The Common Good

The Professor Who Taught Us What a Real Evangelical Looks Like

What is the best meaning of the word “evangelical?" Perhaps this: a deep belief in Jesus, a consistent commitment to follow Jesus, and a real love for Jesus — one who applies Jesus’ life and teachings to their everyday lives. By that definition, Glen Stassen was an evangelical — the best kind. If more evangelicals were like him, the term would have an enormously better image in our society.

Glen Stassen by Danske Kirkedage / Flickr.com
Glen Stassen by Danske Kirkedage / Flickr.com

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Glen Stassen died on April 26 from an aggressive cancer. He leaves a great deficit in the church’s integrity and our nation’s ability to think and act ethically, as he influenced countless believers’ understanding of the gospel of the kingdom of God. I count myself among them. Glen was a dear friend, a kindred spirit, a key ally, and beloved member of Sojourners Board of Directors.

Many years ago, a very keen young man visited the Sojourners Community. He had been reading Sojourners magazine and following our little community in Washington, D.C. He told us he was a professor of ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but he just came to volunteer and to live with us for a while. So Glen stayed in one of our households and helped with the food line that gave away bags of groceries to low-income families just 20 blocks from the White House — which he thought was quite a moral parable. He spoke of how Christians must not just “believe” in Christ, but also follow him. When you were around Glen, you always ended up talking about Jesus and the kingdom of God. That was his life and his life work.

Glen Stassen was not only a professor of Christian ethics (both at Southern and later at Fuller Theological Seminary), but he was also an activist for ethics who knew how to affect society. Like his father, Harold Stassen, a former governor and presidential candidate from Minnesota, Glen sought to bring Christian ethics to public life. When I worked with Glen on the strategy committee of the national Nuclear Weapons Freeze campaign, I saw not just an ethical theorist but a smart practitioner who knew how to mobilize movements and change public policy. Glen wanted to change the world, just as Jesus called his disciples to do.

Glen Stassen was a deeply respected scholar whose book, Kingdom Ethics — co-written with his friend and current Sojourners board member, David Gushee — was the constant theme of his life and work. He taught us all the meaning of Jesus and the new order Jesus brought into the world; he showed us what it meant to live by the values of that kingdom without ethical equivocation, false dualism, or political compromise. No American theologian of his generation taught us more about Jesus and what it truly means to follow Christ than Glen Stassen. As a professor, Glen was more than just an academic. He was a formative influence to students around the world, many of whom are also professors today, and all of whom were mentored, and not just taught, by Glen.

It was Glen Stassen who introduced the church and the nation to the powerful vision of just peacemaking, both going deeper than — and transcending — the old concepts of pacifism and just war. Just peacemaking guides us toward the faithful and effective actions that both prevent and end wars, through the creative and critical practices of conflict resolution. More than any other voice on the theological scene, Glen moved us beyond peace loving to peacemaking. He showed us what the world needs most from Christians is not theoretical debates about war, but the courageous and risky vocation of being peacemakers in the world — the ones whom Jesus called “the children of God.” Rather than standing above the world’s conflicts in our pulpit debates, we must come down to the ground where the conflicts are occurring and find the best ways to reduce and end them. Glen’s just peacemaking writings called serious Christians to that task and provided substantial direction for actually doing it.

Beyond the shallow and privatized pietism of his era, Glen Stassen gave us “a thicker Jesus” — the title of his latest book about “incarnational discipleship” — and what it means to follow Jesus into the kingdom of God and into the world.

Glen kept calling us all to go deeper in our faith, and we will — with his ideas, his passion, and his spirit.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided will be released in paperback this spring. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

Photo: Glen Stassen by Danske Kirkedage / Flickr.com

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