Christian America's Constant Struggle with a 'Thinned-Down' Jesus

Remembering Christian Ethicist Glen Stassen
By Reggie L. Williams 4-26-2016
Glen Stassen
Glen Stassen. Danske Kirkedage / Flickr.com

Not long after my mentor Glen Stassen told me that he was battling terminal cancer, we were both sitting at his dining table, each of us working on different writing projects, together. I was only slightly interested in continuing what I was doing because I was thinking with Glen about his autobiography.

“What should I write about?” he asked.

He was really thinking out loud, but I took it as an opportunity to make a request of him that I’d sat with for years.

“You should finally write about race,” I told him.

I knew that the problem of race in America was one of the two main engines that mobilized his project in Christian ethics. The other was the threat of war. In the 1980s, Glen put together a method of doing Christian ethics in the context of the Cold War that was meant to help foster clarity in conversation and allow unspoken influential preferences to be recognized. As he understood it, we are much more than reasoning, rational minds; we are a complex amalgam of different contributing factors, including our core convictions, community loyalties, things we are passionate about, people we trust, and political commitments. Indeed, many things are at play in all of our ethical decisions.

But the threat of nuclear war wasn’t the only motivation for his ethics.

Glen was born in Minnesota, but his family moved to Philadelphia when he was 12, when his father Harold Stassen became the youngest ever president of the University of Pennsylvania. It was when his family moved to Philadelphia that matters of race and economic injustice left their mark on him, through his friendship with their family’s pastor.

Pastor Carney Hargroves opened the eyes of a young Glen Stassen to the realities of racial and economic injustice in America. Hargroves was from Virginia, and Glen understood him to be committed to peace and justice, which was a very different kind of Christianity than what was common in America, let alone the Jim Crow south.

Glen remembered that Pastor Hargroves invited a black woman to speak to their youth fellowship (he didn’t recall the occasion), and she spoke of her recent experience of driving with her family from Philadelphia, through the segregated south, to Florida; bathrooms, hotels, restaurants, and other places refused to allow access to her and her family. As Glen tells it, her story opened the eyes of a na├»ve boy who, until then, believed that America was a place of liberty and justice for all. From that time on, for Glen, the problem of injustice became permanently associated with the work of the gospel. With Pastor Hargroves, Glen was introduced to the kind of white southerner whose Christian faith shaped a disdain for the injustice and the suffering caused by white supremacy. Hargroves typified the white southern Christian ally like Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms, whose faith opposed the very fabric of a southern white society that was held together by white supremacy and terrorism. As Glen saw it, many white allies were compelled by their faith to help the civil rights movement end segregation in the south. Hargroves had a significant impact on the young and impressionable Glen H. Stassen.

Glen was a four-sport athlete: football, track (high hurdles), wrestling, and basketball. He was offered a full scholarship to the University of Southern California, but he chose instead to pursue undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia, in the state where Hargroves was from, in order to come into contact with the faith that shaped Hargroves. Glen wanted to learn about the worldview of the pro-segregationists in the south, to understand the threats to the world as they saw them.

He would later say to his ethics students that America remains mired in a problem that has been with this country since its birth. For it was at the country’s birth that the gospel was distorted by its acceptance of slavery, which included the need for Christian advocates of slavery to shed the social teachings of Jesus from the gospel, and turn Christianity into abstract ideals or principles rather than concrete commandments. For example, “Love your neighbor as yourself” became an ideal, not a command. Jesus was “thinned down” to allow him to fit into the cracks of the harmful ideology of racism, causing Jesus to become theological support for white supremacy. As Glen saw it, America is still struggling with the thin, abstract Jesus of a fatally distorted gospel.

After completing a Bachelor of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York, Glen turned his attention once again to the south for a Ph.D., this time to Durham, N.C., and Duke University. His time at Duke corresponded with the civil rights movement, and Glen was an active participant, leading marches, sit-ins, even “kneel-ins” in local racist, segregating churches that posted signage reading “all are welcomed.” His students were a privileged audience to myriad amazing stories from that time in his life.

Glen’s insistence on peace and justice as the way of Jesus comes from his early exposure to the faith in Philadelphia. In the 60s Glen’s concern to help facilitate ethical dialogue for peace was enabled by his earlier conviction that peace is not an ideal, but a command, and Christians must be peacemakers and justice advocates. To follow Jesus requires recognizing Jesus’ advocacy for peace and justice. During the Cold War, his turn toward developing a method for ethical dialogue to facilitate an ethics of just peacemaking grew from the same soil that saw Jesus’ social teachings as concrete social commandments.

Glen asked me several times to write a review of his last book, A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age, but I never got around to it. I was slammed with responsibilities that included writing my own book, and course prep as a new professor. I plan to interact with his book in a future book that I will write, about Glen and race. But until that time, on a day like today when I’m missing my dear friend, mentor/father figure, I will write about his life as the inspiration for the churchman, activist, and scholar that he was. If he were able to finish his autobiography that he was working on, that day at his dining table, I’m sure he would have included the interaction with race that I hoped for. But today, I think it’s up to those of us who know his legacy to continue the work of advocating the peace and justice of a thicker Jesus.

Reggie L. Williams is associate professor of Christian Ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and author of Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance.

 

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