Should Jesus determine our view of God?

Ted Grimsrud—May 26, 2015

The question of how to understand the peaceable message of Jesus in relation to less than peaceable pictures of God in the Bible and in the Christian tradition has challenged ethically concerned people of faith almost since the very beginning.

The arch “heretic” Marcion in the second century after Jesus infamously jettisoned the Old Testament and much of the New Testament in his effort to sustain an authentically Christ-centered faith. Though Marcion’s proposed solution to the problem probably made things worse, his impulse to support a coherent view of God and Jesus together is understandable and perennial.

The spiritual descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists certain have a stake in this on-going conversation. By lifting up Jesus’s life and teaching as normative and by accepting high claims for the authority of the Bible, we really can’t avoid questions about how to harmonize what seem to be powerful tensions among the various sources of information about God.

In recent years, the broader Christian community has seen an uptick in interest in revisiting these themes. Prominent writers such as John Dominic Crossan (How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation) and J. Denny Weaver (The Nonviolent God) are very recent examples of dozens of books that have been written in the past two decades that struggle, often very helpfully, with the theological (as in doctrine of God) implications of interrelating the peaceable impulses of Christian sources with the more violent aspects of how the tradition has presented God.

A welcome contribution to an important conversation

For those, like me, who welcome this conversation and think we still have a ways to go to achieve a genuinely faithful resolution, Bradley Jersak’s new book, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (Pasadena, CA: CWRpress, 2015), will be seen as a singular contribution. Jersak does significant original thinking. Perhaps even more importantly, he writes accessibly in a book aimed at a broad audience. Jersak writes about deep issues in a clear and lively style reflecting the combination of his academic training (a PhD in theology and present vocation as a professor) and two decades work as a pastor and church planter. His own varied ecclesial journey (early life as a conservative Baptist, a stint as a Mennonite pastor, current connection with the Orthodox Church) is seen in his empathetic and inclusive sensibility. Continue reading

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The “end” of Mennonite Church USA

Ted Grimsrud—May 12, 2015

The word “end” is kind of cool, because it has two common and very different meanings. It can mean something like “conclusion” (“the game ended in a tie”) and it can mean something like “purpose” (“to gain one’e ends”). So, “end” can lend itself to use in headlines with double meanings—such as my headline for this post.

I suspect that if Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) is in its final days, at least as the institution we have known these past 15 years (and I sincerely hope it’s not), it might be in large part because of lack of clarity about its purpose. And this lack of clarity about purpose has made it much more difficult for leadership in the denomination to find ways to negotiate recent controversies and pressures.

An ambiguous vantage point

Probably everyone who is following the drama and has some stake in its outcome has personal memories and emotions linked with the fate of this manifestation of the Mennonite tradition in North America. I certainly do. When the Executive Board (EB) of MC USA released the text (with introduction) of a resolution it will present to the delegate body at the MC USA delegate assembly in Kansas City this summer, some of my memories and emotions bubbled up to the point of demanding some written reflections.

I offer these thoughts from a somewhat ambiguous vantage point. I am an ordained Mennonite pastor who served for about ten years in congregational ministry and now about twenty years as a theology professor at a college owned by MC USA. I am a member of a congregation that belongs to the Central District Conference of MC USA. I have been a member of a number of MC USA congregations in Oregon, Arizona, South Dakota, and Virginia for well over thirty years. So, I am definitely a stake holder.

On the other hand, it has been twenty years since I last attended one of the delegate assemblies. I won’t be going this year. I have found myself moving ever gradually toward the status of “interested observer” (as opposed to active participant) in denominational politics. I would love it if my thoughts were noticed by people in power in the denomination, but I don’t anticipate they will be. So I’m not writing as a means to affect what happens in a couple of months. I’m not quite sure why I am writing. I guess mostly I write because the thoughts are in my head and seem to be wanting out.

The memories and emotions evoked by the EB’s resolution, “On the Status of the Membership Guidelines,” are painful. I think of two in particular that go back about a quarter of a century. Continue reading

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What I learned from Millard Lind

Ted Grimsrud—April 27, 2015

I was saddened to learn that Millard Lind died last Friday at the age of 96. Millard was a long time Old Testament professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and made a singular contribution to Mennonite peace theology. More than anyone before him (and few since), he struggled to bring together Christian pacifism with a strong commitment to the authoritative message of the Old Testament.MillardCLind

Millard was certainly not completely successful in his effort to develop a pacifist theology of the Old Testament, but he made a powerful contribution to this essential task. I was privileged to study with Millard. Like most of his other students, I am sure, I have vivid memories of a passionate, respectful, humble, and insightful teacher. Millard was small in stature but large in energy and intellect.

As much as any of the great AMBS profs from the “golden era” of the 1960s–1980s, Millard elicited affectionate “remember when Millard…” stories. Many of these stories concerned is absent-minded professor persona (utterly non-affected). My favorite is the story of the time he and his wife Miriam hosted a group of students in their home. Toward the end of the evening, Miriam circulated her guest book for the students to sign. When the book completed its rounds, amidst the student names was Millard’s almost illegible scrawl, “Millard Lind, thanks for the nice evening.”

A pioneering scholar and thinker

Millard accepted the daunting challenge of articulating an affirmative view of the teaching of the Old Testament that overcame the antipathy with which many pacifist Christians (not to mention most other Christians) viewed those materials. Millard turned toward an academic career rather late, having served as a congregational pastor and publishing house editor. Maybe it was this maturity that emboldened him to break new ground in biblical interpretation. Continue reading

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Mennonites and “separation”: More ruminations

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2015

My first encounter with Mennonites, now nearly 40 years ago, came in the context of my interest in the intentional Christian community movement, specifically Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois. I spent a week at Reba in the summer of 1976, and received a crash course in communal living. That was the beginning of a great adventure. About that same time, I also became very interested in the Mennonite peace tradition.

I am not sure how long it took before I began to learn a bit about the shadow side of the Mennonite story. I suppose it has been the flip side of the community ideal that Mennonites have also tended to break fellowship with each other. It is a sign that they take their relationships quite seriously—as well as their ideals of rigorous discipleship. But surely the countless splits that have characterized the tradition for hundreds of years have rarely been healthy or life-enhancing. Generally, they have been demoralizing and rancorous.

So, the current dynamics in the orbit of Mennonite Church USA are not new in the history of these communities. Our present day anxiety and distress are not unprecedented. At the same time, it is likely that each season of division has its own distinctive characteristics. One question is whether the tendency toward division is simply a bad thing, or maybe (at least at times) reflects laudable convictions. Maybe separation within the fellowship is not always undesirable.

One of my most direct encounters with the Mennonite way of division came about 25 years ago when I was a young pastor in a Mennonite conference out west. I actually unwillingly played a role in a schismatic moment. When I was being considered for ordination, several pastors in the conference raised strong objections to my candidacy due to theological concerns. It took several painful years, but the conference leaders finally decided to go ahead and ordain me. At that point, two pastors led their congregations out of the conference (there was also, simultaneously, the ordination of the first two women pastors—one of whom happened to part of my tiny congregation). A third pastor failed to get his congregation to leave, and resigned his pastorate instead.

I have not maintained many contacts in that conference, so I don’t know much about the long-term legacy of the splits. But I was told by numerous people in the decade following the “divorce,” that things had actually worked out pretty well. The conference was more peaceable, and the congregations that left seemed happier and continued to fellowship with conference churches through Mennonite Central Committee and other inter-Mennonite efforts. In both the towns of the departing congregations, new Mennonite congregations were formed by those who desired to remain in the conference (and both still exist). So, the division was not the end of the world and perhaps even had positive consequences. Though I’m sure a lot of pain still lingers as well.

So, the question of Mennonites and “separation” is not a new one—and not a simple one. Continue reading

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Is the Mennonite (Church USA) project doomed? Some ruminations

Ted Grimsrud—April 21, 2015

It’s a fairly relaxed finals week around Eastern Mennonite University, which allows for a few longer and more wide-ranging random conversations. I had two visits today that each ended up focused on the present and future of Mennonites. My thinking was stimulated, and I decided to try to write a few things down.

I guess I remain deeply interested in the slings and arrows of Mennonite Church USA, even though it has been a long time since I participated actively in any denominational or conference activities. I shared my reflections some months ago, “Will Mennonite Church USA Survive?”, “How Mennonite Church USA Might Survive,” and “Is the Survival of Mennonite Church USA Now Less Likely?”

In the eight months since that last post, events have not inspired any more confidence in the possibility of a happy outcome to the crises that seem to be besetting our denomination—though I would also grant that many good things are happening among Mennonite churches and that it’s possible that not as many Mennonites as I think are concerned about denominational politics and struggles.

However, my conversations today reminded me that I do feel concern, and made me think that, as if often the case, writing a bit might be therapeutic.

Whither MC USA?

In one of today’s conversations, my friend talked about discussions he’s had about the future of MC USA, especially in relation to the upcoming general assembly in Kansas City this summer. He has heard from some that the only way through the current struggles in the denomination is to move in a more congregational direction, with less conference-wide and denominational central authority and expectations of uniformity. The delegate said we need to move in a more “GC-like” direction—referring to the polity of the old General Conference Mennonite Church before the 2001 merger that created MC USA. Continue reading

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An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (6)—Messiah

Ted Grimsrud—March 23, 2015 

 This is the sixth in a series of posts.

Christians in general do not necessarily think of Jesus as a political philosopher—or even political practitioner. However, for the past 2,000 years there have been a few who do try to take their political cues from Jesus. Of these, not many would have used the language of “anarchism” to describe “the politics of Jesus.” However, if we think of the key elements of an anarchistic sensibility, decentering the state and affirming the possibilities of self-organization, we can find a great deal of resonance linking Jesus’s message and anarchistic thinking and practice.

Our starting point, I suggest, should be to look at the gospels in the context of the story of Israel told in the Old Testament. The earlier posts in this series have attempted to highlight strands in that story that may be seen as having anarchistic sensibilities. Jesus certainly saw his message in general as being in continuity with the biblical story he had grown up with. We have no reason not to think that his political perspective reflects this continuity.

One key aspect of the politics of the biblical story that I have discussed earlier is the move from territoriality (where the sustenance of the promise is linked with a geographically bounded political entity—initially a tribal confederation followed by a kingdom with a powerful monarch) to diaspora. The story can be read as culminating with a vision of scattered faith communities living as creative minorities in nation-states that they don’t run or try to run. This may be seen as a particular political option.

Jesus spent his life within the historical boundaries of the Davidic kingdom of ancient Israel, but he can be understood as pursuing a political strategy meant to be lived in diaspora. He pointedly rejected the idea that his messianic leadership could culminate in re-establishing a territorial kingdom. Such a rejection, though, was not a denial of his messianic identity nor was it a rejection of the vocation of his followers to embody God’s kingdom on earth.

However, Jesus’s style of kingship and the kingdom he called his followers too were so different from conventional politics that his kingdom could be called an “unkingdom” (as discussed by Mark Van Stennwyk in his book, The Unkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance [InterVarsity Press, 2013]). His politics could be called a politics of servanthood, as opposed to power politics. In what follows I will mention only a few examples from the gospels that illustrate Jesus’s political sensibility—and support the suggestion that his was an anarchistic sensibility. Continue reading

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An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (5)—Prophetic Critique

Ted Grimsrud—February 23, 2015

 This is the fifth in a series of posts.

Part of the beauty and part of the frustration of the Old Testament is that it is mostly descriptive and not overly directive in its portrayal of the political economy of ancient Israel. Certainly there are various different perspectives reflected in the story—some seem quite positive about the monarchy and emergence of a hierarchical social order, others are quite critical of those developments. And the reader cannot always be sure which perspective shapes the various parts of the story. But we do have a lot of freedom for interpretation and application.

In reading the Bible for an anarchistic sensibility (note, I say a “sensiibility,” not an overt and thoroughgoing anarchist political philosophy), we can be comfortable with the diversity. I am not making a strong claim here but rather raising some possibilities and trying to see how much support there is in the story for an anarchistic sensibility (with the focus on two general points—a critique of the state and an affirmation of the possibilities of human self-organizing).

I won’t turn to Jesus’s message until the next post. I have been arguing that the Old Testament itself can be read as pointing in an anarchistic direction. I don’t think we need Jesus to see that. However, if we do see Jesus as inclined toward an anarchistic sensibility (as I will argue) and we also understand Jesus to base his social ethics and broader theology on the Old Testament, especially Torah and Israel’s great prophets, we might be more inclined to notice the anarchistic elements in the Old Testament and to expect that when we read it as a whole and read it as pointing toward Jesus, we will recognize that the anarchistic elements reflect the core storyline more faithfully than the monarchical elements.

The story of kingship

We get mixed messages about kingship among the Hebrews from almost the very beginning. Certainly the lack of human kingship in the creation story, in the stories of Abraham and his immediate descendants, in the exodus story, and in Torah (with only a few hints otherwise) is enormously suggestive. This society is founded and guided by God and non-kingly human leaders—and ideologically grounded in both a strong suspicion of imperial power politics and a sense of optimism about human potential for self-organizing. Continue reading

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