Theological Mentors # 2 Glen H. Stassen
Glen Harold Stassen (1936-) is my beloved teacher, mentor, occasional writing partner, and friend. Considering that he was the supervisor for my doctoral work in Christian ethics (my Doktorvater, as the Germans put it), some who know me well probably wondered why, if I were going to list mentors on this blog, I didn’t put Glen first. The answer is simple, if a bit embarrassing: I had to find a picture! Stassen is a Baptist ethicist and peace theologian who has lived and worked in several Baptist denominations, and taught on the faculties of Baptist, mainline Protestant, and evangelical institutions.
Born in Minnesota (the grandson of German immigrants) to Harold and Esther Stassen, Glen’s father became the youngest governor of Minnesota and the Stassens were part of the old ethnic German Baptist Convention (now called the North American Baptist Conference and using English in worship)–which had earlier produced Walter Rauschenbusch. Glen and his sister, Kathleen, grew up speaking German in the home and English outside. When WWII began, Harold Stassen resigned as governor of MN and joined the U.S. Navy. (Harold Stassen later wrote the first draft of the United Nations’ Charter, was a special envoy for peace in the Eisenhower administration, ruined his career in attempting to get Eisenhower to drop Nixon from the ticket for the second term, and repeatedly ran for president of the U.S. as a liberal Republican. His influence on Glen is enormous.) Glen, newly converted and baptized as a teen, saw the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a warning of judgment by God on a war-mad world. He went to a Quaker high school in Philadelphia when his father was president of the University of Pennsylvania. There he met a teacher who had volunteered as a “human lab rat” for alternative service as a conscientious objector. This impressed Glen with the idea that military courage was not the only form courage took.
Initially educated at the University of Virginia in nuclear physics (B.A., 1957, cum laude), work for the Navy and Air Force in nuclear research soon convinced Glen that enough people were solving the mysteries of the atom–and not enough were working to keep the atom in check. He soon discerned a calling to the ministry. Up to this point, Stassen had been involved in North American Baptist and American Baptist circles, but he had met and married Dot Lively, a Southern Baptist, and, after investigating seminaries, decided to enroll at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. At SBTS, the teachers who influenced him were Henlee H. Barnette (Christian Ethics), and Eric C. Rust (Philosophical Theology). He also met the famed Clarence Jordan who came to Barnette’s ethics class and told the students that segregation was like a mortally wounded horse: it would kick and do much damage before it died. Unfortunately, Stassen arrived just after a clash between the faculty and seminary president had resulted in the firing of most of the professors with whom he had wanted to study. (13 professors were fired in this “Battle of Lexington Road,” and it took nearly 2 decades for the seminary to regain its former excellence and reputation. Now, since the presidency of Al Mohler began in ’94, that reputation is again in the toilet outside fundamentalist circles. ) Glen transferred to Union Theological Seminary of New York where his major influences were James Muilenberg (Old Testament), W.D. Davies (New Testament), the early Barth scholar Paul Lehmann (who, along with a young Robert McAfee Brown introduced Stassen to the thought of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer), the Christocentric liberal process theologian Daniel Day Williams (who introduced him to the thought of H. Richard Niebuhr) , and, the Union giant of that day, the Christian Realist Reinhold Niebuhr (Christian ethics). R. Niebuhr’s Christian realism was reinforced at Union by Roger L. Shinn and John C. Bennett.
While at Union (B.D., 1963), Stassen continued involvement in the civil rights movement that he had begun in Virginia and Kentucky, travelling from NYC to Washington, D.C. for the 1963 March on Washington only to meet his father in the crowd when neither knew the other was coming.
Stassen earned his Ph.D. (Theological Ethics and History of Christian Thought) at Duke University (1967, magna cum laude), supervised by Waldo Beach, but most thoroughly influenced by theologian Frederick Herzog (a creative Barthian and one of the earliest white North Americans to interact with both Latin American and Black Liberation theologies), and Lutheran historian and Reformation scholar Hans Hillerbrand (who introduced Glen to the study of the Anabaptists).
Stassen’s dissertation, The Sovereignty of God in the Thought of H. Richard Niebuhr, has never been published.
Another strong influence was his fellow doctoral student, Lonnie Kliever. Stassen and Kliever were both Baptists who had gone to Union Seminary and now were doing doctoral work also outside Baptist circles–a rare phenomenon in those days–and both were involved in movements for social justice. (Kliever would eventually leave Baptist life and become a United Methodist.) He also continued his involvement in the civil rights movement and in the struggle against the Vietnam War. In both cases, he worked mostly as a strategist and organizer.
Other major influences include Menno Simons, Richard Overton, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Howard Yoder (they were friends and dialogue partners for decades), James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (another Baptist theologian influenced by Yoder and Anabaptists), the Jewish political philosopher Michael Walzer, Heinz-Eduard Toedt, and Juergen Moltmann (they co-authored a brief book). His ongoing friendship with Stanley Hauerwas includes much agreement, but also much continued debate. Recent dialogue partners include biblical scholars Ched Myers, Walter Wink, N. T. Wright, Bruce Chilton, Marcus Borg, Willard Swartley, the late Rabbi Pinchas Lapide, R. Michael Lerner, Cornel West, philosophers Nancey Murphy, and Rene Girard.
Stassen has done additional study at Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of Heidelberg. He has taught at Duke University, Kentucky Southern College (now part of the University of Louisville), Berea College, Harvard University (Visiting Professor) The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1976-1996), and as Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary (1996-Present).
He has worked in or helped to found several organizations for peacemaking, worked behind the scenes to negotiate the removal of the short and middle range nuclear weapons from Europe, has testified at capital punishment cases and developed a strategy for defense attorneys in captital cases, founded and worked on advocacy for the mentally retarded (his youngest son was misdiagnosed as such during a time when almost no help for the mentally retarded existed in Kentucky) and assisted nonviolent human rights and peace movements in East Germany (Stassen was present when the Wall came down), Kazakstan, Central America, South Korea, Eastern Europe, and Southern Africa. He keeps up an amazing correspondence with students in each of these areas of the world, coming to lecture for them and connecting with church groups(usually Baptist or Mennonite) in all these places.
When I was his student, I argued that the implications of his theology and ethic of “just peacemaking,” led logically to pacifism, gospel nonviolence. In 2000, Glen finally began to call himself a Christian pacifist. The influence of Martin Luther King, John Howard Yoder, and the New Testament, had finally pushed beyond the influence of his father and of Reinhold Niebuhr (though he remains grateful to both).
Aside from friendship, I have learned the following from Glen Stassen:
- He reinforced my dedication to biblical scholarship–staying abreast of current work, but being unafraid to tackle one’s own exegesis and to buck professional consensuses in the cause of Christian ethics.
- I was already committed to nonviolence when I met Glen, but he gave me an approach to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount that made concrete, pragmatic sense. Just peacemaking, like Jesus and the biblical witness, is not primarily against something (war or violence or injustice), but for the in-breaking Rule of God including taking risks in transforming initiatives for justice and peace–just as God took a transforming initiative for human salvation in sending Jesus.
- Discipleship divorced from sound theology is rootless and leads to a “thin” ethics and even burnout. Doctrine divorced from concrete discipleship (nachfolge Christi) is irrelevant and leads to a docetic, disembodied Christ unrelated to the biblical Jesus.
- He deepened my appreciation for Bonhoeffer and Yoder and taught me to appreciate the Niebuhr brothers more than most pacifists ever do. Glen reinforced my historical bent by introducing me to HRN’s dictum, “History is the laboratory of ideas.” Any ethics or politics that only works in theory, under ideal conditions, is not of much use.
- Glen also reinforced my interest in the early history of Anabaptists and Baptists.
Throughout his early career, Glen published little, concentrating on classroom and church teaching and on social activism. But as he has neared retirement, his publishing output has increased, since his developing theology of “incarnational discipleship,” and ethic of “transforming initiatives” has been reaching a mature form. His writings are increasing and the numbers of his doctoral students who are also playing major constructive roles in church leadership grows constantly. He has been considered one of the Twentieth Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics and has been influential as well in mainline Protestant and evangelical circles. His “just peacemaking” practices have also begun to influence activists and peace studies academics, though they have not yet made much influence in public policy.
I predict that in the future there will be numerous doctoral dissertations done on Glen’s work and that his influence will continue to grow.