Ted Grimsrud

Archive for the ‘Anabaptism’ Category

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Question authority

In Anabaptism, Anarchism, Biblical theology, Pacifism, Politics on July 27, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—July 27, 2014—1 Samuel 8:10-18; Romans 13:1-4; Mark 10:42-45

I want to talk this morning about political philosophy. Now, I don’t suppose many Mennonite preachers today—or ever—have done sermons on political philosophy. But like I say to Kathleen when she asks, on occasion, what in the world are you doing, I say, I’m just trying to keep you guessing.

Actually, I think Mennonites should talk about political philosophy—and understand that we have important resources for political philosophy in our tradition. The key theme, I think, is authority. Mennonites are not nearly faithful enough to our Anabaptist heritage in relation to authority. Not that many Mennonites I know have been socialized to question authority—though doing so was essential in the beginning of our movement in the 16th century. I’d like to float a provocative thesis this morning—when we question authority we take a necessary step in developing what we could call an Anabaptist, or , to be more presumptuous, an authentically biblical, political philosophy—that is, to question authority can be an act of faithfulness.

A political awakening

But first, let me tell the story of the beginning of my political awakening. When I was a kid, I lived for sports. Sixth grade was when we first had school sports where we played other schools. After football and basketball, we’d have both baseball and track. In my eighth grade year, we thought we’d have good teams—I was excited.

Then, something terrible happened. I still remember the moment clearly. We walk into our classroom one morning and see this written on the board: “Students who wish to compete on the baseball and track teams must have crew cut haircuts. There will be no exceptions.” Now, Elkton (Oregon) Grade School in the late 1960s was not a hotbed of hippy subversion. I had only recently let my hair grow out from my standard crew cut, but it wasn’t even as long as my hair is now. Nor was anyone else’s. But there were several of us who believed this was an unreasonable demand and refused it. Read the rest of this entry »

Part of the Conversation? “Neo-Mennonites” and Mennonite Theology

In Anabaptism, Mennonites, Theology on March 2, 2014 at 9:02 am

Ted Grimsrud

[This essay was written about twenty years ago while I was pastoring a small “neo-Mennonite” congregation in Eugene, Oregon, for a festschrift honoring Gordon Kaufman. By the time the essay was published in 1996, I had left Eugene, co-pastored with my wife, Kathleen Temple, in a large, rural, pretty traditional Mennonite congregation in the midwest for two years, and gotten a job as theology professor at Eastern Mennonite University. I revised the essay in 2002 hoping to have it published again in a theological journal. That didn’t work out. I’m putting it up now mainly because I realized I hadn’t posted it on my PeaceTheology.net site yet. I also think the ideas are still relevant as Mennonites continue to struggle with the future of their tradition.][1]

The early years of the 21st-century are a time of challenge for Mennonite faith.  Mennonite churches are engaged in an intense conversation (not always self-consciously) concerning the meaning of Christianity in a tumultuous, rapidly changing world.  One of the central issues in this conversation is simply whose voices will be heard.  How will Mennonites define their faith, order their communities, prepare their young people – and who will have voices in this defining?

We face the challenges of defining major new ecclesiastical structures with the formation of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.  This time of defining new structures has thus far been fraught with stress as various kinds of fault lines have been exposed and unprecedented conflicts have emerged.

This essay reflects on this issue of who partakes in Mennonite conversations about the future of their faith.  I believe our best approach is to affirm that all the voices within the current broad community of Mennonites are to be respected parts of the conversation.  To make such allowance requires an awareness of the identity of these voices.

I want to speak of one set of voices in particular, what I will call the voices of “neo-Mennonites.”  I am a bit unsure of the best shorthand term for the general perspective to which I am referring.  I will use “neo-Mennonite” as a non-value laden term[2] to refer to people who affirm at least many of the elements mentioned by Mennonite theologian Gordon Kaufman in his 1979 book Nonresistance and Responsibility:

Many persons – especially younger professional people, well-educated and living in settings quite far removed, at least culturally, from traditional rural Mennonite communities – feel the need for an interpretation of the Mennonite perspective which breathes more freely the atmosphere of the contemporary life and culture in which they are so deeply involved.  They do not wish to give up some of the basic insights and convictions of the faith in which they were raised, but the only interpretations of that faith which are readily accessible do not seem to address the questions and problems they are facing. [3]

I will argue in this essay that “neo-Mennonites” should be seen as a legitimate part of Mennonite conversations on all levels concerning the big issues that face Mennonites in the new millennium.  I will focus my concern mostly on theology, but I mean to suggest that church-wide conversations on all aspects of church life should welcome the “neo-Mennonite” perspective as a legitimate part of the Mennonite “circle.”

I do not argue that the “neo-Mennonite” perspective should be privileged, but simply that it be respected as part of the conversation.  That is, the process of discernment Mennonites are required to enter into will be most fruitful if understood as a process in which all the appropriate voices are heard and taken into account.  One of Mennonites’ biggest danger in facing our contemporary challenges is to ignore or silence voices from within our existing communities.

The “neo-Mennonite” perspective exists now within the circle of the Mennonite church.  Even if not well understood, or even acknowledged by many in the churches, it is part of what the Mennonite faith community has become.  Rather than seen as an alien perspective, or one to be resisted, it should be seen as one voice in the Mennonite choir. Read the rest of this entry »

A Pacifist Reading of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective [A paper proposal]

In Anabaptism, Mennonites, Pacifism, Theology on March 31, 2013 at 9:40 am

[Ted Grimsrud]

 [Back in June 2006, the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary hosted a conference reflecting on the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (a few papers from the conference that were published in Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2007, may be read here). I prepared a proposal for a paper that was accepted by the conference. However, after writing the proposal I learned that the conference would conflict with the birth of our first grandchild so I had to withdraw from the conference. Unfortunately, I never wrote the paper, either. I just recently rediscovered the proposal and found that I still like it and still hope to write such a paper. I post it here hoping to stimulate a bit of discussion and also in order to link with posts I have put up at my ThinkingPacifism.net blog on “How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources.”]

The Mennonite Church USA identifies itself as a peace church.  In many circles, were people to be asked what is most distinctive about Mennonites, the large majority would mention pacifism as one of MC USA’s most characteristic distinctives.  This paper will test this perception with a close reading of the first eight articles of the Confession from a “radical pacifist” perspective.  These first eight of the 24 total articles are clearly marked off as the core, overtly theological content of the Confession.

The paper will examine several other fairly recent Protestant Confessions for comparison’s sake.  None of these other Confessions are from traditions that understand themselves to be pacifist.

In what ways is the core theological content of these other confessions similar to and different from the Mennonite Confession?  Do we see evidence that the pacifist commitment of the Mennonite tradition leads to different articulations of this core content?  We will be testing the assumption that the difference between pacifist and non-pacifist theologies should be expected to lead to noticeably different articulations of theological basics. Read the rest of this entry »

Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy

In Anabaptism, Current Events, Empire, Jesus, Mennonites, Pacifism, Politics on October 1, 2012 at 9:28 am

Ted Grimsrud

Two presidential election cycles ago (2004), I published an essay reflecting on how committed Christian pacifists in the Anabaptist tradition might function as citizens of the United States.

I understand my main argument to be that we have to work within three stories: (1) the Anabaptist story of costly commitment to witness to Jesus’ way, (2) the democracy story that reflects a commitment in our country to participation in the social order by all people in a society, and (3) the empire story that all too often has characterized the United States and our way in the world.

I suggest that those committed to story #1 who live in a society that at least to some extent retains a commitment to story #2, should exert all the energy they can to critique and try to counter story #3.

Given present day debates among peace advocates in the United States around our current presidential election, I thought I might take the chance to post this article on this website.

Ted Grimsrud. “Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 78.3 (July 2004), 341-62.

Here also is a post I put up on my Thinking Pacifism blog on September 30, 2012, that explains why I will vote (ambivalently) for Barack Obama this time.

Anabaptist versus conventional theologies

In Anabaptism, John Howard Yoder, Mennonites, Theology on June 18, 2012 at 9:07 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.5

[Revised version of  “Whither Contemporary Anabaptist Theology,” published in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 23-36.]

Is there such a thing as “Anabaptist theology” for the present day? Is seeking to construct a distinctively Anabaptist theology an appropriate task for the 21st century?

John Howard Yoder did not consider himself a systematic theologian, and as far as I know would not have called himself a constructive theologian. However, his work certainly directly related to the task many Mennonites, and others who would also think of themselves as spiritual descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists see as vital for the viability of Mennonite and other Anabaptist communities—namely, self-conscious work at articulating their theological convictions in ways that might provide sustenance to their tradition.

Yoder’s model I will call “practice-oriented” theology. To help understand Yoder’s approach, and why it’s an exemplary model for those of us engaged in the work of constructive Anabaptist theology for the 21st century, I will first look at a somewhat different model for contemporary Anabaptist theology and reflect on the differences between these two models.

Tom Finger’s contemporary proposal

Tom Finger, like many other Mennonite writers wrestling with the challenge of working within the Anabaptist tradition (notably a marginal perspective in the history of Christian theology), seeks to find links of commonality with more mainstream traditions. In doing so, he takes an approach I will call “doctrine-oriented” theology.

Finger’s work has many characteristics unique to his own perspective, certainly, yet in relation to the key points I will focus on, his approach is at least somewhat representative of the general approach taken by Anabaptist-Mennonite theologians seeking rapprochement with mainstream theologies.

I understand the central characteristics of “Anabaptist theology” to be centered in an integration of theological convictions with ethical practices.  The ethical commitments of the sixteenth century Anabaptists such as their pacifism, their emphasis on economic sharing, and their rejection of the subordination of the church to nation-states, reflected a distinctive theology that placed central importance on commitment to the way of Jesus in costly discipleship. Read the rest of this entry »

Summarizing John Howard Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus”

In Anabaptism, Biblical theology, Jesus, John Howard Yoder, Pacifism, Politics, Theology on June 16, 2012 at 9:40 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.4

[Unpublished paper, July 2008]

Christian pacifism stems directly from the biblical story of God’s revelation to humanity of the normative pattern for human life.  We see this revelation most clearly in the life and teaching of Jesus.  One of our most sophisticated interpreters of this story has been John Howard Yoder.  This essay presents a summary of Yoder’s argument in his classic book, The Politics of Jesus.[1]

The New Testament, centered on the story, presents a political philosophy.  This philosophy has at its core a commitment to pacifism, a commitment based on the normativity of Jesus Christ as the definitive revelation of God and of God’s intention for human social life.  Christians have tended to miss the social implications of the New Testament story because of assumptions about both politics and Jesus.

Christian ethicists and theologians have generally posited that Jesus’ thought as expressed in his teaching and practice could not have intended to speak in a concrete way to social ethics.  Jesus, it has been said, spoke only to the personal sphere or (more recently) he articulated his ethical expectations in the extreme forms he did because he (mistakenly) expected history to end very soon.

Because Jesus does not speak directly to our social ethics, Christian theology has concluded, we must derive our ethical guidance for life in the real world from other sources: common sense, calculation of what will work in a fallen world, non-Christian philosophical sources.

We must ask, though, whether, given Christian belief in Jesus as God Incarnate, should we not rather begin with an assumption that God’s revelation in Jesus’ life and teaching might well offer clear guidance for our social ethics?  We at least should look at the story itself and discern whether it indeed might have social ethical relevance.

Jesus’ identity

We will look first at how the gospels present Jesus, focusing on the Gospel of Luke primarily for simplicity’s sake.  At the very beginning, the song of Mary in 1:46-55 upon her learning of the child she will bear, we learn that this child will address social reality.  He will challenge the power elite of his world and lift up those at the bottom of the social ladder.

This child, we are told, will bring succor to those who desire the “consolation of Israel.” Those who seek freedom from the cultural domination of one great empire after another that had been imposed upon Jesus’ people for six centuries will find comfort.  From the beginning, this child is perceived in social and political terms. Read the rest of this entry »

Is God Nonviolent?

In Anabaptism, Mennonites, Pacifism, Theology on June 14, 2012 at 10:22 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.1

[Published in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-first Century (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 47-53.]

The importance of self-conscious theological reflection for Christians in the Anabaptist tradition may be illustrated by considering an issue at the heart of Christian ethics, the moral acceptability (or not) of the use of violence.[1] From its beginning in the 16th century, the Anabaptist movement has as a rule affirmed pacifism as the will of God. However, this affirmation has not generally stemmed from sustained theological reflection so much as from a more existential belief that Jesus’ commands to love enemies apply in all circumstances. What has sustained this belief has generally been the on-going existence of pacifist communities that have claimed a loyalty from its members higher than the loyalty given to nation-states that might ask involvement in warfare of its citizens.

However, in the 21st century, the close-knit, homogenous, rural communities that sustained Anabaptist pacifism in a way that did not require sustained theological reflection are disintegrating. If pacifism is to remain a central aspect of Anabaptist convictions, such theological reflection will become more important—including, at its heart, reflection on the character of God.

God and violence? The urgency of the question

In our day of heightening sensitivity to the role of religion in violent conflict—“terrorism,” “wars on terrorism,” retributive criminal justice practices, religious-supported nationalist movements—the question of how we understand God in relation to violence has never been more urgent.

Certainly, not only pacifists have a stake in this question.  And not only religious people have a stake.  The urgency of the question stems not so much from the need to “get it right” about how God actually is (as if human beings could actually nail this down).  Rather, the urgency stems from the reality that our view of what God is like greatly shapes our behavior.  How people act in relation to their view of God affects us all.

The connection between our view of God and our behavior in relation to violence may be understood in four possible ways.  Most people who believe in God believe God is violent and that human beings thus are also appropriately violent, at least in morally justifiable circumstances.  As human existence grows ever more precarious, though, this simple assumption grows more problematic—violence, it becomes increasingly clear, leads to more violence.  The spiral of violence is more clearly all the time becoming a threat to the very viability of human life itself.[2]  And, of course, for Anabaptist Christians, the assumption that human violence is appropriate has always been questioned.

As a second logical possibility, one could presumably believe that God is nonviolent but that human beings need not be, though I am not aware of anyone taking this stance.

A third view would be that God is not nonviolent – but human beings should be nonviolent. Some of those who believe human beings are called to nonviolence, understand this calling to stem more directly from the specific teaching of Jesus, not God’s own pacifism.[3]  Perhaps based on the biblical portrayal of the “warrior God,” perhaps based on the need to allow God freedom from anthropocentric moral restraints, perhaps based on the necessity of recognizing God’s need to use violence in effecting final justice in relation to a rebellious creation, perhaps based on an awareness of nature itself as “red in tooth and claw” – for these reasons many pacifist Christians answer our question, “is God nonviolent?” with a clear “No, but we should be.”

Other pacifist Christians hold a fourth view, that God is nonviolent (or, more precisely, that we should view God as nonviolent) and that human beings are called also to be nonviolent.  In this view, human nonviolence is both what God through Jesus commands us to embody and what has become a necessity for the sake of our survival in the contemporary world.  And, God’s nonviolence is the necessary grounding for human nonviolence.[4]  If nonviolence does not go with the grain of universe, if our deepest ethical imperative does not cohere with God’s very character, we are in the end hopeless romantics to think that nonviolence is a realistic human possibility.  And if nonviolence is not a realistic human possibility, pacifism is indeed parasitic idealism of the worst sort – calling us to live in ways that are impractical, irresponsible, counter-productive, needlessly guilt-inducing, and (ironically) conflict fostering. Read the rest of this entry »

Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism

In Anabaptism, Current Events, Jesus, Justice, Mennonites, Pacifism, Politics, Theology on June 8, 2012 at 9:20 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.3

[Published in the Conrad Grebel Review, 28.3 (Fall 2010), 22-38.]

“One of the most pressing questions facing the world today is, How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?”[1]  These words opened Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers nearly twenty years ago—and voice the concern that remains at the center of many peacemakers’ sensibilities.

Wink’s question about resisting evil without adding to the evil points in two directions at once, thereby capturing one of the central tensions we face.  On the one hand, we human beings of good will, especially those of us inclined toward pacifism, assume that we do, at the heart of our lives, have a responsibility to resist evil in our world, to seek peace, to be agents of healing—that is, to enter into the brokenness of our present situation and be a force for transformation.

Yet, on the other hand, we recognize that all too often efforts to overcome evil end up exacerbating the brokenness.  We recognize that resisting evil all too often leads to the use of tactics that end up adding to the evil—and transform the actors more than the evil situation.

So, how might we act responsibly while also remaining not only true to our core convictions that lead us to seek peace but also serving as agents of actual healing instead of well-meaning contributors to added brokenness?

In recent years, various strategies with potential for addressing these issues have arisen.  These include efforts to add teeth to the enforcement of international law (the International Criminal Court) and the emergence of what has come to be known as the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine affirmed by the United Nations Security Council in 2006.

In this general arena of seeking to respond creatively to evil, we could also include creative thinking that has been emerging out of peace church circles related to themes such as restorative justice,[2] “just policing,”[3] and projects such at the 3-D Security Initiative[4] and Mennonite Central Committee’s “Peace Theology Project.”[5]

One way of setting up the tension seemingly inherent for peacemakers in these efforts at responding to evil is the tendency to incline either towards “responsibility” in ways that compromise our commitment to nonviolence and the inherent worth of all human beings, even wrongdoers, or towards “faithfulness” in ways that do not truly contribute to resisting wrongdoing and bringing about needed changes.

We face a basic choice. Will we understand this tension as signaling a need to choose one side of the tension over the other—either retreating into our ecclesial cocoon and accepting our “irresponsibility” or embracing the call to enter the messy world in creative ways that almost certainly will mean leaving our commitment to nonviolence behind? Or will we understand this tension as a call to devote our best energies to finding ways actually to hold together our nonviolence with creative responsibility? Read the rest of this entry »

Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy

In Anabaptism, Current Events, Mennonites, Pacifism, Politics on June 7, 2012 at 9:40 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essay #c.8

[Published in Mennonite Quarterly Review 78.3 (July 2004), 341-62.]

Heirs of the Radical Reformation continue to face basic questions about citizenship.  What does it mean to be “in the world and not of it” (John 17:14-17)?  What in our lives should we give to Caesar and what should we give to God (Matthew 22:15-22)?

Anabaptists living in the United States are challenged by these questions in complex ways.  We find ourselves, on the one hand, in the land of freedom.  The first Anabaptist generations in the 16th century, facing severe persecutions, sought desperately for safety; many groups migrated widely in this quest.  Beginning in the late 17th century, many established communities in the United States.  Despite periodic flaring of wartime persecutions, we may now look back with gratitude for our forebears’ opportunity to find a safe home in America.[1]

We have a great deal to be grateful for in terms of religious toleration.  We also, not coincidentally, have opportunities totally unimaginable for the 16th century Anabaptists to participate in political life in one of the world’s pioneering democracies.  That is, not only are Mennonites tolerated, we may vote, run for office, speak out, serve on school boards, be fully participating members in American democratic processes.

On the other hand, American Mennonites are also tax-paying citizens in one of the world’s greatest-ever empires, if we define “empire” in terms of a country’s exercise of domination over many other parts of the world.  Perhaps the US does not overtly possess foreign colonies in the manner of old empires such as Great Britain.  However, in terms of the actual expression of power over others, the US surely greatly surpasses even the largest reach of the British Empire.  America is now the world’s one great superpower, spending more on our military than just about all the rest of the world’s countries combined.

The Anabaptist tradition early on expressed a strong suspicion of empires, power politics, and trust in the sword.  Present-day Mennonites surely are being faithful to that tradition when we refuse to participate in, or even support, the wars of America.

However, what about the “good America,” the America of religious freedom and participatory democracy?  Is the traditional Mennonite “two-kingdom” stance adequate for determining our understanding of citizenship today?  In our time, people throughout the world plead for participants in American civil society to seek to influence American foreign policy to be more peaceable.  Do American Anabaptist Christians have responsibility aggressively to seek to take their pacifist convictions into the public square in a way that might influence our government? Read the rest of this entry »