Category Archives: Mennonite

“Mennonite Systematic Theology”: An opportunity whose time has passed?

Ted Grimsrud

David Cramer’s recent interesting Conrad Grebel Review article, “Mennonite Systematic Theology in Retrospect and Prospect” (31.3 [Fall 2013], 255-73) has stimulated my thinking quite a bit. He surveys the past thirty years, discussing the rise of interest in doctrinal theology among Mennonites and suggesting that while it has been good for Mennonite theologians to engage the broader Christian tradition it is still necessary for Mennonites to develop “more radically particularistic, integral Mennonite Systematic Theologies” (p. 257).

Though I have quite a bit of sympathy with Cramer’s suggestion (and I hope to say a bit more about a “particularistic” approach to Mennonite theology at the end of this post), his discussion triggered some thoughts that leave me feeling a bit discouraged. One response I have to this essay is to wonder if it might actually be too late for Cramer’s proposal. I hope not….

A theological attraction to Mennonites

Not long before Cramer was born (he cites his year of birth, 1983, as coincidentally the moment when it seems Mennonite academics made a self-conscious turn toward doctrinal theology), I had first encountered the Mennonite tradition. Drawn to Mennonites’ pacifism as mediated through the writing of John Howard Yoder, I made the move from being a generic evangelical to joining the Mennonite church in 1981. This step of formal membership followed a year of residence at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

From the start, my attraction to the Mennonite tradition had everything to do with Mennonite theology. Like many evangelicals at the time and since (I think this may be true of David Cramer himself, at least to some degree), I read Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and felt a strong attraction to the tradition that had generated such a profound perspective on the gospel. I was fortunate soon to discover a generous-spirited small Mennonite congregation in my home town that sought, with significant success, to embody that peaceable message.

The people, the relationships, the social ethics, the service work, the tradition and practices of “nonresistance” and conscientious objection, all attracted me powerfully. However, I was also passionate about the ideas, the intellectual grounding, the theology of peace that I discovered among Mennonites. It wasn’t just Yoder. I avidly read Norman Kraus’s writings along with the 1976 festschrift for Guy Hershberger, Kingdom, Cross, and Community, that contained any number of rich essays. My wife Kathleen and I went to hear Myron Augsberger preach when we visited her family in Phoenix in March 1977. We were beside ourselves in excitement that evening. Here was a perspective that promised to make sense of what it means to think as Christians in our violent world. Continue reading

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Glen Stassen’s reflections on the Yoder case (guest post)

[Glen Stassen, Smedes Professor of Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, was a close personal friend of John Howard Yoder's. He wrote the following response after reading the series of blog posts on this site about John Howard Yoder's sexual misconduct as well as other recent writings that reflect on the Yoder case. Glen, along with his and Yoder's friends and fellow theologians Stanley Hauerwas and James McClendon, was involved in several conversations with Yoder during the time of Yoder's working with a Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference disciplinary committee in the early 1990s (here's an account by Hauerwas of this process). In his comments here he adds an important perspective on that process. I am grateful to Glen for sharing his reflections. Ted Grimsrud, 9/24/13]

These are enormously insightful blogs and comments on Ted Grimsrud’s blogsite. Thank you all! You help me to wrestle with my own conflictedness. Ruth Krall is so right that we need therapeutic and spiritual resources for victims, public education events, and work to change the surrounding culture. Barbra Graber suggests for writers, and “For Mennonite pastors and bishops: No more secrecy and silence.” (And other churches as well.) Sara Wenger Shenk’s policy decisions for AMBS, and Ervin Stutzman’s appointing a new review committee, are truly important and impressive initiatives. As Mark Nation wrote, “I agree with Sara that egregious behaviors were allowed to go undisciplined for far too long—perhaps in large measure because of Yoder’s own efforts to avoid such discipline.” Mark’s recent 16-page blog (September 23, 2013) seeks balance.

Let me speak to just a few of the excellent comments on the various posts about the Yoder issues.

Dan Umbel wrote insightfully that Yoder’s work leaves very little room for the honest acknowledgement of human frailty, the recalcitrance of human sin, and the depths of our estrangements from God, self, and one another. . . . (as well as the more affective/emotive needs of human nature as well) in a way that may have made it difficult for him to admit his own frailty, sinful habits, and/or emotional needs. Others write of John’s striking social awkwardness.

Dan continues: “I would offer as a caution, however, and point out that there is probably not a causal connection between Yoder’s theology and his actions. Rather, . . . what is lacking in his work did not give him the tools necessary to adequately acknowledge his own inner issues.”

Ted Grimsrud adds: “Combined with a pathological lack of empathy toward the women he wanted to try this out with.” This seems exactly right to me. How can I deal with Yoder’s actions and still express my gratitude for what he did for me? I am conflicted.

Heike Peckruhn and someone else suggested “the possibility of Asperger’s. . . via Temple Grandin. . . . I am guilty of hurting others, sometimes quite deliberately, and yet I do not want to be dismissed as a theologian because I am a fallible human being.”

I (Glen) totally identify with that. And all the rest Heike says about how we think of ourselves as Anabaptists.

My own son David, whom I deeply love, and who is sweet, kind, and thoughtful, has Asperger’s. [My plea to others; do not stereotype Asperger’s (caused by missing parts of the right brain from before birth) with autism (caused by missing parts of the left brain; the behavioral results are almost opposite. Do not stereotype and confuse by writing of “the autism spectrum.”] Continue reading

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Reflections of a chagrined “Yoderian” (part five—where to now?)

I am grateful to Barbra Graber for her initiative in writing and circulating her statement. It clearly has served the purpose of stimulating thought, conversation, and hopefully even action. It has led to an unprecedented amount of attention to this website, for which I am grateful. It also challenged me to keep thinking and to write as I think (see the earlier posts—Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4).

I have taken the discussion in a more theological direction due to my own interests. I’ll conclude my set of reflections with the post, confessing that my brain feels a bit fried in relation to this topic. In fact, it is difficult to think of much more to say right now. I invite comments and questions in the comment section below for a chance to think more about aspects of this issue that remain unsettled or unclear.

I will close with just a few comments: Continue reading

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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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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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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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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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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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