Ted Grimsrud—July 22, 2014
[On the evening of July 20, I spoke as part of a panel of four on theme of the meaning of Anabaptism, at Morning View Mennonite Church. I was assigned two general questions and given first five minutes and then ten minutes to speak. It was a great experience. It was challenging because it was a rural, quite conservative congregation (having split from Virginia Mennonite Conference because the conference was too "liberal" about the same time my congregation split from Virginia Conference because it was too "conservative"). I focused on finding common ground with other panelists—I was the only one who is now part of Mennonite Church USA. It’s a good exercise, I think, to reflect on our core identity.]
What are the core elements that define historic Anabaptism?
The Anabaptist movement emerged in the 1520s as part of the Protestant Reformation and, because of its radical call to return to the gospels, came to be known as the Radical Reformation. Anabaptists built on the work of mainline reformers such as Martin Luther who taught a direct appropriation of biblical teaching over church tradition. They took things a step further, though, and zeroed in on the message of Jesus. They affirmed following that message for all Christians—no matter what the cost. So, the core of the core in naming the essence of Anabaptism, I would say, is recovering Jesus’s way as the heart of Christian faith.
To say more than that gets complicated. There were many early expressions of the Anabaptist movement—some branched off the first group in Zurich, Switzerland. Some sprang up spontaneously—a revolution in the understanding of Christian faith was in the air. The Anabaptist movement was decentralized. When we talk about historic Anabaptism, we should acknowledge quite a bit of diversity. But I believe, in contrast to the recent generation of academic historians, that we may still affirm a sense of coherence in the movement—even if it didn’t take the form of a centralized organization or official creeds and dogmas.
Anabaptists believed Jesus to be more central than church tradition, the nation-state, institutional hierarchies, or top-down operated rituals. Because of this, Anabaptists got into trouble—to the point that thousands were killed for embodying their convictions. So I suggest if we want to flesh out our sense of the essence of Anabaptism in the 16th century—and of a usable Anabaptist vision—we should look at why all these diverse Anabaptists got into trouble (recognizing of course, that each group had its own distinctive way of embodying these core convictions). Continue reading
Ted Grimsrud—July 1, 2014
It’s difficult for me not to be discouraged by the report from Mennonite Church USA’s Executive Board released today concerning MC USA’s Mountain States Conference and the licensing for ministry of my friend Theda Good, a married lesbian pastor. As is typical for such reports (produced by several hands in times of stress and intense disagreement), this one is full of ambiguities and even internal contradictions, not to mention convoluted and passive-aggressive sentences that may taken to support various interpretations.
Still, the main thrust of the report seems to be to rebuke Mountain States for its action. One point that is clear is the insistence that conferences are being told that they should not take actions that are at variance with denominational positions. A big question is whether this insistence has any teeth. It seems to be a historical fact that over and over again Mennonite conferences have indeed taken actions that are at variance with denominational positions—just in relation to ordination of pastors we might think of the ordination of non-pacifist pastors, the ordination of divorced and remarried pastors, and, maybe most relevant to our current situation, the ordination of women.
The language in this current statement, when scrutinized, seems more to be language of “this is what we (the Executive Board) want” than of “you must do this or you will pay.” Perhaps such language reflects a desire by the report writers to be as gentle as possible—or, maybe more likely, the implicit recognition that the Executive Board doesn’t really have a lot of leverage against a dissenting conference. The historical examples indicate that usually conferences have gotten away with whatever variances they have chosen. At the same time, we must recognize that our current environment seems utterly unique. Already many other unprecedented actions have been taken to censer, exclude, and punish those at variance with the stated positions of the denomination concerning homosexuality. Continue reading
Ted Grimsrud—June 24, 2014
I believe that we should think of God as pacifist. By the nature of the case, though, this is not something we can prove decisively. This is a kind of value judgment or choice—to see God and the world in a certain way. However, I would not call such a conviction a simple leap of faith that flies in the face of the evidence. In fact, I think we have good reasons for such a belief.
I wrote in a previous post why I believe the Bible, ultimately, teaches that God is pacifist, even if the evidence is decidedly mixed. I would say the same thing about creation. The world we live in and our experience as human beings over time in this world, when seen as a whole, does offer support for thinking of God as pacifist—although, again, the evidence is decidedly mixed.
What kind of connection do we see between God and the world around us? One way to think of this is in terms of God as creator whose creation reflects the character of its source. If the world comes from God, we should expect to see evidence to support the idea that a loving, even pacifist, creator made what is. I think we should expect that as we look ever deeper into the world we live in, we will find signs of the presence of our God there since our God is inextricably linked with the deepest truths that we can perceive.
The way my thinking has evolved has been a kind of moving back and forth between the biblical portrayal of Jesus and God and the call to pacifism on the one side and seeing reality as pacifist on the other. In terms of my conscious thought, when I became a pacifist at age 21 and begin to think about other things in light of that pacifism, I started with the biblical message and in light of that began consciously think of the world differently. But in time I realized that my life had been shaped from its beginning by the experience of love in a fundamental way, experience that surely helped prepare me to see Jesus’s message the way I did. Continue reading
Ted Grimsrud—June 10, 2014
I am about ready with the final part to this series on “Why we should think of God as pacifist.” But before I finish that post, I want to spend a little time responding to a concern raised by my friend Scott Holland in his comment to my previous post. Because Scott’s comment has pushed me to try better to clarify my argument, I wanted to put my response up as a regular post.
This is Scott’s comment:
“Ted, I’m a bit surprised to see a serious reader of [Gordon] Kaufman become so anthropomorphic about the divine. If God is a pacifist is the deity also a man, a monogamist, a moralist and an all around good guy?
“It seems one thing to call humans to a life of non-violence and peacemaking. However, given the awesome and awful force of the ruach, pneuma and winds of life, I would think only a Manichean could easily confess God is a pacifist? But then, heresy is sometimes a blessed thing!”
I did have this kind of concern (of being too “anthropocentric” in talking about God) in the back of my mind as I wrote out my ideas. And I expect to have it be part of my further reflections. And I also had Gordon Kaufman, who is indeed an important influence for me, in the back of my mind. Avoiding “heresy” was not part of my thought processes, though (however, if I thought I might be accused of being “Manichean” I might have thought about “heresy” a little bit). Continue reading
Ted Grimsrud—June 4, 2014
For Christians, our thinking about God should have at its core the life and teaching of Jesus. Obviously, what Christians think about God has to do with much more than what Jesus said and did, but part of the definition of “Christian” should be that we understand God in terms of Jesus’s teaching about God and how Jesus showed what God is like by his actions.
Sadly, due to what we could call a “christological evasion of Jesus,” the Christian tradition has all too often focused on doctrines about Jesus rather than on what he actually said and did. Thus, Jesus’s own life and teaching have not played a central role in the construction of the Christian doctrine of God.
As I discussed in my previous post introducing this four-part series of blog posts, Christianity is implicated in terrible spirals of violence characteristic of our culture here in the United States (imperialism, nationalism, militarism, punitive criminal justice, sexual violence, homophobia, et al). I believe one of our most important tasks is to rethink our theology in order to recover the deeply peaceable core message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I believe that one important component of such a task is to cultivate an understanding of God as pacifist.
To cultivate such an understanding, we need to wrestle with the biblical materials—source both of evidence for seeing God as violent and of evidence for seeing God as pacifist. In working through the biblical portrayal of God, we must make a decision about how central Jesus’s life and teaching will be—and, of course, develop an interpretation of what we understand the content of the Jesus part of the story to be.
What follows is a brief account of why I see the Jesus material in the Bible as decisive in discerning the pacifism of God. Continue reading
Ted Grimsrud—June 3, 2014
Christianity for too long has been too implicated in violence. Wars, rumors of war, preparation for war, violently punitive criminal justice practices, violent child discipline practices, violence toward women, sexual minorities, and other vulnerable people, the exploitation of non-human animals and the natural world. There may be no issue as pressing for the viability of the Christian tradition than breaking the spiral of violence that Christians have been all too active in sustaining.
We may easily think of various components of a violence-overcoming expression of Christian faith—including growth in skills of nonviolent conflict resolution, cultivating love for our neighbors (and expanding the definition of neighbor to include even enemies), cultivating peaceable ways of raising children, enhancing the celebration of biblical bases for peace in our congregations, growing in abilities to deny the violence-empowering dynamics of “othering,” and so on.
In a series of four blog posts, I want to reflect on an underlying issue: how might the ways we think of God contribute to overcoming the curse of violence? I will start with a bold hypothesis. We should actually think of God as pacifist. One way we might define how we use the word “God” is that God is what we worship, what constitutes the core of our sense of what matters most in life, what is most essential to our existence, and what empowers us to feel at home in the universe. Thinking of God as pacifist, then, would be a pretty big deal. Continue reading
Ted Grimsrud—May 25, 2014
I keep thinking of new angles for reflecting on the perennial question of how, as a Christian pacifist, to think about the portrayal of God in the Old Testament. What I will do in this post is think about how the main story line of the Old Testament does not work if we assume that the God portrayed there is fundamentally violently punitive.
Obviously, the Old Testament is a widely diverse collection of writings from many different times and places that reflects many different points of view. And equally obviously, some of these diverse writings tell us that God engages directly in violently punitive acts and directly commands some human beings violently to punish other human beings (both in the sense of general laws and in the sense of direct incidents). Modern critical biblical scholarship has strongly emphasized this diversity.
However, the writers of the Old Testament and the communities that gathered and utilize the writings have not approached this collection as mainly an inchoate accumulation of disparate texts. To the contrary, often in the Old Testament (as well in the New Testament), the writers themselves offer summaries of what they portray as the core story to which the collection as a whole witnesses. And the communities that have used these writings until quite recently have tended to read the Old Testament as containing a coherent story, one that offers clear guidance for those who see themselves as in continuity with the communities that created this collection.
The precise content of this “core story” of course has been and continues to be debated. What I offer is only one way to construe the story. I won’t make the case here that it’s the best one, though I do think it reflects the general orientation of the various summaries of the story line in the Bible itself. My main point is to suggest that looking at the story line is a better way to approach the God-as-violent-punisher theme than simply reporting and struggling with various specific incidents and commands.
My approach is to say that the most meaningful (or, one could say, the most authoritative) element of the biblical writings is the big story—the specifics should be understood in light of the whole. At some point soon I hope to spend more time reflecting on how this approach works in helping us use those texts that portray God as a violent punisher. For now, though, I simply plan to explain why I think the story line does not work if the God of the story actually is a violent punisher. Continue reading