserts that Jesus Christ is the central truth for Christianity, that Jesus shows us the character of God more definitively than anything else, and that because Jesus was (and is) resolutely nonviolent we should recognize that God also is nonviolent—and always has been. Making such an affirmation about God a starting point means that Boyd does not equivocate when he comes face to face with difficult biblical materials. He focuses on how those materials might be understood in relation to the core convictions about God as nonviolent. This clarity is bracing and empowering. What the world needs now, I believe, are people who are committed to embodying healing love, not people who struggle over whether or not to kill others or whether or not to support the killing of others. It’s that simple, and Boyd gives us an important resource for following such a path. Continue reading “The centrality of God’s love: A response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (Part 2: An assessment)”

A response to Old Testament violence

Ted Grimsrud—September 17, 2018

The issue of the violence in the Old Testament has troubled and fascinated me for years. How do we reconcile the violent portraits of God with an affirmation that Jesus is our definitive revelation of God and calls us to a pacifist commitment? I have felt pretty resolved for some time that this issue is not a deal breaker for Christian pacifism. But I have yet to sit down and write out a full explanation of how I think we best think about how the OT and pacifism go together. I’m not yet ready to do that, but I think I recently moved a bit closer to doing it.

The two general historic approaches to OT genocide

I recently read and briefly reviewed a new book, Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide: Christian Interpretations of Herem Passages by Christian Hofreiter (Oxford University Press, 2018). Hofreiter surveys various ways Christian writers have “made sense of OT genocide” over the past 2,000 years. He suggests they break down into two broad categories.

One we might associate with Origen (arising in the 3rd century CE, a time when church leaders were essentially pacifist) and simplify by describing it as a view that ultimately suggests that the OT text does not accurately describe historical reality. There are two different versions of this approach—the first, echoing Origen’s own views, reads “beneath” the surface level on an allegorical or theological level, suggesting that a surface, more historical reading gives us an unacceptable view of God as a terrible killer and enabler of killers. The second version of the non-historical approach, much more modern, is to divide the OT between revealed portions (such as the stories that show God in ways consistent with the message of Jesus) and non-revealed (and non-historical) portions such as the genocide texts.

The second general approach we associate with Augustine (and arose after the 4thcentury “Constantinian shift” when church leaders affirmed the moral validity of Roman wars) and simplify as a view that suggests God has the prerogative to command (or intervene with) violent actions to serve God’s own purposes. This approach reflects the views of most Christians over most of history since Augustine’s time in their willingness to fight in and support wars.

However, many pacifists have also affirmed a version of this approach with the notion that God indeed has the prerogative to intervene with violence even while God also chooses to command Christians themselves not to use violence. This approach has the advantage of straightforwardness, in being able to accept the truthfulness of the OT stories as historical events.

Holding together (or not) five key propositions

Hofreiter helpfully provides a set of five propositions that gives us a framework for thinking about these issues (p. 9). An interpretation of the OT genocide texts must in some way come to terms with each of these propositions and with the set of five as a whole.

  • God is good.
  • The Bible is true.
  • Genocide is atrocious.
  • According to the Bible, God commanded and commended genocide.
  • A good being, let alone the supremely good Being, would never command or commend an atrocity.

Continue reading “A response to Old Testament violence”

An interesting book on divine violence

Ted Grimsrud—August 16, 2018

What follows is a review I have written responding to a recent book on the ways Christian theologians have responded to the issue of divine violence in the Old Testament. This book does little directly to help us know how to resolve the problem. But having an understanding of the history of Christian attempts to resolve it is important.

Christian Hofreiter. Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide: Christian Interpretations of Herem Passages. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

One of the most vexing moral issues that has challenged Christians over the years has been the question of what to do with the teachings in the Bible that portray God as one who commands and empowers horrendous acts of violence. Despite continual attempts to find resolution, this issue remains as unresolved today as ever.

In this book, Christian Hofreiter’s revised Oxford University dissertation, we are certainly not given a quick and easy answer to the dilemma of divine violence. However, what we are given is a most helpful sketch of how various Christian theologians have, over the centuries, struggled with the issues.

Hofreiter frames his account as an exercise in “reception history,” the discipline that “consists of selecting and collating shards of that infinite wealth of reception material in accordance with the particular interests of the historian concerned, and giving them a narrative flavor” (p. 10). He limits his focus, as a rule, to Christiantheologians.

Even so, Hofreiter casts the net pretty widely, choosing more for a sense of comprehensiveness over depth of analysis of any particular thinker. Still, he does spend a bit more time on the two thinkers who provide what seem to be the two main historical options: Origen and Augustine.

The dilemma: Holding together five points

He helpfully summarizes the dilemma in terms of five points. The question is how many of these points are affirmed. (1) God is good. (2) The Bible is true. (3) Genocide is atrocious. (4) According to the Bible, God commanded and commended genocide. (5) A good being, let alone the supremely good Being, would never command or comment an atrocity.

Each one of these points, taken in isolation, would seem likely to be true, at least for what Hofreiter calls “a pious Christian.” Things become difficult, though, when they are combined. Can they allbe true? And, if not, which one(s) should be denied? What problems arise when one of the points is denied? Continue reading “An interesting book on divine violence”

God and punitive judgment in Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—July 29, 2018

 The book of Revelation is generally understood to be a visionary account of God who judges and violently punishes human wrongdoers and idolaters. I have long disagreed with that “standard account” interpretation of Revelation. Early in my career I wrote a book that presented a much more peaceable interpretation of Revelation called Triumph of the Lamb. Now, thirty years later, I am in the process of completing a new book that interprets Revelation in a way that is even more radically peaceable—tentatively titled “Jesus, the Conqueror: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation” (a lot of the writing I have done in recent years on Revelation is available on my PeaceTheology.net website).

A recent Facebook discussion in a group of which I am part, “Wrestling with the Disturbing Parts of the Bible,” engaged the issue of God and punitive judgment in Revelation. The discussion started with an examination of the famous incident at Revelation 6:9-11 where martyrs cry out for God’s judgment and vengeance against “the inhabitants of the earth.” The original post quoted Old Testament scholar John Goldingay to the effect that these verses tell us that hoping for God to exercise punitive judgment to wreak deadly violence on sinners is appropriate—and that God will act on those prayers in God’s time and punish such sinners.

Now, Facebook discussions can be exhilarating and educational, but they are also extraordinarily fast moving and rarely allow for an in-depth response. If one does not notice the discussion until it is well underway and much if not all of the early momentum has dissipated, then one usually can’t join the fray. In this case, I was not aware of the debate until someone tagged me and asked what I thought. At that point, I was en route with my family to New York City and not in position for even a belated contribution. But missing out on the original excitement does give me an opportunity to put a bit more care into a response—and to expand it into a lengthy blog post. Continue reading “God and punitive judgment in Revelation”

The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—May 8, 2018

I have read with great appreciation many of the books John Dominic Crossan has written over the years and have heard him speak several times. A few years ago he published a book I found pretty helpful and relevant to my interests, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015). I don’t know for sure whether Crossan, who is Catholic, shares my pacifist convictions, but he clearly cares deeply about peace on earth.

The right agenda

I believe that Crossan has exactly the correct agenda for this book. He argues, “escalatory violence now directly threatens the future of our species and indirectly undermines solutions to other survival problems such as global warming, overpopulation, and resource management” (p. 244). He writes this book in order to address that problem, to show how the Bible can be used in ways that contribute to violence, and to suggest ways the Bible might be read that will actually help us move toward peace.

Crossan’s book may be read alongside Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). Boyd and Crossan happily share deep convictions about helping Christians deal with the violence in the Bible in way that will empower Christians to be peaceable today. They approach the issues quite differently, though. The differences are significant, for sure. I would recommend reading both works as a way of getting a sense of the breadth of possibilities for Bible-centered peace theologies.

One big difference between these two thinkers is how they think of biblical inspiration. Boyd affirms what he understands to be a very high view of inspiration, and as a consequence he undertakes to construct a quite detailed and elaborate argument for how he can see the Bible as truthful throughout and yet also argue that the Bible is consistently a book of peace. I have written a lengthy critique of Boyd’s argument. I see it as way too convoluted. But I find his work enormously instructive.

Crossan, on the other hand, has no trouble with asserting that parts of the Bible simply are untrue. This makes his argument much simpler and more straightforward than Boyd’s—though not without problems of its own. I am not fully happy with Crossan’s approach, either. I think he too quickly accepts the presence of major internal contradictions within the Bible and thus misses some insights that an attempt to read the Bible’s overall message as largely coherent might provide. However, in this blog post I want to focus my criticisms of Crossan elsewhere. Continue reading “The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation”

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”