Despairing for Mennonite Church, USA

Ted Grimsrud—February 23, 2019

When Mennonite Church USA was formed in 2000 by the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church (minus the Canadian halves of those two denominations who joined to form a separate denomination, MC Canada), its total membership was well over 100,000. Now, eighteen years later, that number has dropped to about half of what it was. I have no analysis as to why exactly this has happened, but I do think just about everyone involved would agree that these are difficult times for this young denomination.

I also think that many of us feel a bit despairing about this trajectory and the possibilities for the near future. In this blog post, I will reflect on just one element of the situation that has fostered my discouragement—the difficulties we have had for many years in engaging one another in serious conversations about the issues that matter the most to us, often issues that involve tension and conflict.

A rocky beginning

I had a difficult beginning to my pastoral career. In my first permanent pastorate that began in 1987, I immediately faced the challenge of how to process a request for membership from two gay men in a committed relationship. I strongly supported them but was not sure how to process the request in our small congregation. We were quite liberal for a Mennonite congregation at that time, but this was a new question for most of the people.

Not long before I started at the church, it had spent some time discussing biblical and theological issues and people quickly realized they could not hope to find agreement. So, to my disappointment, they weren’t interested in me leading them in an examination of the issues on an academic level (even though when I joined them, I was in the midst of writing a dissertation in Christian ethics and was chomping at the bit to utilize my expertise).

Our leadership team decided the best approach would be to interview members and active participants individually to get a sense of the overall attitude, and then to have a congregational meeting to discern together how to move forward. We insisted that the two prospective members be fully involved and always be informed of what was happening. The interviews indicated that while most people were in favor of affirming the membership request, there was also some significant opposition. Continue reading “Despairing for Mennonite Church, USA”

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Charlie Rich sure could sing (Looking West #5)

Ted Grimsrud—February 20, 2019

As I sit here trying to think about what to write about today, I happen to be listening to Charlie Rich’s 16 Greatest Hits. Since I am not sure how well known Rich is today, I thought maybe I could write a brief tribute.

Obscure but talented

I’m pretty sure the first awareness I had of the singer who I now consider to be in the upper echelon not only of country singers but of all popular music singers was in the mid-1960s when I noticed his song “Mohair Sam” on the radio. It wasn’t a big hit (I have learned that it only made it to #21 on the Billboard pop charts), but it was catchy enough that I remembered it as an 11-year-old. But I didn’t remember that Charlie Rich was the singer; I only learned that a few years ago.

Mohair Sam

It turns out that Rich was fairly obscure for much of his career. He began recording with Sun Records shortly after the peak years for that label when they featured incredible talents such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. I think Rich actually was in the same league, talent-wise, but for many years none of the several labels he recorded for could figure out how to get him the attention he deserved. Continue reading “Charlie Rich sure could sing (Looking West #5)”

Socialism and capitalism: Two exhausted labels (Looking West #4)

Ted Grimsrud—February 19, 2016

When I was trying to find some glimmers of hope after the 2016 election, I wrote in a blog post that one of my thoughts was that hopefully we would see the renewed interest in progressive politics stirred by the Bernie Sanders campaign expanded. It does seem that that has happened. We certainly are getting more conversations about “socialism,” a word earlier in my lifetime generally only heard on the public airwaves as a cussword.

A lack of clear meaning

I welcome these conversations. Just yesterday, Kathleen and I listened to a couple of podcasts with interviewees talking about socialism in a positive way—one the renowned Harvard historian Jill Lepore and the other Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Breunig. But I was actually troubled by something. I never truly got a sense of what the word “socialism” means these days—or, for that matter, what “capitalism” means. Lepore even said that “socialism” doesn’t really mean anything, but then proceeded to use the term as if it did mean something.

I believe that something real is being advocated by politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. But I’m not sure it should be called “socialism”—though I get why they might want to use that term to indicate that they are seeking something different than the standard corporate liberalism of mainstream Democrats. Still, the term does not seem to me to be helpful. When Bernie and AOC advocate for “socialism” and Trump uses his State of the Union address to insist that “we will never have socialism” in the US, it seems all we are getting is fuel for our polarizations.

And maybe it is even worse when someone such as Lepore uses the word “capitalism” seemingly as an accurate term for our current economic system that is characterized mainly by unrestrained corporate oligopolies and monopolies. Such use ignores differences between our current system and the actual practice of competitive, free market oriented economics. Continue reading “Socialism and capitalism: Two exhausted labels (Looking West #4)”

The joys and dilemmas of road food (Looking West #3)

Ted Grimsrud—February 18, 2019

For as long as I can remember, I have loved road maps. When I was maybe 13 I found an almost mint condition road map for Oregon from 1950. What was special about that map was that it was of Oregon before the Interstate Highway System. I was fascinated especially by Highway 99 before it was superseded by I-5. Quite a few of the little towns, especially in the southern part of the state, virtually disappeared after the new highway came—Divide, Curtain, Wilbur, Azalea, Wolf Creek….

I spent hours imagining road trips around 1950s Oregon. Then, when I got hold of a road atlas for the entire US, the imaginary trips expanded. Finally, in 1971 when I was 17 I was able to hit the road with my parents and younger sister. We drove all the way out to Virginia. We mostly followed the interstates, and I got to drive about half the time. One highlight, though, was when I drove through pre-I-64 West Virginia in the rain. That was a long but beautiful drive. Since we moved to Virginia in 1996, I learned that the road I drove back in 1971 still exists in much the form it had back then because I-64 traversed a much different path. US Route 60 (the “Midland Trail”) from Charleston to Lewisburg remains a long and beautiful drive.

Happily, when I married Kathleen I found a kindred spirit who also loves road trips. We got started pretty slowly since we didn’t have a car for the first ten years of our marriage (though we did borrow her parents’ car for a memorable trip from Arizona to Indiana to Saskatchewan and back in 1983). But once we got our new Honda in 1991 we took every chance we could get. We’ve driven back and forth across the country at least seven times, with quite a few shorter trips as well. We would have liked to have done more and hope still to take many trips. We’ve learned that we have extra fun when we avoid the interstates as much as possible (at least once we made it all the way from Harrisonburg, VA to Eugene, OR, without a single mile of interstate driving).

Road trips mean road food

I have to admit to having a less than sophisticated palette when it comes to meals while traveling. All too often, I have been content to settle for fast food chains or bags of snack food. Even so, from time to time we have randomly struck gold. Surely the most interstate- and fast food-intensive cross country trip came in 1998 when it was just our son Johan (then 16) and me. But we stumbled upon a terrific breakfast spot in the mountains west of Missoula, MT (it might have been Durango’s in Superior, MT). If the two of us were to repeat that drive, that’s the one place where we ate that we would return to, as Johan would never stand for fast food these days. Continue reading “The joys and dilemmas of road food (Looking West #3)”

Trump and US Democracy (Looking West #2)

Ted Grimsrud—February 16, 2019

For some months I have been reading about the American Civil War. It’s been fascinating for many reasons, and I expect to be writing about what I am learning and thinking for a long time. One thread will be how sobering it is for me to read about the US past in relation to our current national political stormy waters. One of the premises of the Trumpian proclamation is that America used to be “great.” Well, it certainly wasn’t great in the middle part of the 19thcentury. And, painful as it is to realize this, many of the ways it wasn’t great back then are still with us—white supremacy, economic inequality, warism. And, of course, Trump’s agenda to “make America great again” seems only to exacerbate those problems from long ago.

Surreal, but not necessarily utterly exceptional?

It is surreal to have a president like Donald Trump, likely the most repellant person ever to hold that office. I don’t know of any president whose policies and philosophies I disagree with as much as Trump’s. I know of no other president who was as dishonest, as self-centered, as oblivious to other people’s feelings, as closely linked with the most corrupt elements of the broader American society. But at the same time, I realize that just about every other American president has also had disagreeable policies and philosophies, has been dishonest, self-centered, oblivious, and linked with corruption.

I think it is a mistake to view Trump as utterly exceptional. I get the sense, among people I talk with and read, that Trump is this foreign element in our political system and all we need to do is get rid of him or, at worst, wait him out for two more years, and then things will be ever so much better. I’m not so sanguine about our political system and about the state of democracy here. I wonder if the Trump presidency might be most useful not as a contrast to how things normally are but as a vulgar, veneer-stripped-away exposure of how broken the system has become (and maybe always has been). Continue reading “Trump and US Democracy (Looking West #2)”

Looking West – Introducing a Blog Series

Ted Grimsrud—February 15, 2019

I was born in Eugene, Oregon, back in the mid-1950s and lived my first eighteen years in the tiny town of Elkton, Oregon, about an hour’s drive southwest of Eugene. After a couple of years going to college in Monmouth, Oregon, I ended up back in Eugene at the University of Oregon and except for a couple of excursions for graduate school spent the next twenty years there.

It’s now been almost twenty-five years since our family moved away from the West Coast, the last twenty-two being in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Part of my soul remains in Oregon, though. When I raise my eyes from my computer right now, I look west. I do that a lot, often for minutes at a time. Sometimes, I’m just taking a break. But often my mind moves to the years gone by and to the sensibilities of the world in which I grew up. I’m still that person in so many ways.

The lure of writing

For as long as I remember, I wanted to be a writer. I decided in middle school to major in journalism, thinking at the time of being a sportswriter. I got the degree but decided against the career path. My writing energies turned in a more, I guess I could call it, ecclesial and academic direction. As a pastor and college professor, I did write a lot, some of which was published. I imagined when I retired from teaching a couple of years ago that the writing would come easier and my productivity would ratchet up. So much for the best laid plans. It’s been kind of interesting for me in that the ideas have continued to bubble up as much as ever, but the actual effort to turn the ideas into something concrete has not been as easy to generate as I had hoped.

Continue reading “Looking West – Introducing a Blog Series”

A Civil War Question: Can One Hate Both Slavery and War Equally?

Ted Grimsrud—January 7, 2019

I have long been interested in a quite challenging moral issue: How can we overcome evil without adding to the evil? This issue is central to the philosophy of nonviolence, and I think it should be central to any sense of ethical truthfulness. This is a good way to get at the heart of Gandhi’s philosophy as well as that of Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the big problems idealistic human beings have struggled with is the problem of working for social change or working to resist injustice and finding oneself actually contributing to making things worse.

Of course, our wider culture in North America (and presumably elsewhere) is not all that interested in this question. We Americans tend to take a pretty narrow and superficial view of social dynamics, constantly barraged as we are by American exceptionalism and corporate feel-goodism in our mass media. So, we have to stop and turn away in order to get a sense of what we actually face in terms of systemic brokenness and cycles of injustice.

But when we do pay attention, we realize that warism, racism, economic inequality, sexism, and many other problems remain all too present and each has a long history of intractability. Gandhi sought, with only partial success, to break a spiral that is all too apparent in liberation movements of responding to violence with violence in ways that have only led to more centralized power and continued injustice.

This moral question about evil lays at the heart of my energized interest in the American Civil War. This is how I would characterize the conventional wisdom in our society as I have encountered it: The Civil War was indeed a terrible thing with a lot of death and destruction. But slavery was an unacceptable evil that had to be stopped. It was costly, but ultimately worth the cost, to end that plague in our land. So, one of the lessons to be learned is that war can be a force to defeat evil. It is sad that it is necessary because it certainly is destructive. But sometimes war is our only option. Another lesson, then, that follows is that we have to prepare for such possibilities of a necessary war by maintaining the readiness of our military.

Questioning conventional wisdom

As a pacifist (one who denies the moral validity of war under any circumstances and who also rejects the preparation for war), I question this “wisdom” that accepts the acceptability of the Civil War. But I think anyone who desires to take a morally serious view towards war should also question that “wisdom”—even if they might not be as sure as I am about a negative assessment of the Civil War. The just war tradition at times has made the important claim (not taken nearly seriously enough) that humanity’s benefit of the doubt is against any particular war—in part simply because of the enormous destruction that each war causes. In thinking about any war—past, present, or future—according to this claim we have an obligation to assess its cost and to insist on a clear rationale for why that cost is worthy of being borne. If the costs are not worthy of being borne, almost certainly the war will once again be a matter of a response to evil that only adds to the net moral dynamics of evil. Continue reading “A Civil War Question: Can One Hate Both Slavery and War Equally?”

Turning against evangelicalism: A pastor’s story

Ted Grimsrud—January 2, 2019

I, for one, am intrigued with the stories of those who have turned away from an evangelical Christian past and yet remained active followers of Jesus. I like to compare notes, and I find these accounts helpful as I continue to try to make sense of this strand of religiosity that continues to have a great impact on American society.

A recent book, Chris Kratzer’s provocatively titled Leatherbound Terrorism: Crucified by Conservative Evangelicalism, Resurrected by Jesus (Grace Publishing, 2018), has the virtue of some brutal honesty, sharp criticism, and (most importantly) the articulation of a counter vision for how to understand and practice Christian faith. I will be able offer only a qualified endorsement of the book, for reasons I will explain, but I welcome this volume to the growing library of works that present alternatives to what has become a devastating embodiment of Christianity in the United States on the part of the Religious Right.

An insider’s perspective

Kratzer’s account is searingly personal. He writes of a traumatic childhood in an abusive family that segued into an ambivalent religiosity where he sought to deepen his sense of God’s acceptance of him. Amidst his childhood trauma he encountered Jesus in a personal way as a healing power—but then struggled to sustain a connection with that power. Interestingly, after college Kratzer attended a Lutheran seminary and began his career as a Lutheran minister. Fairly quickly, though, he changed directions and entered the ministry in an evangelical setting. He vowed to be a success, and followed a template of high-powered megachurch religiosity.

Kratzer does not give us many details about the specific version of evangelicalism that he embraced, but he does clearly detail how it shaped his psyche. He portrays himself as a man of strong convictions who understood his calling as one of top-down leadership and controlling power. It’s not clear from his account how outwardly successful his ministry actually was. We aren’t told how far he advanced in the magachurch constellation. What is clear is that he never felt successful.

The heart of the evangelicalism that Kratzer practiced was a quest for certainty, a quest for the satisfaction of being worthy of salvation, a quest for a sense of superiority in relation to those who don’t measure up—that is, a quest for the quieting of a life-long anxiety about failure and unworthiness. Continue reading “Turning against evangelicalism: A pastor’s story”

The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (III—An Alternative)

Ted Grimsrud—November 8, 2018

Greg Boyd’s book on reading the Bible nonviolently, Cross Vision (CV), sets before us a challenge. Is it possible to accept the Bible’s truthfulness while also affirming a consistently pacifist worldview? I conclude, after reading both CV and its more scholarly companion, Crucifixion of the Warrior God, that indeed the best, most respectful, reading of the Bible does support a pacifist commitment. However, I think the case for this might be made more persuasively following a somewhat different approach than Boyd’s. In this post I will sketch an alternative approach to Boyd’s for a biblical theology that also places God’s nonviolent love at the center.

Starting with God’s nonviolence

Like Boyd, I begin with God’s nonviolence (see my blog post, “Why we should think of God as pacifist”). I believe that the fundamental reality in our world is love. And God is love. So my interest in writing this piece is not to try to persuade people who might think otherwise that God is nonviolent. Rather, I want to explain why I think the Bible supports that conviction. What in the Bible leads to confessing God’s nonviolence? And what should we think about the parts of the Bible traditionally cited as the bases for denying that God is nonviolent?

Let me first, though, say just a bit about what saying “God is nonviolent” means for me. In a nutshell, to make such an affirmation is to confess that the Bible teaches that God created what is out love and for the sake of love. It also teaches that God participates in the world most directly in how God brings healing in the face of brokenness, binding wounds, reconciling alienated relationships, and empowering creativity and compassion.

And also like Boyd, I believe that the Bible’s definitive portrayal of God is found in the story of Jesus. That is, God is most clearly and reliably known to humanity in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. My affirmation of God’s nonviolence finds its strongest grounding in my affirmation of Jesus’s nonviolence. Just as it is unthinkable to me that Jesus would punish, hate, exploit, or violently coerce, so is it unthinkable that God would. Continue reading “The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (III—An Alternative)”

The centrality of God’s love: A response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (Part 2: An assessment)

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2018

 Greg Boyd’s book, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Fortress Press, 2017), deserves praise simply for being a book of serious theological scholarship with an original and creative argument about a crucially important issue that is written for a wide audience. I don’t find Boyd’s effort totally successful, but even as I raise some sharp criticisms I want to emphasize how grateful I am for Boyd’s book. This post is the second of three. The first summarizes Boyd’s argument and the third sketches an alternative view on the issues Boyd addresses.

For many years, I have been deeply troubled about the role Christianity plays in the acceptance of state-sponsored violence in the United States—to the point where self-professing Christians are quite a bit more likely to support wars and capital punishment than those who make no such profession. I’ve concluded that a key problem that contributes to this undermining of the message of Jesus Christ is theological—convictions Christians have that actually make acceptance of violence more likely.

Boyd may not fully share my critique, but he certainly is aware of the problem. And he is willing to write some gutsy and accessible books that take the problem on head on. Cross Vision (CV) is a much shorter and less academically rigorous adaptation of his two-volume work, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). I recommend starting with the shorter book, which does a nice job summarizing Boyd’s argument—but the longer book is also pretty accessible and contains a wealth of analysis that those who are attracted to Boyd’s argument will want to explore (I have written a long series of blog posts that summarize and critique CWG).

What Boyd gets right

The main contribution CV makes is actually an assumption Boyd starts with more than a proposition he demonstrates. He asserts that Jesus Christ is the central truth for Christianity, that Jesus shows us the character of God more definitively than anything else, and that because Jesus was (and is) resolutely nonviolent we should recognize that God also is nonviolent—and always has been. Making such an affirmation about God a starting point means that Boyd does not equivocate when he comes face to face with difficult biblical materials. He focuses on how those materials might be understood in relation to the core convictions about God as nonviolent. This clarity is bracing and empowering. What the world needs now, I believe, are people who are committed to embodying healing love, not people who struggle over whether or not to kill others or whether or not to support the killing of others. It’s that simple, and Boyd gives us an important resource for following such a path. Continue reading “The centrality of God’s love: A response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (Part 2: An assessment)”