When I read that ethicist Glen Stassen had died, I immediately thought, “A mighty oak has fallen.” It was a borrowed phrase that I had heard a longtime pastor friend, the late James “Jimmy” Baldwin, use from time to time following the death of a prominent and/or effective fellow pastor or denomination leader.
Stassen stood like a mighty oak in many evangelical ethics circles. When I arrived as a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary some 36 years ago, Dr. Stassen had already been on the faculty for a year or two. It was my loss that I never enrolled in one of his classes.
People often talk about their desire to leave a legacy. Some professional athletes are well known for their references to “my legacy.” Usually what they are referring to is their perception that they are among the best. Their conversation is a bit of a signal to others to regard them as the upper echelon of their sport. People in other walks of life often do it, too, including religious leaders.
The fact is, many of us come to a point in our lives when we do enough self-assessment to realize we perhaps don’t get the credit we think we deserve for our perceived excellence in vocation, family leadership or life in general. That’s when we are tempted to drum up support for our “legacy.”
I’m overstating the case a bit to make a point about Glen Stassen, who left a bona fide legacy in many ways when he exited this life at the age of 78 on April 26 to receive his heavenly reward.
Everyone leaves a legacy; the word simply means to hand something down, such as to successors or future generations. It is used as much in a negative context as it is in a positive one. For instance, one generation’s legacy might be to leave the creation in a poorer condition than it found it.
Glen Stassen left a positive legacy. As the story of his death indicates, the seminary professor was a person driven by ethical concerns that arose out of his faith commitment. In that arena, he was ahead of his time. For 50 years, he inspired countless students to catch his enthusiasm. Stassen got the ball rolling, those he mentored continued his influence and we might all hope it will continue until the Lord returns.
Who was Stassen? He was a grandson of German immigrants in Minnesota. His father, Harold Stassen, was the state’s governor from 1939-43, helped write the United Nations charter in 1945 as a delegate appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt, was a special peace envoy during the Eisenhower administration and unsuccessfully ran for president nine times as a Republican.
As the story in our print issue indicates, Glen was influenced by his father’s resignation as governor to join the U.S. Navy when Glen was 6 and — three years later — by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Glen accepted Christ during a revival meeting at age 11.
The young man majored in nuclear physics at the University of Virginia and worked in nuclear research as a military contractor after graduation in 1957. His study and work helped him come to the conclusion that he needed to study how to keep the destructive power of the atom bomb in check.
He married a Southern Baptist and enrolled at Southern Seminary, where he was influenced by the likes of teachers Eric Rust and Henley Barnette and where he met Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farm and author of the Cotton Patch Gospels. Stassen transferred to Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While a student there, he participated in the March on Washington in 1963, where he ran into his father. Neither knew the other was attending.
Stassen pioneered the “just peacemaking” theory, which became recognized as an alternative to both pacifism and “just war.” While at Southern, Stassen helped organize a meeting at Deer Park Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., with a group at the church that had been gathering to discuss and pray about a need for a greater peace witness in the Southern Baptist Convention.
The dialogue led a year later to the launch of the Baptist Peacemaker, a quarterly magazine, and another gathering at Deer Park in 1984 to organize the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.
Throughout Stassen’s teaching career, he was a prolific writer on Christian ethics and on a broad range of ethical concerns.
From 1997 to the present, Stassen served as the Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at the School of Theology for Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
Stassen’s work will continue to inform Christian ethics and, subsequently, the world. Now it is time for those rigorously schooled by him to continue his influence and do what he did — pass along the passion for tackling the tough issues and do the hard work that even Christians often avoid.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.