Singing Down Mercy [Jesus story #2]

Ted Grimsrud—April 9, 2021

A number of years ago in some South American country, so the story goes, there was a white wall on the side of a grocery store where the face of Jesus suddenly appeared after a thunderstorm. Hundreds of people came to pray to the image of Jesus and some of the sick went away cured. But then, a few days later, there was another thunderstorm, and this Jesus figure was revealed to actually be just a picture of Willie Nelson—there had been a poster of Willie on the wall that had been painted over some time before and the rain had washed the paint off. Now Willie’s pretty cool, but it was the picture of Jesus that brought the crowds. People do pay attention to Jesus.

With this post, I want to continue further reflections on why we pay attention to Jesus, what about his message brings us good news. I suggested in my first post in this series that many elements of the popular interest in Jesus in our society and actually around the world do contain quite a bit of wisdom. The motivations that fuel paying attention to Jesus for many people (Christian and non) often flow out of a desire to embrace life, to live compassionately, and to impact the world for the better.

I hope in these posts to look more closely at the actual gospel story of Jesus, maybe in part to challenge, deepen, and correct the popular impulses—but I think, also, to confirm and affirm those impulses.

Jesus and the Bible’s songs

Our first step in approaching Jesus, I think, should be to situate him in the broader biblical story. Now we could do this in various ways—a barrage of historical facts, a litany of prophesies, or finding biblical groundings for the doctrines and creeds of Christendom. I want to take a different approach, though. Let’s look quickly at a few of the Bible’s songs—words of poetry, words of singing. Now, we will see, I think—as we should expect—when we look at songs, we look at a form of communication notable for its vulnerability, its emphasis on emotion, on intuition, on hope, and on longing.

Continue reading “Singing Down Mercy [Jesus story #2]”

Why we pay attention to Jesus? [Jesus story #1]

Ted Grimsrud—April 6, 2021

I recently looked back over the more than ten years I have been blogging at ThinkingPacifism.net. I realized that I have written quite a bit over these years about pacifism, Christian faith, politics, and other topics that have caught my attention (323 posts and counting). But in all that, I haven’t written very much about Jesus. I don’t plan to analyze why, but I am challenged to think about how the story of Jesus might be relevant to thinking about pacifism. So, I am starting a series of posts that will look at the story of Jesus as found in the gospel of Luke.

Jesus as a famous person

Jesus is a pretty amazing guy. Here’s this ancient character in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. He barely made it to his thirties and then joined countless other expendable people who the Empire considered worth executing.

Yet, in his afterlife, he became surely the most famous human being in world history. I guess somebody had to be the “most famous person,” but you wouldn’t expect it would be a character like this. Now, certainly, the story of Jesus has been twisted and turned, exploited for evil purposes, corrupted almost beyond recognition—but somehow sprouts keep shooting up through the rubble, bringing forth flowers, revealing something of the beauty of the original vision of this prophet who history can’t let go of.

Of course, I doubt I need to persuade my readers of the beauty of this vision—it seems self-evident, if we are going to think about pacifism we will want to think about Jesus. But we don’t necessarily think carefully about Jesus. I think it’s good to bring to the surface our convictions, our reasons for paying attention to Jesus.

But let’s start with a moment of reflection—what is your gut response to this question: “Why do you pay attention to Jesus?” To stimulate your thought, here are a couple of Bible passages—the first, from Isaiah, speaks of a vision the prophet was given about an agent of God’s healing, a vision Christians later related to Jesus. Second, a statement from Jesus himself from the gospel of Luke that in a sense addresses this question of why we should pay attention to him. It is his response to being asked about his own identity.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1-4)

The disciples of John [the Baptist] reported all these things [that is, Jesus’ teachings and healings,] to him. So, John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to [Jesus], they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Luke 7:18-23)

Continue reading “Why we pay attention to Jesus? [Jesus story #1]”

The anarchistic appeal of the Bible: A needed story for human wellbeing [Theological memoir #11]

Ted Grimsrud—February 16, 2021

I would say that I got politicized in the mid-1970s, about the time I finished college. I grew up paying attention to the news. My dad was a high school social studies teacher, so keeping up on current affairs was part of his job—and that spilled over to me, too. However, when I started college in 1972, I was pretty apolitical. My Christian conversion when I was 17 had actually influenced me to pay less attention to politics.

Radical Christianity and politics

Still, these were turbulent times. I remember that terrible spring and summer of 1968 when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy both were assassinated, and so much else was deeply chaotic. I registered for the draft when I was 18 in 1972 and thought it likely that I would have to go to Vietnam. I’m sure I was paying more attention than I remember, and within a few years I was highly engaged. The key factor for me, it turned out, was my exposure to the “radical evangelical Christians” affiliated with several magazines—The Other Side on the East Coast, Post American in the Midwest (then Sojourners when the community moved to DC), and Radix out West. Just as fundamentalist Christianity depoliticized me in the early 1970s, radical evangelical Christianity had the opposite effect a few years later.

I would read each of those magazines as soon as possible when it arrived. After voting for Richard Nixon in 1972, I grudgingly voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976—grudging because I thought he was too conservative, especially too pro-military, but preferable to Gerald Ford. Carter proved my fears well-founded, and by 1980 I was ready to go third party. One of Carter’s acts that got my wife Kathleen and me on the streets was his reinitiating registration for the draft. We joined the protests and met another young couple who introduced us to a political philosophy of which we had been ignorant.

Karl and Linda were young radicals who had recently moved to Eugene, Oregon, where we lived at the time. They moved specifically to join with an emerging community of anarchists. We had numerous lengthy conversations with them about anarchism, Christian pacifism, nonviolent resistance, violent resistance, and other related issues. Karl and, especially, Linda were smart, compassionate, deeply committed to social justice, and thoroughly against war.

We discovered the appeal of anarchism. For Kathleen and me, the path toward anarchism had mostly to do with war. Centralized, territorial nation-states have become a curse. The 20th century was the century of mass war and was showing littles signs of changing. In 1980, a rising tide of opposition to nuclear weapons was heightening awareness of the link between centralized government, large corporations, and the likelihood of the destruction of the earth.

Kathleen and I weren’t ready to go full anarchist, largely because of our commitment to working in the church. When the anti-draft movement petered out, we lost touch with Karl and Linda and our interest in anarchism moved to the back burner. We certainly didn’t get any encouragement to pursue it from the Mennonites we were by then hanging out with.

Continue reading “The anarchistic appeal of the Bible: A needed story for human wellbeing [Theological memoir #11]”

A moral analysis of America’s civil war: A response to Harry Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation [Civil War #9]

Ted Grimsrud—February 11, 2021

Although most people who think about warfare in the modern world accept with little question the assumption that Americans operate within the moral framework of the “just war theory,” relatively little writing has been done that elaborates on the application of that theory to America’s wars. In recent years, I’ve been reading quite a bit about our civil war in the US. Since I have many moral questions about that war, I have been attentive to moral concerns as they arise in my reading—or, as I should say, as they don’t arise. The most notable moral stance by the vast majority of writers has been that, of course, this was a “just war” and that reality ends any additional moral reflection.

However, there is at least one important exception. Harry S. Stout’s Upon The Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking Press, 2006) is an important and interesting book, well-written and deeply concerned with its subject matter. Stout, professor of American religious history at Yale, tries to take head on the challenge of looking at the most destructive war (in terms of American casualties) our country has ever fought—the American Civil War—from a moral perspective. He argues, and gives plenty of evidence to support his argument, that the moral dimension was missing during the war itself and, by and large, in analyses of the war ever since.

How did its contemporaries view the morality of the Civil War?

Stout focuses on the military campaigns of the Civil War, with only a brief introduction and afterword considering the run up to the War and its aftermath. We read how contemporaries viewed these battles, getting a clear sense that just war concerns rarely entered the picture on either side. Neither the political and military leaders nor religious leaders brought moral concerns drawn from the just war theory (e.g., a sense of proportionality and noncombatant immunity) to bear on their responses to the war. Instead, Stout reports mostly jingoistic cheerleading, especially from the churches, and pragmatic strategies to win the War at all costs from the political and military leaders.

It is not as if Americans, especially military leaders, were ignorant of the just war theory and other moral considerations in relation to war. Stout traces the inexorable evolution among the Union leaders from what he calls the “West Point Code” (a philosophy of limited war taught at the U.S. Military Academy) to the scorched earth campaigns of Union generals Sherman and Sheridan that brought the South utterly to its knees. In the midst of its commitment to total war and victory at all costs, the Union simply disregarded without much debate any old fashioned just war ideas. He also makes it clear that the Confederacy also was perfectly willing to leave the West Point Code behind.

Continue reading “A moral analysis of America’s civil war: A response to Harry Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation [Civil War #9]”

It’s not the Bible’s fault Christians are violent [Peace Theology #4]

Ted Grimsrud—February 9, 2021

It’s fairly common for me to see or hear someone bemoan the influence of the Christian Bible. People blame it for all kinds of wars and rumors of war, tribalism, and other boundary maintenance violence. It seems that most of the people I know, with all sorts of faith convictions, share in this concern. For many of them, the Bible is also a source of light—so it’s both a necessary resource and a problem.

Now, I hate war and all kinds of violence at least as much as my neighbors. I hate how violent Christians are. And I spend a lot of time with the Bible. I think I have a pretty good understanding about all these criticisms of the Bible and the sense of how the Bible seems to contribute to a more violent world. However, I love the Bible without any qualms. I have nothing but good things to say about the Bible. In my view, it’s not the Bible’s fault that Christians are violent. Let me briefly explain.

How do we read?

The Bible’s connection with human violence stems from how we read and apply it. The Bible is not itself violent but is only used by human beings in ways that lead to violence. It is a thoroughly human document—written by human beings, translated by human beings, interpreted by human beings, and applied by human beings. So, if the Bible is linked with human violence that is because of the humans who read it and apply it in violent ways. It’s not the Bible’s fault. All the Bible can do is provide us with the materials that we then use. I believe the materials in the Bible as a whole actually underwrite peace and undermine warism. I have addressed themes of the Bible and peace in detail elsewhere. But here I want to focus on our ways of reading, not the content.

It is certainly not that the Bible does not contain stories of violence or even portray God as doing violence and commanding violence. There are plenty of violent stories and violent teachings—though maybe not as many as sometimes thought. Regardless, those seemingly pro-violence materials only support our violence when we choose to have them do so.

Continue reading “It’s not the Bible’s fault Christians are violent [Peace Theology #4]”

The “Anabaptist sensibility” and Mennonite signifier [Theological memoir #10]

Ted Grimsrud—February 2, 2021

I first learned about Mennonites back in the late 1970s. I had two points of entry—pacifism and Christian community. In the summer of 1976, right after I graduated from college, I met my first Mennonites when I visited a Christian community called Reba Place Fellowship in the Chicago area. At the about the same time, a close friend of mine was taking a summer school class at Regent College in British Columbia on Christian pacifism from Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.

Finding connections with Mennonites

Over the next four years, I tried to learn more and more about Mennonites. One of the things I learned was that Mennonite origins went back to the Anabaptist movement in the 16th century Protestant Reformation. In the Fall of 1980, my wife Kathleen and I took things up a notch and enrolled at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (now called, interestingly in the context of what is follow in this post, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary).

It was our first deep immersion in a Mennonite community. We talked a lot with our many new friends about the relationship between the original radical 16th century Anabaptists and contemporary Mennonite communities. In retrospect, it feels only somewhat facetious to say that we experienced a bait-and-switch operation. We loved AMBS and through it were drawn into the Mennonite world. Then, when we experienced more of that Mennonite world, we saw an entirely different—and much less attractive—face of Mennonitism. Of course, no one was actually trying to mislead us, but the contrast between our first and our later impressions became pretty painful.

Still euphoric from our time at AMBS, we did become Mennonites in 1981. That is, we joined a Mennonite congregation and committed ourselves to working in the Mennonite world. We embarked on parallel careers that led both Kathleen and I to become pastors in Mennonite congregations and professors at a Mennonite college. We still belong to a Mennonite congregation, but by now our feelings about Mennonites are very complicated. Most of the time, we would say we don’t feel like we ever did truly “become Mennonites,” try as we might.

The question of the relationship between “Anabaptistness” and “Mennoniteness” has remained a vexing one for us during all these past 40 years. I’d say that a big part of my complicated relationship with Mennonites has been my desire to influence Mennonites to draw more heavily on our Anabaptist heritage. My perspective now that my career as a paid professional Mennonite religionist has ended is possibly a bit jaded and even cynical. I’m still interested in the questions (hence this essay), but my sense of urgency is greatly diminished. I’m no longer seeking the embodiment of the “Anabaptist vision” so much as wanting to ease into an “Anabaptist sensibility.”

Continue reading “The “Anabaptist sensibility” and Mennonite signifier [Theological memoir #10]”

How Revelation’s non-predictive prophecy speaks to our pandemic (Peaceable Revelation #7)

Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2021

I am sure that it is no coincidence that the emergence of mass crises in the 20th and 21st centuries (world wars, pandemics, famines, environmental devastations, et al) has corresponded with increased interest in the book of Revelation and other materials in the Bible that are said to have prophetic importance. Sadly, the assumption that “biblical prophecy” has mainly to do with predicting the future has blinded many Christians to the wisdom that prophecy understood in a non-predictive sense has to offer for our difficult times.

One way to get insights into the wisdom of Revelation is to try to apply it to our present pandemic—but not in the sense that Revelation directly predicted what is happening now nor even in the sense of thinking of our current events as in some sense related to the End Times. Instead, I will reflect a bit on how Revelation’s insights into the world of the first century might be helpful for us in the same ways that the stories of the gospels or the theological analyses of Paul’s letter might be helpful.

Revelation as non-predictive prophecy

I begin with an assumption that we should read Revelation in the same way as we read other books in the New Testament. We understand it to be written by a person of the first century addressing readers in the first century about issues that mattered in the first century. It is indeed prophetic writing—in the same sense that Paul’s writings were prophetic writing. These writings follow the Old Testament prophets in speaking on behalf of God to people of their own time, offering challenges and exhortations that their readers live faithfully in light of the message of Torah and (in Paul’s context) the message of Jesus.

So, I do not read Revelation to be offering predictions about the long-distant future. It is “non-predictive prophecy.” As a “revelation of Jesus Christ,” it is basing its critique and exhortation on the message of Jesus. Too often, interpreters of Revelation have (and still do) miss the ways that the book is oriented around Jesus—missing, that is, the relevance of its first verse that gives a self-identification as the revelation of Jesus Christ.

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Does Christianity prepare people to be misled by those in power? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #3]

Ted Grimsrud—January 23, 2021

Many Americans have been disturbed since the November election at how gullible so many in our nation seem to be about former President Trump’s claims that the election was stolen. A shocking number of people believe that Biden stole the election—including, it appears, quite a large number of professing Christians. That so many Christians believe such an outrageous thing seemingly simply because Trump has told them to has made me think. Is there a connection between Christian theologies and ways of thinking and being misled by people in power.

As I have thought about this question of a special Christian susceptibility to such gullibility, it occurred to me that this is not an issue only in relation to conservative Christians. Take the mostly unquestioned acceptance over the past 75 years of American warism and the nuclear weapons regime. There have occasionally been moments of opposition to these suicidal societal commitments (I’m thinking especially of the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late-1960s and early 1970s and the nuclear Freeze movement of the 1980s —both of which petered out in spite of little success), but the generally positive attitude about the politics of death has spanned the theological spectrum from right to left. And what is this positive attitude other than gullibility in relation to people in power?

The big question

Is there something inherent in Christianity that makes Christians especially susceptible to such manipulation? I’m not ready to claim that Christians are more easily misled than other people, but I do suspect that there might be dynamics within Christianity that do enhance the possibilities of this.

Part of my motivation is my own sense of disappointment. Back in the mid-1970s I became very interested in what we called “radical Christianity.” I became a pacifist and affirmed many other countercultural causes such as environmentalism, feminism, racial justice, and anti-capitalism. I believed that it was because of the Bible and Christian convictions that I took such stands. I believed that Christianity made that kind of difference. I still have most of the same convictions—both politically and theologically—but am much less sanguine about the significance of Christianity for making a big difference in the world. My suspicion now is that being a Christian in this country makes a person more likely to be pro-war, white supremacist, sexist, and pro-capitalism. Behind that likelihood, perhaps, is a willingness among Christians to accept uncritically what powerful people say.

This is the thesis I want to consider: Christianity can be epistemologically crippling because its theological system and the practices that follow have often stemmed from beliefs that are not based on evidence, at times not even based on rationality. I wonder if the willingness to ground Christianity on non-evidential, non-rational, even at times magical thinking and mystification, has also led Christians to accept claims from political leaders that are non-evidential, non-rational, and even magical thinking.

Continue reading “Does Christianity prepare people to be misled by those in power? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #3]”

Satan in the book of Revelation—and today [Peaceable Revelation #6]

Ted Grimsrud—January 20, 2021

As we struggle to comprehend the various large-scale social problems that we face today, we might do well to do some thinking about the book of Revelation. Although the word “evil” is not used in Revelation, the concept of evil is quite present. I find myself thinking that reflection on evil is part of what we need to do as we seek social healing.

Revelation features the spiritual forces of evil quite prominently. And it presents us with the character of the Dragon as the mastermind behind those forces—this Dragon “who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). Now, the character of Satan is a deeply problematic figure in our culture’s history. Without engaging the bigger issues about why Satan is so problematic, in this post I want to focus on the use of “Dragon,” “Satan,” and “the devil” in Revelation and how those images might actually be helpful for us today, though in somewhat complicated ways.

What do we learn about Satan in Revelation?

Though the Dragon character is not explicitly introduced in Revelation until chapter 12, it does cast a shadow back over the earlier part of the book and remains central for what follows in chapters 13 and following. I think that because the Dragon will be closely linked with the Beast, who in turn has a close connection with the Roman Empire, all the allusions from the beginning of the book to the Empire and to the kings of the earth and to the conflicts that John’s readers have with their wider world point to the importance of the Dragon. Revelation presents the environment its readers lived in (and, by implication, the environment that we live in) as plague filled: wars and rumors of wars, environmental devastation, economic injustices, and on and on. In my interpretation, the Dragon will prove to be the immediate force behind the plagues. So, the entire agenda of Revelation has to do with living faithfully in a Dragon-infused world.

At the same time, it is crucial that we recognize that Revelation does not have the agenda of presenting an open-ended war between near equally powerful protagonists. The Lamb is victorious over the Dragon from the very beginning of the book. The struggle lies in the embodiment of that victory. Satan in Revelation is actually quite similar to Satan in the gospels. There is a sense in both places that the battle is Jesus vs. Satan. The words from the letter to the Ephesians describe the situation: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic power of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Or, in the words in Revelation: the struggle is about “destroying the destroyers of the earth” (11:18). Let’s equate “Satan” with the “spiritual forces of evil” and the “destroyers of the earth.” The struggle against the “spiritual forces of evil” is what the “war of the Lamb” in Revelation is about.

Continue reading “Satan in the book of Revelation—and today [Peaceable Revelation #6]”

Why I am not (quite) an atheist [theological memoir #9]

Ted Grimsrud—January 17, 2021

I flirted with atheism for a while when I was a teenager. I realize now that that happened because I was very interested in God, not because I was rejecting God. Unlike most of my current friends, I did not grow up in the church or with a detailed embedded theology. I wasn’t exposed to theology or philosophy, but I liked to think. I didn’t think the God I had superficially heard about made a lot of sense, so I tried on the idea of rejecting God’s existence.

It wasn’t any kind of argument that got me to accept the existence of God, nor was it some sort of crisis or sense of need. Initially, it was simply an experience of presence at a friend’s funeral. But I also wanted to understand, to make sense of things. It happened that I turned to a trusted friend, a kind of mentor who was several years older. He guided me toward a personal conversion, educating me in what I in time came to recognize as a Christian fundamentalist orientation toward God and salvation.

My conversion when I was 17 was genuine, I believe. But I was driven more by a desire for intellectual coherence than a profound personal encounter with the personal God of American evangelicalism. I tried to believe in that God. The first couple of years I absorbed the doctrines of my faith community. These especially centered around belief that Jesus was returning at any moment and that the most important expression of Christian faith was the necessary conversion where a sinner turns to Christ as one’s personal savior.

When I was about 21, I began to get quite interested in theology and rather drastically to revise my belief system. The first steps were to reject both the future-prophetic theology of the End Times and the personal conversion centered understanding of faith. I experienced those moves as steps toward God even as they were decisive steps away from the God I had been presented with after my conversion. But the movement has never stopped, and it has left me with a notion of God that is incompatible with what I was first taught when I affirmed Christian faith.

Continue reading “Why I am not (quite) an atheist [theological memoir #9]”