Category Archives: Anabaptism

Is God Nonviolent?

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. Continue reading

Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism

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? Continue reading

Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy

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? Continue reading

Anabaptism for the 21st Century

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #c.4

[Published in the Mennonite Quarterly Review 80.3 (June 2006), 371-90]

In contemporary American culture, religious labels have become increasingly imprecise.  Our dominant religion remains Christianity, but what does “Christian” mean?

Until very recently, many observers of America have spoken of moving into a post-Christian era.  However, clearly we have not yet arrived at such a state.  Currently, we are in the midst of a revival (of sorts) of the public expression of overt Christian religiosity.  High-profile politicians use explicitly Christian language as much as, if not more than, ever.[1]  Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians such as James Dobson exercise extraordinary influence over public policy makers.[2]

For those Christians who find their faith calling them to Jesus’ way of peace,[3] of resistance to injustice, of exercising strong support for addressing the needs of vulnerable people, of a desire for more mercy and less retribution, the current scene is profoundly challenging.  Such Christians see the very basis for their core convictions – the Bible (which they read as centered on Jesus’ message) – being associated in the public eye with policies and rhetoric and values that they abhor.

What is presented as the “biblical” or “Christian” view, by common popular agreement among people who both agree and disagree with it, seems to include support for the wars and militarism of the United States[4] and for capital punishment and a harshly retributive criminal justice system.[5]

So, what do Jesus-oriented Christians in America do?  If they cede Christianity to those who are pro-military and pro-death penalty, they cut themselves off from the taproot of their own meaning system and spiritual empowerment.  If they explicitly affirm their Christian convictions, they run the risk of being lumped in the public eye with these prominent expressions of “Christianity” that so contradict their reading of the gospel message. Continue reading

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

Why Mennonite?

Ted Grimsrud

The first members of the Anabaptist churches in the 16th century chose to join that movement. Then severe persecution had a huge impact—many of the first generation even lost their lives. In time, for most of the Anabaptists’ spiritual descendants, the Mennonites, ongoing viability depended much more on retaining the children of the church more than on gaining new converts from the outside.

The survival of the Mennonite tradition depended on a change from their initial belief. From the first, they believed in the baptism of choosing adults—this separated them from other Christians who baptized infants. Later the practical focus was more on the community sustaining itself mainly by keeping its young people from choosing to leave.

For a long time, Mennonites differed a great deal from the surrounding society (most obviously by speaking a different language). So their young people rarely felt comfortable leaving—the shock was too great.

A number of years ago I became acquainted with a Hutterite community where the people mostly spoke German, where they were different from those of us on the outside. A few young people chose to leave, though. They called them runaways. Most of these runaways headed to a nearby city. When they got there, they felt lost, like fish out of water. They tended to congregate with other runaways, and in time most headed back to the Hutterite communities.

The viability of the Mennonite tradition today?

For mainstream Mennonites in the United States, those days are long gone. More than ever since the 16th century, Mennonites must choose to stay in the church. Our continued identification with this community is a choice. Hence the ongoing viability of the Mennonite tradition cannot be taken for granted.

The viability of the Mennonite tradition depends on Mennonite churches self-consciously embodying core Mennonite convictions. What are several of the basic convictions that are distinctively Mennonite? What is it we are choosing when we choose to identify ourselves as Mennonite? Continue reading

Anabaptism as a Hermeneutic

Ted Grimsrud

Paper Presented to Anabaptist Seminar — Eastern Mennonite University — April 8, 2006

My introduction to Anabaptism came nearly thirty years ago when I first discovered that there was a Mennonite congregation in my hometown, Eugene, Oregon.  I had just started reading John Howard Yoder and was anxious to learn to know actual Mennonites.  The pastor of Eugene Mennonite Church, Harold Hochstetler, loaned me several of his books. I especially remember Guy Hershberger’s The Way of the Cross in Human Relations and the festschrift for Harold Bender that Hershberger edited.

Not too long afterwards, I ended up at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and studied Anabaptism with Yoder and C. J. Dyck.  A couple of years later I was able to teach Anabaptism for the first time in a congregation.  I served as interim pastor at Trinity Mennonite in Glendale, Arizona, and taught a course mainly for people new to the Mennonite faith.  Several senior members in the congregation, including Guy Hershberger himself, also sat in on the class.  Strong affirmations I received from Guy meant a great deal to me.

Anabaptism as a resource for ethics and pastoral ministry

From the start, my main interest in the Anabaptists was ethical and pastoral.  My interest in Mennonites came out of a desire for faith that underwrote peacemaking and community-building.  Yoder and Hershberger directed me to the 16th-century Anabaptists as an important resource for embodying those concerns.  I have always been interested in the connections between the events told in the Bible, the events of the 16th century, and our own quest to live faithfully.  I never felt comfortable with the idea that one could approach the 16th century in a fully objective way.  The questions I have asked of the 16th century (as of the Bible) have always been self-consciously along the lines of what might I learn for today from those events. Continue reading

John Howard Yoder and Contemporary Anabaptist Theology

Ted Grimsrud – June 2011

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 engagement in the work of constructive Anabaptist theology for the 21st century, I will first look at a quite different model for contemporary Anabaptist theology and reflect on the differences between these two models.

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. Continue reading

Sketching a Contemporary Anabaptist Theology

Ted Grimsrud—Presented at the London Mennonite Forum, September 2009[1]

Theology is important, and it’s human work. The best theology, I believe, motivates and guides peacemaking. In my essay, “Contemporary Theology in Light of Anabaptism,” I propose that theology in light of Anabaptism should be “practice-oriented” more than “doctrine-oriented.”  I suggest that such a focus will distinguish Anabaptist theology from mainstream ecumenical and evangelical theologies—especially when it is Jesus-centered, pacifist theology.  In this sequel, I will flesh out a bit the kind of theology I have in mind.

Theology and Our Hierarchy of Values

I believe that our “theology” is made up of the convictions that matter the most to us.  We each have a hierarchy of values.  At the very top of this hierarchy is our god, or gods.  The term “theology” literally means “the study of God (theos).”  To understand the actual theology we live by, we should ask first of all how we order our lives.  What in practice are the priorities in our lives that reflect what we truly accept as ultimate?  These priorities tell us a lot about what our actual god or gods are.

Think back to your earliest memories. What did you value? What would you have said about what was most important in your life?  How we answer these questions reveals a great deal about what we could call our “embedded” theology.[2]  This theology did not come to us through our own choices.  It was given to us; we inherited it.  Then, when we face the world as bigger, when we suffer, when we face questions that shake us up, when we are asked by someone else what we believe and why, we will be pushed to move from embedded to “deliberative” theology.  Then we think and apply and expand and understand and articulate.  Continue reading

Contemporary Theology in Light of Anabaptism

Ted Grimsrud—Presented at the London Mennonite Forum, September 2009

During the last half of the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first, many Mennonites and other Anabaptists have realized we need more intentionally to articulate our distinctive convictions. Perhaps for the first time in our now nearly five hundred years since the first Anabaptists, we have an abundance of intellectually rigorous, overt doctrinal theology being written by Anabaptists.

This production has been stimulated by a sense that things have changed in the modern world.  Many of the close-knit communities that made it possible for Anabaptist convictions to survive without self-consciously constructed doctrinal theology have weakened and even disappeared altogether.  We operate now in the arena where people choose to believe (or not).  So, it’s more important to bring beliefs to the surface.

Theology in Light of Anabaptist Distinctives

The question of how best to articulate theological convictions that reflect the core commitments of Anabaptists is hotly contested.  How should we approach theology in light of the distinctive characteristics of Anabaptist Christianity? I believe these characteristics center on an integration of theology with ethics. The ethical commitments of the 16th century Anabaptists such as pacifism, an emphasis on economic sharing, and rejection of the subordination of the church to nation-states reflected as distinctive theology—a theology that we may still learn from.

Recent writing on sixteenth century Anabaptism highlights extreme diversity in the first fifty years of the Anabaptist movement.  Such writing helps correct simplistic generalizations about Anabaptist uniformity.  However, it provides little clarity for those who seek to draw upon that movement as we negotiate our current challenges.  What might we mean by “Anabaptism” as an affirmative label for faith today with genuine content that also links with its 16th century origins?

Let me suggest a parallel for how we might work at identifying core Anabaptist convictions.  Scholars of the “historical Jesus” point out that the one certain fact about Jesus that is not dependent upon the reports of his followers is that the state executed Jesus as a political criminal. Whatever we might say about Jesus needs to be understood in light of that one fact. So, they assert, we start in analyzing Jesus’ life and teaching asking what led to his execution. Continue reading