Profile on Rasmussen

by A.J.S. Rayl

Larry L. Rasmussen, Th.D.

Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics, Union Theological Seminary

An imprinting of the childhood environment stays with you,” says Larry Rasmussen, reflecting on his years of growing up in the small farm community of Petersburg, Minnesota. “It was a happy-go-lucky, ‘free-range’ childhood on the Des Moines River and, except for homework, we kids spent all available time outdoors,” he remembers.

“For a child it was idyllic. The cares of the world were somewhere far away for us, although not for the grown-ups,” Rasmussen recalls. “Grandmother had five stars on a framed cloth, one for each of her sons serving in WWII. For years, it hung by the kitchen window looking out to the lane.” (Years later, when her boys came home, down that long lane, she took the little frame down, even though the war was not yet over.)

Larry’s dad, Claude Rasmussen, had enlisted in the Navy. His mother, Lavern, was left behind with two small children and, gratefully, an extended family. “Still, for us kids, there was a rhythm, a community, and a wonderfully unguarded purchase on life,” he says. “It was bedtime and waking, seedtime and harvest, cleaning fish and swimming in the gravel pit, fixing bikes and building rafts, pulling weeds in the garden and a pick-up game of softball.”

If he wasn’t in school or sleeping, Larry was outdoors, even in the winter. There is little doubt in his mind that it left its mark “on the soul and psyche of a kid who, as an adult, went on to live in inner-city Washington, D.C., Berlin, New York City, and eventually Santa Fe, New Mexico,” he says. “If later I would turn my attention to urban ecology, it was probably because, in Maya Angelou’s words, ‘the Rock, the River, the Tree, your country’ [On the Pulse of Morning, Maya Angelou (Random House, 1993)] had whispered to me often in the tender years.”

Throughout that idyllic Minnesota childhood, Lavern, the homemaker, and Claude, who returned from the war to work as a mechanic, quietly encouraged their children to see the world they would not see and, Rasmussen says, to pursue the education denied them by the Depression. “They were born, baptized, married, raised their children, died, and were buried in the same small town and same small church that were core to the nurturing community of Petersburg.”

While a student of history and philosophy at St. Olaf College, Rasmussen did act on his parents’ encouragement—“a little to my own surprise,” he says—hitchhiking across Europe, alone, as a college student. “It was the first time I had been east of the Mississippi River and I suppose it was for me the equivalent of the ‘Continental’ education of young scholars—other languages than English; big, pulsing cities with lots of history not their own; cultures familiar only from textbooks; and a little music.”

In 1964, Larry married Nyla Loibl, and by 1965 they were graduate students in New York City. Rasmussen was enrolled in the doctoral program in Christian social ethics at Union Theological Seminary, she in nursing education at New York University. It was one of the most intense periods of the 1960s, when the civil rights and anti-war movements cut deeply through American society.

“With other Union students, I was at the Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous ‘A Time to Break Silence’ address, urging the moral merger of the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the anti-poverty movement,” he remembers. “Ten days after the Riverside address, we all marched with King from Central Park to the United Nations.” There, on the steps of the UN, before some 125,000 people, King urged the organization to pressure the U.S. to stop bombing Vietnam.

“At the same time, we students were spending evenings creating ‘phone trees’ for Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam and organizing what became the beginning of the South Africa Disinvestment Campaign, urging the large New York banks to stop granting loans to the apartheid government,” Rasmussen says. “Our mighty contribution was to transfer our $110 from Chemical Bank to Freedom National Bank in Harlem, where the president was my childhood hero, Jackie Robinson!”

On April 4, 1968, Rasmussen stopped, as America stopped. It was exactly one year to the day after he watched Martin Luther King give that historical speech at the Riverside Church and suddenly the Baptist pastor, the decade’s leading civil rights activist, was gone, shot down in Memphis, Tennessee.

Being involved in the civil rights issues and the anti-war movement, Rasmussen already knew he wanted to teach social ethics. The experiences at Union only strengthened his desire. “Just putting those two together—the latter half of the 1960s and my interest in social ethics—the impact was direct,” he says. “But the ferment of those years solidified the resolve to stay with issues of peace and justice as a career calling.”

Doctoral work took Rasmussen back to Berlin in 1968. He’d lived there in 1963–1964, as a social worker in a former refugee camp that, after the Wall went up in 1961, had been converted into a neighborhood center for resettled refugees. For his dissertation, he chose to write on Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance against Nazism. [Bonhoeffer was involved in the plans of members of the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence Office) to assassinate Adolf Hitler, for which he was arrested in April 1943 and subsequently executed in April 1945, shortly before the war's end.]

“While Bonhoeffer’s own experience was far removed from mine, his intensification of theology in the direction of ethics, specifically political ethics, matched my experience of the 1960s,” Rasmussen notes, “and in Berlin, his hometown, my continuing interest in political ethics and the sweeping themes of justice was more than research.”

It was 1968–1969 and the realities of the Cold War, he says, could be felt on the street, especially for an American with a passport, going back and forth between families split by the Wall. “I am certain that my visceral aversion to walls—in Berlin, Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, the U.S./Mexican border—has roots in this sadness, tragedy, and maddening separation from loved ones,” he says.

[Dr. Rasmussen’s dissertation became a book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance. Originally published in 1972, it was reissued by Westminster John Knox Press in 2005. In the fall of 2009, Fortress Press will publish Vol. 12 in the collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rasmussen edited Vol. 12: Berlin, 1932–33. The first sentences of his Editor’s Introduction are these: “Civilization and barbarism are not incompatible. The university and the church can serve them both well. One might draw this sobering conclusion from Berlin, 1932–33.”]

Back at Union, Roger Shinn, Rasmussen’s “doctor father,” had been involved with the World Council of Churches’ Church and Society program since the 1960s. “The WCC was ahead of everybody on issues of ‘sustainability’ and relating those to peace and social justice,” notes Rasmussen. “In 1974, the WCC actually gave the world the word ‘sustainability’ as a term applying to human society. Previously, it had been used only to refer to renewable natural resources, such as the ‘sustained’ yield of forests or fisheries.”

When his mentor then offered a course at Union on “Justice, Peace, and Sustainability,” Rasmussen took notice, even though he wasn’t a member of the seminar. “About the time the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) formed, during the Carter Administration, we moved to Washington, D.C., where I taught at Wesley Theological Seminary, and I offered a course there in ‘Energy and Ethics,’” he says of Shinn’s influence.

Later, Rasmussen would follow Shinn’s path in a more direct way, becoming deeply involved with the Justice, Peace, Creation program of the WCC. One of those WCC meetings was with Sir John T. Houghton, the first chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and a lay leader in the evangelical church of Wales. “Houghton simply presented the emerging science of climate change,” he says. “Yet without Sir John so much as raising his voice or changing his tone, the scientific consensus scared all of us around that table. What the WCC soon called the ‘immensity and uncertainty of climate change’ was beginning to sink in, even though we had little capacity to see what the full range of planetary consequences might be.”

In 1986, the Rasmussens returned to New York City, where he held the Reinhold Niebuhr Professorship of Social Ethics at Union until his retirement in 2004. The opportunity to mentor a generation of Christian theologians, ethicists, and church leaders in the new fields of eco-theology and ethics, as well as the chance to contribute to the “greening” of religion, had drawn him back to the Big Apple, but so did the vibrancy of a city he and Nyla—and now their son, Andy—have come to love.

Vital links largely neglected by the environmental movement—links to race, gender, class, and the urban environment—were always near the center of his and his students’ coursework and Rasmussen’s thesis advising. Today, many of Rasmussen’s former students are among the academic and church leaders in what he refers to as “Christianity’s, religion’s, and humanity’s ecological phase.”

Rasmussen continues this work in retirement. He currently directs a 10-year project—Earth-honoring Faith: A Song of Songs—at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico. The June 2010 theme is, it so happens, “Water and a Baptismal Life.” He also remains active on the lecture circuit and as part-time teacher. He is the author of a dozen books, including the landmark Earth Community, Earth Ethics, a Grawemeyer Award winner.

Community has always been Rasmussen’s focus and theme, as well ‘where he lives,’ whether it be the faith communities in Petersburg, Washington, New York City, or Santa Fe, or the neighborhood communities there. What now occupies the broader framework for him, however, is the whole community of life and the primal elements of earth, air, fire, water, and light upon which all community of any and every kind depends. And in recent years, he has thought a lot about how we create that community.

“James Baldwin wrote about ‘do[ing] our first works over,’” Rasmussen begins.

Baldwin wrote: In the church I come from—which is not at all the same church to which white Americans belong—we were counseled, from time to time, to do our first works over. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself, but know whence you came. [James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985 (St. Martin’s Press, 1985)]

“‘Doing first works over’ means to reexamine everything from its onset and tell the truth about it, as best we can,” Rasmussen explains. “We do not save the planet, the planet saves us—this is now the starting point for doing our first works over. To paraphrase the late Thomas Berry, the planet’s wellbeing is primary; human wellbeing is derivative. That,” he says, “is the big ‘flip’ we must make, and our new starting point.”

Dr. Rasmussen’s volume Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996) won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Religion of 1997. He served as a member of the Science, Ethics, and Religion Advisory Committee of the AAAS and was a recipient of a Henry Luce Fellowship in Theology, 1998–99. He has long been active in international ecumenical circles, particularly in the World Council of Churches, where he served for many years as co-chair of the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Commission. He has been active in the Society of Christian Ethics for decades and served as the SCE president in 1990.

A.J.S. Rayl is a freelance science writer based in Malibu, Calif. She has written on assignment for a variety of magazines, including Air & Space, Astronomy, Discover, Reader’s Digest, and Smithsonian, as well as online ventures including the Planetary Society’s website, http//planetary.org.