God’s greatest power is mercy [Jesus story #5]

Ted Grimsrud—April 19, 2021

Back in 2001, I published a little book with the subtitle, “An Introduction to the Bible’s Main Themes.” I had a hard time for a while figuring out what the main title should be. How would I best catch up those “main themes” in a short phrase? The title I came up with was, “God’s healing strategy,” a phrase I had used in some sermons that were the early version of what went into the book. Several people I talked with about this thought that was a pretty weak title. It kind of makes God into a basketball coach—which isn’t too surprising, I suppose, since my dad was a basketball coach and certainly did talk about “strategy” a lot. But no one came up with a better idea, so “God’s healing strategy” it stayed.

If I could name the book now, I might try “A God Who Heals” or “Healing Mercy.” Or maybe, “Healing Stories” with a triple meaning—stories about God’s healing work, stories that help people find healing, but also an attempt to heal the way we read and apply at least some of the Bible’s stories.

Regardless, this is what I would want to get at with the title: The main focus of the Bible, as I understand it, centers on God and God’s intentions to bring healing to a world full of brokenness—and on how God brings such healing. These are the issues the Bible cares about, I would say: What needs healing—and how is the healing to be done? And, what does the story of Jesus have to say about these issues? Why do we pay attention to Jesus in relation to the Bible’s message of healing?

Continue reading “God’s greatest power is mercy [Jesus story #5]”

To turn from the abyss toward Jubilee [Jesus story #4]

Ted Grimsrud—April 15, 2021

There is a saying, attributed to the 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson, that nothing so concentrates the mind as the prospect of the gallows. I have found that for me, nothing so concentrates the mind quite like having grandchildren. Learning to know Elias and Marja, the future becomes less abstract. The question of where we are going becomes more intense. As the folksinger Jim Page asks, “Whose world is this? What kind of world will our children receive, after all is said and done? What kind of creed have we come to believe, that they may never receive one? What kind of creed are we to believe, if they are to receive one?” Indeed.

When I ask the question Why do we pay attention to Jesus? I don’t think we can hope (or should hope) to find just one answer. Lots of us have lots of reasons. One reason, maybe, for paying attention to Jesus is that in him we find hope, we find a “creed,” a belief, that might guide our future so that our children and their children might have a world. Let’s start by reading several brief texts from the Bible as a guide as we think: What is our hope? What’s it based on? What kind of “creed” do we need to believe in to have a “world”?

For six years you shall sow your land and gather its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. Six days you shall do your work, but in the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn servant and the alien may be refreshed. Be attentive to all that I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips. Exodus 23:10-13

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, who has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. For I the Lord love justice and hate wrongdoing. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.Isaiah 61:1-11

I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: “Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed!” Revelation 15:2-4

Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:16-21

Continue reading “To turn from the abyss toward Jubilee [Jesus story #4]”

Son of Adam, Son of God [Jesus story #3]

Ted Grimsrud—April 12, 2021

One way to read the history of Christianity is as a constant, and consistent, effort to evade the actual message of Jesus with formal theology and with alliances with kings and emperors. Yet time after time, the gospel struggles forth, and people are reminded, yes, he calls us to love our neighbors, he calls us to resist domination, and he calls us to care for our children—and all other children.

A common way that Christians have answered the question, why do we pay attention to Jesus, is with a kind of slogan: “He’s the Son of God.” In this post, I want to take that slogan very seriously. Yes, he is the Son of God. But what does that mean, to say Jesus is the Son of God?

Let’s read parts of several biblical passages that directly or indirectly speak to this question:

The kings of the earth set themselves…against the Lord and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” [This king says,] “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’” (Psalm 2:1-9)

Here is my servant, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God; I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isa 42:1-9)

I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll. Then one of the elders said to me, “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw a Lamb standing as if it had been slain. He went and took the scroll. “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you freed for God saints of every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev 5:1-10)

Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority. If you will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” When the devil had finished, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1-13)

In light of these texts, what are some words or phrases that come to mind to say what you think of when you think of Jesus as “Son of God”?

Continue reading “Son of Adam, Son of God [Jesus story #3]”

Singing Down Mercy [Jesus story #2]

Ted Grimsrud—April 9, 2021

A number of years ago in some South American country, so the story goes, there was a white wall on the side of a grocery store where the face of Jesus suddenly appeared after a thunderstorm. Hundreds of people came to pray to the image of Jesus and some of the sick went away cured. But then, a few days later, there was another thunderstorm, and this Jesus figure was revealed to actually be just a picture of Willie Nelson—there had been a poster of Willie on the wall that had been painted over some time before and the rain had washed the paint off. Now Willie’s pretty cool, but it was the picture of Jesus that brought the crowds. People do pay attention to Jesus.

With this post, I want to continue further reflections on why we pay attention to Jesus, what about his message brings us good news. I suggested in my first post in this series that many elements of the popular interest in Jesus in our society and actually around the world do contain quite a bit of wisdom. The motivations that fuel paying attention to Jesus for many people (Christian and non) often flow out of a desire to embrace life, to live compassionately, and to impact the world for the better.

I hope in these posts to look more closely at the actual gospel story of Jesus, maybe in part to challenge, deepen, and correct the popular impulses—but I think, also, to confirm and affirm those impulses.

Jesus and the Bible’s songs

Our first step in approaching Jesus, I think, should be to situate him in the broader biblical story. Now we could do this in various ways—a barrage of historical facts, a litany of prophesies, or finding biblical groundings for the doctrines and creeds of Christendom. I want to take a different approach, though. Let’s look quickly at a few of the Bible’s songs—words of poetry, words of singing. Now, we will see, I think—as we should expect—when we look at songs, we look at a form of communication notable for its vulnerability, its emphasis on emotion, on intuition, on hope, and on longing.

Continue reading “Singing Down Mercy [Jesus story #2]”

Why we pay attention to Jesus? [Jesus story #1]

Ted Grimsrud—April 6, 2021

I recently looked back over the more than ten years I have been blogging at ThinkingPacifism.net. I realized that I have written quite a bit over these years about pacifism, Christian faith, politics, and other topics that have caught my attention (323 posts and counting). But in all that, I haven’t written very much about Jesus. I don’t plan to analyze why, but I am challenged to think about how the story of Jesus might be relevant to thinking about pacifism. So, I am starting a series of posts that will look at the story of Jesus as found in the gospel of Luke.

Jesus as a famous person

Jesus is a pretty amazing guy. Here’s this ancient character in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. He barely made it to his thirties and then joined countless other expendable people who the Empire considered worth executing.

Yet, in his afterlife, he became surely the most famous human being in world history. I guess somebody had to be the “most famous person,” but you wouldn’t expect it would be a character like this. Now, certainly, the story of Jesus has been twisted and turned, exploited for evil purposes, corrupted almost beyond recognition—but somehow sprouts keep shooting up through the rubble, bringing forth flowers, revealing something of the beauty of the original vision of this prophet who history can’t let go of.

Of course, I doubt I need to persuade my readers of the beauty of this vision—it seems self-evident, if we are going to think about pacifism we will want to think about Jesus. But we don’t necessarily think carefully about Jesus. I think it’s good to bring to the surface our convictions, our reasons for paying attention to Jesus.

But let’s start with a moment of reflection—what is your gut response to this question: “Why do you pay attention to Jesus?” To stimulate your thought, here are a couple of Bible passages—the first, from Isaiah, speaks of a vision the prophet was given about an agent of God’s healing, a vision Christians later related to Jesus. Second, a statement from Jesus himself from the gospel of Luke that in a sense addresses this question of why we should pay attention to him. It is his response to being asked about his own identity.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1-4)

The disciples of John [the Baptist] reported all these things [that is, Jesus’ teachings and healings,] to him. So, John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to [Jesus], they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Luke 7:18-23)

Continue reading “Why we pay attention to Jesus? [Jesus story #1]”

Is Christian pacifism a thing?

Ted Grimsrud—May 20, 2019

I can imagine several ways that the question I ask in the title of this post could go, so I want to start by explaining what I mean. By pacifism, I have in mind the principled unwillingness to support or participate in warfare or other forms of lethal violence (though I will say a bit more below that will define pacifism in more detail). For the purposes of what I write here, I assume the validity of pacifism. My question has to do with whether there is a type of pacifism that is uniquely Christian—that is, in effect, only available to Christians.

To make this more personal, I can rephrase the question: (1) Am I a pacifist because I am a Christian? Or, (2) Am I a Christian because I am a pacifist? Which comes first? Which is more essential? Now, of course, most Christians are not pacifists. And surely many pacifists are not Christians. As I have thought about this lately, I have come to conclude that though my self-awareness of having an explicitly pacifist commitment came at a time when I would have believed #1 (that I was a pacifist because I was a Christian), I now think that #2 is true for me (that is, to the extent I would see myself as a Christian it is because I am a pacifist and I know of a kind of Christianity that affirms pacifism). I should also say before I go further that I recognize that so much of this kind of discussion depends on how we define our terms. I will try to do that with care as I move along—but I request of the reader some tolerance with the limits of our language. I offer these reflections more as a kind of thought experiment than pretending to present anything definitive. Continue reading “Is Christian pacifism a thing?”

The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—May 8, 2018

I have read with great appreciation many of the books John Dominic Crossan has written over the years and have heard him speak several times. A few years ago he published a book I found pretty helpful and relevant to my interests, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015). I don’t know for sure whether Crossan, who is Catholic, shares my pacifist convictions, but he clearly cares deeply about peace on earth.

The right agenda

I believe that Crossan has exactly the correct agenda for this book. He argues, “escalatory violence now directly threatens the future of our species and indirectly undermines solutions to other survival problems such as global warming, overpopulation, and resource management” (p. 244). He writes this book in order to address that problem, to show how the Bible can be used in ways that contribute to violence, and to suggest ways the Bible might be read that will actually help us move toward peace.

Crossan’s book may be read alongside Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). Boyd and Crossan happily share deep convictions about helping Christians deal with the violence in the Bible in way that will empower Christians to be peaceable today. They approach the issues quite differently, though. The differences are significant, for sure. I would recommend reading both works as a way of getting a sense of the breadth of possibilities for Bible-centered peace theologies.

One big difference between these two thinkers is how they think of biblical inspiration. Boyd affirms what he understands to be a very high view of inspiration, and as a consequence he undertakes to construct a quite detailed and elaborate argument for how he can see the Bible as truthful throughout and yet also argue that the Bible is consistently a book of peace. I have written a lengthy critique of Boyd’s argument. I see it as way too convoluted. But I find his work enormously instructive.

Crossan, on the other hand, has no trouble with asserting that parts of the Bible simply are untrue. This makes his argument much simpler and more straightforward than Boyd’s—though not without problems of its own. I am not fully happy with Crossan’s approach, either. I think he too quickly accepts the presence of major internal contradictions within the Bible and thus misses some insights that an attempt to read the Bible’s overall message as largely coherent might provide. However, in this blog post I want to focus my criticisms of Crossan elsewhere. Continue reading “The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation”

Trump as “Anointed One”: But who’s the anointer?

David L. Myers—February 27, 2018

[I am happy to welcome my old friend, David Myers, to Thinking Pacifism as the author of this guest post. David served a number of year as a Mennonite pastor in Kansas and Illinois and as a social service administrator in Chicago. He also worked in the Obama administration for about eight years. We attended the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary together in the early 1980s and before that both grew up in Oregon. He is especially interested in public theology.]

Okay, Evangelicals of a certain type; let’s play a little game of mix and match.

First, a little about the game itself, whose genesis was a headline: “Why is it so hard for Trump to say that evil things are evil?” (Washington Post, February 15, 2018)

Hmmm…why, indeed, I wondered. How can so many (though not all) Evangelicals, who believe someone like Trump has been anointed or been put in the presidency by God, have such a difficult time condemning what they themselves believe to be evil? (I’ll save you the mind-numbing list from Trump’s own twittering fingers and prevaricating tongue—it’s in the public domain.)

Then a series of thoughts fell into place, as if the right key finally unlocked the tumblers. God’s anointed. That’s the key—but not in the way you may think.

The root of Jesus the Christ means Jesus the Anointed One. Here’s the recently deceased R.C. Sproul, a leading Evangelical theologian, commenting on the Gospel of Matthew’, chapter 16:

Then Jesus asked the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 15b). Peter answered with what is known as the great confession, a statement of his belief as to the identity of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (v. 16). With these words, Peter declared that Jesus was the Christos, the Mashiach, the Anointed One.

Jesus: Tempted in the wilderness

A seminal moment in the life of Jesus was his baptism in the River Jordan. It was then that the Holy Spirit announced his Sonship, his anointing. The life of Jesus the Christ, the life of the Anointed One, was publicly inaugurated. And what happens immediately thereafter? The Synoptic Gospels agree: he was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the Slanderer (The New Testament, A Translation by David Bentley Hart).

There were three temptations and there are a variety of interpretations of their respective meanings. I’ll go with Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud’s take on Luke 4:3-13 (from personal email correspondence). Continue reading “Trump as “Anointed One”: But who’s the anointer?”

Exorcising the ghosts of fundamentalism

Ted Grimsrud—February 27, 2017

It is common in my circles of friends and acquaintances to encounter people who are former fundamentalist or evangelical Christians and who now distance themselves from that past faith perspective. Often, the rationales for the changes have to do with the Bible. For the sake of opposition to violence, to religious arrogance and exclusivism, to judgmentalism and the like, my friends will say the Bible is so hurtful, so damaging. Maybe they will add that they like Jesus but they see the Old Testament as profoundly problematic—and maybe Paul and Revelation too.

 I am sympathetic with such sentiments. I spent a period of my life in my late teens and early twenties as first a fundamentalist and then evangelical Christian. Starting with my embrace of pacifism at the time of my 22nd birthday, I fairly quickly came to distance myself from those traditions (I tell the story of that evolution here). And I agree that the way the Bible is used by many conservative Christians is problematic and helps underwrite violence and other hurtful attitudes and actions. And I do think it is true that there are materials in the Bible that do lend themselves to hurtful uses.

However, at the same time I love the Bible and most of my theological work consists of engaging the Bible as a positive resource for peace (several of my books focus on the Bible and peace: see, for example, Triumph of the LambGod’s Healing StrategyInstead of Atonement; and Arguing Peace). I often have been told by post-fundamentalist friends (and others) that while they admire my attempts to wring some peace from the Bible, they think I am engaged in spin, at times even in ways that seem dishonest or at least overly and misleadingly optimistic.

I had one such conversation just recently after preaching a sermon. As we talked, I realized that my friend was actually still reading the Bible in a quite conservative way. It’s just that now she disagrees with what she finds there. So I suggested that it would help if she could move past her fundamentalist hermeneutic. She agreed, but also noted that such a move is very difficult. Not so much because she still wants to believe in that approach, but that it is so deeply ingrained in her psyche that she can’t simply by a quick and easy decision get rid of it.

One small aid to help a post-fundamentaist move away from a fundamentalist biblical hermeneutic might be simply to articulate what a post-fundamentalist approach to affirming the Bible as a peace book might look like. Continue reading “Exorcising the ghosts of fundamentalism”

What would Jesus say about the Russians?

Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2017

“What would Jesus say?” is a common questions Christians ask when they are in the midst of discerning what they themselves should say or do. For it to be a helpful question, I think we do better to think in terms of Jesus’s general moral outlook more than looking for specific verses to apply directly to our time.

I’m not sure I would say that people of good will (not only professing Christians) must ask this question—but I think it would almost always serve us well. And, clearly, if we draw from Jesus’s general moral outlook, we retain a large measure of responsibility to think and reason and act for ourselves. Jesus’s moral outlook gives us guidance but it does not give us a direct blueprint.

Currently, in the United States, we are badly in need of careful moral discernment. We are badly in deed of a moral outlook that gives us a stable set of moral convictions that will resist our tendency to look for guidance that justifies our own actions or simply allows us to condemn our enemies because they are our enemies. That is, we are in need of moral guidance that demands that whatever criteria for morality we use apply equally to ourselves as they do to our opponents.

It is risky right now to appeal to Jesus because so many people in power present themselves as “Christians” while acting and speaking in ways that are very much in tension with the actual life and teaching of Jesus. So, to evoke Jesus makes one vulnerable to be dismissed as simply another pious-sounding hypocrite. At the same time, appealing to Jesus’s actual moral outlook might provide a basis for challenging the approaches of self-professing Christians. That is what I hope to do with this blog post.

Continue reading “What would Jesus say about the Russians?”