A Tribute to Glen Stassen

Glen Stassen died on Saturday, April 26th, in Pasadena. A brief tribute from one of many blessed by his life and ministry. 

By David Gushee

Follow David: @dpgushee

My friend Glen Stassen died today (Saturday, April 26) in Pasadena. He was 78. But because he was born on Leap Day—February 29, 1936—Glen liked to joke that he was only 19. Until an aggressive cancer took his vitality over the last year, and finally his life, Glen as 78-going-on-19 was totally believable. It is impossible to believe that he has gone to be with Jesus. 

There are only a small number of people beyond family who deeply affect the course of one’s life. Glen Stassen was one such person for me, perhaps the primary person outside my family who shaped who I am and what I have become. Having him gone makes me feel like an orphan.

I have written at length about Glen’s personal and professional journey in a festschrift in his honor for Perspectives in Religious Studies, the journal of the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion. But for those not privileged to know him, here is what I would want you to know in 900 words.

Glen Stassen was a devout Christian. He loved Jesus; he loved the way of Jesus; he loved attracting people to follow Jesus, live in his way, and seek his kingdom. He was a man of prayer and piety, never showy, always real.

Glen Stassen was a scholar of Christian ethics. He loved his work. He loved reading everything in Christian ethics. He loved talking about Christian ethics. He loved arguing with people about the best directions for Christian ethics. He will leave behind a vast library of well-marked books in Christian ethics, which for him meant biblical studies, theology, political science, economics, science, international relations, peace and war studies, and ethics proper. Those marked-up books help symbolize his epic engagement with the field.

Glen Stassen was a pioneering theorist in the field of Christian ethics.

Probably he will be best remembered for developing and then advancing just peacemaking, a Christian approach to preventing war that transformed the old conversation between just war theorists and pacifists and will mark a permanent contribution to human thinking and action to prevent the scourge of war.

Glen developed hugely important new insights into the Sermon on the Mount, notably the triadic rather than antithetical interpretation of Matthew 5:21-7:24, with the keynote emphasis of each triad being transforming initiatives that enable faithful disciples to do God’s will rather than evade it.

Glen was a very serious student of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose insights are embedded throughout much of his work and were passed on to generations of his students through his writing and teaching. 

Glen cared deeply about Baptist history and identity and helped me clarify that being Baptist means, more than anything else, being serious about following Jesus. Glen asked that I pull together his various writings on Baptist themes into a book someday. I will do this.

In his last published book, A Thicker Jesus, Glen refined a methodological proposal he called incarnational discipleship, which will bear much further study in years to come. Essentially incarnational discipleship meant to Glen a Trinitarian theological ethic emphasizing the sovereignty of God over all of life, the Lordship of Christ without any human/Christian evasion or dualism, and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to overcome toxic ideologies, vicious cycles of sin, and other forces blocking the advance of God’s will in God’s world.

Glen was an activist. His earliest activism was in civil rights. He was at the March on Washington in 1963. He did civil rights work everywhere he went in the 1960s and 1970s. But most who knew him later will remember him as a peace activist, especially against the threat of nuclear annihilation. This was one of my very first intersections with him. Trained in nuclear physics, Glen knew exactly what destructive power humans had unleashed. Glen became a leading activist against nuclear weapons during the Cold War and helped the global, not just Christian, anti-nuclear movement refine its theory, message, and strategy.

Glen was a family man. He was devoted to his wife Dot, his sons Bill, Michael, and David, and his extended family.

For most of us who grieve today, however, Glen will be remembered as the paradigm of how one serves as a teacher-mentor. Teachers teach, of course. But Glen taught as if everything he said mattered immensely, which it really did. And then outside the classroom he was deeply invested in his students, especially but not exclusively those who were moving forward in ethics-related work such as activism and academia. The fierce loyalty and now grief of Glen’s students is testimony to his incredible investment in them—their vocation, their thinking, their writing, their academic and professional placement and development.

It was Glen Stassen at Southern Seminary who most kindled in me the love of Christian ethics, with a nice assist from Paul Simmons. He was the one who introduced me to peace activism and a job serving on the staff of a Louisville peace organization in 1986 while I was in seminary. He recommended Union Seminary to me, and his recommendation helped me get into the PhD program there in 1987. He helped me get my first academic job at Southern Seminary in 1993. He wrote with me a career-making book, Kingdom Ethics, released in 2003. He labored next to me on every significant activist venture I have ever undertaken, including the work against torture for Evangelicals for Human Rights from 2006. At every decision point in my journey, he was a guide and mentor for me.

 I want to be a Baptist like Glen was a Baptist; an evangelical like Glen was an evangelical; a scholar-teacher-activist like Glen was. I will fall short. But he will set the standard. And that standard will long outlast him. He goes to be with God. Many of us will strive to live up to his legacy.

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