Defending Yoder: Part One—Responding to Peter Leithart’s Critique

Ted Grimsrud—May 29, 2011

When John Howard Yoder passed from the scene in 1997, I can’t imagine even his strongest supporters would have expected that his importance would have continued to grow in the realm of theological ethics as it has. I certainly didn’t. Once indication of Yoder’s importance is the presence of a recent book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter Leithart (IVP Academic, 2010), with a clear agenda of trying to counter Yoder’s growing influence.

Leithart’s is a curious book. After I finished reading it, I tried to figure out how to summarize what precisely he is trying to do. And I have had a difficult time. I suspect there may be some hidden agenda at work, because Leithart simply does not give a clear statement of his own constructive concerns. And, though he seems to have some profound disagreements with Yoder and routinely slips in sharp words disparaging Yoder’s scholarship, he has not produced a simple hatchet job. Actually, when the smoke clears he has affirmed Yoder almost as much as condemned him. I would attribute Leithart’s less than total rejection of Yoder’s ideas to the fact that he actually did read Yoder with some care. Continue reading “Defending Yoder: Part One—Responding to Peter Leithart’s Critique”

Affirming Life: Learning from Martin Buber

Ted Grimsrud—May 27, 2011

“Some Mennonite theologians express a growing sentiment that…Mennonites should integrate their theology more fully with that of Christendom.”  However, “perhaps there are other traditions which might be equally helpful theologically for a dissenting tradition, such as Judaism.  It is urgent before going too far down the road the road of Christendom that other options and theological goals be tested.”[1] Perry Yoder, Old Testament professor at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary wrote these words nearly twenty years ago. They are probably even more relevant today.

Yoder’s warning provides the context for my exploration of the insights of Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian who lived from 1878 to 1965, first in Austria and Germany, and then, after 1938, in Israel.  Buber’s most famous book was called I and Thou [I will use the translation by Walter Kaufmann published by Scribners in 1970; page numbers from this book will be in parentheses in the text of this essay.]

I find I and Thou to be a difficult book and hope only to scratch the surface of Buber’s thought.  What I want to offer is not so much an objective summary of Buber’s thinking, but what I could call “reflections stimulated by Martin Buber’s book I and Thou.”

I will organize my reflections around five general themes: one, that the heart of reality is relationships; two, that God is a You and not an It; three, that all of life is spiritual; four, that reality is trustworthy; and five, that life is to be lived in the present. Continue reading “Affirming Life: Learning from Martin Buber”

Are we living under totalitarianism?

Ted Grimsrud – 5/23/11

Well, probably not. In the United States today, we still are able to express ourselves freely. I don’t feel any anxiety about posting this essay, for example, even though it will end up being quite critical of the powers that be in our society.

We still have a lot of power, though more so on the local level, to practice participatory democracy. We still have freedom of the press, problematic as our media might be in practice. I am writing right now in Phoenix, Arizona, and will be traveling home to Virginia tomorrow—I may be annoyed at the airport “security” measures, but I have a great deal of freedom to come and go as I please, to travel thousands of miles across the continent whenever I want.

And yet… Continue reading “Are we living under totalitarianism?”

Mennonites and alcohol: Fascinating sociological dynamics

I suppose it was about 25 years ago that a close friend of mine, at the time a Mennonite pastor in the Midwest, stirred up a hornet’s nest by writing a letter to the editor of the Gospel Herald, the weekly denominational magazine. Signed “name withheld,” this letter raised the possibility that maybe Mennonites should rethink their knee-jerk rejection of alcohol (I have to confess that I am going totally by memory here; I don’t recall anything specific about my friend’s argument).

For weeks, it seems, the Herald was filled with letters to the editor ripping into my friend for suggesting the worst of possible heresies. And I am pretty certain that no one wrote a letter defending his points (I certainly didn’t). To suggest that Mennonites should accept the validity of drinking alcoholic beverages simply was outrageous.

Now I knew back then that quite a few Mennonites did indeed drink, but they couldn’t do so publicly it seems (like the old joke—what’s the difference between a Mennonite and a Lutheran? the Lutheran will say hi to you in the liquor store). Continue reading “Mennonites and alcohol: Fascinating sociological dynamics”

Who Can Stand Against It? The “Good” War and the Beast of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—May 13, 2011

[Adapted from a chapel sermon, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, October 5, 2010]

For baby-boomers such as myself (born in 1954), World War II was in the background during our formative years. It was the most destructive event, by far, in all of human history.

However, we still don’t really understand that war and its impact. We would do well to try to come to terms with what happened then, and its on-going presence in our lives. As I reflect on World War II as a Christian, I find myself struggling to find hope. This struggle, perhaps paradoxically, leads me to the book of Revelation. Let me explain why.

I personally have several reasons for trying better to understanding World War II.

I always encounter the long shadow of World War II in discussions with students. For many, the ideas of pacifism are new and foreign. Every semester I face the question, What about World War II? Doesn’t it prove that war at times is necessary—and that pacifism is unrealistic?

No wonder students raise these questions. They have grown up with images of the “Good War.” They hear our leaders, including President Obama, evoke the war against Hitler to show that the only way to pursue the right in extreme circumstances is by force. Continue reading “Who Can Stand Against It? The “Good” War and the Beast of Revelation”

Romans 13 supports pacifism!

Ted Grimsrud—May 1, 2011

Several years ago I began a project where I would study the writings of Christians who reject pacifism in order to learn from and respond to them. After spending some time on this, the project moved to the back burner—hopefully to be fired up again before long.

Probably the main thing I learned from the reading I did do was that at the center for almost everyone was an understanding that the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 13 provide about all Christians need in order to realize that it is not God’s will for Christians to be pacifists.

One place where I encountered this use of Romans 13 to support violence surprised me. The staunchly right-wing Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia is well-known to be a deeply traditional Roman Catholic—though that religious affiliation does not seem to hinder Scalia taking strong positions in opposition to current Catholic theology and Papal pronouncements on an issue such as the death penalty. Scalia published a short article justifying his affirmation of the death penalty in the neo-conservative journal First Things. Here, the traditionalist Catholic cites as the core of his position not natural law but the Bible—specifically Romans 13. I didn’t expect that.

So, a Christian pacifist has a problem. How do we respond to these ways of using Romans 13 as a proof text undermining one of our core convictions? We may, appropriately assert that we base our views on a higher authority than Paul: Jesus. But we may also show that Romans 13 actually supports pacifism. Here’s how. Continue reading “Romans 13 supports pacifism!”