Have Mennonites Moved Past Peace Theology? A Response to From Suffering to Solidarity

Ted Grimsrud—January 11, 2016

A new book collects 17 essays that purport to analyze the “historical seeds of Mennonite interreligious, interethnic, and international peacebuilding” (the subtitle to Andrew P. Klager, ed., From Suffering to Solidarity [Pickwick Publications, 2015]). It’s a collection of interesting and well-crafted essays that covers a wide range of topics that do fit under the general rubric of Mennonite peace work. Definitions are a bit of an issue in thinking about this book, as I will discuss below. However, just taken at face value, the peace-focused writings make an excellent contribution.

Many insightful pieces

The book is organized with three sections: historical background, analyses of “Mennonite peacebuilding approaches,” and discussions of how these approaches have been applied “in conflict settings.” The emphasis is on the practical and specific, and many inspiring stories are told. I’ll highlight just a few of the wide selection of informative chapters.

John Derksen, who teaches conflict resolution studies at Menno Simons College in Winnipeg, gives a nice overview of the early 16th century Anabaptists, claiming “much of Mennonite nonviolent advocacy and peacebuilding today finds its roots in 16th-century Anabaptism” (page 13). This descriptive survey accounts for the sources of the Anabaptist peace emphasis, though it doesn’t make overt connections between these 16th-century “roots” and present-day peacebuilding. This lack would not be a problem in this book if later writers had picked up on Derkson’s narrative. However, there is little mention of Anabaptists in what follows. As it is, we get a good sense of the 16th century movement but not much of a sense for how it directly has influenced our current practices.

John Roth’s essay, “Historical Conditions of Mennonite Peacebuilding Approaches: Global Anabaptism and Neo-Anabaptism,” while a bit cheer-leady in tone, describes a dizzying and inspiring array of Mennonite peace activities around the world in recent decades. He can’t go into much detail, of course, but having his account of one effort after another (and knowing he has to leave many out to keep the essay to a manageable length) impresses the reader with just how seriously Mennonites have been taking their vocation to be peacemakers.  Continue reading

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Moral Discernment and Same-Sex Marriage: Why Welcome is the Best Policy

Ted Grimsrud—January 7, 2016

The rapidly expanding acceptance of same-sex marriage in United States society—and in many churches—has dramatically changed the dynamics of discernment for all American Christians. No longer is this an issue that church leaders could keep a distance from—thinking in fairly abstract terms about the “other” outside the church. So, often the discussions that did happen in the past concerning church policies did not necessarily involve the sense of agony that accompanies considering people with whom one has a close connection. It’s one thing to keep “outsiders” out; it’s something else when congregations are dealing with actual members.

The practical implications of the anti-same sex marriage view

In our new moment, the issues are more emotionally complicated. Though in his article, “Marriage, practice, biblical interpretation and discernment” (The Mennonite, January 2016), philosopher/theologian Darren Belousek remains safely focused on a textual argument regarding an ancient text, the implications of his perspective are far from distant and abstract.

What should our churches do with actual members who are married (in the eyes of the state, and, in their view, in the eyes of God)? Or what about pastors who due to a sense of vocational responsibility are willing to marry members in same-sex relationships? Or, if the churches are practicing welcoming evangelism, how might they respond to a married same-sex couple who are looking for a church home?

Belousek’s argument would seem necessarily to lead to what many would will see to be a hurtful and arbitrary response—where a couple who may embody authentic marital love and commitment would be turned away or required to deny their life-giving intimate relationship. Ironically, many of the same churches who would discriminate against same-sex couples regardless of how exemplary their partnerships might be would not hesitate to welcome without qualification potential heterosexual members who are in their second or third marriages following divorces.

Belousek gives us no practical reasons for such a hurtful response. A couple of decades ago, a church leader with a restrictive view told me that gays simply haven’t shown that they could live lives of fidelity and commitment. Today, we may point to many couples who have done precisely this. By their embrace of the new possibility of same-sex marriage, lesbian and gay Christians have shown that they too view marriage as a life-giving institution. What practical reason is there to slam the door in their faces? Continue reading

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The humane person’s dilemma regarding the “war on terror”

Ted Grimsrud—December 14, 2015

At the beginning of one of my classes the other day, a student asked me what I thought we should do about ISIS? He said he was writing a paper on the topic. My main response was to say that I didn’t have a quick answer ready that I could give in 30 seconds. I said I would get back to him.

Later that day I sent him a link to Juan Cole’s recent short essay that gives some sensible pointers—(1) Don’t accept that the best response to the actions of ISIS is to “declare war.” Actual states should not grant such legitimacy to small bands of violent criminals. (2) Welcome refugees. To characterize all Syrian refugees as potential combatants and to refuse to help them is to play into the hands of ISIS recruiters. (3) Take a public health response to the radicalization of youth in Europe’s bidenvilles—focus on community policing and proactive governmental intervention to improve the dignity of the people.

However, as I thought of about the question, I was troubled with the implications of how this kind of question is usually phrased. What should we do about ISIS? What should we do about Saddam Hussein? What should we do about the Communist threat? What should we do about Hitler?

Who is the “we”?

What troubles me is that this comfortable use of “we” raises what is often seen to be an irresolvable dilemma for pacifists and other people who prioritize peace. The implied answer to this kind of question is almost always that “we” must resort to military force.

We should pause to think about what “we” means here. Who are the possible “we’s” in such a question? (1) Certainly one “we” could refer to the leaders of the United States—after all, we live in a representative democracy and as citizens of this nation what our leaders choose to do does reflect on us. This is what “we” in this context usually seems to refer to.

But the “we” could also mean something such as: (2) we who as citizens of this country have a patriotic duty to advocate for what best serves the nation as a whole (with the recognition that most of the time the policies pursued by national leaders are not in the best interests of the nation as a whole, but more in the best interests of the power elite—the people who profit from war, such as the recent war on Iraq).

There are other possible “we’s” as well. I’m a Mennonite Christian. (3) Shouldn’t my “we” be centered more on my community of faith (which transcends national borders) and my sense of God’s will, not my nation-state? As well, I identify as an international citizen, a person who especially makes common cause with other people who share many of my convictions about pacifism, anarchism, egalitarianism, economic justice, and similar ideals. (4) Isn’t the sense of “we” I share with such other (let me suggest the term) “humane people” more important than particular national identities?

Continue reading

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Is the Book of Revelation on Falwell’s side?

Ted Grimsrud—December 9, 2015

Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, recently made the news with his provocative statement—proclaimed before thousands of cheering students at his college—that Christians should arm themselves to assure their ability to defend themselves against “Muslim attacks.” Responses, which have been many, range from strong support to a kind of ridicule that dismisses Falwell and Christianity as a piece. In my circles, most of the responses have been horror at what many see to be a terrible misrepresentation of the message of Jesus.

Happily, one of Liberty’s faculty members—biology professor Daniel Howell—has written a biblically-oriented response to some of Falwell’s critics with the clever title, “Falwell’s gun remarks on target.” There are many points that Howell raises that I am tempted to argue with. His Jesus is way too positive about violence, I’d say.

I want to focus on just a small part of his argument though. That’s his use of the Book of Revelation. I am sure that if Howell and I had a discussion about Revelation we would discover many differences. However, for the point I want to make here, I am willing to grant a lot to what I expect to be his assumptions about Revelation (most of all, that it is a book that gives concrete prophesies about the future—about what will be). Let’s accept that Revelation might be doing this. Even so, does his use of Revelation to support his affirmation of Christians preparing for and using violence in “self-defense”? This is what Howell writes:

“Unbelievers and others lacking knowledge about the true character of God sometimes refer to Christ’s moniker as the Prince of Peace to conclude Christianity must be a wimpy, defenseless teaching. Of course, this is one of many titles for Jesus, another being the Lion of Judah. While Jesus was exceptionally mild and meek at his first coming, we are assured by Scripture that he will not be so at his second coming. He is described in Revelation 19 as the King of kings who leads the armies of heaven on a white horse and utterly destroys his enemies with the word of his mouth (visualized there as a sword). In a world littered with violence, the Prince of Peace knows that real tranquility is only obtained through strength.”

Revelation and violent self-defense

Let me note several things about his points that relate to Revelation. My thoughts here would work equally well within a future-prophetic view of Revelation or a historical-symbolic view. My concern is what the text actually seems to be saying. Continue reading

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Problems with Mennonite Church USA’s “Membership Guidelines”

Ted Grimsrud—December 6, 2015

[This is an abridged version of an earlier post (December 3)—see the longer post for links and references.]

Last summer, delegates to the General Assembly of Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) voted to reaffirm the “Membership Guidelines” that had been created as part of the merger of the Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church (GC). I believe that the Guidelines do not provide a clear theological rationale for their discrimination against LGBTQ Mennonites. Hence, they themselves become another example of Christian disrespect, even emotional violence, toward a vulnerable population.

The content of the 2001 Guidelines

The Guidelines coined the term “teaching position” for its summary of the perspective on the new denomination and specified three central formal elements of the MC USA “position”:

(1) Affirm the 1995 Mennonite Confession of Faith article 19, on “Marriage,” as central to the Guidelines’ position—quoting the oft-cited sentence that defines marriage as “one man, one woman, for life.”

(2) Affirm the statements on human sexuality from the 1986 GC assembly in Saskatoon and to the 1987 MC assembly at Purdue University (“S/P statements”) summarized to name “homosexual … sexual activity as sin.”

(3) Affirm the call made in the S/P statements for the church to be in dialogue with those who hold differing views.

Though the Guidelines repeat, “homosexual sexual activity is sin,” they add no new content, merely citing two earlier documents, the Mennonite Confession of Faith (CofF) and the Saskatoon/Purdue (S/P) statements. So we need to turn to the CofF and S/P statements for the content of this teaching position. Continue reading

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A note on Romans 13 and Christian “warism”

Ted Grimsrud—November 30, 2015

One of the sessions I attended at the recent annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta was a conversation among those identified with the just war approach and those identified as pacifists on how to respond to terrorism. Three of the five speakers were what I would call “warists” and the other two were “pacifists.”

By “warism” I mean the assumption that war is morally acceptable, often necessary, and appropriately prepared for and utilized as the centerpiece of national security policy. Christian warists might use the language of “just war” to characterize their position, but they do not share the traditional just war presumption against the moral validity of particular wars.

In my rethinking the typology concerning attitudes toward war (revising the standard approach originally defined by Roland Bainton), I suggest two basic views—”negatively disposed” (including principled pacifism, pragmatic pacifism, and skeptical just war) and “positively disposed” (including favorable just war, blank check, and crusade). Because of their positive starting assumption concerning war, I would call the three views under “positively disposed” different versions of “warism.”

Our session in Atlanta confirmed an impression I have had on other occasions. Though those holding the  “favorable just war” view claim to represent the just war tradition, they actually are hostile to forms of just war thought that insist that the just war presumption is against war. They reject the idea that acceptance of a particular war as “just” requires that the benefit of the doubt against war be overcome with clear evidence based on just war criteria that that specific war would be just. One of the panelists, who expressed disdain toward pacifism, characterized what I call “skeptical just war” thought as a sell out to pacifism. Continue reading

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Should “love” define a Christian university?

Ted Grimsrud

[The following was shared as an opening meditation at a Eastern Mennonite University faculty assembly, November 16, 2015.]

Critiquing North American higher eduction

I listened to Henry Giroux, a political philosopher at Canada’s McMaster University, on the radio a couple of weeks ago. He detailed crises in higher education in North America—and focused, among other things, on how higher education’s work of fostering genuine democracy is increasingly subordinated to the ever more all-encompassing corporate agenda. We have seen these issues dramatically illustrated in the recent student uprising at the University of Missouri.

I am quite sympathetic with Giroux’s critique and think it is relevant for how we think of our work here at EMU. Whatever it all is that “Christian” higher education might be about, it seems like it must include many of the things Giroux talks about—confronting our “cold commodity culture” for the sake of social wholeness, justice, care for the vulnerable, a stronger and more vital democratic public sphere.

But I also felt something was missing in his presentation. That I have a hard time naming what I missed might reflect my own failure of theological imagination. The best I can do is say that there is not much talk about love in his vision. There’s not a lot of talk about compassion, servanthood, turning the other cheek, a Martin Luther King-style sense of “self-suffering” for the sake of social justice.

As I think about what it might mean to be a genuinely Christian college, shaped most of all by the core convictions that the Bible articulates for us, I think of a call to combine social critique with love; to combine saying no to empire, no to corporatism, with saying yes to compassion, to care, to kindness, to valuing each person. Continue reading

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