Glen Stassen dies at 78; took a biblical approach to peace activism

Glenn Stassen, left, and Mark Harlan, a teacher and a student at the Fuller Theological Seminary, show their support for the Palestinians during a march in Pasadena in 2002.
(Stefano Paltera / For the Los Angeles Times)

Glen Stassen, a Christian ethicist who left a budding career in nuclear physics to study theology and who went on to develop a biblically based framework for peace activism, has died. He was 78.

Stassen, the son of former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen, had cancer and died Saturday at his Pasadena home, said a spokesman for Fuller Theological Seminary, where he had taught since 1997.

A Baptist scholar who steeped himself in the civil rights and anti-nuclear movements, Stassen advanced what he and other thinkers in the field called “just peacemaking” — a set of measures for reducing global conflict rather than a statement of principle simply opposing war.


An earlier version of this article said that Glen Stassen’s memorial service was at 3 p.m. It is at 4 p.m.

“Jesus didn’t just say no to anger and revengeful resistance, but commanded transforming initiatives: Go make peace with your brother or sister; go the second mile with the Roman soldier,” Stassen wrote in 2005. “Christians need more than an ethic of ‘just say no’; we need an ethic of constructive peacemaking.”

Over five years, Stassen and a nondenominational panel of 22 other scholars hammered out 10 tactics for governments trying to ease international tensions. They included working through the United Nations, admitting culpability for past misdeeds, encouraging grassroots peace movements, curbing weapons production and taking unilateral but carefully calculated initiatives.

A proposal for one such initiative — a limited nuclear test ban with the Soviet Union — was engineered by Harold Stassen during U.N.-sponsored Cold War disarmament talks in 1957. The effort backfired, with Stassen losing his job as chief U.S. negotiator over it, but in 1963 the U.S., Soviet Union and Britain agreed to ban above-ground testing.

In his 2012 book “A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age,” Glen Stassen praised his father for “daringly exploring beyond his official mandate.” He dedicated the volume to Harold, praying for “one-tenth of his wisdom.”

In 1939 the elder Stassen became the United States’ youngest governor at 31. Decades later, after he tried futilely to turn his fellow Republicans against up-and-coming party leader Richard M. Nixon, he became known as a perennial — and quixotic — candidate for president.

Born in St. Paul, Minn., on Feb. 29, 1936, Glen Harold Stassen spent his early years there. As a teenager he moved with his family to Philadelphia, where his father had been appointed president of the University of Pennsylvania.

Although raised in a religious household, Stassen had a scientific bent and studied nuclear physics at the University of Virginia. After graduating in 1957, he worked at the U.S. Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C., probing the structure of atoms.

“The nuclei were responding to our questions, speaking our mathematical language, completely understandable, telling us the nature of their binding forces,” he wrote. “It was as if they were saying to me, ‘Finally, someone has asked us. We have waited so many eons ....’ ”

Years later, Stassen recalled being so spiritually elated after a day at the lab that he “would go outdoors and just run as fast and as long as I could, in exultation and gratitude.”

But religion called to him even more strongly. Unwilling to aid in weapons development, Stassen abandoned nuclear physics to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1967 he received his doctorate from the Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.

“He purposely moved to the South because he was burdened by America’s race problem,” said his former student and longtime friend David P. Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta.

At Duke, Stassen organized a civil rights group and guided two busloads of activists to the 1963 March on Washington.

In the 1960 and 1970s Stassen taught at Kentucky Southern College and Berea College and from 1976 to 1996 at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, all in Kentucky.

A Democrat with liberal leanings, he was an ardent opponent of capital punishment, challenging those who cited a biblical basis for it.

He also had a nuanced view of abortion. Although anti-abortion himself, he wrote a controversial 2004 essay contending that government cuts to health and welfare programs had prompted impoverished women to terminate their pregnancies.

Critics said Stassen and co-author Gary Krane had cherry-picked statistics to make a political point.

Such criticism didn’t keep Stassen from public engagement. In 2004, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News accused him of “living in a theoretical world” with his nonviolent peace strategies.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Stassen replied. “I was a nuclear physicist for the Navy. My father was a captain in the Navy .… I’m constructing the practices you do to topple dictators like Marcos in the Philippines, like Honecker in East Germany, like the shah of Iran. And they work.”

Stassen was in East Germany in 1989 as the Berlin Wall fell. He had been invited by a church group to give 10 sermons in 10 days, each in a different town, all on the story of Cain and Abel.

He recalled being profoundly moved by a crowd in the town square of Bitterfeld singing “We Shall Overcome.”

“Almost as if the Holy Spirit had picked me up by the scruff of my neck,” he took the microphone and, in German, expressed his gratitude: “I was deeply involved in the U.S. civil rights movement,” he said, “and you have done exactly what we were trying to do.”

Among his many books, Stassen, with Gushee, wrote “Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context,” which received a 2004 best book award from Christianity Today.

He also was known for his scholarly studies of the Sermon on the Mount.

Stassen’s survivors include his wife, Dot Lively Stassen; sons David, Michael and William; six grandchildren and a sister, Kathleen Berger.

A memorial service will be held at the First Baptist Church in Pasadena on Saturday at 4 p.m.