The eclipse of Mennonite peace theology? A diminishing tradition faces questions [Theological memoir #15]

Ted Grimsrud—August 25, 2021

I first learned about Mennonites in the late 1970s, right after I finished college. I was part of a small, independent evangelical Christian church and became interested in theology, first, and then pacifism. I found the peace position I was introduced to by the first Mennonites I met to be enormously attractive. The desire to be part of a peace church tradition led my wife Kathleen and me first to attend a Mennonite seminary and then join a Mennonite congregation. Both of us ended up becoming Mennonite pastors and then teaching at a Mennonite college. Peace theology was always a central part of our engagement.

After all these years, I am sensing that what seemed to be a vital community of activists and academics and ministers seeking, often together, to develop and put into practice Jesus-centered pacifist convictions has become much less vital. At least that is a hypothesis I want to test in this blog post. First, I want to describe what I mean by “peace theology” and then I will suggest a number of factors that may be contributing to the loss of vitality.

The emergence of Mennonite peace theology

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the experience of US conscientious objectors during World War II. As one of my central learnings, I analyzed how Mennonites managed to find in those challenging years resources that actually generated creativity and the expansion of their peace witness in the years following the War. A crucial dynamic was the investment Mennonite churches were willing to make to support their young men seeking conscientious objector status and performing alternative service in the Civilian Public Service program. Mennonite leaders joined with Quakers and Brethren to help shape the legislation that established the option for alternative service for young men who were conscientiously disposed not to join the military.

A key victory for the peace church lobbyists in relation to what had happened during World War I came when the CPS program was established as an entity separate from the military. This meant that prospective conscientious objectors would not have their quest for CO status subject to military oversight (a part of the World War I system that led to extreme difficulties for many pacifists). On the other hand, a key defeat came when the legislation required that funding for CPS come from non-governmental sources. That meant that the COs themselves would have to provide funding for their living expenses. For Mennonites, this meant that a great deal of fundraising among the churches would be necessary. As it turned out, people in the churches were extraordinarily generous, especially given that Mennonites tended to be people of modest means.

Continue reading “The eclipse of Mennonite peace theology? A diminishing tradition faces questions [Theological memoir #15]”

At the fiftieth anniversary of my conversion are there second thoughts? [Theological memoirs #13]

Ted Grimsrud—June 30, 2021

I can’t be sure, because I never made a record of it, but as near as I can figure, 50 years ago today is when I self-consciously made a decision to become a Christian. My self-conscious identity changed at that moment. Every day in my life since then has been shaped by that choice even as my understanding of what actually happened in those moments has evolved a great deal.

My question for today is whether it was a good choice. I am basically pleased with the trajectory my life has taken. Thinking of myself as a Christian has from June 30, 1971, to today given my life meaning and direction (for better or worse, but mostly better it still seems). I’m grateful for the people who have entered my life over the years due to my engagement in Christian communities. I have had meaningful educational and work experiences that I owe to this engagement.

At the same time, my sense of confidence in the intellectual validity of Christian teachings is lower than it has ever been. And this matters for me, because my entry and on-going participation in the Christian world has always been a choice based to a large extent on my convictions. I didn’t grow up in the church. Some branches of my extended family were active church people (including numerous pastors), but those never lived nearby and were never influential in my life. I’ve never had the “it’s in my bones” kind of pull to be a Christian that many of my friends do—something that keeps quite a few them within the circle of faith.

What are the main concerns?

The roots of my dis-ease go back to the very motivations that drove me to take the step of faith to begin with. My burning passion was to understand the truth. It was that simple. Through reflections on my experiences in life and through conversations with a close friend, I came to sense that the Christian message was true. That to know the truth meant to take the step of (in the language I was taught at the time) “accepting Jesus as my personal savior.” But my “need” was never to feel forgiven or to be “saved” from anything. I never feared death or condemnation. I just wanted to understand the world I lived in and to move toward the truth (whatever that might be).

It seems highly ironic now that I would have thought jumping into fundamentalist Christianity (the Bible Baptist Church) would have been a move toward the truth. I think the theological schema I was initially taught was profoundly untrue. However, I think there was always a core of something present that did point me in the right direction. The message of Jesus about love, restorative justice, and resistance to the domination system began to work on my heart from early on, even if it took several years for me to recognize it for what it was.

Continue reading “At the fiftieth anniversary of my conversion are there second thoughts? [Theological memoirs #13]”

God and warism: The dilemma [Theological memoir #12]

Ted Grimsrud—June 7, 2021

I can’t seem to escape the reality that people’s beliefs in and about the divine and their attitudes about war seem to be closely related. On the one hand, it seems obvious that belief in God often underwrites war. Yet, on the other hand, in studying the history of pacifism I am struck with how important religious faith has been for quite a few of war’s most committed opponents. So, this is the dilemma: How do we find a way to navigate this centrality of religious faith in ways that lead to peace and resist warism? Let me illustrate these issues with my story.

“God” and radical politics

When I began my political awakening back in the mid-1970s, I believed very intensely in “God” (meaning the personal, all-powerful, all-knowing, transcendent deity of conservative Protestant Christianity). My belief in “God” gave me the sense that truth in light of this “God” mattered more than anything else. I also believed that Jesus was the incarnation of this “God,” and that we know best what “God” wants through “God’s” revelation in Jesus.

These beliefs gained political significance for me due, first of all, to paying attention to the war in Vietnam that had been destroying so many lives for no good, life-giving reason (I had faced the genuine possibility of being drafted to fight in this war and missed out by being a bit too young). When my disenchantment with the US was emerging, I happened upon a newly arrived sensibility expressed by various younger evangelical Christians that in the name of radical discipleship critiqued the American Empire and called for alternatives (most significant for me was the Sojourners community in Washington, DC, and their monthly magazine). These radical evangelicals helped me see that loyalty to “God” actually stood in tension with loyalty to the nation of my birth.

So, “God” was very important in helping me step outside the lines of the received sense of security and comfort that comes with being a loyal American. Once I did step outside the lines, I easily came to see the profoundly corrupting nature of the American Empire. Vietnam was surely the most egregious case of imperial violence on an incomprehensible scale—but only one case out of many dating back to the very settling of the Western Hemisphere by Europeans (I learned a lot from William Appleman Williams’s book, Empire as a Way of Life). I have become ever more certain about the deeply problematic nature of the United States. Still, I realize that my initial step outside the lines was definitely not inevitable. It had a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time. The Vietnam War, the possibility of being drafted, becoming friends with several returning war vets, entering the evangelical world at precisely the same time as the emergence of the radical evangelicals, gaining a theology that connected “God” with engaged pacifism—all these factors and more coalesced at just the right time for me.

As I think about it now, I am especially intrigued with the significance of the “God” part of this constellation of influences. I tend to think that I never quite believed in “God” in the way I was taught during my fundamentalist and evangelical years (about 8 or so years from the time when I was 17 [1971]). Certainly, it was easy and painless to evolve away from that belief. At the same time, I do think that the belief in “God” that I had was crucial for me having the wit and courage to step away from the Americanness I was raised with and surrounded by.

Continue reading “God and warism: The dilemma [Theological memoir #12]”

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.”

Continue reading “The “Anabaptist sensibility” and Mennonite signifier [Theological memoir #10]”

Why I am not (quite) an atheist [theological memoir #9]

Ted Grimsrud—January 17, 2021

I flirted with atheism for a while when I was a teenager. I realize now that that happened because I was very interested in God, not because I was rejecting God. Unlike most of my current friends, I did not grow up in the church or with a detailed embedded theology. I wasn’t exposed to theology or philosophy, but I liked to think. I didn’t think the God I had superficially heard about made a lot of sense, so I tried on the idea of rejecting God’s existence.

It wasn’t any kind of argument that got me to accept the existence of God, nor was it some sort of crisis or sense of need. Initially, it was simply an experience of presence at a friend’s funeral. But I also wanted to understand, to make sense of things. It happened that I turned to a trusted friend, a kind of mentor who was several years older. He guided me toward a personal conversion, educating me in what I in time came to recognize as a Christian fundamentalist orientation toward God and salvation.

My conversion when I was 17 was genuine, I believe. But I was driven more by a desire for intellectual coherence than a profound personal encounter with the personal God of American evangelicalism. I tried to believe in that God. The first couple of years I absorbed the doctrines of my faith community. These especially centered around belief that Jesus was returning at any moment and that the most important expression of Christian faith was the necessary conversion where a sinner turns to Christ as one’s personal savior.

When I was about 21, I began to get quite interested in theology and rather drastically to revise my belief system. The first steps were to reject both the future-prophetic theology of the End Times and the personal conversion centered understanding of faith. I experienced those moves as steps toward God even as they were decisive steps away from the God I had been presented with after my conversion. But the movement has never stopped, and it has left me with a notion of God that is incompatible with what I was first taught when I affirmed Christian faith.

Continue reading “Why I am not (quite) an atheist [theological memoir #9]”

Hope and the embrace of our imperfect present [Theological memoir #8]

Ted Grimsrud—January 9, 2021

At some point when I was a child, perhaps seven or eight years old, I learned about the difference between a person called an “optimist” and one called a “pessimist.” Whoever explained this to me—it was probably one of my older sisters—used my mother as an example of an optimist. I didn’t really understand what I was being told very well, but from that time on I looked at my mom a bit differently. I hoped I could be like her.

“Optimistic” theology

It may be that my entire theological project—emphasizing peace, arguing for restorative as opposed to retributive justice, understanding salvation in terms of God’s mercy—has followed from the sense that I wanted to be an optimist too. I don’t really have a theory for why some people are optimists and others are not. I probably was inclined to be optimistic about life even before I learned what the word meant, saw it exemplified by my mother, and decided I wanted to affirm that approach. Still, I’d like to believe it is at least partly something we can choose, and that it is more compatible with the gospel to choose to be optimistic about life than not to.

At some point, about the time I finished college, I began to believe strongly in the importance of seeking social change—to oppose war and injustice and to try to move things in a peaceable direction. This belief especially took the shape for me of working in Christian communities and of researching and writing what I came to call “peace theology.” I tend to think that such work probably needs to rest on an optimism about life—we can change things, we can live peaceably, at least somewhat.

Continue reading “Hope and the embrace of our imperfect present [Theological memoir #8]”

Is “schism” okay? What to make of the Methodist split [Theological memoir#7]

Ted Grimsrud—January 3, 2020

I just read a news report in the Washington Post, “United Methodist Church is expected to split over gay marriage disagreement, fracturing the nation’s third-largest denomination.” According to this article, the decision appears to have been a mutual one among the two major UMC factions, one that seemingly gives both sides much of what they want. That is, of course, if the new proposal is affirmed by the denomination’s legislative process.

I don’t have any close contacts in the UMC and have not been following the drama closely these past several years. So this article comes as a bit of a surprise to me. I don’t have any insights to offer on the Methodist drama. But the news strikes me as very interesting, and it has triggered a few reflections.

Can “schisms” be good?

I experienced first-hand, in a very small way, some of the anxiety related to churches splitting about 30 years ago. I began my first pastorate in a tiny Mennonite congregation in Eugene, Oregon, in 1987. After my first year, I was up for consideration for ordination. Conservative elements in the regional conference had an advocate on the conference leadership committee who blocked my ordination. One of the tools in his arsenal that gave him some power was the threat that a number of conference congregations would leave the conference if I were ordained.

After three years of painful deliberations, I was finally ordained. About the same time, two women pastors (one a congregational minister, the second a chaplain) were also ordained (the first women to be ordained in the conference, over the objections of many conservatives). As threatened, a couple of congregations did leave the conference. However, in a delicious irony, the congregation the leadership committee member pastored refused to leave the conference. Instead that pastor was asked to leave the congregation.

This was all pretty traumatic for me, and when the opportunity arose to pastor elsewhere, I did so—leaving Oregon in 1994. Over a quarter of a century later, I still deeply miss living in the state of my birth. However, I am grateful for the opportunities that opened up after we moved on. Continue reading “Is “schism” okay? What to make of the Methodist split [Theological memoir#7]”

Why the Bible need not be a problem for pacifists (Theological memoir #6)

Ted Grimsrud—December 16, 2019

I well remember the moment, though not the precise day. It was late in my final term of college in the spring of 1976. After quite a bit of thought and emotional struggle, I decided to affirm pacifism. I now find a bit surprising how little I knew about what it was I decided. I don’t remember having a serious discussion about the issue with anyone else, or hearing a sermon or lecture on the topic, or having read anything explicitly about pacifism.

The context for a conversion

Something was in the air, though, in our culture. The Vietnam War had just ended. I just escaped the draft as it was ended the year that I became eligible for it. I had learned to know several vets who told horror stories of their experience in the military. Perhaps more than any time before or since, precisely at the moment I became a pacifist the US military was unpopular. Society saw war as pretty problematic.

Both my parents served in World War II and my oldest sister married an Army officer—so I certainly did not grow up in an anti-military family. But I never wanted to join in. My dad, brother-in-law, and high school guidance counselor all urged me as a high school junior to try to get into a military academy. But I did not for one second have interest in that path. I knew nothing about the conscientious objection option, but I always dreaded the idea of going to war.

I had had a Christian conversion about a month after my 17th birthday. A huge event in my life, it shaped everything I did after it happened. Interestingly, at first, becoming a Christian moved me away from my vague anti-war sensibility. The church I soon joined viewed the military quite favorably. I heard sermon after sermon that presented going to war as a noble endeavor for a patriotic American Christian. For me, though, my seemingly innate reluctance to embrace violence kept me from internalizing that Christian warism. The fundamentalist theology that congregation taught me never did sink very deep into my soul, but it did dull my intellectual curiosity for my first several years of college.

Finally, during my senior year of college I began to expand my horizons. I discovered Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul. Surely their pacifist sensibilities effected me even if I did out realize it. I did realize that I truly did want to have an intellectually rigorous faith and that I saw what Bonhoeffer called “discipleship” as the most faithful manifestation of biblically oriented Christianity. I also discovered Sojourners magazine and Francis Schaeffer and his acolytes, especially Os Guinness.

While reading Guinness’s book, The Dust of Death, I took the step of embracing pacifism. Later, I realized that Guinness did not actually advocate full blown pacifism. He drew on Ellul’s book, Violence (which actually does essentially espouse pacifism), to argue against a certain kind of violence—the revolutionary violence of the Left. So it wasn’t that Guinness persuaded me to be a pacifist so much as that his critique of violence served as a catalyst to crystallize various currents that had been coming together in my heart. Continue reading “Why the Bible need not be a problem for pacifists (Theological memoir #6)”

Why God doesn’t intervene (theological memoir #5)

Ted Grimsrud—November 18, 2019

You would think that given how important most people think God is that it would be easier to talk about God. But it often seems that people act as though, of course, God is real and we all know what we mean by God, very people are very articulate when they actually try to talk about God. It’s even difficult to find good jokes about God—when I searched the internet, this is the best I could do:

God was talking to an angel and said, “I just figured out how to rotate the Earth so it creates this really incredible 24-hour period of alternating light and darkness.” The angel said, “That’s great. So, what are you going to do next?” God says, “I think I’ll call it a day.”

Talking about God

I suppose for most of us, our understanding of God has evolved quite a bit as we have gone through life. I know mine has. One of the things I have come to believe is that we too easily forget that our language about God is always metaphorical. We are saying what we think God is like, not what God for a fact is. It is our concept of God that we talk about. But we have the habit of saying simply, “God is this or God is that.” I will share about the evolution of my thinking about God—and it seems more authentic to use the kind of language about God that I used in the past. But I recognize that all I say here is metaphorical, even if I don’t use qualifiers such as “God is like…”.

I was stimulated to think about how my thinking about has changed recently when I heard a helpful sermon on God from a Unitarian minister, Paul Britner. What do I think about God, especially about God’s power?

As a starting point, I think most of us would actually agree that God hardly ever (if ever) directly intervenes in the affairs of human beings. Even most pious Christians have experienced enough tragedy and brokenness to know that God simply does not step in and stop bad things from happening. My buddy Rod getting killed in a car wreck at age 17. My dad dying suddenly of a brain aneurism at age 67. My mom’s sister having a fatal appendicitis attack when she was four. Not to mention wars, famines, pestilences.

We know God lets things go. So, the question, then, for many of us is: Why? Why does God allow so much terrible stuff to happen? At least this is the question for those who believe that God is loving and good. And most of us who believe in God do believe that. I suspect as well that for most of those who don’t believe in God, the God that is not believed in is a God who allows terrible things to happen.  My thinking about this issue has evolved a lot…. Continue reading “Why God doesn’t intervene (theological memoir #5)”

What grief teaches us about God (Theological memoir #4)

August 18, 2019—Ted Grimsrud

As I reflect back on how I have understood God, I have recently noticed a connection that I had not thought of before. Though I have not thought of there being a lot of continuity between how I thought of God fifty years ago and the present, the moment that got me started back then turns out to be closer to what I think now than I have realized. The key connecting point is grief.

Questions and faith

I grew up in Oregon in rural Oregon. Though conservative and very rural, it was quite a non-church oriented environment. As a kid, I always had questions; I always wanted to understand better. That quest led to a Christian conversion when I was a teenager that dropped me into a fundamentalist Baptist congregation that, ironically, didn’t welcome questions. But I began a long process of learning and opening up, and I moved on quickly from fundamentalism. I eventually found Mennonites and had a career as a Mennonite pastor and theology professor. I have continued to “open up” and have moved right to the very margins of the Mennonite world.

I started my journey in my mid-teens with a sense of the presence of the divine that came to me in the midst of grief—as I was attending the funeral of a friend who had died in his late twenties of cancer. In a time of prayer, I felt that God was real and was with us. I had been thinking a lot about whether I believed in God or not, and from that point on I affirmed that I did. I find it interesting now, that what could have been an insight into the characteristics of God (as one especially present in sharing our grief) essentially passed by me. For years, I would look back at the moment and say that my sense of God was pretty vague and needed my education in Christian theology (such as it was in those years) to understand who God is. Now I think it is too bad that I couldn’t have pursued the insight about God’s close connection with grief.

From that funeral on, I was trying to understand what to believe about God. The Baptists gave me some answers. I never quite felt comfortable with what they told me, but they did help me begin. I have gone in directions I would never have expected back fifty years ago. Now I think grief is one of the best ways to get a sense of how to think about God. Continue reading “What grief teaches us about God (Theological memoir #4)”