Category Archives: Mennonite

Reflections from a chagrined “Yoderian” (part four—Yoder’s theology)

Ted Grimsrud—August 4, 2013

A great deal of my energy for “thinking aloud” here about John Howard Yoder’s sexual violence stems from how important Yoder’s theology has been for my life and work. I can’t really put into words how important that theology has been for me. So, how do I reconcile this influence with such deeply problematic behavior? I have been reflecting on the behavior, and now I want to take some time to reflect on the theology—to sketch why I have found it so important. It’s not just that Yoder is famous and important and widely read and cited. It’s that his work has had a profound effect on my own life and thought in many, many ways.

I can probably pinpoint pretty much the exact moment when John Howard Yoder became my most formative thinker. I was a recent graduate of the University of Oregon and in the winter of 1976-7 worked swing shift at a Eugene, Oregon plywood mill. For about two months I had “lunch” all by myself. During those thirty minutes, six days a week, I got a lot of reading done. I read The Lord of the Rings and The Politics of Jesus—a fascinating juxtaposition.

After that winter, I read everything by Yoder I could get my hands on and a few years later, Kathleen and I moved out to Indiana to study with Yoder at the Mennonite seminary where he taught. One of the highlights of that eventful year was receiving copies of two sets of Yoder’s at the time unpublished lectures, “Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace, and Revolution” and “Christology and Theological Method.” I also photocopied numerous unpublished articles that were in the library.

I have continued to read Yoder and absorb his theological insights. I would like to believe, though, that I have followed a path he would have approved of, which is using his ideas as stimulants to develop my own. Yoder himself did very little writing where he focused in detail on other people’s theology. He mostly referred to the Bible, history, and to the practical outworking of the ideas. It was not theology about theology but theology about life.

As my friend Earl Zimmerman presents it in his fine book on Yoder’s intellectual development, Practicing the Politics of Jesus: The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics, Yoder’s decision to become a theologian came a young adult working in post-World War II Western Europe. He became convinced that the epic disaster of that war was an indictment on Western Christianity. What the world needs is a different way to think about faith and social life. Yoder believed that the 16th century Anabaptists provided a good model, but that what was needed was something more universal—which he found in the life and teaching of Jesus.

So, what I see as the model Yoder provided was an approach to theology that cares deeply about contributing to peaceable social life in the world for the sake of the world and draws deeply on the Bible and the Anabaptists. Yoder’s theology was anything but “sectarian.” The on-going power and influence of his work witnesses to the perceptiveness of his insights. I have been inspired to follow his method and construct theology that is socially engaged based especially on the Bible and inspired by the Anabaptists. Yoder’s ideas are catalytic for my own constructive work—which I would call “peace theology,” not “Yoderian theology.” Continue reading

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Filed under John Howard Yoder, Mennonite, Pacifism, Theology, Violence

What’s to be done about John Howard Yoder? (guestpost)

[My friend and former Eastern Mennonite University faculty colleague Barbra Graber would like to invite theologians and others who utilize the work of John Howard Yoder into further discussion. So I have agreed to post a recent essay she wrote reflecting on Yoder's hurtful sexual behavior and its continuing legacy. I invite responses in the "comment" section at the end of this post and hope we can think together a bit in response to Barbra's provocative thoughts. After a couple of days, I plan to post a longer set of my reflections in response to Barbra's post [here's part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; part 5]. This version of Barbra’s essay has been revised from what she recently posted on Rachel Halder’s website Our Stories Untold and at Young Anabaptist Radicals. Each of those postings has a lively set of comments. — Ted Grimsrud]

By Barbra Graber

July 30, 2013

(Note: This is an opinion piece from the perspective of a lay-person in the Mennonite church who has never been privy to inside information regarding the disciplinary processes of JHY and left to make sense of something that has made no sense in light of the church’s stated guidelines, mission and purpose. I don’t pretend that my limited perspective encompasses the whole. My intention is to provide impetus and fodder for more discernment and discussion on the larger topic of known and widespread sexual abuses of power by Mennonite church leaders, most powerfully symbolized by JHY. Hopefully others from inside the JHY story will be encouraged to come forward with new information. My issue is not with a deceased man, but the living and beloved church of my birth.)

I remember the Sunday morning two MYF (Mennonite Youth Fellowship) friends who were dating got up in front of the congregation to publicly confess their sins. They were pregnant out of wedlock.  Meanwhile John Howard Yoder, the most acclaimed Mennonite peace theologian and symbol of male power in the church, sexually assaulted and harassed untold numbers of women of the church over decades, and never publicly confessed.  And the Mennonite seminary, as well as many other Mennonite church agencies that hired him, were somehow unable or unwilling to ultimately fix the problem. Years of institutional silence ensued while files of complaint letters accumulated. In 1984, the Mennonite Seminary announced that Yoder “had resigned in order to teach full time at Notre Dame.” But no mention of JHY’s known sexually deviant behavior was made and students were left to wonder why their brilliant professor suddenly flew the coop. Since that time, no one has asked and the Mennonite Church at large has not explained or acknowledged its decades of apparent complicity.

Quite the opposite.

After public exposure of his abuses in 1992, followed by a highly secretive disciplinary process, he was declared reconciled with the church and encouraged to return to “teaching and writing.” The promise of a public statement of apology to the victims whose lives he upended, and the wider ecumenical community whose trust he betrayed, somehow never materialized. And no one seems to know why. Today John Howard Yoder continues to be lauded, his books roll off the presses, and there’s pressure from all sides to go back to business as usual. I wonder if the same would be true if he’d been busted for selling drugs or accused of grand theft. Continue reading

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Filed under John Howard Yoder, Mennonite, Violence

What makes a Mennonite?

Ted Grimsrud—July 3, 2013

It used to be that the question “what makes a Mennonite?” probably would mainly have confused North American Mennonites. A Mennonite was simply born into the family, church, and broader Mennonite fellowship. Now it’s true Mennonites practiced believers baptism with its implication that actually becoming a formal member of the Mennonite church required a choice, a conscious commitment.

So there may have been a bit of a tension between one’s birthright Mennonite identity and one’s official, based-on-church-membership Mennonite identity. But for generations the large percentage of those born into Mennonite families stayed in the fold—and few “outsiders” entered the church community. So to be a “Mennonite” was a straightforward, uncomplicated thing that had most of all to do with birth into the community.

The effects of Mennonite cultural assimilation

This has all changed in the past 130 years. As North American Mennonites have assimilated, this has meant that the boundaries separating the Mennonite world from the outside have become increasingly permeable. More people born into Mennonite families have left, more new Mennonites have entered the fold, and various theological currents from the outside have shaped Mennonite congregations.

People who track such things are worried about Mennonite demographics, especially in relation to the make up of Mennonite Church USA (and also, perhaps, Mennonite Church Canada as well as other Mennonite groups). As a rule, Mennonites are getting older. Due to smaller families and young people leaving the church often not to return, the overall numbers of church members are shrinking and those who remain tend to be older.

One way to speak of these dynamics is to say that more and more, being a part of the Mennonite community is a choice. People who are born into find it easier to leave and people from the outside find it easier to enter the community (at least to some extent). Fewer people all the time, it seems, are making this choice.

So, is there a future for the Mennonite tradition? One small part of reflecting on this question is simply to think about what a “Mennonite” is—or, as I ask in this post’s title, “what makes a Mennonite?” Continue reading

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Filed under Anabaptism, Mennonite, Theology

More thoughts on same-sex marriage and Christianity

Ted Grimsrud—July 2, 2013

I read two articles yesterday that provide a couple of interesting perspectives on the continuing unfolding of the discussion about same-sex marriage.

Virginia Mennonite pastor Harold Miller’s “A right that is wrong” (published in the June 24, 2013 issue of Mennonite World Review—the on-line article is accompanied by a remarkably civil and lively discussion from various points of view) reiterates the case for seeing same-sex marriage as inherently wrong for Christians.

Gabriel Arana is a senior editor with the liberal current affairs journal, The American Prospect. His article, “The Religious Right’s terms of surrender” (published on the on-line version of the Prospect on July 1) points to the various leaders among America’s political conservatives who seem to concede the inevitability of the acceptance of same-sex marriage. At the same time, the rank-and-file, especially Christian conservatives, continue to fight against this acceptance.

The final rationale for opposing same-sex marriage

To some degree, though writing with a more irenic tone than many who share his views, Miller represents the sentiment Arana discusses, where Christian conservatives are as yet unwilling to show openness toward acceptance. Continue reading

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On thinking like a postmodern Anabaptist (if that’s possible)

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2013

What do you get when you put together an appreciation for well-known postmodern thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas with a self-identification with Anabaptist theology, membership in a Mennonite congregation, a (tentative) commitment to pacifism, and an affirmation of the core theological project of John Howard Yoder? Then you add an academic location that combines the field of social theory with a professorship at a notorious bastion of libertarianism and Republicanism (Hillsdale College)? And for good measure, include some rock and roll….

Well, you could get an incoherent mess. Or, if the person who embodies all these disparate influences (and more) is intelligent and clear-thinking and a good writer and has a whimsical sense of humor, you might get a remarkable and pathbreaking collection of essays. Happily, Pete Blum’s For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought (Herald Press, 2013) fits in the second category.

The value of experiments

Perhaps the operative term in the book’s title is “experiments.” The seven essays here are each characterized by an openness, a tentativeness, and a gentleness of spirit. Blum addresses challenging issues. He’s an amazingly clear writer even as the themes he addresses are not easy or superficial. But there is a humility here, a sense of invitation to a conversation. There is no show-boating or disdain. No sense of seeking to shock or intimidate.

This is a collection of conversations—Blum talking with his thinkers and trying to get them to talk with each other. Some of the conversations are maybe a bit surprising—pairing the biblicist Mennonite pacifist Yoder with the French revolutionary atheist Foucault and then Yoder again with the only slightly less notoriously radical Jacques Derrida. Continue reading

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How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources (Part Two)

[Ted Grimsrud]

I wrote in the first part of this post several weeks ago (“How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources [Part One]“) that even though most Christians are not pacifists—and in fact being a Christian seems to make it less likely that a person would oppose war, at least in the United States—we “Christian pacifists should double down and intensify our emphasis on the pacifist aspects of our belief systems.” I went on to mention eight areas where too many Christian pacifists (it seems to me) accept non-pacifist ways of approaching key sources for our theology and ethics.

I promised a sequel where I would briefly discuss how these areas could be viewed in more consistently pacifist ways. I don’t have time or space to develop these alternative perspectives very fully, but I will go through the list. I don’t even have time to cite examples of how these alternative perspectives have been articulated except to point to several of my own writings.

Let me quote from my introduction to the first post: “My main concern in this two-part post is to suggest that Christian pacifists should actively resist the tendency to see our pacifism as something extraneous to our core theological convictions, as a kind of overlay in relation to the ‘common beliefs’ we share with other non-pacifist Christians. Part one [gave] examples of how pacifists read Christian sources non-pacifistically.” Now, part two will give examples of how we might read Christian sources pacifistically.

What I offer here is a bare outline of what may in the not-too-distant future expand into a more carefully detailed essay. I would greatly appreciate responses that could help me in developing the piece.

Reading Christian Sources as Pacifists

(1) Old Testament. Too often pacifists simply accept as a given the assumption that the Old Testament contradicts Christian pacifism. The task then becomes a defensive one, trying to make a case for pacifism in spite of the Old Testament. Continue reading

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Filed under Jesus, Mennonite, Moral philosophy, Pacifism, Theology, Violence

How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources (Part One)

[Ted Grimsrud]

It’s not easy being a Christian pacifist. We make extraordinary claims (that war is never acceptable) on the basis of our faith convictions, even in the face of the reality that the vast majority of people who share many of those convictions reject these claims. It seems quite quixotic to argue for Christian pacifism when the facts seem to show that being a Christian makes a person less likely to be a pacifist.

Rather than quailing before this scenario, I propose that we Christian pacifists should double down and intensify our emphasis on the pacifist aspects of our belief systems. I think it is a terrible mistake for pacifist Christians to accept as normative the ways of reading Christian sources that ignore or actively oppose pacifism—no matter how widespread and institutionally embedded these non-pacifist readings are.

My main concern in this two-part post is to suggest that Christian pacifists should actively resist the tendency to see our pacifism as something extraneous to our core theological convictions, as a kind of overlay in relation to the “common beliefs” we share with other non-pacifist Christians. Part one will give examples of how pacifists read Christian sources non-pacifistically. And part two will give examples of pacifist readings of these sources.

Reading Christian Sources Non-Pacifistically

(1) One of the most common steps that immediately puts pacifists on the defensive is the acceptance of the assumption that the Old Testament is ultimately a problem for Christian pacifism. What matters most, it is assumed, in reading the Old Testament in relation to issues of violence, peace, and justice are the stories of God commanding warfare and exercising violent judgment. The God of the Old Testament is violent, vengeful, and practices punitive, retributive justice.

With this starting point, the pacifist must explain away the obvious normativity of violence. This is a challenging situation, to say the least. Pacifists have tried various strategies to retain their pacifism, but in general they allow the assumption of the Old Testament as a problem to stand. At best, it seems, the Old Testament is “messy” and gives us mixed messages. We will have to ground our pacifism on other sources—a resignation that invariably weakens the bases for that pacifism.

Continue reading

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Filed under Jesus, Mennonite, Moral philosophy, Pacifism, Theology, Violence

God is not a pacifist, right?

[Ted Grimsrud]

Last month at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings (as I reported), I was challenged again to consider how to think about God in relation to violence. I heard a couple of pacifist Old Testament scholars (a very small population as far as I can tell) in separate settings state explicitly that they believe “God is not a pacifist.” This is a relatively common view in my broader circles among scholars who still often make the point that they themselves are pacifists (a widely cited expression of this view is A. James Reimer, “God is not a pacifist,” Canadian Mennonite [July 26, 1999]; also in A. James Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology, 486-492).

This viewpoint strikes me as counter-intuitive. Like what I assume would be the case for all pacifists, I believe that violence is a bad thing and that responding to wrongdoing nonviolently is a good thing. I base this belief, in part (again like I would assume all Christian pacifists would), on Jesus’ command: “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36) I tend to think that pacifism is an aspiration for a high level of ethical rigor that finds its grounding in God’s will and character. So it is a little discordant to hear that “God is not a pacifist” but we should be. Obviously, the people who believe this are bright, sincere, committed to faithful living, and thus to be taken seriously. So I want to try to understand.

Why we would say “God is not a pacifist”

These are some of the ideas I heard expressed that seem to support the belief that God is not a pacifist: Continue reading

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Filed under Biblical theology, Jesus, Mennonite, Militarism, Pacifism, Theology

A pacifist at the AAR/SBL

Ted Grimsrud

Last weekend, my wife Kathleen and I made our annual trip to the big city to hobnob with 10,000 religion scholars. That is, we attended that convention of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature in Chicago, November 17-20. As per usual, we had a great time. This year, things were pretty low key—both in the sense of not having many responsibilities and of not attending any high powered, life changing sessions (no Cornel West, Judith Butler, Jeffrey Stout, or Robert Bellah this year).

As always, the biggest highlights were the times with friends—especially those who I usually only see at these meetings, but also some new friends (including meeting in the flesh a couple of cyber friends) and even some good times with people I see regularly.

Because I didn’t have much business to attend to and didn’t really have much interest in the book fair (I’m not quite sure why this was; in the past, I spent as many hours as I could with the always amazing collection of books from hundreds of publishers—maybe as I get older I realize just how many books I already have that I will never read), we spent most of our time attending sessions. While my socks stayed securely on my feet throughout, I still found the sessions interesting and stimulating of thought—even if mostly it was to argue against much of what I heard. Here are some highlights. Continue reading

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Filed under Abortion, Anabaptism, Book of Revelation, Empire, Gordon Kaufman, Mennonite, Militarism, Pacifism, Theology

More thoughts about voting (or not) for a “warmonger”

Ted Grimsrud

As we draw closer to election day, 2012, I continue to reflect on the voting issue. My October 1, 2012, post asked the question “Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?”  [UPDATE: I posted a third installment on October 28: "Faith and Politics (Including Voting)"] I concluded that though indeed I believe that President Obama’s four years in office have been a time of increasingly distressing militarism, I still will vote for him. I posed this choice not so much as voting for a lesser evil but as voting against a greater evil. That is, I do not understand my vote to be an expression of support for Obama but to be an expression of opposition to the far more distressingly militaristic and destructive-in-many-more-areas policies I would expect from a Romney administration.

The original posts received many thoughtful and perceptive comments. Within the comments section, several other fascinating conversations that went beyond my own contribution emerged. With these responses and numerous conversations with friends and more reading and thinking, I want to take some time to say a bit more—mainly to try to restate and clarify the argument I am trying to develop. Continue reading

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Filed under Anabaptism, Empire, Mennonite, Moral philosophy, Pacifism