What I learned from Millard Lind

Ted Grimsrud—April 27, 2015

I was saddened to learn that Millard Lind died last Friday at the age of 96. Millard was a long time Old Testament professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and made a singular contribution to Mennonite peace theology. More than anyone before him (and few since), he struggled to bring together Christian pacifism with a strong commitment to the authoritative message of the Old Testament.MillardCLind

Millard was certainly not completely successful in his effort to develop a pacifist theology of the Old Testament, but he made a powerful contribution to this essential task. I was privileged to study with Millard. Like most of his other students, I am sure, I have vivid memories of a passionate, respectful, humble, and insightful teacher. Millard was small in stature but large in energy and intellect.

As much as any of the great AMBS profs from the “golden era” of the 1960s–1980s, Millard elicited affectionate “remember when Millard…” stories. Many of these stories concerned is absent-minded professor persona (utterly non-affected). My favorite is the story of the time he and his wife Miriam hosted a group of students in their home. Toward the end of the evening, Miriam circulated her guest book for the students to sign. When the book completed its rounds, amidst the student names was Millard’s almost illegible scrawl, “Millard Lind, thanks for the nice evening.”

A pioneering scholar and thinker

Millard accepted the daunting challenge of articulating an affirmative view of the teaching of the Old Testament that overcame the antipathy with which many pacifist Christians (not to mention most other Christians) viewed those materials. Millard turned toward an academic career rather late, having served as a congregational pastor and publishing house editor. Maybe it was this maturity that emboldened him to break new ground in biblical interpretation.

Before Millard, most Mennonites (and surely just about all other peace-oriented Christians) saw the Old Testament mainly as a problem to overcome. It was at best a prologue to the heart of the biblical message presented in the gospels. It’s still part of the Bible, so Christians had to account for its violence somehow. Those efforts mainly had the effect of diminishing the authority or relevance of that part of the Bible.

Millard was willing to face the problem head on. He had become convinced that the Old Testament was actually a wonderful resource for peacemakers, not simply a “problem.” A generation of students found inspiration and guidance to affirm much more from the Old Testament than they would have imagined they could before studying with Millard. As the prototypical pastor/scholar, Millard trained many to find ways to preach these truths.

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Millard wrote his dissertation on what—on the surface—would seem like an unlikely topic for a pacifist: the theology of warfare in the Old Testament. He then revised that work and published his classic text, Yahweh is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in the Old Testament (Herald Press, 1980). This book focuses on the exodus, which provides, in Millard’s view, the paradigm for Old Testament holy war. The key elements are that God fights for the people; their main responsibility is to trust God to act on their behalf. From the core dynamic of God (rather than human warriors) being the agent of liberation comes a new political dynamic. Millard referred to this new dynamic as “theo-politics” in contrast to the old ways of “power politics.” The heart of the political community is the call to social justice, not the use of power to serve the interests of the king.

So the key message from the accounts of “Yahweh war” is not that they embed violence and militarism in the community that God acts for, but rather that, to the contrary, they embed trust in God at the heart. This dynamic of trust should (and to some degree did) lead to a non-militarized, socially egalitarian, and ultimately peaceable community. Jesus then drew directly on this same call to trust God as the basis for his nonviolent politics.

Five central Lindian themes

Millard certainly revolutionized the way I think of the Old Testament. As a young adult, I had been taught that the violence of the Old Testament was one of the main reasons why today’s Christians must be willing to fight wars. Then, when I became a pacifist I learned more that the Old Testament was something to be ignored. Through John Howard Yoder’s writings, I learned that Millard’s dissertation took a different approach. It was a bit difficult to procure, but I did finally get a copy of it sometime in the late 1970s. I found it quite helpful, but was sad that his ideas were not more readily accessible.

When my wife Kathleen and I moved to Indiana to attend AMBS in the Fall of 1980, we were delighted to learn that indeed Millard’s dissertation would now be more readily available with the forthcoming publication of the book version. So, we were privileged to be present at the celebration of the publication of Yahweh is a Warrior, and then took his course, “Theology of Warfare in the Old Testament,” Spring 1981, where he carefully worked through the book. My thinking about the Old Testament was utterly transformed.

As I look back now, these are five of the key things I learned from Millard that have stayed with me.

(1) The general sense that the Old Testament is indeed a peace book, that we might look to any part of the story it tells as a resource for our commitments to follow Jesus’s way of peace. Of course, Millard did not advocate a simplistic, even kind of Pollyanna-like reading strategy. He dove in and grappled with the text as it is. He did not evade the problematic stories and emphases. But he read them all in light the core portrayal of God as a gracious liberator who creates a community of shalom-oriented believers meant to witness peace to all the families of the earth.

Maybe even more than his particular interpretations, perceptive and helpful as they were, was his spirit of confidence that indeed in these texts were words of peace if we would but put in the effort to understand them accurately.

I had two opportunities to hear Millard in the years after my time at AMBS. I was able to arrange for him to lecture at the University of Oregon in the early 1980s. We had a good turnout and he started out by challenging the audience to realize that the materials of the Old Testament insofar as they seem to underwrite terrible violence should be problematic for all Christians, not only pacifists. But then he went to make a powerful case for a way of reading those materials that actually is peaceable.

Then about ten years later, Millard spent a couple of days as a retreat speaker in South Dakota for Mennonite pastors. He was in the final stages of writing his masterful commentary on Ezekiel. I would not have expected to find lectures on Ezekiel riveting—but from Millard they certainly were. And they boldly showed Ezekiel as a prophet of peace.

(2) The critique of power politics. Along with perceiving the overt peace message in the Old Testament, Millard also brought out the centrality throughout of the story’s consistent way of challenging the validity of traditional, top-down, coercive politics. I have become utterly convinced of this point, and find myself emphasizing it over and over in my teaching and writing. In fact, my attraction to trying to read the Bible “anarchistically” may owe more to Millard than to anyone else (of course, I recognize that Millard would likely have been troubled to be linked with anything calling itself anarchistic).

The key elements of “Yahweh war” for Millard included a rejection of the standard politics of oppression. Again, the paradigm for this is the critique of Pharaoh’s ways of domination in the exodus story. But this pattern continues throughout the story, and is also seen in the prophetic critique of Israel’s own turn toward domination.

Once you start noticing this political critique, you see it everywhere in the Bible. Millard’s insights on this point help pave the way for discerning Jesus’s truly radical politics—not a politics of withdrawal but a politics of transformation fully in harmony with the prophetic politics in the Old Testament that began with Moses.

(3) Redefining justice. Millard provided key biblical and theological grounding for the emerging restorative justice movement that Mennonites had a lot to do with. A couple of chapters in his 1990 collection, Monotheism, Power, and Justiceinspired the thought of one of the early leaders of the restorative justice movement, Howard Zehr—as seen in Zehr’s founding text, Changing Lenses.

Millard argued that biblical justice is quite different than standard understandings of justice that focus on coercion and punishment. Biblical justice, in contrast, is about restoring relationships and transforming people and society in peaceable ways. Millard’s final book, The Sound of Sheer Silence and the Killing State: The Death Penalty and the Bible (2005), develops these themes in relation to capital punishment.

(4) Affirming the historical-critical-method for studying scripture.Millard was also a pioneer in the US Mennonite world in how he used modern scholarly methods in interpreting the Bible. This led him into numerous conflicts with those who were suspicious of such methods. I well remember in class when he finally lost patience with a student who kept challenging Millard’s “liberal” approach when he should be reading the Bible “literally.” Millard angrily snapped, “I am taking it literally. That’s why I want to figure out what its historical setting is, who wrote the text, and what precisely the text says.”

His approach was a breath of fresh air for students who wanted an alternative to narrow, authoritarian, Sunday School-type readings of the Bible. Millard opened up the world of biblical scholarship for many—evidenced among other things by the impressive number of Millard’s seminary students who went on to earn PhD’s at prestigious schools such as Harvard, Oxford, Toronto, and Princeton (among many others).

I have myself evolved toward a more narrative, big-picture reading strategy and have become critical of the critical method insofar as it seems often to miss the forest for the trees. But this narrative approach is post-critical in that it presupposes and affirms the gains made by the critical study of the Bible. I owe Millard a debt of gratitude for his path-breaking efforts—and also his modeling how the critical method could serve social justice and also could serve the churches.

(5) Yahweh is a warrior. Millard’s argument about God fighting on behalf of the Hebrew people instead of their developing their own warfare capacities still seems very attractive to me. However, I am not very comfortable any more with some of the implications of that argument about how we understand God—the term “warrior” itself seems problematic, How literally are we to take that image? And, in the end, can a people have a warrior God without a warrior class of human beings?

However, I remain in Millard’s debt for this pioneering work on this theme. I am in the early stages of a reading project that will hopefully to some writing on the issues of God as violent (cf. J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent God, which I have read, and John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation, next on the queue) and on how to read the violence in the Bible (cf. Eric Siebert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior and The Violence of Scripture and Douglas Earl’s The Joshua Delusion: Rethinking Genocide in the Bible). Sometime soon I hope to reread Yahweh is a Warrior and revisit Millard’s argument.

Honoring a master teacher

I am proud to have been able to participate in the production of a collection of essays that honored Millard, Peace and Jusice Shall Embrace: Power and Theopolitics in the Bible—we called it the “Lindschrift”—that reflects just a bit of his influence.  This book was published in 2000, happily early enough for Millard to enjoy the tribute.

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2 Comments

Filed under Biblical theology, Mennonite, Old Testament, Pacifism

2 responses to “What I learned from Millard Lind

  1. Evan Knapp

    Hey who’s gonna edit the “Grimsrudshrift?” I volunteer Thomas

  2. Scott Holland

    Thanks, Ted, for this fine tribute to Millard. Shortly after the publication of his book, The Pittsburgh Mennonite Church & Center co-hosted with Pittsburgh Theological Seminary a conference around the book and peace in the Hebrew scriptures led by Millard Lind. [Millard did his PhD at Pittsburgh]. It was a memorable event. His presentations led several to think differently and otherwise about OT peace theologies.

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