October 2000 Mcclendon

Contents of Volume
October 2000 Number Four

The Radical Road One Baptist Took


I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1924, the son of a Methodist father and a Baptist mother. My parents faithfully attended their respective churches, but motherhood being what it is, I was usually taken along to the Baptist Sunday school and church. The church building was beautiful, echoing the Byzantine style, and the services as I now recall them were stately and serious. Throughout my youth the pastor was a man of considerable liturgical skill, a widely known denominational leader, and also a leader in a Baptist version of ecumenism both in Shreveport and beyond, making round-the-world trips and preaching and baptizing on all the continents of the earth. I admired him. In my tenth or eleventh year I was inwardly persuaded that faith in Jesus was the way for me. I presented myself to the church in the customary manner and was immersed in the “Byzantine” church baptistry-an event still powerful in my memory. The reading of the Bible (King James Version), attendance at morning and evening Sunday services, and home prayers, at least before every meal, were a part of the discipline that surrounded me as I grew through the school years. So was enrolling in the high school Junior ROTC-a step I took as a matter of course, yet without displaying any noteworthy military talents.


American entry into World War II came while I was a college freshman. The question that the Pearl Harbor attack raised for American Christian youths like me was not whether to enlist in the armed forces of our country, but in which service to enlist. The churches’ (and my parents’) attitude to war was that it was a necessary evil in an evil world-which seemed a view common to most people around me throughout my college and even seminary years. Pacifism was not an issue in the South that I knew. None of the Baptist churches I belonged to in those years made any pretense of opposing war as such, nor did the teachers in the Baptist and Presbyterian schools I attended. I enrolled in the Naval Reserve during my second college year, but the Navy, after calling me to active duty in the summer of 1943, sent me back to school. By the time the war with Hitler’s Germany had ended, I had been commissioned an Ensign, USNR, and had graduated from Navy electronics schools at Harvard and MIT. Soon I had orders to report for duty as electronics officer aboard a ship I was to meet in Pearl Harbor, an “attack transport,” The Herald of the Morning, AP 173. On the day I went aboard my ship in 1945, the peace treaty ending World War II was signed in Tokyo Bay, prompting a McClendon family joke that when Japanese intelligence learned I was now aboard ship, they just gave up. Though my ship had been fitted with small boats to transport troops to assault enemy beaches, her post-combat assignment, starting about the time I came aboard, was to be a troop transport, bringing home Americans stationed across the Pacific: from Hawaii, the Philippines and eventually Japan as well.

While I was still ashore in Honolulu, a Baptist former missionary to Japan had given me the name of the longtime secretary or executive of the Tokyo YMCA, Soichi Saito. This gentleman, I was told, spoke English and would probably welcome a visitor who was acquainted with some of his pre-war American friends. So when my ship steamed into Tokyo Bay and berthed in Yokohama, I took a commuter train to Tokyo, standing somewhat self-consciously in the aisle in my gray Navy uniform with its shoulder boards and stripes, tall among the shorter Japanese.

In Tokyo I found the YMCA, located in the historic Ginza district, and was indeed received by Saito, who spoke competent if unpracticed English. He promptly presented me with a welcome gift, a large Japanese persimmon, and offered me a knife with which to cut into it. The staff of the YMCA, mainly young women in kimonos, gathered in a circle around me, politely bowed, and waited for me to slice. What I did next is a matter that, more than fifty years later, I hesitate to report: Having been alerted by the ship’s medical officer to the danger of eating raw fruit in strange lands, I awkwardly stammered to my Japanese hosts that I would take the persimmon back to the ship with me. What did not even occur to me was that in Japan immediately after the war that persimmon might have been the only fruit my hosts had seen that day or any recent day. Quite conceivably, some of them were hungry that morning. Had I cut the persimmon and shared it with the watching staff, each might have had a bite-a little symbolic meal of peace. As it was, I left with their persimmon, maybe their only persimmon, bulging in my pocket.

But the main event was still to come. Mr. Saito took me, recent enemy, uniformed naval officer, on a walking tour of central Tokyo. Soon we came to a vast, cleared area, the site of the fire-bombing of the city during the preceding year. Fire-bombing, a tactic that made atom-bombs redundant, had been developed in Europe as the most effective way to destroy cities. It involved creating a heat so intense that high winds rushed in to make an entire city a holocaust of unquenchable fire. When in the last stages of the war this technique was tried by the U.S. on densely residential Tokyo, fire-bombing scored another “success.” Secretary Saito and I stood in an area where for many blocks in either direction one could see only paved streets and empty lots-much as in a new part of a city still unbuilt-in the heart of Tokyo’s residential district. Here houses or apartments had stood close together. Here a few months earlier housewives had hung wash on lines. Here children had recently done homework and ridden tricycles and played hide-and-seek. There had been no hiding in Tokyo the night of the fire. Saito located a small X seared into the asphalt of an empty street. Here, he said, one of the bombs had landed and begun its hot work.

I was young, I was callow, and I still had a youth’s insensitive exterior. I had felt a certain awkwardness in accepting the persimmon, though I was not sure why-certainly not because of hungry staff members at the YMCA. I felt no awkwardness, though, in surveying the devastation my nation had caused in my war. So, I said to myself-this is war. I’m certainly glad our side won. Inwardly I shrugged. Outwardly I thanked my host for his interesting tour and went my way with the persimmon still innocently resting inside the flap pocket of my gray uniform.

This part of the story can be concluded quickly. In the 1950s and again in the 1960s, America made war again, this time in Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia. I was no pacifist, but I had become by then a politically concerned university professor at the (Jesuit) University of San Francisco. The faculty in which I taught needed some organizing, I thought, to help it oppose what I conceived in Niebuhrian fashion to be the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place. Soon I became the leader of a large faculty group opposing that war: we publicized a joint letter to President Lyndon Johnson urging him to withdraw from Vietnam. The university, eager not to have its patriotism questioned in the turbulent 1960s, soon thereafter asked me to resign my post, though my teaching evaluations from students had been the highest in the faculty. I was asked to go, and I left. A couple of teaching appointments later, I found myself teaching a January session on the ethics of war and peace in an eastern college. There it dawned upon me that I had come to oppose not only Asian wars, not only unjust wars, but all wars. Perhaps I recalled Mr. Saito and fire-bomb-devastated Tokyo. At the very least, I no longer believed that violence was an option for a Christian. Imperceptibly, without the splendor of a conversion, I had become some kind of pacifist! Yet I had done so without acquiring any grand theory of non-violence (I still lack one), without even the dignity of belonging to a “peace church” (I have some doubts about that category); without learning very much about the broader peace movement, though I had attended Quaker meetings in Baltimore. I simply believed, by that January 1970 term, that war in our time was wrong: wrong for me, and thus wrong for anyone like me, and-since I could heartily wish that all were like me in being followers of Jesus-at least potentially wrong for everyone the world round. Certainly it was wrong for my older son, who by that time had declared his conscientious objection to war to the local draft board, had been rejected by their process, and was engaged in a struggle to claim his right to alternative service, which was not easy for a youth whose only church connection was Baptist. I stood by my son Will and in doing so found my own convictions strengthened.

I tell this true story to show that I am not to be readily classed with this or that or the other set of pacifists. In my case a conviction grew, but not from a root in high pacifist theory, and not from training in a “peace church” ethos. That frees me, though, as others may not be free, to ask about the necessary connection here between Christian ethics and Christian doctrine. Is there a structure of Christian faith that, even though not explicit, had worked upon me, a teacher of ethics and doctrine, leading me to a conviction I had not expected along paths I did not seek? I now believe there is.


My academic training in theology came first from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, which could rightly boast of its size if not of its high academic standards; then from Princeton Theological Seminary (somewhat more rigorous academically); and finally again from Southwestern, where I had hoped to finish a doctorate under a fine old systematician, Walter Thomas Conner. Unfortunately, he died and I was left to finish my doctoral work with little supervision-an outcome that may incidentally have raised my academic sights a bit. Left to myself, I concentrated on biblical theology and wrote a dissertation that, had I named it properly, might have been called “The Doctrine of Perfection in I John and Its Reflection in Modern Christianity.”[1] Something biblical was at work in me but, at the same time, left to myself, I began to widen my exposure to ecumenical Christianity-to Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, but especially to the wider Protestant heritage whose chief U.S. theologians in those days were such as the Niebuhr brothers and Paul Tillich. To my surprise, though, I found they had little to say about the “perfectionism” of I John and its heritage. Their work, closely examined, had clearly misunderstood it.

After a few years as a Louisiana Baptist pastor, in 1954 I accepted the invitation to teach at the Golden Gate (Southern) Baptist Seminary in the San Francisco area. During those years, especially, I sought to widen my ecumenical bearings and connections, and when in 1966 I decided to leave GGBTS (partly on account of my tension, growing out of the opposition to that Southeast Asian War already mentioned), I was blessed with non-Baptist friends who helped me find places to teach: Stanford for a visiting term, the University of San Francisco (where patriotism, I later learned, was not about to let itself be threatened), and briefly on the East Coast at Temple University, at Goucher College in Baltimore (where I taught the course on war and peace), and at the University of Pennsylvania, all for short visiting appointments. In time, I received a more permanent invitation to teach in the San Francisco Bay area where my family had remained, in the (Episcopal) Church Divinity School of the Pacific, which was part of the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. By this time I had gained possibly the widest-ranging teaching experience of any living American theologian: the schools I had served were Southern Baptist, Roman Catholic (my appointment at the University of San Francisco was the first of its kind in the U.S.), secular, Episcopalian and (in the case of the G.T.U.) ecumenically Christian.

Two circumstances shaped me theologically during the Church Divinity School years (1971-90). The first was that I found Episcopalians liked to say they were both Protestant and Catholic, yet I found the setting theologically uncomfortable. Why? Was the old Baptist claim that we were neither Protestant nor Catholic correct? Did our often-denied root in Anabaptism, the Radical Reformation, exist after all? My seminary teachers had scorned that connection: Baptists, they had assured me, were a variety of Reformed Protestants. Then why didn’t I as their graduate fit comfortably into an environment rich in the Reformed (and Catholic) heritages?

The second circumstance seemed a mere happenstance. In 1967 I had briefly attended a “Believers Church” conference in Louisville, Kentucky (part of my determination to be ecumenical), and there had met young John Howard Yoder, one of its organizers. Later, in 1972, Yoder published The Politics of Jesus, and a year or two later I read it. That book changed my life. Implicit in it I found all the old awareness of being part of a Christianity somehow unlike the standard-account sort I had worked so hard to learn and to teach, yet somehow like what I had known as a youth growing up Baptist. Night and day I read through the Politics, and by the time I had finished, I had undergone a second conversion, not as at my baptism merely to follow Jesus, but now to follow Jesus understood this way-Jesus interpreted by John Yoder’s scornful passion to overcome standard-account thinking, Jesus who (among other things) rejected the Zealot option, Jesus who would not do harm even in the best of causes, even in his own. By then, as I have said above, I had become some kind of anti-war Christian. I had stored in my memory something my friend Stanley Hauerwas had once said to me in a telephone conversation-he in South Bend, I in Berkeley-that John Yoder had persuaded him that violence was not an option for a Christian. “Isn’t that just right'” I thought. I had opposed one war, even at the cost of my job. These persisting attitudes, my boyhood formation and Yoder’s relentless logic all converged; I was converted. I was-though I still have no love for the term itself-an “Anabaptist” Baptist.

The remainder of the story is easy to tell. Before long I had agreed with Daryl Schmidt, a Mennonite graduate student in New Testament in the G.T.U., to co-teach a seminar on the heritage of the Radical Reformation. We would start with the Sermon on the Mount (well within Daryl’s academic competence); after that we would track the heritage from the sixteenth century to the present. The seminar was a big success-it attracted students, some of whom (e.g., Ched Myers, Nancey Murphy) have since made names for themselves in this kind of Christian thinking. I repeated the seminar in subsequent years, and have most recently taught it again at Fuller, where following Nancey (now my wife) I came to teach about a decade ago. In a few more teaching years after that radical conversion (in about 1980), I realized that I had to do what I thought no one else was doing: produce a systematic theology whose primary community of reference would not be Catholics or Protestants or those who were somehow both, but would be the heirs of Radical Reform.

That is easy to tell, but it has been hard to do. The book I envisioned would have three volumes, one on ethics (How must the church live now to be really the church’), one on doctrine (What must the church teach now to be really the church’) and a third one, taking the place of but not in any sense duplicating the usual “prolegomena” to systematic theology. The third and final volume, now called Witness, is due out in the year 2000, ending my two-decades task. But why has it been so hard to do, so slow to complete? Because I was determined to write every sentence in light of my new-gained radical convictions, but to write in such a way that standard-account people, those who shared my pre-Yoder standpoint, could make sense of it, and if not be convinced (for who can say when God will work a conversion’), could at least recognize that this, too, was a distinct, responsible Christian heritage that could not be subsumed under the other sorts. Ethics had to show why Christian conduct led on to peace, but without seeming dogmatic. Doctrine had to show how the risen Jesus Christ changed everything, made the world itself new, so that a Christian church, to be a Christian church, must center on Christ and, through him, on the God of peace. Witness had to show that we were not sectarians (in the pejorative sense), but that we had a theology of culture that could make sense of the whole world while inviting that world to find its way back to its own true center. The trilogy had to show that we were on the side of the world, even though we said No to its worldliness. In a way, for me it was back to the doctoral dissertation of half a century before-to “perfection” and its perplexing demands.

Along the way, of course, there were other tasks. In the wake of the death-of-God I published a book about God, co-edited with Axel Steuer, now President of Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.[2] With Nancey Murphy I co-authored an article about the shift from modernity to a new, post-modern way of philosophical work-a shift that took by surprise many a theologian who had a better education than I but had nevertheless been left by the shift in an intellectual backwater.[3] I co-edited a book with younger colleagues Curtis Freeman and Rosalee Velloso that tracked the theological texts from the fifteenth century (Petr Chelciky) to John Yoder himself, showing how “baptists” (my preferred label for this band of thinkers because the term points out to Baptists that maybe they are baptists!) had thought independently, yet in important ways were alike.[4] And I wrote other things as well, not least the book Convictions, with James M. Smith.[5] But the series of three volumes has been my work, my life, my strong demand for nearly twenty years.

One might conclude from these autobiographical recollections that I believe my own approach to radical reformation convictions and theology is normative for my students and colleagues. Assuredly I do not believe that. As this present special issue of MQR makes evident, there are many approaches to this theology, and none of us is in a position to say, “Ours is best.” We can only take a share in a very large task. I do look to my peers to provide an ethics that flowers into peacemaking: In Scripture’s words, “See peace, and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14b KJV). It seems so far to be our special vocation among the followers of Jesus. When it comes to doctrine, theology in this style has grown from at least three foci-experience, Scripture and community. Examples of all three are easy to find, and they are not mutually exclusive. In the focus on “experience,” those in the Radical Reformation tradition “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8a KJV). Such experience properly focuses upon the love of God the Father-both God’s love for us and our love for God. An early prototype is Hans Denck. When it comes to Scripture, the radical rule is to read it as the book of Christ-living, risen, lordly-whose costly way to his final triumph sets the tone for all radical reading strategies. Here a prototype is Michael Sattler, for whom Scripture is but a guide to the Way of Jesus. Community as a theological focus, if serious, demands a doctrine of the spirit. It is noteworthy that the Psalm just cited, like others, is addressed not to individuals but to a community of listeners. This solidarity in community is a proper third focus of Anabaptist theology. Prototypical is Menno himself, who shaped the churches according to his knowledge of the Spirit in the midst. Thus experience, Christ (witnessed in Scripture and alive) and community set the broad limits for our doctrinal task. But such limits are wide indeed, and an aim of the present paper has been to show by one example the variety of forms in which radical theology is shaped.

[1]. (Th.D. diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1953).
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[2]. Is God God? (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981).
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[3]. “Distinguishing Modern and Post-Modern Theologies,” Modern Theology 5 (April, 1989).
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[4]. Baptist Roots: A Reader in the Theology of a Christian People (Valley Forge: Judson, 1999)
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[5]. Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994).
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
The Radical Road One Baptist Took
*James Wm. McClendon, Jr. is Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA.