Monthly Archives: May 2012

Is “Academic Freedom” a Mennonite Value?

Ted Grimsrud

 [This essay was published in the Anabaptist Scholars Network Newsletter 4.1 (May 2001). It originated as a “discussion starter” that I emailed to various Mennonite academic friends for their responses. We had a lively discussion; edited responses from the discusion may be found here. A shortened and revised version was published in DreamSeeker Magazine, Autumn 2001, with a response from the then president of Eastern Mennonite University, Joseph Lapp.]

For over one hundred years, Mennonites in North America have been in the higher education business.  As was no doubt inevitable, as time has passed, Mennonite colleges and seminaries have adopted many of the values and practices of their surrounding culture’s higher education milieu.  And yet, we still want to think of our “product” as in some sense distinctively Mennonite.

One area where these two communities (North American higher education and the Mennonite churches) perhaps most obviously have potential for being in tension is the area often referred to as “academic freedom.”  Should academics who work for Mennonite schools operate in terms of “academic freedom?”  Partly because I teach in theology and partly because this question seems especially pointed in relation to theology (broadly defined to include biblical studies, ethics, and other related disciplines), I will focus on theology in this essay.  I believe my reflections, though, could to a large extent apply to all disciplines in our Mennonite colleges and seminaries.  What constraints, if any, should be placed on the freedom of expression in the classroom for Mennonite theologians?  What about our publications?  What place is there for censorship on the part of Mennonite institutions?  How about self-censorship?

I address these issues from the perspective of one who has taught at a Mennonite college for nearly five years, and who for ten years before that pastored in three Mennonite congregations.  I also address these issues as a person who did not grow up as a Mennonite, but rather grew up in the “Wild, Wild West” in a milieu strongly influenced by rugged frontier individualism.  So, while I write out of lengthy experience in Mennonite institutions, I also write as one who does not have the traditional Mennonite, community-first ethos in my bones. Continue reading

The justice of God in the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.11

[This essay was published in Willard M. Swartley, ed. Essays on Peace Theology and Witness (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988), 135-52.]

For the person seeking to gain a Christian theological perspective on justice, it is likely not self-evident that the Book of Revelation would be a crucial source.  For example, Jose Miranda’s well-known study, Marx and the Bible,[1] only tangentially refers to Revelation, and the biblical chapter in the United States Catholic bishops’ 1985 pastoral letter on the US economy does not refer even once to Revelation.

We can paraphrase Tertullian’s famous question: What has Patmos to do with Rome?  What do these obscure and seemingly fanciful visions have to do with justice in the real world? I will attempt to show that they have a great deal of relevance.

Does Revelation picture God and God’s justice in such a way as to make it illegitimate to apply Jesus’ teaching about God being the model of Christians’ loving their enemies to a rejection to a rejection of Christian involvement in warfare? Is the justice of God in Revelation punitive, angry, and vengeful in such a way that it becomes a warrant for acts of human “justice” such as just wars, capital punishment, a harsh and strictly punitive prison system, and a “big stick” foreign policy that seeks to punish “ungodly” and “unjust” enemies.

Is this really the view of God’s justice presented in Revelation?  My thesis is that it is not, that just as Jesus and Paul give us a picture of God’s justice that is different from the justice of “the nations,” so too does John. Continue reading

Theology by numbers: A sermon on Revelation 7

[This is the seventh in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly for about two years.]

Ted Grimsrud

Shalom Mennonite Congregation—May 13, 2012—Revelation 7:1-17

The book of Revelation is full of numbers. If you pick it up and start to read it, you may feel like it is a kind of impenetrable code. Journalist Jonathan Kirsch, in his book A History of the End of the World, writes that “the book of Revelation is regarded by secular readers—and even by progressive Christians—as a biblical oddity at best and, at worst, a kind of petri dish for the breeding of dangerous religious eccentricity.”

The numbers certainly play into this dangerous religious eccentricity. I want to focus on one number in particular this morning. But first, I’d like for us to think about as many numbers as we can remember from the book. What are the numbers in Revelation? And what do they mean?

Two types of symbols

Clearly, the numbers have symbolic meaning. But there are different kinds of symbols. We can break symbols into two general categories: specific symbols and general symbols. With specific symbols, one particular meaning is meant by the symbol. Like with the American flag—the thirteen stripes symbolize the original thirteen colonies and the fifty stars symbolize the current fifty states.

With general symbols, the meanings are much broader, more dynamic and subjective. Think again of the American flag—what does the flag itself symbolize? Tons of things. Probably significantly different things for different ones of us even in our small group here today. Democracy, religious freedom, the destination for many of our ancestors fleeing trouble—and, empire, war-making, global domination, hypocrisy.

Right after September 11, 2001, a friend of mine who teaches at a Mennonite college put a picture of the American flag on his office door. You can imagine that this led to some controversy (to say the least). The meaning of that symbol for my friend changed just within weeks and he soon took the picture down—from a statement of solidarity with victims and relief workers, the flag came soon to symbolize revenge and a new war of aggression against Afghanistan.

I think the numbers in Revelation work both ways—some symbolize specific things, others are more general. Let me read from chapter 7, which gives us several numbers. Think about what these numbers may symbolize—and think of other numbers in Revelation. We’ll talk about these when I’m done reading. Continue reading

A Tribute to Walter Wink

Ted Grimsrud—May 12, 2012

Walter Wink, one of the greatest peace theologians of the past half-century, has passed from the scene. He died in his home in Massachusetts Thursday, May 10, 2012. He was 76 and had suffered for some years from dementia.

Wink has been one of the thinkers who has influenced me the most. On two different occasions I wrote short summaries of what I found most profound in his thought. As a tribute to his life and work, I offer excerpts from each of these.

Engaging Walter Wink

[In March 2001, Eastern Mennonite University hosted a conference that featured Wink as the main speaker. My colleague Ray Gingerich and I gathered a number of the papers from the conference and published the resultant book: Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice, and the Domination System (Fortress Press, 2006).]

Walter Wink is that rare, and much appreciated, cross-disciplinary scholar and committed activist who informs and inspires.  Trained as a New Testament specialist, Wink’s first publications in the late 1960s made still-cited contributions to the study of John the Baptist. John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition remains in print.  He began reaching a wider audience with his provocative The Bible in Human Transformation that forecast his broadening his concerns to psychological and ethical ramifications of how we read the Bible.  Transforming Bible Study emerged from Wink’s work as Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, work paying special attention to the study of the Bible among lay people.

Fortress Press published the first volume of Wink’s “Powers trilogy,” Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament in 1984.  As Wink recounts in that book’s preface, it originated as a book review, critiquing another book on the principalities and powers in the New Testament that Wink disagreed with.  Wink had been working on the theme of the powers for a number of years, originally stimulated by the pioneering work of the notorious Episcopalian lawyer and lay theologian William Stringfellow.

What eventually emerged were two additional full-scale books, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (1986) and the magisterial Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (1992), and several shorter works fleshing out the trilogy’s core insights. Continue reading

An ethical eschatology

Ted Grimsrud

At various times since 1525, groups of Anabaptists have gained notoriety for their eschatological views, particularly the Anabaptists who gained control of the city of Münster in 1534–5, proclaiming it to be the New Jerusalem.  As a rule, though, the Anabaptist tradition has been characterized by caution concerning views of the “last things.”

Anabaptist convictions, at their heart, have focused on faithfulness in this present life much more than on speculation concerning the future.  Implicit in such a focus, we may see a sense of trust in God.  As we follow the way of Jesus we may be confident that the God who remained faithful to Jesus will also remain faithful to Jesus’ followers.

What follows are two meditations on these convictions concerning importance of the call to discipleship for viewing the doctrine of eschatology.

The End of the World

At the turn of the millennium, many Christian bookstores and the Christian airwaves included an extra large number of “end times” types of writings and sermons.  Reflecting on “the end of the world” is called “eschatology,” the doctrine concerned with the end of the world.  However, what follows here more accurately could be seen as “anti-eschatology,” or, at least, a different kind of eschatology than that found on the Christian airwaves.

“End” as purpose. This is my main point: In the Bible, and I want to propose, for us today, the point in talking about the “end of the world” is not so much to focus on what is going to happen to the world in the future.  Rather, to talk about the “end of the world” biblically points us to the purpose of the world.  Or, more directly, our purpose in living in the world. Continue reading