Early yesterday morning (26 April 2014), at his home in Pasadena, CA, Dr. Glen Harold Stassen died quietly in his sleep. He had been battling cancer for months. He was not only my Doktorvater and beloved teacher, but like another father to me. Glen Harold Stassen, son of Harold E. Stassen (youngest governor of Minnesota, major author of the United Nations Charter, “Secretary of Peace” in the Eisenhower Administration (creating the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency), and perpetual candidate for the U.S. presidency as one of the last progressive Republicans), was a Christian ethicist. Educated at the University of Virginia (B.S. in Nuclear Physics), The Southern Baptist Theology Seminary, Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (B.D.), and Duke University (Ph.D.), he taught at Duke University, Kentucky Southern College (now merged into the University of Louisville), Berea College, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary(1976-1996), and Fuller Theological Seminary (1996-2013). He also taught regularly at The International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague (moving to Amsterdam) and had guest lectured the Baptist seminary in Seoul, South Korea and numerous other institutions.
As his former student and co-author, Dave Gushee has pointed out, he will probably be best known for developing “Just Peacemaking,” as a distinct, proactive approach to the ethics of war and peace, alongside pacifism and Just War Theory. The debate between Just War Theory and pacifism over if and when to go to war was one Stassen took seriously (he began as a Just War Theorist but eventually, about the year 2000, became a convinced pacifist), but he thought that concentrating solely on that question missed the question, “What Practices Should We Adopt to Work for Peace?” This is where he believed the major focus of the biblical witness lies and where he focused his efforts. Both pacifists and Just War Theorists can participate in the practices of Just Peacemaking, for pacifists it fleshes out a commitment to active peacemaking (not just a no to war) and it helps Just War Theorists know what “resorts” to try before reaching the JWT criterion of “last resort.”
Glen will also be known for his “triadic” interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and for a focus on “transforming initiatives” out of cycles of bondage.These are significant contributions to Christian ethics. But Stassen also leaves behind numerous organizations he either founded or gave strong help to in his life as an activist: the Kentucky Human Rights Commission, Interfaith Paths to Peace, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, the Texas Christian Life Commission, the Baptist World Alliance Human Rights Commission, Peace Action, the National Religious Coalition Against Torture, the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and so much more.
Stassen’s legacy is also in his many students: Pastors, missionaries, activists, and scholars–both in his own Baptist tradition and in many others. Those of us who had the privilege of being his students know that we can never repay the debts he has given us. He was an encourager who brought out the gifts of others. He challenged us on many levels. His scholarship was exacting, his activism fueled by tremendous energy–and a simple desire to follow Jesus faithfully.
He is survived by his wife, Dot Lively Stassen, and his sons, Bill, Michael, and David, and his sister, Kathleen Esther Stassen Berger, head of the Sociology Department at Bronx Community College (City University of New York).
He will be missed terribly.
Services for Glen Harold Stassen: Viewing at First Baptist Church, Chapel, 75 N Marengo Ave, Pasadena, California on Friday, May 2, 2014 from 5 to 8 pm. Funeral will be at the same church in the sanctuary on Saturday, May 3, 2014 starting at 4:00 pm. In lieu of flowers, gifts may be given to either the Just Peacemaking Initiative at Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 North Oakland Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91182 or to the Special Needs Trust for David Stassen, 2030 Casa Grande Street, Pasadena, CA 91104. Post or forward as appropriate.
There will also be a later memorial service in Louisville, KY, where the Stassens lived for so long. No details about this, yet, but it will probably take place at Crescent Hill Baptist Church, where the Stassens where members for 20 years.
Update II: Tributes to Stassen’s life and work have begun to pour in around the web. Here’s the round up:
1) This is the initial obituary by Bob Allen at Associated Baptist Press.
2) David P. Gushee’s tribute.
3) Here’s the story at Christianity Today.
4) This is the story in the Los Angeles Times.
5) Jana Reiss, Glen’s editor for his last book, gives a tribute on her blog at the Religion News Service.
6) This Associated Baptist Press story discusses Stassen in the context of the state of Baptist peace activism. I think Stassen was more successful than Robert Parham does.
7) Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Professor of Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, and a colleague of Glen’s in developing and spreading Just Peacemaking for 30 plus years, gives an excellent reflection at Huffington Post.
8) Fred Clark has a reflection at Patheos.
9) Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, who was friends with Stassen for decades, offers this tribute. (Note: For a very long time Stassen served on the board of Sojourners as well as the board of Christianity and Crisis.)
10) Rev. Jeff Hood, a Southern Baptist ethicist and PFLAG activist, gives a brief tribute that reflects the pastoral heart and sensitivity of Glen Stassen.
11) Leaders of the European Baptist Federation and the International Baptist Theological Seminary reflect on Stassen’s contributions here.
12) Dan Buttry, American Baptist minister and peace activist, reflects on Stassen here.
13) Alan Bean gives a tribute here.
14) The New York Times MOSTLY get it right, here.
15) The Louisville Courier-Journal finally weighs in with a fair write-up and notification of the Louisville memorial service.
I’ll add more links as I find them. I expect more reflections after Saturday’s funeral.
Update: The funeral last Saturday was very healing. A 2nd memorial service will be held in Louisville, KY at Crescent Hill Baptist Church on 21 June 2014. No times or other details, yet, but people are asked to send tributes if they cannot come themselves. The Stassen family were members of Crescent Hill BC for 20 years.
The Adult Sunday School class at my small church (Jeff Street Baptist Community @ Liberty) has been studying The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus Borg and N. T. (Tom) Wright. At no point do these two Jesus scholars disagree more sharply than over the nature and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. Wright defends a traditional bodily resurrection in which the dead Jesus is raised to a “transformed form of physical life” by God. In a fashion similar to Wolfhart Pannenberg’s approach in Jesus–God and Man, Wright argues for the historicity of both the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Christ–as Wright does at much greater length in The Resurrection of the Son of God.
By contrast, Borg argues that Jesus’ resurrection appearances, though real, were visions or apparitions. Reading 1 Cor. 15 very differently than Wright, Borg claims that Jesus’ resurrection is in some way spiritual, that the appearances of Jesus to the disciples and to Paul were not qualitatively different than believers’ experiences with the Risen Christ ever since that day. He argues that the empty tomb traditions developed separately, that we, today, cannot know the historical reliability of the empty tomb stories and that whether or not the tomb was empty is irrelevant to understanding Jesus’ resurrection. He sharply contrasts resurrection with the resuscitation of a corpse (a contrast which implicitly mischaracterizes Wright’s view, since he clearly distinguishes Jesus’ resurrection from resuscitation).
I tend to side more with Wright than Borg on the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. He argues well that spiritual life after death would not be termed “resurrection” by first century Jews and Christians. Like Karl Barth, however, I’m somewhat more skeptical that historians qua historians can demonstrate the resurrection.
But traditionalists like Wright, though having the better case than liberals like Borg on the bodily nature of the resurrection, are remarkably tongue tied on the tbeological meaning of the resurrection. (Wright does see that it leads Paul and other early Christians to rethink radically traditional Jewish eschatology.) Borg is stronger at this point. He outlines 5 dimensions of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament–or, more accurately, 5 dimensions of the death/resurrection of Jesus considered as one event. While I am not sure these 5 (or any list) can fully exhaust the meaning of the cross/resurrection, I certainly think that these are important dimensions–and that each point would be strengthened by viewing Christ’s resurrection as a bodily resurrection–though our language, like Paul’s in 1 Cor. 15, strains to the breaking point in attempting to say what kind of bodily resurrection.
- Resurrection/Vindication. The Domination System ( a term Borg borrows from Walter Wink) rejected and killed Jesus. The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus. “This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ.”
- Defeat of the Powers. This is the story of God’s victory over Pharoah in the Exodus now projected on a cosmic screen. God in Christ, “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in the cross.”
- Revelation of the Way. Because of the resurrection, early Christians concluded that following Jesus is the way to God. “I am crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” They remembered Jesus’ saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and takeup their cross and follow me.” In his life and ministry, Jesus and his prophetic renewal movement within Judaism, tried to teach the Way to and with God. Now, the early Christians conclude that not only are Jesus’ teaching and example the Way, but Jesus himself is the Way.
- Revelation of the Love of God. The New Testament writers also see the Good Friday/Easter pattern as revealing the depth of God’s love for us. As Borg notes, this interpretation depends on developing the completed Christian story–in which Jesus is seen as God’s only and beloved Son. Within this framework, the death of Jesus is not simply the execution of a prophet or the rejection of Jesus’ message by the rulers of this world. It is also God’s giving up of that which is most precious to God–namely, Jesus as God’s only Son. John 3:16; Rom. 5.
- Jesus as sacrifice for sin. Borg describes this dimension in greater length because it is central to many versions of Christianity–but some in ways that he believes are not helpful. When Borg is asked, “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?” he answers “no and yes.” If the questioners mean “Do you think that Jesus saw his own death as a sacrifice for sin?” He answers “No.” (Here I side with Wright who argues strongly that many would-be 1st C. Messiahs saw their impending deaths as redemptive for Israel and there is no reason why Jesus wouldn’t view his death similarly.) If the questioners mean “Do you think that God can forgive sins only because of Jesus’ sacrifice?” Borg also answers “no.” (Here I agree. I find it strange that conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians, many claiming to believe in biblical inerrancy, can so quickly throw out all of the First Testament examples of God’s forgiveness!) But if the questioners mean, “Is the statement that Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins a powerfully true metaphor for the grace of God,” Borg answers “yes.”
What would it mean in a 1st C. Jewish context to say, “Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins?” Borg notes that there is both a negative and positive meaning and both are strikingly radical.
Negative: In the temple theology, the temple claimed a monopoly on forgiveness of sins–and, thus, an institutional monopoly on access to God. So, negatively, the statement “Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins” is a subversion of the temple. “You don’t need the temple; you have access to God apart from the temple.” “Jesus is our sacrifice” is an anti-temple statement.
Positive: “Jesus is our sacrifice” is a metaphorical proclamation of the radical grace of God and our unconditional acceptance. To say, as the letter of Hebrews does, that Jesus is the “once for all” sacrifice for sin means that God has already taken care of whatever it is that we think separates us from God. If our own sense of sin and guilt, or unworthiness or failure, makes us feel unacceptable to God, then we simply have not understood that God has already taken care of it. Borg asserts that this is also what Paul is getting at by saying that “Christ is the end of the Law.” (I think I hear Borg’s Lutheran childhood coming out here.)
I have mentioned that Cynthia R. Nielson has been posting a series of brief guest-bloggings on “Violence and Holy Writ” on her wonderful blog, Per Caritatem. I am the guest-blogger for the third installment, on slavery and the crisis of biblical authority in 19th C. America. See that post here.
Over at her excellent blog (on the intersection of philosophy and Christian theology), Per Caritatem, Cynthia Nielsen is calling for a series of guest posts by Christian writers on several questions related to violence, slavery, and the interpretation/authority of Scripture. The essays should be 500-1500 words long (strict cut-off at 1500) and should deal with one (0r more, but a question at a time seems more reasonable in the space allowed) of the following questions:
- How should a Christian community interpret the divinely commanded mass killings (genocide) commanded of the Old Testament (e.g. Joshua 6, 10, etc.)? Should we read these allegorically, literally, or what?
- How should a Christian community interpret passages in the Old Testament (e.g. Exodus and Leviticus) that at least appear to permit slavery?
- How does a Christian community make sense out of seemingly opposed views on slavery (e.g. Philemon, and I Cor 7:23 verses 1 Peter) in the New Testament?
- Does a Christian community’s theology of atonement make a difference as to how it interprets the violent acts recorded in Scripture? If so, how?
I will probably contribute to the series (perhaps more than once, one question at a time), but haven’t decided which question to tackle and how to begin, yet. I think Cynthia hopes to get a range of different answers (conservative, liberal, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, etc.) on each question. I think this is a worthy blogosphere discussion and urge all biblio-bloggers and theo-bloggers to contribute. As David Horstkoetter comments on his blog, Flying Further, this could lead to fresh engagement with the kind of passages Phyllis Trible has taught us to call “texts of terror.”
War of the Lamb: Violence and Nonviolence in the Book of Revelation
by Michael L. Westmoreland-White
[First published in the November-December 2005 issue of The Baptist Peacemaker.]
The Revelation to John at Patmos, like most examples of apocalyptic writing, is filled with violent imagery. “Apocalypse,” means “unveiling,” and apocalyptic writing “unveils” a global conflict between Good and Evil in cosmic terms, a ‘war to end all wars’ between God and the powers of Light and Satan and the Powers of Evil. Unlike prophetic eschatology, apocalyptic writing seldom mentions judgment on the supposedly righteous community(ies) and doesn’t deal with ambiguity or humility.For these reasons and others it is hardly surprising that those Christian groups which are most obsessed with studying the details of the Book of Revelation are usually also the most militant: They draw strong lines between the “lost” and the “saved,” and they look forward almost in glee to the way that the forces of evil will “get theirs” when God brings cosmic revenge upon them. Most of these groups also justify Christian participation in military violence. The best-selling “Left Behind” novels portray Christians (those converted after the pre-millennial “rapture” has removed most of the Church from the scene) forming holy death squads and raids on the enemy. Many sermons from popular TV evangelists from this school are hardly more restrained.
So, it probably isn’t a surprise that Revelation is fairly unpopular in Christian peacemaking circles. Reversing Ernst Käsemann’s dictum (which controlled New Testament scholarship for two generations) that apocalyptic was the underlying substructure that birthed both the New Testament and early Christian theology, some recent researchers into the “historical Jesus” have argued that Jesus was a non-apocalyptic figure who did not expect an imminent end of the world. Passages such as Mark 13 are seen by these scholars as coming later than Jesus and being read back onto him. (My own view is that Jesus’ eschatology was both prophetic and interacted with the popular apocalypticism of his day, reforming rather than rejecting that genre. But that is an argument for another time.) Sermons in progressive or peace-oriented churches seldom come from Revelation.
This strikes me as understandable-but-mistaken. It allows a very thorough misreading of the Revelation to continue to dominate popular Christian thought. In the Revelation to John, the followers of the Beasts and the Dragon do violence, but the followers of the Lamb do not. Instead, a central theme throughout the book is that the followers of the Lamb do the deeds that Jesus taught (Rev. 2:2, 19, 23, 26; 3:8, 10; 9:20-21; 12:17; 14:4, 12; 16;11; 19:8, 10; 20:4, 12-13; 22:11). In fact, the Revelation gives Christians clear teaching against doing violence, “Whoever takes the sword to kill, by the sword he is bound to be killed” (Rev. 13:10 NEB, echoing Jesus’ in Matthew 26:52). The verse then gives a call for endurance and faith.Richard Bauckham, a perceptive student of apocalyptic writing in general and Revelation in particular, observes:
No doubt in the Jewish circles with which John and his churches had contact . . . ideas of eschatological holy war against Rome, such as the Qumran community had entertained and the Zealots espoused, were well known. . . . Therefore, instead of simply repudiating apocalyptic militancy, [John of Patmos] reinterprets it in a Christian sense, taking up its reading of Old Testament prophecy into a specifically Christian reading of the Old Testament. He [John the Revelator] aims to show that the decisive battle in God’s eschatological holy war against evil, including the power of Rome, has already been won–by the faithful witness and sacrificial death of Jesus. Christians are called to participate in his war and his victory–but by the same means as he employed: bearing the witness of Jesus to the point of martyrdom. (Bauckham, The Bible in Politics [Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989], pp.233ff.)
G. B. Caird, an Anglican New Testament scholar and pacifist of a generation ago, is also helpful:
Throughout the welter of Old Testament images in the chapters that follow, almost without exception the only title for Christ is the Lamb, and this title is meant to control and interpret all the rest of the symbolism. It is almost as if John were saying to us at one point after another, “Wherever the Old Testament says, ‘Lion,’ read ‘Lamb.’” Wherever the Old Testament speaks of the victory of the Messiah or the overthrow of the enemies of God, we are to remember that the gospel recognizes no other way of achieving these ends than the way of the Cross. (Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation to St. John the Divine [Harper & Row, 1966], pp. 74ff. Emphasis in original.)
But wait, don’t the Christian martyrs in Revelation ask God for vengeance? Yes, in 6:10, they cry out, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” Such feelings are natural even among those committed to nonviolence. But the martyrs are not answered in a way that would encourage continuing their vengeful fantasies (or those of John’s readers who may take up the martyrs’ cry). They are “each given a white robe [symbolizing innocence] and told to rest a little longer.” They are not given “garments rolled in blood” as warriors. Further, when the Rider on the White Horse (Christ) goes into battle with the “kings of the earth,” he slays them with the “sword of his mouth” which is specifically called the Word of God. (Rev. 19) That is, the only sword with which the risen Christ is armed is the prophetic word of the Good News and he “conquers” by means of evangelism!
(U.S. Christians also fail to notice that the “kings of the earth,” the political Powers and Authorities, are arrayed against Christ. There is no description of an exception, a “Christian nation.”)
In this John of Patmos affirms that Jesus stands in continuity with the Torah and the Prophets, understood not in Zealot/Revolutionary fashion, but interpreted nonviolently as Jesus (following Isaiah) did. The two witnesses of Rev. 11:5 are the prophets Moses and Elijah. The Hebrew Scriptures describe Moses beginning his liberating career as a murderer of an abusive Egyptian guard, but, although Israel encounters armies and responds with violence during Moses’ career, his role in God’s exodus liberation is portrayed as prophetic–as testifying to the power of God and not human arms. Likewise, the prophet Elijah had not learned nonviolence, but had the priests of Baal put to the sword. But in Revelation these two witnesses to God, standing for the Torah and the Prophets, slay with fire that comes from their mouths, that is, with prophetic word, not physical violence.
The theme of the prophetic word as fire or sword is woven throughout Revelation (1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21) and builds on similar themes in Isaiah 11:4, Jeremiah 5:14, and the non-canonical Jewish writing 4 Ezra 13:25-39. 4 Ezra was an apocalyptic book in circulation during John’s day with which his readers were probably very familiar. Lest anyone miss the point, thinking that the fire/sword is inflammatory speech that could lead to physical violence, chapter 21 shows the same “kings of the earth” (previously slain by the sword of the mouth of the Rider on the White Horse, called Faithful and True, and specifically named as the Word of God) “bringing their glory” with them into the heavenly City. That is, evangelism backed up by Christian faithfulness may convert all cultures. The best of all cultures, now redeemed and transformed into respective “glory,” will become part of the eschatological joy.
The destructive Lake of Fire is reserved for “the Dragon and his angels,” not for humans, not even the “kings of the earth.”As Caird says again, “The Old Testament leads John to expect a Messiah who will be a lion of Judah [i.e., a Davidic military ruler, MLW-W], but the facts of the gospel present him with a lamb bearing the marks of slaughter (5:5-6). The Old Testament predicts the smashing of the nations with an iron bar, but the only weapon the Lamb wields is his own cross and the martyrdom of his followers (2:27; 12:5; 19:15)” (Caird, p. 293, cf., pp. 243-245). I would add to Caird’s insights that this conquering by Word and martyrdom is also attested in the Hebrew Scriptures. John of Patmos, like Jesus before him, does not reject the Hebrew Scriptures, but reads them selectively, with a different interpretive grid than that of Essenes, the Pharisees, the social bandits of popular messianic movements, or the revolutionary Zealots whose actions led to the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and of Israel as a political entity in 144 C.E.
It seems to me as if Christian proponents of gospel nonviolence must cautiously re-embrace Revelation and the language of apocalyptic, instead of simply leaving them to the war-mongering fanatics. Nonviolent ministers must do the hard work of preaching from Revelation, because only by teaching our people to read this book as a handbook of nonviolent patience for persecuted churches can we inoculate them against the virulent war-mad interpretations so popular in many U.S. Christian circles. Why do so many resist reading Revelation in a nonviolent perspective? I have come to suspect that many of us Christians are embarrassed by the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels. So, we invent theologies in which the “real” Christ who is Coming is a Warrior-King and invent atonement theories which both make God violent and justify Jesus’ nonviolence as a necessary detour—not as the Way in which God is to be followed. (It is very possible to affirm the atoning work of Christ in a way which supports nonviolence, but that is a topic for another time.) But Revelation insists that the Christ who Comes in Glory will be the same Lamb of God we met in Jesus of Nazareth. There is no other Savior, no other Way.
Some would say that the way out of religiously-motivated holy wars and violence is to excise all military and violent images from our language, even our religious language and our hymns. I respect their motives, but I dissent. Following the example of Jesus, Paul, and even John of Patmos, I encourage rather the reinterpretation of military imagery for nonviolent purposes, subverting the standard uses of violent imagery and war language. This was also the pattern of the first generation of the Friends/Quaker movement, who did not hesitate to say that their “Publishers of Truth” were fighting “the Lamb’s War” by nonviolent means.
In a separate post, I will list good commentaries on Revelation that could help preachers and adult Sunday School classes see the book differently than the “Left Behind” militarism of popular culture.
Prison literature–literature composed by people in prison–tends to be some of the most powerful writing in all literature. The authors have sometimes been actual criminals whose experiences behind bars changed them (e.g. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice) in different ways. At other times, the authors have been imprisoned for their political views (or actions of civil disobedience and political resistance) or religious views (e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison; Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience; Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham City Jail; Philip Berrigan, Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary; Daniel Berrigan, They Call Us Dead Men.) Often whether a writer is a criminal or a political prisoner is a matter of great dispute within a society (e.g., Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance; Mumia Abu-Jamal, Death Blossoms: Reflections of a Prisoner of Conscience; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Memoirs from the House of the Dead; Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks). The perspectives vary widely, as do the genres. But almost always the literature is powerful and moving–even if the reader continues to disagree with the writer.
I haven’t seen any scientific survey, but my experience is that U.S. Christians are less exposed to prison writings than almost anyone else. Many have probably read John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), but they are unlikely to realize that Bunyan wrote this while in prison for “unlicensed preaching,” which was smuggled out by his wife. But they probably haven’t read much literature written from prison.
This is unfortunate since Christians seem to have invented prison literature with the Apostle Paul’s prison epistles (Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, & Ephesians) and with the Book of Revelation written by a Christian named John imprisoned on the isle of Patmos (who may or may not have been John the Apostle). We still read these biblical books, but I suspect that our interpretation is hindered because we no longer have a “feel” for prison literature.
I suspect our alienation is also due to the fact that few in today’s U. S. churches know anyone in prison. Jesus commanded his followers to visit those in prison (and expected Christians to frequently be imprisoned for our witness), but this is usually neglected or relegated to specialized ministries, today. And we expect to be on the side of the Powers who enforce “law and order” while the New Testament expects us to be a challenge to the lawmakers, to be subversive of the “order” of imperial forces. Reclaiming prison visitation as a normative Christian practice and reclaiming the reading of prison literature (and not just of Christians).