An anarchistic reading of the Bible (2)—Creation and what follows

Ted Grimsrud—February 2, 2015

This is the second in a series of posts.

In this survey of some biblical themes looked at from an anarchistic angle, I will not be real precise in my use of “anarchistic.” I’ll be talking about a sensibility more than a full-fledged political philosophy. The key “anarchistic” motifs I will focus on will be a strong suspicion toward centralized social power, especially kingdoms and empires, and an optimism about human possibilities for self-organizing and decentralized social power.

And I will be reading the Bible in fairly naïve and straightforward ways. I approach the Bible as a storybook and see it as providing a loosely coherent message, amidst a great deal of diversity. I will focus more on the loose coherence than the diversity—largely due to a desire to find usable guidance in the Bible. At the same time, in reading the Bible more as a storybook, I mean to reject any authoritarian dynamics. The story is invitational and winsome, more than coercive or dominatingly powerful.

The story of creation

The very beginning of the Bible provides much important information about the Bible as a whole, about the cosmology of the whole, about the character of the God seen to be central to the entire story, and about the relationships between humankind and this God.

Though the creation account in Genesis one portrays God as the power behind what is, the actual exercise of that power is muted. God speaks and what is is made. The dynamic is quite peaceable—in contrast to some other ancient creation myths (especially the Babylonian) that portray violence at the heart of things. Continue reading “An anarchistic reading of the Bible (2)—Creation and what follows”

An anarchistic reading of the Bible—(1) Approaching the Bible

Ted Grimsrud—January 25, 2015

[This post is a continuation of the conversation about anarchism that I have started in this blog in months past—the most recent post was “More thinking about an ‘anarchistic’ Christianity” on December 15, 2014. It’s an introduction to a series of seven or eight posts that give a quick survey of some anarchistically-inclined dynamics in the Bible.]

I have become motivated to pursue, as a thought experiment, an anarchistic reading of the Bible, for several reasons. For quite some time, probably going back to my discovery of Christian pacifism now nearly 40 years ago, I have found the Bible to be a great resource for thinking politically. However, it has been rather difficult to find connecting points between biblical politics and our current political landscape. I don’t find attempts to link biblical politics with liberal democracy all that attractive; likewise with Marxism. Yet, I also am uneasy with the way numerous, say, “post-liberals” (most notably Stanley Hauerwas) link biblical politics with the institutional church (or is it an idealized “church”?).

But what about anarchism? I can imagine anarchism as a more fruitful philosophical partner than liberal democracy or Marxism. And as more creative and more easily engaged with the entirety of human social life than the institutional (or idealized) church. And I have suspected for some time that the politics most characteristic of the Bible links fairly closely with at least some construals of anarchism, even if anarchists have tended to be quite anti-Christian and Christians anti-anarchist.

At this point, though, I am not as prepared to discuss anarchism itself as I am to think about a general anarchistic sensibility in relation to the Bible. So my definition of anarchism is purposely quite broad and simple. I am thinking of anarchism as having two main components, a negative one and a positive one. The negative one is a suspicion of authority, especially in relation to the state (though I think an anarchistic sensibility should be just as suspicious of corporate power and the power of other large institutions). This leads to a de-centering of the state as the basic instrument of human political life. The positive component is the affirmation of human possibilities to self-organize, to manage our affairs in decentralized, self-managed communities. Continue reading “An anarchistic reading of the Bible—(1) Approaching the Bible”

Preaching on Romans

Ted Grimsrud—January 12, 2015

Last Fall I began a new sermon series. Every month (or so), I plan to take a chapter from the book of Romans for reflection. I am especially interested in reading Romans as anti-empire literature, recognizing, of course, that Paul’s main concern was positive—what he calls “the obedience of faith.”

I think, though, Paul’s vision for faithful living can best be understood against the backdrop of the Roman Empire. To follow Jesus, to live faithfully in relation to the true God, Paul believed, required being aware of the main story that competes with the gospel—the story of empire. After all, Paul is writing this letter to Christians who actually live in the belly of the beast. And all Christians of that time would always be aware that the empire killed Jesus as a rebel against Rome.

Yesterday, in the third of the sermons, I talked about Romans 2.

Here’s a link to that sermon: “How churches go wrong.” And here’s a link to the whole series.

There’s Power in the Blood: Revelation’s Patience and Creation’s Transformation

Ted Grimsrud—September 21, 2014

For me, the book of Revelation has turned out to be the gift that keeps giving. Going back to when I, as a 20-something set out to disprove my pastor’s claim that Revelation’s violence means we shouldn’t be pacifists—I have lived pretty closely with Revelation. It’s like, when I face a challenging issue—say, war and peace, the character of God—I turn to Revelation. The book has not let me down yet. So, in thinking about how Christian faith and our environmental crises interrelate, I expect Revelation to have something helpful to say.

In this paper I ask, is there a message in Revelation that might encourage Christians to “care for God’s creation, for the land and all that lives in it”? To remove the element of suspense, I answer this question with a vociferous yes! Maybe the suspense that remains is to wonder how I could possibly support such a conclusion.

Revelation and the destruction of the world

Many different approaches to Revelation all seem to see it as our prime biblical example of “apocalyptic” writing—writing characterized by an expectation of a sudden and violent end to the world we live in. To think apocalyptically, it is said, is to think of visions of fire from the sky that judge and destroy. The “apocalypse” is a time of catastrophe, of dramatic change, the end of what is and the birth of something drastically new and different. Apocalyptic power is the power of vengeance and judgment. As a consequence of God’s exercise of such power, every knee is forced to bow before God—either in joyful submission or in defeated submission.

There are those we could call the “cultured despisers” of Revelation—including some who avoid Revelation because it is too violent and judgmental and some in the scholarly guide who see Revelation as a prime example of how the early Christians expected an immediate apocalypse in their lifetimes. And, on the opposite extreme there are those in the future-prophetic school who understand Revelation, to be predictive of actual events in human history. Future judgment, destruction and re-creation, vengeance and reward. The earth will be consumed—praise God. All three approaches agree; Revelation teaches a pessimistic theology in relation to the world we live in. We would have to go elsewhere for a constructive environmental ethic.

However, there is a fourth approach—what we could call the peaceable Revelation approach. Revelation is not about the destruction of creation. Revelation scholars such as Barbara Rossing and Mark Bredin, whose book is called The Ecology of the New Testament, have made the case that Revelation actually articulates a pro-creation perspective. Continue reading “There’s Power in the Blood: Revelation’s Patience and Creation’s Transformation”

Does the Bible teach anarchism?

Ted Grimsrud—August 25, 2014

I first learned about anarchism back in the 1970s. My wife Kathleen and I got involved with an activist group opposed to Jimmy Carter’s decision to reinstate registration for the draft in order to “show resolve” to the Soviet Union (this is one of the darker aspects of Carter’s presidential legacy—a cynical but failed attempt to hold off the political threat from the right that remains thirty-some years later an important element in the socialization of young people into our national security state). We met a young couple, Karl and Linda, who had just moved to our hometown, Eugene, Oregon, to be part of the rising anarchist movement there.

I had typical superficial stereotypes of anarchists as mindless terrorists (it was an “anarchist,” after all, who had shot President McKinley). I was disabused of that superficial antipathy in conversations with Karl and Linda and also in seeing their lives. They were compassionate, committed to social justice, and (Linda, at least) thoroughly nonviolent. They were pretty negative about Christianity, but were interested to learn to know about our Anabaptist convictions.

About the same time, I took a class on the history of political theory at the University of Oregon—and the professor treated anarchism as a serious political philosophy that needed to be considered alongside the other more mainstream approaches. It might have been as part of that class the I read George Woodcock’s fascinating book, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements.

I have not traveled very far down the anarchist path in these past decades, but I have remained interested in and sympathetic toward this political orientation. Writers such as James C. Scott, Noam Chomsky, and Rebecca Solnit, whose anarchistically-inclined books I have read for reasons other than direct articulation of anarchism, have kept my interest alive. And then, when I learned about the Jesus Radicals website and movement, I started to realize that there was some genuine compatibility between the evolving political perspective I have been constructing and at some articulations of anarchism.

Anarchism and the Bible

One of the new ideas for me has been to think that perhaps we could say that anarchistic sensibilities (in our present day sense of what those involve) are embedded in the biblical story from start to finish. I want in this post to begin to sketch an argument to support this idea. Continue reading “Does the Bible teach anarchism?”

Why we should think of God as pacifist—(3) Addendum

Ted Grimsrud—June 10, 2014

I am about ready with the final part to this series on “Why we should think of God as pacifist.” But before I finish that post, I want to spend a little time responding to a concern raised by my friend Scott Holland in his comment to my previous post. Because Scott’s comment has pushed me to try better to clarify my argument, I wanted to put my response up as a regular post.

This is Scott’s comment:

“Ted, I’m a bit surprised to see a serious reader of [Gordon] Kaufman become so anthropomorphic about the divine. If God is a pacifist is the deity also a man, a monogamist, a moralist and an all around good guy?

“It seems one thing to call humans to a life of non-violence and peacemaking. However, given the awesome and awful force of the ruach, pneuma and winds of life, I would think only a Manichean could easily confess God is a pacifist? But then, heresy is sometimes a blessed thing!”

I did have this kind of concern (of being too “anthropocentric” in talking about God) in the back of my mind as I wrote out my ideas. And I expect to have it be part of my further reflections. And I also had Gordon Kaufman, who is indeed an important influence for me, in the back of my mind. Avoiding “heresy” was not part of my thought processes, though (however, if I thought I might be accused of being “Manichean” I might have thought about “heresy” a little bit). Continue reading “Why we should think of God as pacifist—(3) Addendum”

Why we should think of God as pacifist—(2) The Bible

Ted Grimsrud—June 4, 2014

For Christians, our thinking about God should have at its core the life and teaching of Jesus. Obviously, what Christians think about God has to do with much more than what Jesus said and did, but part of the definition of “Christian” should be that we understand God in terms of Jesus’s teaching about God and how Jesus showed what God is like by his actions.

Sadly, due to what we could call a “christological evasion of Jesus,” the Christian tradition has all too often focused on doctrines about Jesus rather than on what he actually said and did. Thus, Jesus’s own life and teaching have not played a central role in the construction of the Christian doctrine of God.

As I discussed in my previous post introducing this four-part series of blog posts, Christianity is implicated in terrible spirals of violence characteristic of our culture here in the United States (imperialism, nationalism, militarism, punitive criminal justice, sexual violence, homophobia, et al). I believe one of our most important tasks is to rethink our theology in order to recover the deeply peaceable core message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I believe that one important component of such a task is to cultivate an understanding of God as pacifist.

To cultivate such an understanding, we need to wrestle with the biblical materials—source both of evidence for seeing God as violent and of evidence for seeing God as pacifist. In working through the biblical portrayal of God, we must make a decision about how central Jesus’s life and teaching will be—and, of course, develop an interpretation of what we understand the content of the Jesus part of the story to be.

What follows is a brief account of why I see the Jesus material in the Bible as decisive in discerning the pacifism of God. Continue reading “Why we should think of God as pacifist—(2) The Bible”

Why we should think of God as pacifist—(1) Introduction

Ted Grimsrud—June 3, 2014

Christianity for too long has been too implicated in violence. Wars, rumors of war, preparation for war, violently punitive criminal justice practices, violent child discipline practices, violence toward women, sexual minorities, and other vulnerable people, the exploitation of non-human animals and the natural world. There may be no issue as pressing for the viability of the Christian tradition than breaking the spiral of violence that Christians have been all too active in sustaining.

We may easily think of various components of a violence-overcoming expression of Christian faith—including growth in skills of nonviolent conflict resolution, cultivating love for our neighbors (and expanding the definition of neighbor to include even enemies), cultivating peaceable ways of raising children, enhancing the celebration of biblical bases for peace in our congregations, growing in abilities to deny the violence-empowering dynamics of “othering,” and so on.

In a series of four blog posts, I want to reflect on an underlying issue: how might the ways we think of God contribute to overcoming the curse of violence? I will start with a bold hypothesis. We should actually think of God as pacifist. One way we might define how we use the word “God” is that God is what we worship, what constitutes the core of our sense of what matters most in life, what is most essential to our existence, and what empowers us to feel at home in the universe. Thinking of God as pacifist, then, would be a pretty big deal. Continue reading “Why we should think of God as pacifist—(1) Introduction”

How the Old Testament story refutes the God-as-punisher assumption

Ted Grimsrud—May 25, 2014

I keep thinking of new angles for reflecting on the perennial question of how, as a Christian pacifist, to think about the portrayal of God in the Old Testament. What I will do in this post is think about how the main story line of the Old Testament does not work if we assume that the God portrayed there is fundamentally violently punitive.

Obviously, the Old Testament is a widely diverse collection of writings from many different times and places that reflects many different points of view. And equally obviously, some of these diverse writings tell us that God engages directly in violently punitive acts and directly commands some human beings violently to punish other human beings (both in the sense of general laws and in the sense of direct incidents). Modern critical biblical scholarship has strongly emphasized this diversity.

However, the writers of the Old Testament and the communities that gathered and utilize the writings have not approached this collection as mainly an inchoate accumulation of disparate texts. To the contrary, often in the Old Testament (as well in the New Testament), the writers themselves offer summaries of what they portray as the core story to which the collection as a whole witnesses. And the communities that have used these writings until quite recently have tended to read the Old Testament as containing a coherent story, one that offers clear guidance for those who see themselves as in continuity with the communities that created this collection.

The precise content of this “core story” of course has been and continues to be debated. What I offer is only one way to construe the story. I won’t make the case here that it’s the best one, though I do think it reflects the general orientation of the various summaries of the story line in the Bible itself. My main point is to suggest that looking at the story line is a better way to approach the God-as-violent-punisher theme than simply reporting and struggling with various specific incidents and commands.

My approach is to say that the most meaningful (or, one could say, the most authoritative) element of the biblical writings is the big story—the specifics should be understood in light of the whole. At some point soon I hope to spend more time reflecting on how this approach works in helping us use those texts that portray God as a violent punisher. For now, though, I simply plan to explain why I think the story line does not work if the God of the story actually is a violent punisher. Continue reading “How the Old Testament story refutes the God-as-punisher assumption”

Does the Bible have a coherent peace message?

Ted Grimsrud

I wrote my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, out of a conviction that the Bible does contain a coherent peace message (or, I could say, a coherent healing message or a coherent mercy message). Surprisingly to me, I wonder now whether this conviction is shared by all Mennonite academics.

While I would have preferred a more sympathetic reviewer, I appreciate the issues raised by Mennonite Old Testament scholar Derek Suderman’s review of Instead of Atonement in the January 2014 Mennonite Quarterly Review. I want to reflect on several of those issues, not mainly to argue with Suderman but more to take the opportunity offered by his review to address some key elements of how we wrestle with the Bible in face of our call to be agents of healing in the world today.

There will be five issues that I will write about: (1) Is the best way to approach “biblical concepts” through focusing on the big picture or on analyses of specific words? (2) How do we understand God’s judgment in relation to God’s mercy? (3) How seriously should we take the Bible’s own way of summarizing its salvation story? (4) Is suggesting that the Bible has a coherent message actually making an inappropriate “universalized claim”? (5) What kind of assumptions should we have as we approach the Bible? Continue reading “Does the Bible have a coherent peace message?”