On Glen Stassen and Making Peace With Church
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1980s, was a place of welcome, challenge, stimulation, and healing. I arrived in August, 1980, and asked around about teachers, and one very smart student advised me against taking Glen Stassen for ethics because his tests were tough. “He asks hard, picky questions,” he warned.
Lucky for me, I asked other people, most of whom said, “You MUST take Glen Stassen for ethics.” I was a little nervous taking him for the first time because of the warning about his tests, but by the time I had completed two degrees nine years later, Glen had become my favorite teacher, my dissertation advisor, inspiration, friend, and mentor. He was the first professor whom I called by his first name. It helped that people who steered me toward Glen, like me, were seminary students with an ambivalent relationship with the Southern Baptist church. Many around us at SBTS zealously awaited graduation day so they could become ministers and lead people to Christ so they could avoid going to hell. We were not like that.
I fell off the church bandwagon in 1977, when I was in college and my father, a traditional, though not fundamentalist, Baptist minister, had a wrenching experience with a church, and he escaped it all by secretly fleeing to some place out west without telling anyone–his family included. We only knew, from notes he left behind, that he was fed up with the church, hoped to get a job, and would send for his family. (Foolish, I know, but he was desperately in need of escape.) He returned home in a couple of weeks, worked non-church jobs for a while, then eventually returned to being a pastor.
But, for me, the damage was done, especially when I learned that his primary antagonists at that church were also my spiritual heroes and guides. I attended fervent prayer sessions with them, walked around with them evangelizing passersby, and held earnest Bible studies with them. This hotshot Christian who had “dedicated his life to full-time Christian service,” as we called it, said to himself, “Hold on a minute. Maybe I’ve been hasty. All is not good news in Christendom,” as I had let myself believe. (More on that another day.) Off to seminary I went after college but with a skeptical, cynical attitude. I needed a place where my skepticism and doubts were welcomed and where my soul could begin to heal, and SBTS was that place, thanks to empathetic, supportive friends and teachers like Glen Stassen.
Glen, who died this year, helped me see that I could believe in God and Jesus, even remain a Baptist, and not feel like a duped fool, which is what I sometimes felt like. He did that mainly by rooting his social activism, which I admired, in mostly traditional Baptist beliefs, which I no longer admired and could have easily tossed aside. This is my tribute to him.
Glen believed a Christian should engage the world transformatively. He didn’t care for a debate between a “vertical” faith (aimed only upwards at God) and a “horizontal” faith (aimed only at the world around us). He said Christian faith should be “horizitical.” (He was funny, too.) He wanted Christians to see Jesus’ words as having a practical real-life impact, not only on their personal conduct (be nice, helpful, polite), but also on social justice (how to figure out how to make the worlds systems and structures more just and fair for all). He didn’t debate whether we should follow pacifism or just war theory (although he valued both); he wanted the world’s people to take initiatives to make violence less likely.
He was a national leader in several efforts to decrease the number of nuclear weapons and to decrease the likelihood they would be used, including the Nuclear Freeze movement and the campaign against putting cruise missiles in east Europe, aimed at the Soviet Union. He was at the 1968 March on Washington. (He liked to point at a white dot in a picture showing the huge crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial and say, “See that bald spot? That’s me.”) He helped create and lead the Louisville Council on Peacemaking and Religion. (The original name was the Council on Religion and Peacemaking, but the acronym would have been CRAP.) I attended marches and demonstrations for social justice with him and other friends. I could go on, but you get the picture. On issues large and small, he cared and took practical steps to create goodwill and justice.
And all that was grounded in his Christian faith.
Intellectually, he could be intimidating. He was a Reinhold Niebhur scholar who could explain complicated ideas to make them understandable. He had a reputation on campus as a teacher who “talked about peace all the time,” and some students avoided his classes for that reason, but he could talk intelligently about a wide range of issues: abortion, economic theory, world hunger, racism, sexual ethics, etc. I recall him explaining an atmospheric phenomenon in the 1980s which later everyone called “global warming,” long before this became a well-known term or issue. When Glen held up a book he had read, it usually had some worn scrap paper sticking out. As he read a book, he took notes and kept those hand-written pages crammed inside, for quick reference. I began doing the same and was very glad I did when it came time to study all those books for my comprehensive exams. I had my own homemade Cliff Notes, tailored to my study interest.
He believed strongly in the power of small groups of people coming together to motivate each other to create change. I was in a “peacemaker group” with him and others at Crescent Hill Baptist Church, and for several of us this was our real “church,” where we felt the presence of God most strongly and tried to discern how to live faithfully. We learned how to affirm each other’s talents and strengths and learned how to speak honestly when needed. We read and discussed books, planned social change strategy, expressed our frustrations, attended rallies, wrote letters to the editor, and celebrated events large and small. We prayed sincerely. While this group had no official leader, Glen was the pivotal person. We usually read whatever book he recommended and went to whatever event he suggested.
Glen helped me keep connected to the Bible by grounding so much of his ethics in it and the life of Jesus. He interpreted The Sermon on the Mount, for example, not as an idealistic group of sayings that a Christian might aspire to but never hope to actually enact but as practical ways of living. He wrote in the introduction to his book, Journey Into Peacemaking,
Jesus doesn’t teach simply non-retaliation or non-resistance or non-violence or non-anything. He teaches positive transforming initiatives: “Go talk with your brother,” “Make friends quickly with your accuser,” “Give to him who begs,” “Love your enemy and pray for him.” These are not commands not to do something. They are surprising, transforming initiatives.
The good news of Christian peacemaking is not merely a protest against war or withdrawal. Nor is it merely a justified compromise with war. The good news of Christian peacemaking is a transforming initiative, loving, acting, and redeeming in the midst of enmity. It is a “yes” to positive steps of peace-making. That, in fact, is at the heart of Jesus’ teachings. And you and I can participate in His transforming peacemaking initiatives.
Yes, he could be overly optimistic, but it was an optimism based on realistic hopefulness. In the quotations above, note that he assumes that there will be enemies and enmity. He didn’t envision an idealistic utopia or think violence would disappear, but he wanted Christians to feel that they have practical tools to make it less likely.
In his writing and teaching, he liked to give historical examples of initiatives “in the midst of enmity” that helped reduce tensions. He said, for example, that the treaty banning atmospheric nuclear bomb tests came about because President Dwight Eisenhower announced that the U.S. would discontinue such tests for a year and would extend that ban if the Soviet Union reciprocated.
I learned recently that after Nelson Mandela was released from the Robben Island prison in South Africa, in one of his first meetings, as representative of the African National Congress, with leaders of the white South African government, to begin negotiating the change of power from minority- to majority-rule, Mandela began the meeting by recounting his knowledge of the Afrikaan’s experience in the region. He said he appreciated their history and struggles. This was an extraordinarily gracious first step—to show both knowledge and empathy for his enemy, an enemy that had cruelly oppressed his people and harshly sentenced him to prison for fighting for freedom. Glen would surely call this a surprising initiative that set a tone of reconciliation rather than antagonism.
Throughout Glen’s writing and speaking, he took concepts such as “Christian love,” which are often described in idealistic, airy terms, or as some future unattainable goal, and made them concrete and do-able. “Going the second mile” with a Roman soldier was a surprising thing to do, and it was an act of Christian peacemaking with an actual enemy.
Glen worked out a system of ethical decision-making that looked complicated in graph form, with its several boxes filled with text and arrows that showed how different elements connected. But as one reads through the explanation, it becomes clear. It is rooted in a sophisticated awareness of human nature as well as deep faith in Christian love. One component of it is “information integrity,” and one implication of that was that you represent fairly and accurately a point of view different from your own. It’s tempting to caricature an opposing view, or describe only selective parts of it in order to boost one’s own view and make the other view look foolish. Glen wanted his students to both be able to defend an ethical position and, when disagreeing with someone, fairly describe their view. Like everyone, I usually hang with people who agree with me, but I enjoy having friends and family with opinions different from my own. That is another impact Glen had on me.
Glen also took a personal interest in his students. Soon after I began the Ph.D. program in ethics, he gave me a ride home one day and talked to me about being more involved in class. He said he knew I was capable of doing doctoral work and that I shouldn’t feel inferior to students who were further along in the program. His confidence in me and his encouragement motivated me to prepare well for class and participate meaningfully. When I began my dissertation, he knew that a student usually feels overwhelmed at some point, so he told me, “Writing a dissertation is like eating an elephant. It seems impossible, but, one bite at a time, eventually you finish it.” He had mastered the art of teaching on two levels at the same time: He was the expert who knew more than his students, but he was also a learner and encourager alongside his students.
Glen was one of the most hopeful people I have known. As the Southern Baptist fundamentalists accomplished their plan of taking over all the boards that ran the institutions that made up the SBC (including the seminaries), he held onto the hope that he could cooperate with the fundamentalists and co-exist. Other professors at SBTS saw what was coming and moved on to other positions, but Glen held out longer than most anyone else until even he finally realized there is no compromising with them. They take over and rule with an iron fist. So eventually Glen Stassen moved on to a place more suited to his beliefs. Some people chuckled and scoffed at his optimism, but his faith in the power of reconciliation through talking and working things out, seeing common interests, guided his whole life.
I scoffed a little myself (internally) one year when he proposed our peacemaker group host a breakfast at the annual SBC gathering for all Baptists in attendance who were interested in Christian peacemaking. I was doubtful that we could pull it off or that many people would attend, but, propelled along by his energy, optimism, and enthusiasm, we had the breakfast, and it was a success. I helped serve scrambled eggs and looked out over the crowd, pleased at the result and glad I had not given up. Sometimes when I am planning an event and feel discouraged, I remember that Baptist peacemaker breakfast and press on.
Glen pressed on and on with a steady, firm belief in the transformative power of faith and to the end he was gathering people to enact that transformation. I am grateful I was with him part of the way.