God’s greatest power is mercy [Jesus story #5]

Ted Grimsrud—April 19, 2021

Back in 2001, I published a little book with the subtitle, “An Introduction to the Bible’s Main Themes.” I had a hard time for a while figuring out what the main title should be. How would I best catch up those “main themes” in a short phrase? The title I came up with was, “God’s healing strategy,” a phrase I had used in some sermons that were the early version of what went into the book. Several people I talked with about this thought that was a pretty weak title. It kind of makes God into a basketball coach—which isn’t too surprising, I suppose, since my dad was a basketball coach and certainly did talk about “strategy” a lot. But no one came up with a better idea, so “God’s healing strategy” it stayed.

If I could name the book now, I might try “A God Who Heals” or “Healing Mercy.” Or maybe, “Healing Stories” with a triple meaning—stories about God’s healing work, stories that help people find healing, but also an attempt to heal the way we read and apply at least some of the Bible’s stories.

Regardless, this is what I would want to get at with the title: The main focus of the Bible, as I understand it, centers on God and God’s intentions to bring healing to a world full of brokenness—and on how God brings such healing. These are the issues the Bible cares about, I would say: What needs healing—and how is the healing to be done? And, what does the story of Jesus have to say about these issues? Why do we pay attention to Jesus in relation to the Bible’s message of healing?

Continue reading “God’s greatest power is mercy [Jesus story #5]”

To turn from the abyss toward Jubilee [Jesus story #4]

Ted Grimsrud—April 15, 2021

There is a saying, attributed to the 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson, that nothing so concentrates the mind as the prospect of the gallows. I have found that for me, nothing so concentrates the mind quite like having grandchildren. Learning to know Elias and Marja, the future becomes less abstract. The question of where we are going becomes more intense. As the folksinger Jim Page asks, “Whose world is this? What kind of world will our children receive, after all is said and done? What kind of creed have we come to believe, that they may never receive one? What kind of creed are we to believe, if they are to receive one?” Indeed.

When I ask the question Why do we pay attention to Jesus? I don’t think we can hope (or should hope) to find just one answer. Lots of us have lots of reasons. One reason, maybe, for paying attention to Jesus is that in him we find hope, we find a “creed,” a belief, that might guide our future so that our children and their children might have a world. Let’s start by reading several brief texts from the Bible as a guide as we think: What is our hope? What’s it based on? What kind of “creed” do we need to believe in to have a “world”?

For six years you shall sow your land and gather its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. Six days you shall do your work, but in the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn servant and the alien may be refreshed. Be attentive to all that I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips. Exodus 23:10-13

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, who has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. For I the Lord love justice and hate wrongdoing. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.Isaiah 61:1-11

I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: “Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed!” Revelation 15:2-4

Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:16-21

Continue reading “To turn from the abyss toward Jubilee [Jesus story #4]”

Son of Adam, Son of God [Jesus story #3]

Ted Grimsrud—April 12, 2021

One way to read the history of Christianity is as a constant, and consistent, effort to evade the actual message of Jesus with formal theology and with alliances with kings and emperors. Yet time after time, the gospel struggles forth, and people are reminded, yes, he calls us to love our neighbors, he calls us to resist domination, and he calls us to care for our children—and all other children.

A common way that Christians have answered the question, why do we pay attention to Jesus, is with a kind of slogan: “He’s the Son of God.” In this post, I want to take that slogan very seriously. Yes, he is the Son of God. But what does that mean, to say Jesus is the Son of God?

Let’s read parts of several biblical passages that directly or indirectly speak to this question:

The kings of the earth set themselves…against the Lord and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” [This king says,] “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’” (Psalm 2:1-9)

Here is my servant, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God; I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isa 42:1-9)

I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll. Then one of the elders said to me, “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw a Lamb standing as if it had been slain. He went and took the scroll. “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you freed for God saints of every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev 5:1-10)

Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority. If you will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” When the devil had finished, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1-13)

In light of these texts, what are some words or phrases that come to mind to say what you think of when you think of Jesus as “Son of God”?

Continue reading “Son of Adam, Son of God [Jesus story #3]”

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.”

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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.

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