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What is justice? Love with claws

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the second in a series on salvation and human flourishing. Here’s a link to the first in the series, “Are we in debt to God?”]

Ted Grimsrud—February 19, 2017

I want to start this morning with a question. Do  you consider yourself a Johnny Cash fan? I certainly am. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, he was about the only country singer that I would admit listening to. And he was a pretty remarkable performer. He sang songs advocating for Native Americans. He respected young people during the years when even Merle Haggard was singing songs bashing “longhairs.”

Johnny Cash’s popularity peaked with two live albums recorded in Folsom and San Quentin prisons. In San Quentin, he did a song he wrote called San Quentin, where he sang, to loud cheers, “San Quentin, I hate every inch of you. May all the world regret you did no good.” I am moved by the respect he showed the people in those prisons.

“Love with claws”

There was another live record that he recorded at about the same time—Live at Madison Square Garden in New York, December 1969. The height of the Vietnam War. Cash talked about that war—in itself a kind of gutsy thing for a country singer. And what he said was striking.

He talked about how he was often asked what he thought about the war. He had visited Vietnam about a year earlier and performed for the troops. His interviewer asked, “So that makes you a hawk?” And the crowd cheered. But Cash said, “No, that don’t make me a hawk.” But “when you watch the helicopter bring in the wounded and sing to them and try to encourage them so they can be healed enough to go home, it might make you a dove with claws.” Then he launched into a popular anti-war folksong, “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” about putting an end to war.

I’m not sure what Cash meant by “dove with claws.” Since he sang an antiwar song, I want to say that he believed tenaciously in peace. That phrase has stayed with me, though, “a dove with claws.” I’ve adapted it for my sermon today—titled “Love with Claws.” I use that phrase, “love with claws,” as a kind of definition for “justice.” Justice, I want to say, can be understood as “love with claws.” Or, as Martin Luther King said, quoted on the front of our bulletin today: “Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.” I will be interested if you think this makes sense when I am done…. Continue reading

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On being informed: Faithful living in the Trump era, part 5

Ted Grimsrud—December 12, 2016

My approach to gathering news and information about the world is pretty haphazard. I have not put much time into self-consciously seeking out the best sources. More, I notice some sources that I find helpful and connect with them. In this post, I will simply list what I find helpful. I invite anyone who has additional ideas to share them in the comments.

I don’t offer this out of any sense of expertise on my part. But it is possible there are some sources here that might be new to a few people. In these times, we need to share our thoughts and resources and not worry too much about whether we are profound enough. What I offer here is simply a response to my wife Kathleen’s question: How do you stay informed?

I’m far from being a news junkie. I have pretty much eliminated television and radio from my life. Partly, I find those media to be more conducive to manipulating the watcher/listener.

I used to read corporate media regularly—Time or Newsweek, New York Times, Washington Post. And longer ago I listened to NPR. But I increasingly felt like I was being shaped by them in ways I didn’t like, even if I partook of them critically. I was reminded of this during the primaries this year when I read the Post a lot. I found the pro-Clinton bias quite subtle but relentless—and off-putting.

Now, I try to stay aware with a wide mix of written sources, mostly accessed randomly.For starters, though, to help my convictional framework, I read as much as I can from a core group of thinkers who I trust. This is partly for their information, but maybe even more to reinforce a sense of critical awareness. Some of the key people for me are Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Cornel West. I greatly respect their values, their knowledge and intelligence, and the breadth of their visions for human wellbeing.

I get emails from numerous sources that I scan over quickly. And I do mean “scan.” I never spend more than a few seconds on an email except when, occasionally, I seem something I want to read more thoroughly. Not very sophisticated, but I find this approach useful.

As I put this list together, I realized that I don’t know of any sites from an overt faith perspective other than Tikkun. I would love to learn of more….

Twenty-five informative sites: Continue reading

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The book of Revelation and America’s election: Christian faith in the Trump era, part 3

Ted Grimsrud—December 10, 2016

Perhaps in our tumultuous times following Donald Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States, the book of Revelation may come into its own. If it does as a resource for faithfulness to the way of Jesus, it will be because we read it as a prophetic book in the line of Amos and Jeremiah, not as a book of predictions about the future.

I find Revelation to be a comfort and an inspiration in these troubling days. It comforts with its reminder that the terrible plagues of human history do not negate the reality of God’s love as the most powerful force in the universe. And it inspires with its reminder that the pattern of Jesus (faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth; Rev 1:5) still provides a blueprint for authentic resistance and healing presence for us today.

So, it will be worth taking some time to try to understand the message of Revelation and to reflect on how that message remains relevant (here’s more on my views of Revelation). We are not living in the 1st-century Roman Empire. But perhaps by living in the 21st-century American Empire we still have a point of connection with Revelation’s visions.

Christians seem to be taking several approaches to the election of Trump and the likely upheaval that the US will experience. I want to suggest that Revelation’s teaching might lead us to suspect that each one of these approaches might be problematic.

(1) “We can count on a happy ending”

“We can take comfort that no matter how bad things might be in the present, everything will work out well in the end.” This idea gets support, for some, from the promises in Revelation of the coming of New Jerusalem, the defeat of the Dragon and his people, and the victory of God’s people over God’s enemies. In this view, Revelation is seen as predicting a happy and certain outcome to human history.

In response, I do think that taking Revelation seriously might offer us comfort during our times of distress. However, it is a difficult comfort, not linked with certain happy endings. I understand Revelation to be teaching about how a happy ending might be achieved—by staying true to core convictions such as the centrality of love, even in face of seemingly overwhelming centralized state (and in our time corporate) domination. However, it cannot provide a guarantee that “things will work out.”  That’s up to us—not that we wrest control of history from God and exercise our own domination, but that we must follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Only as we do so can we hope in New Jerusalem.

Continue reading

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The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part two: What to expect and what to hope for

Ted Grimsrud—November 29, 2016

To “break bad” can mean to “go wild,” to “defy authority” and break the law, to be verbally “combative, belligerent, or threatening” or, followed by the preposition “on,” to “completely dominate or humiliate.” [from Wikipedia]

Most of the focus of attention since the election, as it was during the campaign, is on the person of Donald Trump. However, probably in the scheme of things, the resounding success of the Republican Party across the board will have more impact on the nation and on the world. Trump will provide an entertaining sideshow, but I suspect he won’t actually exercise all that much power in relation to the big policy issues or in the day-to-day functioning of the federal government.

So far, it seems that Trump is surrounding himself with prospective cabinet members and top staffers who come from the right side of the Republican world, which is rightish indeed.

What to expect?

We have the precedents of states such as North Carolina and Wisconsin where, when the Republicans have gained a monopoly of power, they have acted quickly and decisively to impose policies that are intended to solidify their power. The “wait and see” talk about the new Trump administration is surely overly naïve. It’s hard to know what could be done to slow the Republicans down, but it seems certain that the changes will be immediate and devastating for democracy and the wellbeing of vulnerable Americans. And it will take a long time for the nation to recover from these actions.

One of the main dynamics to watch will be to see how the new government will work to extend the Republican efforts in recent years to reduce access to voting and to other elements of governmental power. Recent Supreme Court actions related to this that many of us hoped would be turned around with a center-left replacement for the late justice Scalia will instead be reinforced by Trump’s Justice Department. Attorney General designate Jeff Sessions has one of the worst records with regard to voter suppression of any major American politician.

This will happen in part due to the much noted evolution in the demographics of the US that have been seen to favor the Democratic Party—non-white and younger voters tend to tilt more to the left. They will find voting more difficult as the Republicans seek to consolidate their power.

Continue reading

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Introduction to Mennonites and “Homosexuality”: The Struggle to Become a Welcoming Church

Ted Grimsrud—September 6, 2016

[What follows is the introductory chapter to my new book, Mennonites and “Homosexuality”: The Struggle to Become a Welcoming Church (Peace Theology Books). The book is a collection of fifteen essays, blog posts, and lectures written over the past sixteen years that traces my efforts to help encourage the Mennonite community to be more inclusive of sexual minorities. This introduction sets the context for the writings and touches on the argument of the collection as a whole. To learn more about this book, go to its website.]

This book, Mennonites and “Homosexuality”: The Struggle to be a Welcoming Church, gathers materials I have generated over the past 15 years. What the book is about, in a nutshell, a challenge to heterosexist Mennonite resistance to churches welcoming sexual minorities. These articles, lectures, and sermons were my contribution to discernment processes happening in Mennonite settings. I have only lightly edited them. There is some redundancy in the pieces, but the reiteration of elements of my arguments for inclusion seemed to me to be a way to be more clear. As well, retaining most of what I originally wrote helps provide a sense of this collection as a historical document. While the case for welcome I make in these essays remains relevant for the present, this collection also serves as an account of the struggle over these past 15 years.

It’s been an interesting time, with quite a bit of tension and stress, along with some joy and some sense of accomplishment. I’m not sure what kind of whole these various pieces create, but it seemed worth the trouble to find out. Reading the collection over now, I do see a coherent perspective, an application of Jesus’s message of God’s love for all people to this one particular set of issues. Let me begin, with this Introduction, by giving an account of how I came to add voice to the struggle.

A culture of fear

I began my twenty years as a faculty member at Eastern Mennonite University in the fall of 1996. From the beginning I felt some tension. I did want very much to get along with the institution and willingly expected to work within the confines of stated expectations for faculty members (for example, during those early months I willingly refrained from drinking any alcoholic beverages, as per the Community Lifestyle Commitment document I signed).

On the other hand, I have always seen my deepest accountability to be to the gospel message. By 1996, I had come to some solid conclusions regarding the tensions swirling in Mennonite communities over how the churches and broader structures should respond to their gay and lesbian members. I did not come to EMU with the intent to lead a reform movement on campus or in the wider denomination, but I was ready to play a role if opportunities arose—and I expected they would; it seemed that the movement of history was going to require that. Continue reading

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Where is God in the story of Jesus’s death? A response to Tony Jones’s Did God Kill Jesus?

Ted Grimsrud—August 22, 2016

A review of: Tony Jones. Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015. viii + 296pp.

Popular emergent church blogger, writer, and teacher Tony Jones begins this lively exercise in popular theology with a story of a typical summer camp revivalist preacher trying to scare 11- and 12-year olds into a Christian conversion. He points out with horror the spiritual abusiveness of such manipulation. He uses this story to set up his agenda for the book—how can we redeem, as it were, the hurtful story of salvation that summer camp preacher used on the kids?

Jones argues that the way to redeem the Christian notion of salvation is to insist on always putting love at the center. Notions of salvation that are not ultimately about God’s love do not pass the “smell test” and need to be discarded—or at least reshaped.

Looking at the traditional atonement models

Although Jones is critical of received salvation theology and is committed to finding new ways to articulate how Christians should understand salvation that make love central, he still accepts the basic framing of the issues that have characterized evangelical Christianity for the past one hundred years. He starts with a discussion of sacrifice as the central biblical motif and sees Paul’s theology as the core of the biblical teaching.

And, he accepts the approach to atonement theology that has become standard, to consider the various “atonement models.” So he begins with by devoting a section to the “payment model” (i.e., Anselm’s satisfaction model). He then takes up the “victory model” (a.k.a., “Christus Victor,” the approach Gustaf Aulen attributed to the early fathers) and the “magnet model” (i.e., Abelard’s “moral influence” model). These three have stood for several generations as the core “atonement models.” Like many other writers have recently done, Jones seeks to draw on what he sees to be strengths in each model, rather than focusing on one as superior to the others. Continue reading

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Problems with Mennonite Church USA’s “Membership Guidelines”

Ted Grimsrud—December 6, 2015

[This is an abridged version of an earlier post (December 3)—see the longer post for links and references.]

Last summer, delegates to the General Assembly of Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) voted to reaffirm the “Membership Guidelines” that had been created as part of the merger of the Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church (GC). I believe that the Guidelines do not provide a clear theological rationale for their discrimination against LGBTQ Mennonites. Hence, they themselves become another example of Christian disrespect, even emotional violence, toward a vulnerable population.

The content of the 2001 Guidelines

The Guidelines coined the term “teaching position” for its summary of the perspective on the new denomination and specified three central formal elements of the MC USA “position”:

(1) Affirm the 1995 Mennonite Confession of Faith article 19, on “Marriage,” as central to the Guidelines’ position—quoting the oft-cited sentence that defines marriage as “one man, one woman, for life.”

(2) Affirm the statements on human sexuality from the 1986 GC assembly in Saskatoon and to the 1987 MC assembly at Purdue University (“S/P statements”) summarized to name “homosexual … sexual activity as sin.”

(3) Affirm the call made in the S/P statements for the church to be in dialogue with those who hold differing views.

Though the Guidelines repeat, “homosexual sexual activity is sin,” they add no new content, merely citing two earlier documents, the Mennonite Confession of Faith (CofF) and the Saskatoon/Purdue (S/P) statements. So we need to turn to the CofF and S/P statements for the content of this teaching position. Continue reading

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