Positive theology

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the third in a series on salvation and human flourishing. Here’s a link to the second in the series, “What is justice? Love with claws”]

Ted Grimsrud—June 11, 2017

Now that I am not teaching anymore, I am more grateful than ever to have the chance to speak from time to time here at Shalom. As I read and think and write and talk with a few people, but don’t have any bigger public outlet for “thinking aloud” I look forward to having this opportunity to share.

Thinking about “sin”

One of the big things that I been thinking about that I’ve wanted to talk about is “sin.” Not mine, or any of yours, but the general theological theme of “sin.” A lot of my energy these days is going into reading and writing about a huge new book, 1,400 pages, written by megachurch pastor, new Anabaptist, preaching theologian Greg Boyd, called Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. Boyd, who is a strongly committed pacifist, makes a lot of controversial points in this book.I have wondered about the wisdom of trying to take it on because if feels a bit like a black hole—once one starts reading it and gets hooked, it’s hard to get out.

But there is so much that is refreshing and helpful in this book that I find worthy of attention. Boyd, as I said, is a pacifist, and that conviction governs his approach to what he calls the “Old Testament’s violent portraits of God.” That is, he wants to provide Christians with resources for understanding those difficult Old Testament texts as being fully compatible with the message of Jesus. I’m not sure he succeeds fully, but I find it so refreshing to read someone who takes these issues head on.

There is one big theme, though, that troubles me. Actually more than one, but one I want to talk about now. Boyd has a pretty thick view of sin. He shares the common Christian sense that humanity as a whole is under the power of sin. That sin defines the human condition. That the Bible is basically an account for how God deals with the sin problem—that sin matters more than anything else when we think about humanity.

I don’t agree with that view—though it would take me several more sermons to explain fully why and what my alternative view is. Right now, I’ll just say that I think we should have a more positive view of our human condition. Before I get into that more, though, I want to illustrate how the Bible itself gives us mixed messages. Let me read two passages. As I read, please think of a word or a few that strike you about the human condition—words from the passages or words the passages trigger for you. Then we’ll talk a bit. I will first read from Psalm 8 and then from Romans 3:9-18. Continue reading “Positive theology”

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 “What is justice? Love with claws”

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

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

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

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

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

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 “Problems with Mennonite Church USA’s “Membership Guidelines””

Christian Salvation—Part One: Problems with Atonement Theology

Ted Grimsrud—September 13, 2015

[I am in the midst of a series of presentations to a Sunday School class at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on rethinking our understanding of salvation. I was asked to make a total of four presentations, drawing on my 2013 book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books) and various other writings I have produced on this theme. This written version of my first presentation actually sets the context for the book more than summarizes the book. It is a discussion of how our traditional atonement theology is problematic and why it might be useful to think of an alternative. I have found this a useful challenge to summarize the main ideas of this project.]

These are some questions to get you thinking about this topic of Christian salvation: What were you taught (explicitly and implicitly) about (the means of) salvation when you were growing up? How (if at all) have you revised your thinking on that theme? What role (if any) has the idea of Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice played in your beliefs about salvation? How would you characterize the view of God reflected in your salvation theology? What connection would you make between one’s view of salvation and how life is lived out as a follower of Jesus?

“Atonement”

The word “atonement” was coined in English, perhaps very early in the 16th century, as a way to talk about Christian salvation. It was actually created by simply joining together the phrase at-one-ment. It was meant to be used as a way of talking about how human beings are to be reconciled with God. So, “atonement” does not directly translate any Hebrew, Greek, or Latin word; it is something new. It has been called perhaps the only theological term with an English origin.

We should note, then, that the very word “atonement” was created around 400 years after the influential medieval theologian and church leader Anselm of Canterbury wrote his classic text that defined Christian salvation theology—the most influential work for both Catholics and Protestants. Anselm’s position articulated in Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) established what came to be called the “satisfaction” model as the essential understanding of atonement that shaped western Christianity (it is essential to realize that Anselm’s work came about a century after the formal separation between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy as the two main branches of Christianity—and the view of salvation developed in eastern Christianity was quite different than the western theology; so what follows is a critique only of the western, Anselmian theology). Continue reading “Christian Salvation—Part One: Problems with Atonement Theology”