Questions from the wrong side of Easter

Ted Grimsrud—April 24, 2019

Easter weekend was interesting for me this year. To be truthful, it left me feeling a bit uneasy. Usually I like Easter, at least if the weather is nice (as it was this year). But this time, the celebrative notes seemed consistently off key. I wonder if I have reached a tipping point where Easter imagery has the net effect of discouragement more than inspiration. Continue reading “Questions from the wrong side of Easter”

Are we better off without God and Christianity? Thoughts on healing the world

Ted Grimsrud—April 15, 2019

I believe that human beings do have a purpose in life. That purpose is to do what we can to help bring healing to the world. Another way of saying this is to say that what matters most in life is that we live in love and that we resist the idols that undermine love. A big question for me is: Does belief in God, and in particular the Christian God, aids or hinders fulfilling this purpose?

Where does this question come from?

Let me give a little background on how I come to this question. I grew up in an interestingly conservative area of the United States—rural southwestern Oregon. What is interesting about rural Oregon is that people tend to be conservative in values and lifestyle, but they also tend not to be religious. Oregon has traditionally been the least “churched” state in the country. While the urban areas are pretty liberal, the countryside tends not to be.

My parents were schoolteachers who moved to our small town from the outside. They lived pretty conservative lives in many ways, but they were well educated and open-minded about most things. So they were a bit different from their surrounding community. I grew up attending church until the church closed when I was eight years old. I can’t say that I was explicitly taught that my purpose in life was “to help bring healing to the world.” But I would say that the values I absorbed from my family provided the framework for me to affirm that sense of purpose when I got older.

As a teenager, due to the influence of a close friend, I had a conversion experience and became a fundamentalist Christian. As I look back now, I see the influence of that experience and its aftermath as being quite a mixed blessing. It did get me in the door, so to speak, to serious Christianity, which meant (in part) a serious engagement with the Bible, especially with the life and teaching of Jesus. In those initial years, while I was part of a fundamentalist church, I was not encouraged to think much about loving the world, though. I would say now that I experienced two sides to belief in the Christian God—both how such belief can encourage working for healing the world and how such belief can undermine such work.

My sense, for some years after my conversion, was that my primary loyalty was to Christianity and that only because of my Christian faith was I then also to care about healing the world. Two types of experience worked to complicate this sense of loyalty to Christianity. One was learning to know people (and about many other people) who weren’t Christians yet were deeply committed to loving their neighbors and healing the world. The second type of experience was to see how Christians could be quite unloving. What made this second phenomenon especially difficult for me was seeing that often the “unlovingness” was not in spite of Christian convictions but because of them. Continue reading “Are we better off without God and Christianity? Thoughts on healing the world”

“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part two]

Ted Grimsrud—April 10, 2019

The purpose of this “thought experiment,” as I see it, is to reflect on how “Anabaptist” might work better than “Christian” or “Mennonite” as a descriptor of the radical faith that offers the best possibilities for responding creatively to the challenges of life in North America in the early 21st century. In Part One I described why I have problems with the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” ways of interpreting the Bible and our world and our faith. In what follows, I will describe more what I mean by “Anabaptist” as an alternative way of interpreting.

A way to think about Anabaptism

I believe that in approaching the topic of “Anabaptism” we should be straightforward about the kinds of questions we have in mind in approaching it as well as recognizing the need to be as accurate as possible in discussing the 16th century phenomena themselves. My questions have most of all to do with what resources might we find in the story of the original Anabaptists that might inform our lives today. I also wonder whether we might discern an Anabaptist approach to faith that could serve as a corrective to the interpretive angles we find in what I call the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” approaches.

A key theme for me in taking up this project of discernment is how these various angles relate to how we read the Bible. A central criterion for me is how helpful, accurate, and authentic the angles are to the message of the Bible. In fact, though the 16th century is of great interest in evaluating the Anabaptist take on faith, what matters even more is the first-century in that the truly normative “vision” that followers of Jesus should be concerned with is the one presented in the New Testament (and the Old Testament read in relation to the New). Is it possible that the Anabaptist angle gets us closer to Jesus’s take on things than the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” angles?

I have taken a cue from studies of Jesus for how I want to approach the Anabaptists—and seek for a sense of coherence among the diverse expressions of radical Christianity in the 16th century. It is common among historians of the Jesus movement to suggest that maybe the central question to ask for understanding what happened back then is this: Why was Jesus executed by the Romans? This is the version I ask of the Anabaptists: Why did they get into trouble? One thing that seems clear is that in their various iterations, just about all the Anabaptists got into trouble, and in their various locations they died by the thousands.

I suggest that we do find a sense of commonality when we ask this question. I think we may see four broad themes that were key reasons the large majority of them got into trouble—most of these themes are present in most of the Anabaptist communities, diverse as they might otherwise be. Continue reading ““Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part two]”

“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part one]

Ted Grimsrud—April 9, 2019

I have a good friend who is, shall I say, a little more conservative theologically than I am. We have some great conversations. Recently, he brought up the possibility of the two of us having a public conversation on the current state of Anabaptist theology. As we are both Americans, we recognize that we would be talking about Anabaptist theology in our context, acknowledging that there are many Anabaptist-oriented communities around the world with their own takes on Anabaptist theology.

My initial response was somewhat negative. Not that I would not enjoy having a friendly public “disputation” with my colleague, but I haven’t been thinking much about “Anabaptist theology” in any direct way for some time. However, after our talk I kept considering his suggestion. I doubt that we will have a public conversation (though it’s possible), but I have started thinking about Anabaptist theology again.

I realized that I am still interested in thinking about Anabaptism, though I look at it now from a bit of a different angle from when I wrote a book called Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the 21stCentury back in 2007. To frame it, as I do in the title of this blog post, as a question“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)?is to be intentionally provocative and a little facetious. However, carefully stated this is a genuine question for me.

So, I want to do a little thought experiment here, not make a profound pronouncement. Let’s reflect on hermeneutics—comparing an “Anabaptist” way of interpreting things, especially the Bible, with a “Christian” way and with a “Mennonite” way. When I pose them as alternatives (which they are not, literally, of course), I am asking about a basic way of interpretation that can be seen to contrast with other ways. What are the basic biases we wantto be a part of how we interpret?

Why “Not Christian”?

Before I explain what “Anabaptist” means in this conversation, I will say a little about why I would say “not Christian” and “not Mennonite.” By “Christian” here (noting that in trying to be a bit provocative I will make some big generalizations) I have in mind the mainstream Christian theological tradition dating back to the fourth century. This is the tradition that I would call “doctrine-oriented” (see my essay, “Practice-oriented vs. doctrine-oriented theology: An Anabaptist proposal”) in the sense that it places creeds, confessions, and formal doctrines at the heart of its construal of Christian faith. Continue reading ““Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part one]”

Russiagate and peace on earth

Ted Grimsrud—March 29, 2019

One of the glimmers of hope for those who were horrified with the installation of Donald Trump as president has been that his presidency would be hindered and perhaps even ended by the investigations into his malfeasance. It has, unfortunately, seemed fairly clear for some time that nothing too bad for Trump was going to come to light—and this week’s completion of the work of Mueller Commission has confirmed that.

Problems with Russiagate

From the beginning of the Mueller Commission’s investigation into Donald Trump’s presidential campaign’s alleged collusion with the Russians, four things have particularly bothered me:

  1. I have been concerned that this investigation would heighten tensions between the US and Russia and rekindle Cold War-like dynamics between the two nations.
  2. I have a sense that we never actually have been shown evidence that Russia, even if involved, had an impact on the election that went beyond simply helping to publicize the misdeeds of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee in using undemocratic means to tilt the scales in ways that favored Clinton and hurt the chances of Bernie Sanders. I think it was a good thing for those subversions of democracy to be revealed and if blame is to assessed it lies a lot more with Clinton and her campaign for their misdeeds than with the Russians.
  3. I have worried that the corporate media would not cover this story with careful scrutiny of all claims and would not practice objectivity and balance and would instead let sensationalism and the need to confirm preexisting biases govern how the story would be covered. I also worried that we would not see balance in the coverage of Russiagate with other elements of Trump’s and the Republicans’ in general corruption and destruction of democracy.
  4. I feared that this investigation might be a diversion from the need to create a more wide-ranging movement of resistance to the efforts by Trump and the Republican Party more generally to subvert democracy and aggrandize America’s corporate sector.

Part of why these concerns have been especially alarming is the sense that if indeed the Mueller inquiry did not result in a clear condemnation of Trump’s malfeasance, these four problems (and numerous others) would result in the entire process actually being a positive thing for Trump and his party. And it appears that we will in fact be finding out just how hurtful to the cause of peace on earth this diversion will prove to be.

So far this week, there have been numerous analyses from progressives that have made the kind of points I am making here—Ralph Nader, Naomi Klein, Chris Hedges, Branko Marcetic, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Caitlin Johnstone, Aaron Maté, Jeff Cohen, Alex Shepherd, Abby Martin, Jonathan Cook, and Stephen Cohen are just the few I have noticed. However, even these insightful commentaries have tended not to lift up the issue I am most concerned about—that is, how, shall we say, the mainstream liberal hostility toward Trump has actually significantly enhanced the forces of warism in the US. Continue reading “Russiagate and peace on earth”

Was the American Civil War About Slavery?

Ted Grimsrud—March 20, 2019

As I continue to read and think about the American Civil War, I find many questions to struggle with. A significant one is on the surface fairly simple: Was slavery the main issue over which the war was fought? Of course, this question turns out to be anything but simple. A lot depends on where one stands in relation to the Civil War itself.

Two different viewpoints

Clearly slavery was a contentious issue during the first half of the 18thcentury. However, a related issue was also central: How much freedom to pursue pro-slavery policies would individual states and regions have? This question led many, especially in the South, to pose the issues as centering on what came to be called “states rights,” or the relation between the self-determination of specific states and the authority exercised over states by the federal government.

So, in the years after the war ended in 1865, the general take in the South (and by many in the North) was that slavery was kind of a peripheral issue and that the war actually had most of all to do with the need the Confederate states felt to defend states rights and the Southern “way of life” in general—even to the point of defending them against invading forces from the North. This came to be known as the “lost cause of the Confederacy”the “lost cause” being the just cause of defending those rights and that way of life that, though defeated, was honorable and worthy. This view intentionally marginalizes slavery itself as a reason for the war.

On the other hand, the view I absorbed growing up in my “Yankee” environment was that indeed the Civil War was fought to free the slaves. After all, the key moment came when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 to order slaves freed. That statement made it clear what the stakes were in the war, and it energized the North to make sure to win the war so freedom for slaves would be attained. Perhaps that hard won freedom was compromised a bit in the decades following the end of the war, but the ending of slavery was a sure achievement, one that in fits and starts the country has tried to sustain and expand. Continue reading “Was the American Civil War About Slavery?”

Is the Old Testament actually “dying”? [Looking West #6]

Ted Grimsrud—March 15, 2019

I was in college, back in the early 1970s, when a new translation of the Bible—The New International Version—was first published. The NIV has gone on to be quite popular and is widely used, especially in evangelical settings. The New Testament by itself was first published. I don’t remember how I even knew about this new translation, but I bought a copy as soon as I learned about it.

There were a couple of things about this new Bible that were noteworthy. First of all was how readable it was. After I had my conversion experience when I was 17, I was nurtured in a congregation that insisted using on the King James translation. I found the KJV difficult to read. Perhaps I justified defecting to this new translation by telling myself that I had been unfaithful in my Bible reading and getting an easier to read version would help me better carry out that core obligation.

The second noteworthy element was that this NIV New Testament looked like a regular hardback book. That is, the paper was not super thin like most Bibles. The print wasn’t extra small. The text came in paragraphs, not individual verses. It did not have two columns on a page, but only one. The cover wasn’t leather but was like regular hardback books.

Not long after I got my NIV, I visited my home church. My friend Richard was shocked when he saw it. “It’s just like any other book!” he cried. He wasn’t a judgmental guy, but he did seem pretty disapproving at first. As we talked a bit, he kind of relented and granted that if it helped me read my Bible more, that was a good thing. Continue reading “Is the Old Testament actually “dying”? [Looking West #6]”

The Path Not Taken: More Thoughts on “Despairing for MC USA”

Ted Grimsrud—February 26, 2019

As I have reflected on dynamics in my church denomination (Mennonite Church USA) and my own involvements in this community, I have a few further thoughts beyond what I wrote in my February 23, 2019 blog post, “Despairing for Mennonite Church USA.” My focus in that essay was on “conversation”—its difficulties and how it has been repressed.

Imagining a path not taken

I asked myself: What could I imagine might have been done (or would be done)? How might conversation work? And what would be the role of “theology” be in such a conversation? Another kind of question is whether you could easily get caught in a loop of endless conversation, where you are just talking things to death with no resolution.

One response to this last question is to suggest that we are simply too hasty in early 21stcentury North America. We are too outcome oriented, too focused on quick resolutions, on getting over our differences and getting things done. That is, we are too unwilling to invest time and energy at genuine mutual give and take that can be messy and inefficient, but it a necessary part of fruitful human relating.

However, one can’t impose one’s patience and curiosity onto people who don’t share those tendencies. If we all shared a deep-seated sense of patience and curiosity, we likely would not have many of the problems we have. But we don’t…. Still, the starting point of any kind of discernment for how best to work within our denomination, or our conferences, or our congregations, has to be some kind of interest in the wellbeing of that community. And with that comes some kind of willingness to try together to figure out how to move ahead.

There are two other possibilities, of course. One possibility is that people simply are not up for any conversation. Some of these may simply wantto split, and they cannot be stopped. Others may want to stay together and simply avoid the differences. A second possibility is that people would be invested with a strong desire to win an argument against their opponents. Many of us are tempted with this desire and it is impossible to imagine a serious conversation about these issues without that desire surfacing—these are important issues to people. However, such a desire needs to be repressed if there is to be sustained conversations and fruitful outcomes. Continue reading “The Path Not Taken: More Thoughts on “Despairing for MC USA””

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”

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)”