Glen Stassen: Living the Sermon on the Mount (G.W. Carlson)

This past April the Baptist ethicist and theologian Glen Stassen died at age 78. Today I’m happy to share a tribute to Stassen written by my friend G.W. Carlson, professor emeritus of history and political science at Bethel University (where he still teaches a course on Christian Non-Violence).

Stassen in 2013
Glen Stassen in 2013 – Creative Commons (Danske Kirkedage)

To know God as Son is to affirm that in Jesus Christ, God has revealed God’s will for human interaction. Much of the work done in Christian ethics in the 20th century avoided extensive reference to Jesus’ teachings… When we look for God’s will revealed in Jesus, we find a specific social vision drawn from the Old Testament prophets and embedded in concrete practices: delivering the poor from poverty, opposing those who oppress the weak, ending violence, and welcoming outcasts into community. If the God of all creation is revealed in Jesus, then the Sermon on the Mount has something to say about how we perceive and respond in our world.

Glen Stassen

My first engagement with the prophetic witness of Glen Stassen came in April 2003, when he was invited to speak at the opening of the “Peace and Reconciliation” art exhibit at Central Baptist Church in St. Paul, MN. Later Stassen would speak at Bethel University on “Just Peacemaking and the Iraq War” and “Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in a Contemporary Context.”

Stassen articulated the idea “Christ commits Christians to a strong presumption against war.” Christians need to speak out against unnecessary wars and find ways to encourage effective international cooperation. The brutality of modern warfare strengthens this obligation. He encouraged Christians to be agents of reconciliation in a world torn apart by ideological hatred and triumphant bigotry. Stassen’s calm but passionate presentations suggested that we need to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount and find ways to not allow the secular powers to shape our values and ethics.

Glen Stassen: Growing Up in Minnesota

Glen Stassen’s family was intensely involved in both Minnesota and national politics. His father, Harold, became Minnesota’s youngest governor (1939-1943), served in the Navy during World War II, and eventually played a major role in the drafting of the UN Charter. He ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for President in 1948 and 1952 and eventually served in President Eisenhower’s cabinet as “Secretary for Peace” and founder of the future Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

Glen, born in 1936, observed the development of his father’s effort to integrate faith and politics. It is probably true that Harold represented a “liberal” perspective within the Republican Party. He struggled with the ideological power image projected by Vice President Nixon, was deeply committed to racial equality, helped to provide support for the efforts of Martin Luther King, and provided leadership in the control of atomic weapons.

(When I grew up on the East Coast I was supportive of the liberal Republican tradition that Stassen represented because they were active in civil rights, cared about the environment, encouraged programs for the poor, and were internationalist in their view of American foreign policy. Nelson Rockefeller, Clifford Case, Jacob Javits and Kenneth Brooks were all strong opponents to the segregationist southern Democrats. My hero was Mark Hatfield from Oregon. However, President Nixon challenged him because of his opposition to the Vietnam War.  I was really angry when Nixon drafted a Southern strategy in 1968 which undermined Republican commitment to civil rights. I began to rethink my support for the Republican Party and sought haven in the radical Anabaptist tradition often articulated in Sojourners magazine. Today the liberal wing of the Republican Party is no more and instead has been replaced by religious authoritarian or a secular libertarian perspectives. Any political party that makes significant efforts to take away people’s right to vote is one that I find reprehensible. There is a need to support the continued implementation of the Civil Rights bills of 1964 and 1965.)

Glen Stassen developed his own approaches to integrating faith and politics. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a B.A. in nuclear physics, Glen worked in the Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC. However, he began to study Christian ethics, earning a B. D. from Union Theological Seminary. Eventually, he became interested in the life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and explored the value of the Anabaptist heritage. His dissertation was on “The Sovereignty of God in the Theological Ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr.”

Stassen, Just Peacemaking (revised ed.)Stassen began his teaching career at Kentucky Southern College, later serving at Berea College and then moving to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1976. During the 1960s Stassen was active in the civil rights movement and in the 1970s he added the study of peace issues to his activist resume. Eventually, he served on the board of the Baptist Peace Fellowship and the Peacemaking Study Group of the National Council of Churches Apostolic Faith Commission. One of his most interesting experiences was working with the peace movement in Eastern Europe, especially in the liberation movements from communism in East Germany.

Stassen strongly opposed Albert Mohler’s efforts to impose on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary campus a narrowly Calvinistic, religious right orthodoxy. Therefore, he joined a number of distinguished professors in leaving Southern Seminary. He was appointed in 1996 as the Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary. He taught at Fuller from 1996 to his death this year. While there he established the Just Peacemaking Initiative and created a model of Christian ethics that reengaged the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, especially the moral standards of the Sermon on the Mount.

Endorsement of a consistent “life” ethic

Stassen’s friend David Gushee attempted to define what a consistent life ethic might look like:

The demand for a consistent ethic of life, then, has emerged as an outcry, not always fully coherent, from those who have noted–or experienced–gaps in the church’s moral vision and practice or who have paid attention to dangerous trends in the culture. Women notice a concern for babies but not for their mothers or for abused or exploited women in general. Blacks notice a concern for abortion but not racial justice. Those who work with the poor notice overall complacency toward that field of misery and degradation, while those concerned for the ill and elderly watch with shock as the acceptance of euthanasia grows. What is needed is a moral vision big enough to encompass the full range of moral problems that Christians face both in their own lives and in a confused culture. The consistent ethic of life is the best answer I have yet seen.

For Stassen the early introduction to this question came when his wife caught rubella in the eighth week of pregnancy and they made a decision to not terminate the pregnancy. For them, their son David, who was legally blind and severely handicapped, was a “blessing to us and to the world.”

Through this experience Stassen explored the issues of what does it mean to be “pro-life.” He concluded that there is a relationship between public policy and abortion issues. Women tend to choose abortion when they feel that they cannot afford a child, do not have a reliable mate, and have concern about health care coverage. The Stassens were “privileged” to have health care services, special schooling options, and committed public services to grant David a high quality of life. Anyone who is pro-life, states Stassen, must also support health care for all, economic opportunity, living wage, quality child care, and strong educational opportunities. You cannot separate the issues of abortion and economic public policy issues.

When I served on the St. Paul Board of Education from 1986-1996, Dr. Laura Edwards, a Baptist General Conference missionary, called me to come down to Ramsey County Hospital to view five babies whose lives were impacted by the lack of health care options for pregnant young women. She had spent many years abroad working as a missionary in India and Africa with pregnant women on behalf of the gospel and was concerned about the realities of similar issues among low-income children in the United States. She helped to develop health clinics in St. Paul schools and encouraged me to support these programs so that all pregnant women could receive adequate health care advice and service.

I was overwhelmed by Edward’s commitment to these young babies who seemed to not to have a reasonable chance at a quality of life. To be pro-life is to advocate for every pregnant woman to have access to quality health care.

A prophetic witness against capital punishment

Stassen was a vigorous opponent to the use of capital punishment. In a 2012 issue of Christianity Today Stassen articulated his belief that a person cannot be pro-life and support the death penalty. He strongly believed that the teaching of Jesus meant that society should not endorse the taking of yet “another human life” when a tragic murder has taken place. When Jesus was confronted with the death penalty he told those who wished to stone the woman caught in adultery, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). There was no one who fit that standard.

Jesus himself asked forgiveness for those who used capital punishment against him. “The practice of capital punishment in the New Testament was unjust,” concluded Stassen, “beheading John the Baptist; crucifying Jesus; stoning Stephen and others; Herod killing James; the threatened death penalty for Paul; and the persecution of Christians in the Book of Revelation.”

Stassen also believed that the American judicial system is inadequate to develop a finalization of death as a penalty. Too many people were wrongly convicted; there was too much bias in the deliberation process; and there is a relationship of economic wealth to punitive outcomes. He appreciated the movement away from capital punishment in states like Illinois. The use of capital punishment as a way to “pay back” for murder violates Jesus’ opposition to vengeful retaliation. Stassen also found little evidence to support the idea that capital punishment acted as a deterrent.

Peacemaking and transforming initiatives as a biblical norm

Stassen was committed to the idea that “peacemaking” was a Biblical norm and should be one of the core characteristics of Christ’s disciples. Jesus’ “own spirituality was intensely concerned for peacemaking.” He wept over Jerusalem because the Jews there “did not know the practices that make for peace.” During the last days Jesus entered Jerusalem as the Messiah of peace on the “foal of a donkey” and not a “war-horse.”

Stassen, Living the Sermon on the MountChristians were to be the peace party. They were to respond to the politics of Rome “not by making war against it, but by loving their enemy and spreading the gospel. Love was more effective evangelism than violent revolution.” Christ told Peter not to use the sword to defend His ministry as he was being arrested. Instead, he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

Jesus argued that “blessed (or joyful)” are the peacemakers. They are joyful because they have experienced the “breakthrough of the mustard seeds of the reign of God in surprising ways.” The teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are essential for Christian discipleship. The “Christian life is not just hard human effort to live up to high ideals; nor is it just a bunch of duties. It is about God’s grace. It is about living the presence of God.” (Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount, p. 16)

Being a peacemaker is an active and engaged commitment to Christian discipleship. Stassen develops a “triad” model of understanding the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins with a traditional teaching, a diagnosis of a vicious cycle of ruptured relationships, and ends with transforming initiatives (Living the Sermon on the Mount, ch. 4). Therefore, Jesus’ teaching about peacemaking is not just about what we don’t do but it is also about the development of transforming initiatives: “go the second mile with your enemy; love your enemies and pray for them; don’t judge, but take the log out of your own eye; forgive those who trespass against you; seek first the reign of God and God’s delivering justice.”

Just-Peacemaking principles can be helpful to evaluate current issues of war and peace

Stassen used the idea of the “transforming initiatives” to develop the paradigm of just peacemaking. He argues that Christians need to “go and do conflict resolution with your adversary; practice nonviolent direct action; take independent initiatives toward your enemy; don’t judge but acknowledge your own responsibility for the conflict and injustice; practice justice, human rights and international cooperation.”

Just peacemaking theory focuses on ten practices that have been useful in removing political dictators and lessening the necessity of war. These include: 1. Support nonviolent direct action; 2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat; 3. Use cooperative conflict resolution; 4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness; 5. Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty; 6. Foster just and sustainable economic development; 7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system; 8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights; 9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade; and 10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations.

Stassen joined other evangelical scholars in using the concept of “just peacemaking” to critique America’s involvement in the Iraq War. A month before that war began, they articulated a six-point alternative:

  1. The U.N. Security Council should indict Saddam Hussein for war crimes and crimes against humanity and demand that he be tried in an international court.
  2. Strengthen the inspections process and monitoring of Iraq’s borders for weapons.
  3. The process of organizing democracy in Iraq after Saddam should be led by the United Nations.
  4. Food and medicine is to be delivered to the people of Iraq under the protection of a U.N. force with a Security Council mandate.
  5. The United States should re-engage in efforts for peace between Israel and Palestine.
  6. The United States should recommit to international cooperation in combating terrorism.”

Looking back on this proposal in a 2005 Sojourners piece, Stassen concluded that “the ethic we need for a viable future is not only an ethic of restraint in making war, but an ethic of just peacemaking initiatives for preventing war and building a future better than war after war, terrorism after terrorism. The practices of just peacemaking have proven effective in preventing wars in recent history. They are not merely ideals, but empirical practices that make for peace. They point the way to winning the debate – and winning the peace.”

Glen Stassen: Influencing my personal political pilgrimage

It is clear that many found Glen Stassen to be an effective communicator of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He was a quiet effective teacher who cared much about his students and academic colleagues. My pastor, Joel Lawrence recalled:

I first met Glen Stassen at the American Academy of Religion meetings in Washington, DC. I was a young, budding, but not very fruitful, Bonhoeffer scholar. Glen took an immediate interest in my work, talking with me about my research and ideas, gently exploring my thoughts, correcting when necessary, encouraging constantly. He was a man whose character reflected his faith in the Gospel of peace. I’m grateful for both his professional and personal impact on my life.

Ethics as if Jesus MatteredThese types of comments were found throughout the tributes given to Glen in the days following his death. His faith was in a “Jesus Christ, who challenged the injustice of his times… [and took] constructive action to try to heal the causes of injustice.” This remains the call of the Christian in today’s world. We need to celebrate every “radical” Baptist who calls us back to a heritage that has not been corrupted by our secular values or co-opted by the desires of success theology encouraging a worship of wealth and power. (See Stassen’s reflections on the witness of the early English Baptist, Richard Overton, a pioneer of religious liberty and human rights.)

During my early years of graduate school at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s I began to question whether my evangelical Christian faith adequately responded to the issues of the Vietnam War, the challenges of the civil right movement, and the crises of global poverty. Several of my Bethel professors encouraged me to explore the values of the Pietist heritage and radical witness of the Anabaptist tradition.

One of the most significant opportunities I had when I first started teaching at Bethel was to sit in Dr. Robert Guelich’s class on the Sermon on the Mount during his last semester at the seminary. Guelich convinced me to value and apply Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Glen Stassen was also impressed with Guelich’s writings about the Sermon on the Mount. In Living the Sermon on the Mount Stassen honors his interpretation of “blessed are you who are poor” (Lk 6:20) or “blessed are the poor in spirit (Mt 5:3):

The poor in Judaism referred to those in desperate need (socioeconomic element) whose helplessness drove them to a dependent relationship with God (religious element) for supplying their needs and vindication. Both elements are consistently present…For Matthew, the poor in spirit are those who find themselves waiting, empty-handed, upon God alone for their hope and deliverance while beset with abuse and rejection by those in their own social and religious context. (Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount, pp. 43-44)

For Stassen the poor are blessed because “God especially wants to rescue the poor. God knows that people who have power often use that power to advantage their own privileges, and to seek more power. The poor get pushed aside and dominated.” The witness of Jesus suggests that God is deeply concerned for the poor, suggests that the rich and powerful will be judged and the role of Christian discipleship is to bring good news to the poor.

Thank you, Glen Stassen, for articulating a commitment to God’s promise of shalom and challenging Christians to carry on advocating for a Gospel of Jesus Christ that takes seriously the messages of the Sermon on the Mount.

Suggested Reading

Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (1992).

________, “Ten Principles of Just Peacemaking,” Sojourners (January 2005).

________, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (2006).

________, “Peacemaking” in Dictionary of Christian Spiritualityed. Glen G. Scorgie (2011).

Rick Axtell, Michelle Tooley, and Michael L. Westmoreland-White, eds., Ethics as if Jesus Mattered: Essays in Honor of Glen Harold Stassen (2014).

Fuller Theological Seminary tribute to Stassen


One thought on “Glen Stassen: Living the Sermon on the Mount (G.W. Carlson)

  1. Thank you, Bill, for a great tribute to Stassen. I’ve read some of his writings and benefited from them, but I had no idea what a “giant” he was and is. He was the real deal–orthodoxy, orthopraxy and orthopathy. Thanks, also, for clarifying the kind of Calvinism (“narrowly Calvinistic”) practiced by the Southern Baptist leadership. 🙂

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