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]”

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]”

“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part two]

Ted Grimsrud—April 10, 2019

The purpose of this “thought experiment,” as I see it, is to reflect on how “Anabaptist” might work better than “Christian” or “Mennonite” as a descriptor of the radical faith that offers the best possibilities for responding creatively to the challenges of life in North America in the early 21st century. In Part One I described why I have problems with the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” ways of interpreting the Bible and our world and our faith. In what follows, I will describe more what I mean by “Anabaptist” as an alternative way of interpreting.

A way to think about Anabaptism

I believe that in approaching the topic of “Anabaptism” we should be straightforward about the kinds of questions we have in mind in approaching it as well as recognizing the need to be as accurate as possible in discussing the 16th century phenomena themselves. My questions have most of all to do with what resources might we find in the story of the original Anabaptists that might inform our lives today. I also wonder whether we might discern an Anabaptist approach to faith that could serve as a corrective to the interpretive angles we find in what I call the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” approaches.

A key theme for me in taking up this project of discernment is how these various angles relate to how we read the Bible. A central criterion for me is how helpful, accurate, and authentic the angles are to the message of the Bible. In fact, though the 16th century is of great interest in evaluating the Anabaptist take on faith, what matters even more is the first-century in that the truly normative “vision” that followers of Jesus should be concerned with is the one presented in the New Testament (and the Old Testament read in relation to the New). Is it possible that the Anabaptist angle gets us closer to Jesus’s take on things than the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” angles?

I have taken a cue from studies of Jesus for how I want to approach the Anabaptists—and seek for a sense of coherence among the diverse expressions of radical Christianity in the 16th century. It is common among historians of the Jesus movement to suggest that maybe the central question to ask for understanding what happened back then is this: Why was Jesus executed by the Romans? This is the version I ask of the Anabaptists: Why did they get into trouble? One thing that seems clear is that in their various iterations, just about all the Anabaptists got into trouble, and in their various locations they died by the thousands.

I suggest that we do find a sense of commonality when we ask this question. I think we may see four broad themes that were key reasons the large majority of them got into trouble—most of these themes are present in most of the Anabaptist communities, diverse as they might otherwise be. Continue reading ““Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part two]”

Despairing for Mennonite Church, USA

Ted Grimsrud—February 23, 2019

When Mennonite Church USA was formed in 2000 by the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church (minus the Canadian halves of those two denominations who joined to form a separate denomination, MC Canada), its total membership was well over 100,000. Now, eighteen years later, that number has dropped to about half of what it was. I have no analysis as to why exactly this has happened, but I do think just about everyone involved would agree that these are difficult times for this young denomination.

I also think that many of us feel a bit despairing about this trajectory and the possibilities for the near future. In this blog post, I will reflect on just one element of the situation that has fostered my discouragement—the difficulties we have had for many years in engaging one another in serious conversations about the issues that matter the most to us, often issues that involve tension and conflict.

A rocky beginning

I had a difficult beginning to my pastoral career. In my first permanent pastorate that began in 1987, I immediately faced the challenge of how to process a request for membership from two gay men in a committed relationship. I strongly supported them but was not sure how to process the request in our small congregation. We were quite liberal for a Mennonite congregation at that time, but this was a new question for most of the people.

Not long before I started at the church, it had spent some time discussing biblical and theological issues and people quickly realized they could not hope to find agreement. So, to my disappointment, they weren’t interested in me leading them in an examination of the issues on an academic level (even though when I joined them, I was in the midst of writing a dissertation in Christian ethics and was chomping at the bit to utilize my expertise).

Our leadership team decided the best approach would be to interview members and active participants individually to get a sense of the overall attitude, and then to have a congregational meeting to discern together how to move forward. We insisted that the two prospective members be fully involved and always be informed of what was happening. The interviews indicated that while most people were in favor of affirming the membership request, there was also some significant opposition. Continue reading “Despairing for Mennonite Church, USA”

An authentic witness: Remembering Norman Kraus

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2018

As I appreciatively joined in the memorial service yesterday (April 28) for my friend Norman Kraus, who died on April 6 at the age of 94, I reflected on my first encounter with his writing. Back in the Spring of 1976, if I had imagined that 42 years later I would be sitting in a Mennonite church in Virginia grieving the loss of the author of The Community of the Spirit as one who had been my good friend for over 20 years I would have been pretty shocked.

My final term attending the University of Oregon, Spring 1976, was when I decided not to pursue journalism as a career. I went ahead and graduated that term, but with no intent to stay with journalism. I had gotten intensely involved in a small evangelical congregation, gotten bitten by the theology bug, and read with great attention writings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul among others.

I took to browsing the shelves at Northwest Christian College, next door to the UO, looking for books to help me deepen my theological understanding. I happened upon a small volume written by a man named C. Norman Kraus who was identified as a Mennonite professor at a college in Indiana. Not only did the name Goshen College mean nothing to me, the term Mennonite also meant nothing to me.

However, when I started looking at the book, I quickly was hooked. Kraus spoke a language I understood—”discipleship,” “community,” “the gospel of peace.” I read the book thoroughly a couple of times and began to look for other Mennonite writings. That lead to Guy Hershberger, John Howard Yoder, and Millard Lind. It also led us to going to hear Myron Augsburger when my wife Kathleen and I visited her family in Arizona. One thing led to another, we visited the Mennonite congregation in Eugene, headed for Elkhart, Indiana, to attend the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, and by 1981 we joined the Mennonite church and embarked on a long surprisingly fraught journey.

The writings of Norman Kraus were the starting point for all this. For better or worse, he played a foundational role in my life as a Mennonite. I personally would say absolutely for the “better.” I am deeply grateful for the role Norman played in my theological development, and in more recent years in my remaining in good standing as a college professor and pastor in the Mennonite world. Some who do not appreciate his theological journey (or mine) might say for the “worse.” Continue reading “An authentic witness: Remembering Norman Kraus”

The fascinating story of a 20th century Mennonite pioneer

Ted Grimsrud

[What follows is a review of one of the latest of a series of biographies of important 20th century Mennonite leaders (some of the others include books about Edmund Kaufman, Harold Bender, Guy Hershberger, and Orie Miller). This book does a nice job of making the story of the largely forgotten pioneering historian, C. Henry Smith. It will be published in Brethren in Christ History & Thought.]

Perry Bush. Peace, Progress, and the Professor: The Mennonite History of C. Henry Smith. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2015. 457 pages. $29.99.

 Henry Smith (1875-1948) was a fascinating and important American Mennonite figure whose story has been well told by Perry Bush in Peace, Progress, and the Professor: The Mennonite History of C. Henry Smith.

Born Henry Smith to an Amish farming family near Metamora, Illinois, just as the Mennonite world in North America was beginning a new phase of intense assimilation, this pioneering scholar and successful small-town businessman in many ways marks important transformations in the Mennonite world. He may not have won that many of the Mennonite conflicts he found himself in during the first half of the 20th century, but as Bush helps us see, Smith prefigured much about what this Mennonite world has become.

The attractions of education

Early in his life, Smith (the third of eight children) discovered the attractions of education to the degree that he stepped away from his expected farming future as a young adult and devoted his own energies to a teaching career. He started off working in rural schools but his circle kept expanding. He received all of his formal education in the state of Illinois—a very new Illinois Normal School (eventually Illinois State), the University of Illinois, and the University of Chicago.

By the time Smith received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago, he had been hired to teach at the just established Goshen College. Smith, who as a young adult added the “C.” to his name to make himself more distinctive, was one of the first Mennonites to earn a Ph.D. and allegedly was the first to gain that degree and remain a Mennonite. Continue reading “The fascinating story of a 20th century Mennonite pioneer”

A new book!

Ted Grimsrud—September 6, 2016

I am happy to announce the publication of a new collection of my writings, Mennonites and “Homosexuality”: The Struggle to Become a Welcoming Church. The essays, blog posts, and lectures in this collection were produced over the past fifteen years in the context of the conversations in Mennonite communities concerning inclusion of sexual minorities.

Some of the chapters focus on biblical interpretation, some on the history of Mennonite responses to these issues, and some on responding to many of the writings Christians have produced during these years.

The book both provides a historical perspective on these challenging years for Mennonites and a coherent biblical and theological argument in favor of inclusion.

Here is a link to the book’s website that includes information on purchasing the book. It is now available as a paperback online from Amazon ($20) and Barnes and Noble ($15.58) and as an e-book on Amazon Kindle ($8). It may also be purchased directly from the author ($10 in person and $15 postpaid through the mail).

It’s time for a change….Reflections on a transition

Ted Grimsrud—May 3, 2016

It’s time for a change
I’m tired of that same ol’ same
The same ol’ words the same ol’ lines
The same ol’ tricks and the same ol’ rhymes

Days precious days
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend I got planks to nail
I got charts to make I got seas to sail

I’m gonna build me a boat
With these two hands
It’ll be a fair curve
From a noble plan
Let the chips fall where they will
Cause I’ve got boats to build

Guy Clark, “Boats to Build”

Last Friday, I turned in my grades for the last time. I gave my last exam last Wednesday. It was about a year ago that I decided that this would be my final year teaching at Eastern Mennonite University and that  I would take an early retirement. Or, as Kathleen and I see it, I will transition from being a full-time college professor who writes on the side to being a full-time writer.

Last Sunday morning in church, I shared about my plans. I mentioned that EMU does not put a lot of pressure on faculty to publish; it’s not really a “publish or perish” place. But now, the pressure will increase. As Kathleen will be taking on a more central role in providing our income, she’s telling me that it will be “publish or perish.” I think she’s kidding (a little, at least), but we both certainly are excited about this transition and have high expectations.

The past year since I “gave my notice” moved quickly, and I am excited for it to be over. It’s been a good year in many ways, but not for a second have I doubted that it is time for this change—even if I am not entirely sure what to expect in these years to come. As Guy Clark sings, “Let the chips fall where they will, ’cause I’ve got boats to build.”

A time of transition like this may be a good time to look back and to look ahead. How did I get here? What clues about what’s to come may be discerned in the trajectory what what has gone before? How have I been prepared for this new stage?

It is a bit unsettling to notice a pattern in my life. Things fit pretty much into 20 year segments. I have my younger years of formal education and a kind of meandering in terms of getting a sense of my life’s vocation and passion. That period ended, it seems to me now, in the Spring of 1976, my last term in college when I took my first philosophy classes (I never did take a religion class in high school or college). I was primed for the classes (“Philosophy of Religion” and “Existentialism”). The previous couple of decades had prepared me, in a way, so those classes turned out to be a gateway to a life of a theologian. Continue reading “It’s time for a change….Reflections on a transition”

Should “love” define a Christian university?

Ted Grimsrud

[The following was shared as an opening meditation at a Eastern Mennonite University faculty assembly, November 16, 2015.]

Critiquing North American higher eduction

I listened to Henry Giroux, a political philosopher at Canada’s McMaster University, on the radio a couple of weeks ago. He detailed crises in higher education in North America—and focused, among other things, on how higher education’s work of fostering genuine democracy is increasingly subordinated to the ever more all-encompassing corporate agenda. We have seen these issues dramatically illustrated in the recent student uprising at the University of Missouri.

I am quite sympathetic with Giroux’s critique and think it is relevant for how we think of our work here at EMU. Whatever it all is that “Christian” higher education might be about, it seems like it must include many of the things Giroux talks about—confronting our “cold commodity culture” for the sake of social wholeness, justice, care for the vulnerable, a stronger and more vital democratic public sphere.

But I also felt something was missing in his presentation. That I have a hard time naming what I missed might reflect my own failure of theological imagination. The best I can do is say that there is not much talk about love in his vision. There’s not a lot of talk about compassion, servanthood, turning the other cheek, a Martin Luther King-style sense of “self-suffering” for the sake of social justice.

As I think about what it might mean to be a genuinely Christian college, shaped most of all by the core convictions that the Bible articulates for us, I think of a call to combine social critique with love; to combine saying no to empire, no to corporatism, with saying yes to compassion, to care, to kindness, to valuing each person. Continue reading “Should “love” define a Christian university?”

Revelation, God’s Wrath, Healing Justice, and Mennonite Church USA

Ted Grimsrud—July 6, 2015

I hope to have quite a bit more to say about the Book of Revelation and about Mennonite Church USA in the days to come, but since I don’t know when those opportunities will arise, I wanted to share a brief reflection from this morning’s work on Revelation.

“Wrath” in Revelation

A major theme in Revelation is “wrath.” The term is used throughout the book (far more than anywhere else in the New Testament). Often, our English translations perhaps misleadingly add the word “God” as in “God’s wrath” rather than simply “wrath.”

This addition is not unwarranted; generally it is clear from the context that there is a close association between God and “wrath.” But I think it is important to recognize that the absence of the direct connection also likely indicates something significant—perhaps that we should recognize that “wrath” is not the same thing as a direct act by an angry God (I also have in mind to write a blog post soon that reflects in much more detail on the notion of God as an “angry God).

In many of it uses in Revelation, “wrath” seems to indicate more a sense of the outworking in history of negative consequences of human actions and beliefs—kind of an indirect expression of God’s negative response to human injustice. “The wrath” reflects not so much God’s direct intervention as a sense that God’s creation carries within it the dynamics of cause and effect where at some point injustice does lead to brokenness; you live by the sword, you likely will die by the sword.

An added dimension

What I was struck with today, as I was looking closely at the third series of terrible plagues in Revelation, described in chapters 15 and 16, is the thought that maybe a significant element of the experience of “wrath” depends upon the perspective on the agents on the human side of the God/human relationship. That is, an element of the meaning of “wrath” is that we perceive something as “wrathful” or not depending on our way of seeing the world.

Maybe—and at this point this is just a question, I haven’t really looked more closely at the text in light of this thought—what some people experience as God’s love in Revelation is experienced by others as God’s wrath. What is attractive about this thought to me is that then we don’t have to struggle with the deeply problematic idea that God acts sometimes in loving ways and sometimes in punitive ways, that God is divided within Godself between love and punitive justice, that God’s intention for humanity is partly salvific and partly punitive. Continue reading “Revelation, God’s Wrath, Healing Justice, and Mennonite Church USA”