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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An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (4)—Conquest and Kingship

Ted Grimsrud—February 16, 2015

 This is the fourth in a series of posts.

We find an intense struggle at the heart of the Old Testament story—and hence at the heart of the biblical faith. It’s a political struggle. We could characterize it as a struggle between the “Empire way” and the “Torah way.” According to the story, following the liberation of the Hebrews from enslavement in the Egyptian Empire, they started a process of finding out how to embody the liberation they had experienced. God provides them with a blueprint for liberated existence, the law codes, Torah.

The story treats it as a matter-of-fact development that this liberated community would take over and settle in the land of Canaan, where they could seek to embody Torah and ultimately bless all the families of the earth. However, the process of entering the land and then sustaining their life in the land was complicated. Could the land be gained without extraordinary violence, given the unwillingness of the inhabitants of the land simply to turn it over? Can the community be sustained as a territorial political entity with borders to defend and an identity to protect without moving towards an empire-like political economy? Can the anarchistic sensibilities I identified in previous posts survive?

The “conquest of Canaan”

On the one hand, the story of the forcible entry of the Hebrews into Canaan does have important parallels with the story of the Exodus—parallels that point at least somewhat in an anarchistic direction. On the other hand, especially when read in light of the ultimate outcome of this excursion into linking with promise with territoriality, this part of the story ends up being a pretty sharp repudiation of statehood as a channel for the promise.

The actual “conquest” where the Hebrews take over the land is notable in how the victory depends on God’s direct intervention, not on generals, warriors, horses, chariots, and careful human planning. The picture, surely not at all realistic, is of a decentralized, ad hoc, even rag tag group of invaders whose success depends upon God’s actions and whose victory does not empower military leaders and a revolutionary vanguard. God is the leader from beginning to end, and the particular events tend to reinforce the sense that this is not the beginnings of a traditional political kingdom but something different. Continue reading

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An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (3)—Exodus and Torah

Ted Grimsrud—February 9, 2015

 This is the third in a series of posts.

My argument that the Christian Bible, when read as a whole, reflects a strong anarchistic sensibility certainly has at its center the life and teaching of Jesus. However, the heart of the Old Testament story—exodus and Torah—also provides important support for seeing the two main components of this sensibility (a strong suspicion of state power and an optimism about human potential for self-organization) as biblically grounded.

The exodus story is remarkable in how it contrasts the main characteristics of the Hebrews’ God with the main characteristics of the Egyptian empire. Given what follows in the rest of the Bible, it seems appropriate to see Egypt not simply as one specific opponent to the Hebrews in the ancient past but as a representative of power politics in general that is meaningful throughout the story and down to the present. Egypt also provides the model over against which the social philosophy of Torah is articulated—a model of bottom-up power over against Egypt’s top-down power.

Our introduction to Pharaoh: Genesis 41

When we simply read the Bible from the beginning without thinking about what comes later, our first encounter with Pharaoh, the god-king of Egypt, is pretty benign—at least on the surface. The morality tale of Joseph, the eleventh son of Abraham’s grandson Jacob, among other things, gives us an account of how the people of the promise ended up in Egypt.

Joseph is sold into slavery by one of his brothers (who did this to save Joseph’s life after the other brothers left him to die in the desert). What follows is an amazing story of Joseph’s wisdom and God’s providence that places Joseph next to Pharaoh as a key adviser. Joseph’s brilliant suggestions provide a plan that will save the lives of many in face of severe famine—including Joseph’s own family.

On the most obvious level, Pharaoh is presented as a wise leader, willing to listen to his bright subordinate and act in ways that to help people survive the famine. But, it is also clear—especially in light of the story’s sequel in the book of Exodus—that Joseph’s advice shrewdly greatly expands Pharaoh’s power and wealth. In exchange for providing people with scarce food, Pharaoh gains title to their land. Continue reading

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An anarchistic reading of the Bible (2)—Creation and what follows

Ted Grimsrud—February 2, 2015

This is the second in a series of posts.

In this survey of some biblical themes looked at from an anarchistic angle, I will not be real precise in my use of “anarchistic.” I’ll be talking about a sensibility more than a full-fledged political philosophy. The key “anarchistic” motifs I will focus on will be a strong suspicion toward centralized social power, especially kingdoms and empires, and an optimism about human possibilities for self-organizing and decentralized social power.

And I will be reading the Bible in fairly naïve and straightforward ways. I approach the Bible as a storybook and see it as providing a loosely coherent message, amidst a great deal of diversity. I will focus more on the loose coherence than the diversity—largely due to a desire to find usable guidance in the Bible. At the same time, in reading the Bible more as a storybook, I mean to reject any authoritarian dynamics. The story is invitational and winsome, more than coercive or dominatingly powerful.

The story of creation

The very beginning of the Bible provides much important information about the Bible as a whole, about the cosmology of the whole, about the character of the God seen to be central to the entire story, and about the relationships between humankind and this God.

Though the creation account in Genesis one portrays God as the power behind what is, the actual exercise of that power is muted. God speaks and what is is made. The dynamic is quite peaceable—in contrast to some other ancient creation myths (especially the Babylonian) that portray violence at the heart of things. Continue reading

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An anarchistic reading of the Bible—(1) Approaching the Bible

Ted Grimsrud—January 25, 2015

[This post is a continuation of the conversation about anarchism that I have started in this blog in months past—the most recent post was “More thinking about an ‘anarchistic’ Christianity” on December 15, 2014. It’s an introduction to a series of seven or eight posts that give a quick survey of some anarchistically-inclined dynamics in the Bible.]

I have become motivated to pursue, as a thought experiment, an anarchistic reading of the Bible, for several reasons. For quite some time, probably going back to my discovery of Christian pacifism now nearly 40 years ago, I have found the Bible to be a great resource for thinking politically. However, it has been rather difficult to find connecting points between biblical politics and our current political landscape. I don’t find attempts to link biblical politics with liberal democracy all that attractive; likewise with Marxism. Yet, I also am uneasy with the way numerous, say, “post-liberals” (most notably Stanley Hauerwas) link biblical politics with the institutional church (or is it an idealized “church”?).

But what about anarchism? I can imagine anarchism as a more fruitful philosophical partner than liberal democracy or Marxism. And as more creative and more easily engaged with the entirety of human social life than the institutional (or idealized) church. And I have suspected for some time that the politics most characteristic of the Bible links fairly closely with at least some construals of anarchism, even if anarchists have tended to be quite anti-Christian and Christians anti-anarchist.

At this point, though, I am not as prepared to discuss anarchism itself as I am to think about a general anarchistic sensibility in relation to the Bible. So my definition of anarchism is purposely quite broad and simple. I am thinking of anarchism as having two main components, a negative one and a positive one. The negative one is a suspicion of authority, especially in relation to the state (though I think an anarchistic sensibility should be just as suspicious of corporate power and the power of other large institutions). This leads to a de-centering of the state as the basic instrument of human political life. The positive component is the affirmation of human possibilities to self-organize, to manage our affairs in decentralized, self-managed communities. Continue reading

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