Author Archives: Ted Grimsrud

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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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Teaching on same-sex marriage and the Bible

Ted Grimsrud—January 20, 2015

This past Sunday, January 18, I had another chance to talk about same-sex marriage in a Mennonite congregation. I was invited to speak at Oak Grove Mennonite Church, near Smithville, Ohio. My assignment was to give a talk to a large Sunday School class, preach the morning sermon, and respond to questions in an early afternoon session. It was a good experience for me and, I hope, for the congregation.

One interesting aspect of the visit was how this congregation is really in the middle of the road (or maybe, several roads). Within the congregation, it appears that the more common view would be inclined to what I call the “restrictive” side of things—believing that full acceptance of, say, same-sex marriage, is not appropriate. There seem to be many, though, who likely would tend more to the “inclusive” side and be open to accepting same-sex marriage. However, the point of the visit was not for them to reveal their views to me, but for me to share mine with them.

I put my presentations together so that the sermon, “What matters most to Jesus,” would speak in more general terms about the centrality of hospitality in the Bible, concluding with a focus on Jesus’s teaching. The sermon does not address same-sex marriage directly, but sets the stage for the lecture by establishing a benefit of the doubt in the Bible toward a welcoming stance in general, especially toward vulnerable people. Then, the lecture (“The Bible and same-sex marriage”) would focus more directly on marriage and make an argument for why Christians should embrace same-sex marriage and apply to it the same kind of moral framework as they do to opposite-sex marriage.

I have posted the two presentation on my Peace Theology website (here are links to the sermon, “What matters most to Jesus,” and to the lecture, “The Bible and same-sex marriage”). To follow the argument I tried to make, one should read the sermon first and then the lecture.

Reflections on the experience

The discussion that followed, the presentations and personal conversations helped me to see how I could have perhaps reshaped what I did and made the argument more clear. I also continue to wonder about the overall utility of such discussions—as well on the character of the argument I try to make and the appropriateness of me doing such presentations. Continue reading

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Preaching on Romans

Ted Grimsrud—January 12, 2015

Last Fall I began a new sermon series. Every month (or so), I plan to take a chapter from the book of Romans for reflection. I am especially interested in reading Romans as anti-empire literature, recognizing, of course, that Paul’s main concern was positive—what he calls “the obedience of faith.”

I think, though, Paul’s vision for faithful living can best be understood against the backdrop of the Roman Empire. To follow Jesus, to live faithfully in relation to the true God, Paul believed, required being aware of the main story that competes with the gospel—the story of empire. After all, Paul is writing this letter to Christians who actually live in the belly of the beast. And all Christians of that time would always be aware that the empire killed Jesus as a rebel against Rome.

Yesterday, in the third of the sermons, I talked about Romans 2.

Here’s a link to that sermon: “How churches go wrong.” And here’s a link to the whole series.

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