What makes a Mennonite?

Ted Grimsrud—July 3, 2013

It used to be that the question “what makes a Mennonite?” probably would mainly have confused North American Mennonites. A Mennonite was simply born into the family, church, and broader Mennonite fellowship. Now it’s true Mennonites practiced believers baptism with its implication that actually becoming a formal member of the Mennonite church required a choice, a conscious commitment.

So there may have been a bit of a tension between one’s birthright Mennonite identity and one’s official, based-on-church-membership Mennonite identity. But for generations the large percentage of those born into Mennonite families stayed in the fold—and few “outsiders” entered the church community. So to be a “Mennonite” was a straightforward, uncomplicated thing that had most of all to do with birth into the community.

The effects of Mennonite cultural assimilation

This has all changed in the past 130 years. As North American Mennonites have assimilated, this has meant that the boundaries separating the Mennonite world from the outside have become increasingly permeable. More people born into Mennonite families have left, more new Mennonites have entered the fold, and various theological currents from the outside have shaped Mennonite congregations.

People who track such things are worried about Mennonite demographics, especially in relation to the make up of Mennonite Church USA (and also, perhaps, Mennonite Church Canada as well as other Mennonite groups). As a rule, Mennonites are getting older. Due to smaller families and young people leaving the church often not to return, the overall numbers of church members are shrinking and those who remain tend to be older.

One way to speak of these dynamics is to say that more and more, being a part of the Mennonite community is a choice. People who are born into find it easier to leave and people from the outside find it easier to enter the community (at least to some extent). Fewer people all the time, it seems, are making this choice.

So, is there a future for the Mennonite tradition? One small part of reflecting on this question is simply to think about what a “Mennonite” is—or, as I ask in this post’s title, “what makes a Mennonite?” Continue reading “What makes a Mennonite?”

On thinking like a postmodern Anabaptist (if that’s possible)

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2013

What do you get when you put together an appreciation for well-known postmodern thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas with a self-identification with Anabaptist theology, membership in a Mennonite congregation, a (tentative) commitment to pacifism, and an affirmation of the core theological project of John Howard Yoder? Then you add an academic location that combines the field of social theory with a professorship at a notorious bastion of libertarianism and Republicanism (Hillsdale College)? And for good measure, include some rock and roll….

Well, you could get an incoherent mess. Or, if the person who embodies all these disparate influences (and more) is intelligent and clear-thinking and a good writer and has a whimsical sense of humor, you might get a remarkable and pathbreaking collection of essays. Happily, Pete Blum’s For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought (Herald Press, 2013) fits in the second category.

The value of experiments

Perhaps the operative term in the book’s title is “experiments.” The seven essays here are each characterized by an openness, a tentativeness, and a gentleness of spirit. Blum addresses challenging issues. He’s an amazingly clear writer even as the themes he addresses are not easy or superficial. But there is a humility here, a sense of invitation to a conversation. There is no show-boating or disdain. No sense of seeking to shock or intimidate.

This is a collection of conversations—Blum talking with his thinkers and trying to get them to talk with each other. Some of the conversations are maybe a bit surprising—pairing the biblicist Mennonite pacifist Yoder with the French revolutionary atheist Foucault and then Yoder again with the only slightly less notoriously radical Jacques Derrida. Continue reading “On thinking like a postmodern Anabaptist (if that’s possible)”

A pacifist at the AAR/SBL

Ted Grimsrud

Last weekend, my wife Kathleen and I made our annual trip to the big city to hobnob with 10,000 religion scholars. That is, we attended that convention of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature in Chicago, November 17-20. As per usual, we had a great time. This year, things were pretty low key—both in the sense of not having many responsibilities and of not attending any high powered, life changing sessions (no Cornel West, Judith Butler, Jeffrey Stout, or Robert Bellah this year).

As always, the biggest highlights were the times with friends—especially those who I usually only see at these meetings, but also some new friends (including meeting in the flesh a couple of cyber friends) and even some good times with people I see regularly.

Because I didn’t have much business to attend to and didn’t really have much interest in the book fair (I’m not quite sure why this was; in the past, I spent as many hours as I could with the always amazing collection of books from hundreds of publishers—maybe as I get older I realize just how many books I already have that I will never read), we spent most of our time attending sessions. While my socks stayed securely on my feet throughout, I still found the sessions interesting and stimulating of thought—even if mostly it was to argue against much of what I heard. Here are some highlights. Continue reading “A pacifist at the AAR/SBL”

Faith and Politics (Including Voting)

Ted Grimsrud

All this talking and thinking about voting (this post is part three: #1—Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?; #2 —More thoughts about voting (or not) for a “warmonger”) has pushed me to think about what I understand politics to be about and what this has to do with my faith convictions. These are some thoughts.

Biblical politics

I find the Bible enormously helpful for thinking about politics. Not that it gives us a blueprint or an explicit political philosophy or even a list of principles for godly politics. Just that it tells a story (a complicated story, with many subplots) that we can share in—a story, ultimately, of people trying to join together to make the world more peaceable in light of their understanding of God’s will for their lives.

In a nutshell, I would define “biblical politics” as people working together for peace. “Peace” I would understand as “biblical shalom”—the wholeness of the community, all people living harmoniously with one another and with the rest of creation. The operative sense of “politics,” then, is people working together in community for the sake of shalom.

The Bible, thus, is intensely political as it tells both of how communities can operate in peaceable ways and of how communities violate shalom (and suffer the consequences). From Genesis’s account of the communal problems that emerge when people turn from shalom to Revelation’s account of a great city of peace (the New Jerusalem) being established on earth, the Bible focuses on politics done (or not) in light of the peaceable will of the creating and sustaining God of the universe.

Continue reading “Faith and Politics (Including Voting)”

More thoughts about voting (or not) for a “warmonger”

Ted Grimsrud

As we draw closer to election day, 2012, I continue to reflect on the voting issue. My October 1, 2012, post asked the question “Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?”  [UPDATE: I posted a third installment on October 28: “Faith and Politics (Including Voting)”] I concluded that though indeed I believe that President Obama’s four years in office have been a time of increasingly distressing militarism, I still will vote for him. I posed this choice not so much as voting for a lesser evil but as voting against a greater evil. That is, I do not understand my vote to be an expression of support for Obama but to be an expression of opposition to the far more distressingly militaristic and destructive-in-many-more-areas policies I would expect from a Romney administration.

The original posts received many thoughtful and perceptive comments. Within the comments section, several other fascinating conversations that went beyond my own contribution emerged. With these responses and numerous conversations with friends and more reading and thinking, I want to take some time to say a bit more—mainly to try to restate and clarify the argument I am trying to develop. Continue reading “More thoughts about voting (or not) for a “warmonger””

Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?

Ted Grimsrud

This election season is (or should be) an agonizing time for pacifists and other people in the United States who care deeply for peace on earth. Perhaps as much as any time in the history of this country, an uncritical embrace of militarism as a way of life is on display. We have a president running for re-election proudly trumpeting his success in one military intervention after another (including direct assassination of “national enemies”)—and being harshly criticized by his main opponent for being a wuss on national security issues.

Except for people like us on the fringes, Obama’s militarism is not seen as a problem in the national discussion. The country faces extreme economic difficulties and the two main options in this election are giving the military either a somewhat greater share of the national treasure or a much greater share.

Peace advocates’ discouragement with Obama

American peace advocates’ discouragement is heightened by the reality that we thought we might be getting something better four years ago. And we weren’t alone in the world—how else to explain Obama’s clearly premature Nobel Peace Prize (now a distant memory) other than as a statement of hope from the selectors that he truly would provide a new direction in American foreign policy? Yet, when all is said and done, what we see over the past four years is a slight decrease in the bellicose posturing that characterized the Bush administration, but overall a continuation of the trajectory of empire as a way of life.

So, it is understandable that many peace advocates who supported Obama in 2008 (with admittedly varying degrees of enthusiasm—no one I know or know of expected Obama to tack very far toward a truly new, peace-oriented national security agenda; but we did hope for some major positive shifts) are now asserting that they will not vote for him this time. None of these folks, of course, are remotely interesting in voting for Mitt Romney—they talk either of voting for a third (or fourth or fifth) party candidate or of abstaining. Continue reading “Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?”

Anabaptist Evangelicalism?

Ted Grimsrud—July 8, 2012

What do you do if you are a young theologian or historian who is located in an evangelical tradition long removed from its Anabaptist heritage and you discover that heritage and find it attractive? If you are Jared Burkholder, a professor at Grace College, and David Cramer, doctoral student at Baylor University and former instructor at Bethel College (Indiana), you tap the shoulders of other like-minded young scholars and sympathetic senior scholars and produce a lively and thought-provoking collection of essays that, in sum, makes the case that evangelicals would benefit greatly from more appropriation of Anabaptist emphases—and that Anabaptists should see their tradition as compatible with evangelicalism.

This is the book: Jared Burkholder and David C. Cramer, eds. The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012.

I am quite a bit more sympathetic with the first of these two cases (that evangelicals would benefit from more Anabaptism) than with the second (that Anabaptists should see their tradition as compatible with evangelicalism). Without question, though, this is an excellent group of essays. Each one is readable and interesting.

What is “evangelicalism”?

The first section of the book, “Intersecting Stories: Historical Reflection on the Nexus of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism,” draws on three of the senior scholars, including two Mennonites (Steve Nolt and John Roth) who warmly welcome the interest of evangelicals in Anabaptism and emphasize the compatibility between the two streams of Christianity. Roth, especially, seeks to counter the much more hostile response to evangelicalism characteristic from Anabaptist scholars in a much earlier collection (C. Norman Kraus, ed., Evangelicalism and Anabaptism [Herald Press, 1979]) that is cited as the main previous book to take up these issues in depth.

The discussion by Nolt and Roth points to one of the most complicated issues that lurks throughout this book and, actually, in all such conversations. What precisely to we mean by “evangelicalism”? The editors state that they intentionally did not ask their writers to follow a given, stable definition but gave each the freedom to use the term as they saw fit. Continue reading “Anabaptist Evangelicalism?”

Should Anabaptists be evangelicals?

Ted Grimsrud—June 11, 2012

I recently read a fascinating and well executed collection of essays, The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism, edited by Jared S. Burkholder and David C. Cramer (Pickwick Publications, 2012). I interact more explicitly with the book in this review, but here I want to reflect a bit on some thoughts that reading it triggered for me.

One of the basic issues The Activist Impulse takes up is the relationship between “Anabaptism” and “evangelicalism”—especially how closely those in each movement should be linked. As many of the writers in the book acknowledge, each of these terms is difficult to define. Both refer to movements and mindsets, not to clearly delineated organizations.

What one means by “Anabaptism” is probably easier to settle on, at least in a general sense, than what one means by “evangelicalism.” Most of us would agree in linking the term with a particular (though surprisingly diverse and amorphous) movement that arose amidst the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and ultimately found institutional shape in the Mennonite churches, their siblings (such as the Amish and Hutterites), and various cousins (especially the movement that evolved in diverse forms to produce the Church of the Brethren, Brethren Church, Grace Brethren, and German Baptist Brethren).

However, since the term was rehabilitated following Harold Bender’s widely circulated and praised summary statement, “The Anabaptist Vision,” increasingly many non-Mennonites and Brethren have used the terms in a positive sense that speaks more to certain theological and ethical sensibilities—most notably pacifism, a strong emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, simple living, and intentional community. Continue reading “Should Anabaptists be evangelicals?”