Ted Grimsrud

How empires go wrong: Paul’s message in Romans 1

In Biblical theology, Empire, Pacifism, Romans on November 16, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—November 16, 2014—Romans 1:16-32

The Apostle Paul was a pretty passionate and opinionated guy. He was also a pretty deep thinker. I have come to conclude that he’s a friend of peacemakers, a friend of justice-seekers. Of course, not everyone agrees….

I argue for a peaceable Paul in these sermons on Romans. Today is the second of maybe sixteen I will do over the next couple of years. A big hurdle in understanding Paul peaceably is today’s passage—the second half of Romans, chapter one.

Before I make my case on Paul’s behalf, I want to read the verses—a bit of a condensed version. As I read, listen and think of a word or two you can share about how Paul’s thoughts here strike you.

I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who is faithful. In it the justice of God is revealed; as it is written, “The one who is just will live by trust.” At the same time, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and injustice of those who by their injustice suppress the truth.

What can be known about God is plain to all people, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world God’s divine nature has been understood and seen through the things God has made. Unjust people are without excuse; for though they can know God, they do not honor or give thanks to God. They become futile in their thinking, and their minds are darkened. Though they claim to be wise, they become fools. They exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. 

Paul’s antidote to empire

In Biblical theology, Empire, Pacifism, Romans on October 12, 2014 at 3:29 pm

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—October 12, 2014—Romans 1:1-17

One of the arguments I have had with several of my friends over the years concerns the writings of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. The issue, in essence, has been whether Paul is a friend or enemy for radical, social gospel type Christians. I’d say “friend!”; they would say “enemy!” And on we’d go.

Concerns about Paul

Part of the problem for me has been that many of Paul’s biggest supporters have not been people I necessarily would want to be allied with—those who oppose welcoming gays into the church, those who support patriotic wars, those who teach a gospel of human depravity and the need for an individualistic kind of personal conversion (what I was taught years ago as the “Romans road to salvation”).

Just the other day, in one of my classes a student talked about the kind of deep pleasure he gets when he hears people speak against Paul. And that’s not surprising—Paul’s most famous piece of writing, his letter to the Romans, contains what are surely two of the most hurtful, destructive passages in all of the Bible.

I’m thinking of the part of chapter one that seems to condemn gays and lesbians. These verses are almost always cited when Bible-believers speak against Christians taking a welcoming stance. And I’m thinking of the verses in chapter 13 that begin, “let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” I know from “my scientific research” that Romans 13 is by far the most important part of the Bible for those who argue against pacifism and in favor of “necessary” war.

Yet, still, I want to say, to paraphrase Paul’s own words: “I am not ashamed of the Apostle Paul and his letter to the Romans.” And, beginning today, I want to use my “bully pulpit” here at Shalom to make a case for why this is so. I’m starting another series, this one on the book of Romans. I will show why the typical uses of Romans to support hostility toward gays and to support going to war are misuses (you’ll have to come back for those, though; I won’t get there today).

More than refuting misuses of Romans, though, I want to show how Romans can a powerful resource for peace in our broken world. I want to show how Paul gives us an “antidote to empire.” Paul presents a story that is meant to subvert, counter, even overturn the story the Roman Empire told about what matters most in life. And, sadly, we need this subversion, countering, and overturning of the story of Empire as much today as ever.

The Peace Position During a Time of War

In Anabaptism, Biblical theology, Jesus, Pacifism, Theology on August 20, 2014 at 8:25 am

Ted Grimsrud

[Workshop presentation at the Eastern Mennonite Seminary School for Leadership Training, Harrisonburg, VA, January 17, 2005]

I grew up the child of a father who fought in World War II and a mother who also served in the U.S. military during that war. Our family definitely was not heavily militaristic, but I certainly would willingly have gone into the military myself had I been drafted when I was 19. As it turned out, the draft ended the year I turned 19 as the Vietnam War wound down. In the several years after that, I thought often and intensely about military service and my faith. When I was 22, through a kind of mystical awareness, I came to a clear conviction that I could not, at the same time, be both a follower of Jesus and a participant in or even supporter of warfare.

Only at this point did I first learn of the Mennonite tradition, with its long held refusal to fight in wars. I loved what I learned and, about 25 years ago, joined the Mennonite church. I continue on the process of faith seeking understanding—what does the peace position mean? What’s basis? How might it be put into practice?

Defining “pacifism,” “nonviolence,” and “nonresistance”

The most common definitions of “pacifism” focus on what pacifism rejects, characterizing pacifism as the in-principled rejection of participation in warfare. Some pacifists would say that all war is wrong, others more that they simply themselves will never fight.

Focusing on what pacifism affirms, I define pacifism as the conviction that nothing matters as much as love, kindness, respect, seeking wholeness. Hence, nothing that would justify violence matters enough to override the commitment to love. In my understanding, pacifism is a worldview, a way of looking at reality; there is a pacifist way of knowing, a pacifist way of perceiving, of discerning, of negotiating life.

The term “nonviolence” is recently prominent as a near-synonym for pacifism. I will use the terms interchangeably, though if we trying to be truly precise, we could find nuances that might make us want to differentiate between the two terms. One distinction would be to say that “pacifism” focuses more on underlying principles and values, “nonviolence” more on tactics and actions.

“Nonresistance” is the more traditional term, widely used among Mennonites, for the refusal to fight back against evil. Typically, it has carried the connotation of witnessing to peace more through living as an alternative community in some sense separate from secular politics than through direct engagement.

The Bible’s witness to peace

My definition of pacifism more in positive, worldview terms links more closely with the logic of the biblical story than simply defining pacifism as the rejection of warfare. The Bible, famously, does not overtly reject warfare for believers; in fact, in certain notorious cases the Bible actually commends, even commands, God’s people fighting.

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