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

Ted Grimsrud—January 3, 2020

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

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

Can “schisms” be good?

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

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

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

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

Ted Grimsrud—December 16, 2019

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

The context for a conversion

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

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

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

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

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

War of words: The key to understanding the book of Revelation (Peaceable Revelation #2)

Ted Grimsrud—July 22, 2019

A high percentage of people who are interested in the book of Revelation believe that it is a book about violence and God’s punitive judgment. They take, for example, the imagery of blood flowing for miles as high as a horse’s bridal (14:20) in some literal sense as a vision of a future total war that will destroy God’s enemies and lead to the coming of New Jerusalem. Some of those who interpret Revelation in this way are horrified by such imagery and believe that its presence is a good reason to dismiss Revelation out of hand. Part of the vehemence of this dismissal follows from the presence of many more interpreters who actually welcome this violent vision as evidence that they will be united with God in eternity and that God’s enemies will be condemned to everlasting torment.

I think this future-prophetic approach is simply wrong. It fails to recognize the symbolic character of the imagery of Revelation. Partly this is due to a failure properly to understand the message of Jesus from the gospels as being a message of peace for this world. These interpretations then add another failure to that failure, which is to fail to recognize that the character of the Lamb in Revelation reveals that this imaginative book itself also brings a message of peace. I am convinced that we read Revelation appropriately as being in full harmony with the life and teaching of Jesus presented in the gospels. When Revelation 1:1 tells us that what follows is a “Revelation of Jesus Christ,” it makes a point that is indeed to be taken literally: the purpose of the account of this “revelation” is to help us better to follow the way of the Jesus of the gospels.

The “harshness” of Revelation

Of course, Revelation does contain some harsh appearing imagery (such as the flowing blood of 14:20, the devastating fall of the “Great Harlot” in chapter 17, the destructive sword of 19:11-21, and numerous others). However, the book makes it clear that its governing image is that of the Lamb, who wins the victory the book celebrates with his self-giving love (see especially 5:5-14 and 12:10-11). If we read the book in light of this governing image, then we will come to a different understanding of the “war” that is portrayed in the book—and of the means to fight that war that the book advocates.

The book does use the image of the “Lamb’s war” (17:14). When we note all the other violent imagery, it is understandable that peaceable people would find it difficult to embrace the war image. Several years ago I gave a paper on Revelation at a conference on “compassionate eschatology” (“Biblical Apocalyptic: What is being revealed?”) making the case for the Lamb’s war being a peaceable image. One audience member argued strongly with me, and I never did convince her. I respect her sense that we need to reject the use of war imagery of Jesus because that imagery is irredeemable in our modern world. At the same time, this is the imagery we have, and I tend to think that by embracing the imagery in Revelation and orienting it in light of how the book actually uses that imagery we may find important resources for actively resisting the domination system we live in the midst of. Continue reading “War of words: The key to understanding the book of Revelation (Peaceable Revelation #2)”

Losing inerrancy (Theological memoir #2)

Ted Grimsrud—July 10, 2019

When I was 17 years old, almost exactly 47 years ago, I made a decision to become a Christian. At the time, my motivation was that I wanted to know the truth. As a thoughtful, idealistic adolescent, I thought about truth a lot. I didn’t have many people to discuss this with, hardly any actually. But I was thinking and thinking.

I was ready to make a move, though, and I did get an explanation from one close friend that I found persuasive. So I took the step of asking Jesus to be my savior. I truly meant it, and my life did change—mainly, I’d say now, in terms of consciously thinking of myself as a Christian and getting involved in a local church and trying to follow the guidance I was then given in that church. I also began to pray and to read the Bible.

As I think about it now, I find it helpful to separate two basic ways of entering Christianity with a desire to “know the truth.” There may be others, perhaps many, but these are the two that come to mind now.

The first, is that Christianity offers a truthful explanation for the meaning of life that one accepts as authoritative. The Christian’s task is to grow in acceptance of that explanation, that authoritative teaching of what is true. This approach offers a sense of certainty and security along with the comfort of knowing that one is on God’s side and will spend eternity with God. The Bible works as a repository of facts, definitive commands, direct guidance, the way God speaks to human beings—a detailed blueprint that offers absolutes that are over against other truth claims.

The second way is to think of the truthfulness of Christianity as a prod to the imagination, a kind of lens for looking at life in the most perceptive way possible. In this approach, Christianity offers a story that helps connect with other stories. The Bible is perceived to be a master story that helps uncovers truths told in other stories.

Without realizing it at the time, I was looking for truthfulness in the second sense, I was looking for a way to feed my imagination—and I found myself in a community that presented Christianity as being truthful in the first sense. I’d say now that I experienced enough of the kind of truthfulness that I was looking for to keep my faith alive. However, my first four years or so as a Christian were pretty uninteresting, even stilted. These years included my senior year in high school and my first three years in college. I have a hard time remembering ever being excited about anything intellectual. I feel like I was kind of in a daze during that time, more or less sleepwalking through my classes and reading light stuff just for fun in my spare time. As I think of my experience of the Bible, it illustrates what my overall Christian experience was like. Continue reading “Losing inerrancy (Theological memoir #2)”

Revelation for post-Christians (Peaceable Revelation #1)

Ted Grimsrud—June 27, 2019

Let’s imagine a bright, compassionate, spiritual-not-religious churchgoer—I’ll call him “Justin.” “Justin” is a person who grew up in a fairly traditional Christian home. He experienced church as a relatively benign part of his life, though he never took the belief system very seriously. He got married fairly young to someone with a similar background, became a schoolteacher, and had a couple of kids. He’s politically progressive and likes hanging around with like-minded people.

“Justin” would not necessarily call himself a Christian—he’s repulsed by the current expression of popular conservative Christianity with its support for Trump. But he also wouldn’t call himself an atheist and he is comfortable being active in his local congregation. We could say he’s a “post-Christian” (in distinction from anti-Christian atheist, secular humanist, or even unaffiliated agnostic). What would you expect that “Justin’s” attitude about the book of Revelation would be?

If he has given it any thought, I would assume that “Justin” would think Revelation is pretty bad. He wouldn’t feel any obligation to give it the benefit of the doubt because he has no loyalty to each book in the Bible as inherently authoritative and normative. He may know about how Revelation is used as predictive prophecy by conservative Christians to, for example, justify blind support for Israel’s vicious policies toward Palestinians. He also may know that Revelation is often cited as a basis for belief in a near future terrible “Tribulation” that will lead to great punitive judgment for most of the world—and the miraculous rescue in the Rapture of conservative Christians. All this seems quite repulsive to “Justin,” and he has no reason to doubt that these views are an accurate interpretation of Revelation itself.

I would like to invite “Justin” to give Revelation a chance. I think there are good reasons for post-Christians (as well as pre-Christians and current Christians!) to look to Revelation for hopeful and inspiring guidance. I will sketch a few of those in this post, recognizing that a positive appreciation of Revelation is a learned disposition—and one that requires some nuanced reading. I can only be suggestive in the short space I have allotted myself here, and point to further explanations I have given elsewhere. Continue reading “Revelation for post-Christians (Peaceable Revelation #1)”

Pacifism in America, part one: The roots of war resistance

Ted Grimsrud—May 31, 2019

The United States has an extraordinarily ambivalent legacy when it comes to war and violence. On the one hand, we originated, in the view of many, as the victor in a war of rebellion against the British Empire; we have engaged in war and after war throughout our history; we are the only country ever to drop a nuclear weapon on another country; and now we are the world’s one “superpower” that spends more on its military than virtually all the other countries in the world combined.

Yet, on the other hand the United States has a long legacy of peace movements, acceptance of the rights of conscientious objectors, and the development of philosophies of nonviolent social action. The US from its early years provided a home for members of the “historic peace churches” and provided them a largely persecution free home in contrast to many other places in the world that had driven pacifists out.

I recently listened to an interesting series of podcasts on the history of nonviolence that reminded me of much of the peace legacy in the US. The third season of “The Thread” focused on the history of nonviolence. In six episodes, the series discussed key figures in that “thread,” moving backwards from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Bayard Rustin to Mohandas Gandhi to Leo Tolstoy to William Lloyd Garrison. There are many details in this series that I could nitpick about, but overall I found it interesting and inspiring—and I would recommend it.

One inspiration that emerged for me was to post some things I have learned about this history. I will share some thoughts in several installments about the history of pacifism in America, starting today with background to the emergence of pacifist opposition to World War II—opposition that obviously had little impact on the execution of that war but that planted seeds for a number of significant efforts to oppose war and injustice nonviolently in the decades that followed. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part one: The roots of war resistance”

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?”

What’s wrong with how we view the Civil War? [Civil War #5]

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2019

As I continue to read and think about the American Civil War, I am continually impressed with how little questioning of the legitimacy of warfare as the default way to resolve conflicts I have encountered. I have seen even less skepticism about the Civil War as a tool for the good than I found in relation to World War II. I tend to think that so long as people accept those wars, they will continue to accept our present-day warring and preparation for warring.

A representative view of the Civil War

I encountered a representative view of the Civil War that illustrates my concern when I listened to an April 16, 2019, interview with Andrew Delbanco, history professor at Columbia University and author of The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, on a program called “Letters and Politics.”

I was impressed with Delbanco. He is knowledgeable and insightful about the Civil War era. He has good values and seems to be a reliable analyst. He makes helpful connections with the present. It is because he seems perceptive and humane that his comments about the “validity” of the Civil War seem especially useful (and troubling) for me. If someone with his general sensibility has these views, I think it is safe to imagine most other historians of the US do, too (and probably most people in the wider society). The comments that especially struck me came at the end of the interview as he was drawing some conclusions. Delbanco said:

In retrospect, I think most of us would say the price was worth paying. A million dead for the emancipation of four million human beings whose ancestors had been enslaved and whose descendants would have been enslaved if the war had not taken the course it took. But again I would suggest, how many of us today would willingly send our sons and brothers and friends to their deaths for any moral cause? How many of us on the progressive side of the political spectrum would be willing to contemplate war of that scale and savagery as a method to achieve a better society? I’m not sure I would. So, supporting the Civil War in retrospect is easy. Committing oneself to a war like that in prospect may not be so easy. Continue reading “What’s wrong with how we view the Civil War? [Civil War #5]”

Are we better off without God and Christianity? Thoughts on healing the world

Ted Grimsrud—April 15, 2019

I believe that human beings do have a purpose in life. That purpose is to do what we can to help bring healing to the world. Another way of saying this is to say that what matters most in life is that we live in love and that we resist the idols that undermine love. A big question for me is: Does belief in God, and in particular the Christian God, aids or hinders fulfilling this purpose?

Where does this question come from?

Let me give a little background on how I come to this question. I grew up in an interestingly conservative area of the United States—rural southwestern Oregon. What is interesting about rural Oregon is that people tend to be conservative in values and lifestyle, but they also tend not to be religious. Oregon has traditionally been the least “churched” state in the country. While the urban areas are pretty liberal, the countryside tends not to be.

My parents were schoolteachers who moved to our small town from the outside. They lived pretty conservative lives in many ways, but they were well educated and open-minded about most things. So they were a bit different from their surrounding community. I grew up attending church until the church closed when I was eight years old. I can’t say that I was explicitly taught that my purpose in life was “to help bring healing to the world.” But I would say that the values I absorbed from my family provided the framework for me to affirm that sense of purpose when I got older.

As a teenager, due to the influence of a close friend, I had a conversion experience and became a fundamentalist Christian. As I look back now, I see the influence of that experience and its aftermath as being quite a mixed blessing. It did get me in the door, so to speak, to serious Christianity, which meant (in part) a serious engagement with the Bible, especially with the life and teaching of Jesus. In those initial years, while I was part of a fundamentalist church, I was not encouraged to think much about loving the world, though. I would say now that I experienced two sides to belief in the Christian God—both how such belief can encourage working for healing the world and how such belief can undermine such work.

My sense, for some years after my conversion, was that my primary loyalty was to Christianity and that only because of my Christian faith was I then also to care about healing the world. Two types of experience worked to complicate this sense of loyalty to Christianity. One was learning to know people (and about many other people) who weren’t Christians yet were deeply committed to loving their neighbors and healing the world. The second type of experience was to see how Christians could be quite unloving. What made this second phenomenon especially difficult for me was seeing that often the “unlovingness” was not in spite of Christian convictions but because of them. Continue reading “Are we better off without God and Christianity? Thoughts on healing the world”