Ted Grimsrud

Archive for the ‘Biblical theology’ Category

Healing Justice

In Biblical theology, Justice, mercy, peace theology, Restorative justice on December 20, 2016 at 7:38 pm

Ted Grimsrud

[This sermon was given at the June 28, 2015, Action by Christians Against Torture, USA, annual meeting, at Pleasant Hill Community Church, Pleasant Hill, TN, June 28, 2015]

 

I am grateful for the invitation to be with you this morning. And I am grateful for your witness for life. I find it truly distressing to live in a nation—admirable in so many ways—where state-sponsored violence remains so common. This violence becomes terribly ironic given the reputation the United States of America has of being a “Christian” nation. And, in fact, survey show that being a self-identified Christian makes it more likely that an American citizen will support war, the death penalty, and torture. What the hell?

So, this is an opportunity. If we oppose war, the death penalty, and torture—and if we identify as Christians—we have some theologizing to do. At least that’s what I think. One area where we might get somewhere is with a biblically grounded theology of justice—of, what I will call restorative justice. Such a theology provides tools for opposing the theology of retributive justice that is so popular in America, the theology that underwrites so much of the violence we decry.

What is justice?

Before I go to work on my theology of justice, though, I would like to start with word associations from you after I read three short Bible passages that speak of justice. As I read, think about what you think of when you think of “justice.”

Psalm 85:8-13: God the Lord will speak peace to God’s people who turn to God in their hearts. Surely salvation is at hand. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and justice will look down from the sky. Justice will go before the Lord, and will make a path for the Lord’s steps.

Amos 5:6-7, 21-24: Seek the Lord and live, you who turn justice to poison. God says this to you: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your sacrifices, I will not accept them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Romans 3:21-24: Now, separate from works of the law, the justice of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the justice of God through [the faithfulness of] Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they all are now justified by God’s grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

So, “justice”—what do you associate with justice?… Read the rest of this entry »

Christian pacifism in brief

In Biblical theology, Jesus, Pacifism, peace theology on December 20, 2016 at 8:30 am

Ted Grimsrud

[This lecture was given at the June 28, 2015, Action by Christians Against Torture, USA, annual meeting, at Pleasant Hill Community Church, Pleasant Hill, TN, June 28, 2015]

I want to start with a hypothesis that you may or may not agree with: A clear convictional commitment to pacifism is very helpful for opposing torture and capital punishment. I’m not going to make an argument for this hypothesis. I merely state it in order to tell you why I am giving this presentation on Christian pacifism as part of an abolish the death penalty event. Non-pacifists certainly may—and should—oppose the death penalty and torture under all circumstances. But it’s probably easier to do so as pacifists. At the least, pacifism may provide one angle for advocating abolition.

What is “pacifism”? Let’s start with a simple working definition: “pacifism” is the in-principled unwillingness to engage in lethal violence, including most obviously the unwillingness to participate in warfare or to support the death penalty. “Pacifism” connotes a complete rejection of warfare, and usually other forms of violence. I will suggest, though, that pacifism understood theologically, is a broader, more positive conviction than simply saying no to violence.

Some examples of those who oppose “pacifism”

Let me start with several examples of what I consider to be misunderstandings of pacifism, and then go on to present the case for Christian pacifism.

Some non-pacifists are strongly anti-pacifist. They see pacifism as a refusal to take responsibility for the use of violence that is necessary to stop evil people in our rough-and-tumble world. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II expressed views equating pacifism with “a cowardly and lazy conception of life” and “peace at any cost,” respectively.

Pundit, Michael Kelly, wrote a widely circulated op-ed essay for the Washington Post shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks. He asserted that, in relation to the war on terror, “American pacifists…are on the side of future mass murderers of Americans. They are objectively pro-terrorist.” Pacifists do not want the U.S. to fight back and neither do the terrorists. Therefore they are on the same side. And since terrorism is evil, he concluded flatly that the “pacifists’ position…is evil.” He defined pacifism primarily as principled opposition to the use of American military might, including opposition to going to war to resist the obvious evils of “global terrorism.”

So, according to these two Popes and to Michael Kelly, pacifism seems largely to be understood as the refusal to fight back (or even to support fighting back) in the face of evil. As such, it is seen as directly complicit in the furtherance of said evil. Read the rest of this entry »

The New Testament as a Peace Book

In Biblical theology, Jesus, New Testament, Pacifism, peace theology on December 18, 2016 at 9:32 am

Ted Grimsrud

[This was the second of a two-part Carol Grizzard-Browning Lecture Series—University of Pikeville—11/12/13 (here’s part 1 on the Old Testament)]

Let me start with a bold claim. The New Testament presents a political philosophy. This philosophy has at its core a commitment to pacifism (by pacifism I mean the conviction that no cause or value can override the commitment to treat each life as precious). This commitment based on the belief that Jesus Christ as God Incarnate reveals the character of God and of God’s intention for human social life.

Jesus’s identity in the Gospel of Luke

In talking about the New Testament as a peace book, I will look first at how the gospels present Jesus. I will focus on the Gospel of Luke. At the very beginning, from Mary, upon her learning of the child she will bear, we hear 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 hope 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.

Later, at the moment of Jesus’ baptism, God’s voice speaks words of affirmation, “Thou art my Son” (Luke 3:22). These words should be understood to name Jesus’s vocation more than simply emphasizing his divine identity. “Son of God” was a term for kings (Psalm 2:7). It states that this person is the leader of God’s kingdom on earth, he has the task of showing the way for God’s will for God’s people to be embodied.

Jesus’ baptism was a kind of commissioning service for this vocation. We see that in the events that following shortly afterward. Jesus retreats deeper into the wilderness and there encounters Satan, the tempter. Satan presented Jesus with temptations that all had at their core seductive appeals to his sense of messianic or kingly calling. He could rule the nations, he could gain a following as a distributor of bread to the hungry masses, he could leap from the top of the Temple and gain the support of the religious powers-that-be through his miraculous survival that would confirm his messianic status. That is, Jesus faced temptations concerning how he would be king. He did not deny that he was called to be “Son of God”—that is, king or messiah. But he did reject temptations to be king in ways he knew would be ungodly.

Jesus’s ministry—an upside-down kind of king

Luke then tells of Jesus’ entry back into the world in which he was called to minister. In his home synagogue, Jesus spoke prophetic words from Isaiah that directly addressed social transformation. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Isaiah’s prophecy referred to the installation among God’s people of the provisions of the year of Jubilee, “the year of the Lord’s favor,” that would restore in Israel the socially radical tenets of the Old Testament law: social equality and the empowerment of the oppressed, prisoners, and poor. Read the rest of this entry »

The Old Testament as a peace book

In Biblical theology, Old Testament, Pacifism, peace theology on December 17, 2016 at 12:39 pm

Ted Grimsrud

[This was the first of a two-part Carol Grizzard-Browning Lecture Series—University of Pikeville (Pikeville, KY)—11/11/13 (here’s part 2 on the New Testament)]

What I will do with this lecture on the Old Testament and with my second lecture on the New Testament is share about some things I have been passionately engaged with now for about 40 years.

A journey to pacifism

When I went to college in the mid-1970s, the Vietnam War was coming to an end. I registered for the draft, and was ready to fight if called. The draft ended, though, before I was called. That marked a turning point in my life, nonetheless.

I had just become a Christian. I was taught a Christian should be patriotic and be willing to fight for one’s country. However, I was also urged to read the Bible, especially to read the story of Jesus my savior in the gospels. The gospel story presented Jesus as a peacemaker. This challenged me as I struggled with the possibility of going to war. I also learned to know a number of veterans returning from Vietnam. They told horrific stories—and themselves quite often were traumatized. War didn’t seem so attractive.

About the time I finished college, I came to a clear conviction that I could not fight in war, that I was a pacifist. This conviction came shortly after I had deepened my commitment to live as a Christian—the two went together, as I resolved to be a serious Christian I committed myself to be a pacifist. What I meant by “pacifist” first was “the conviction that it is never morally acceptable to fight in or support war.” My current definition is more like this: “The conviction that no causes or values can override the commitment to treat each life as precious.” In either case, to be a Christian pacifist is to affirm these convictions due to one’s understanding of Jesus’s message.

My task then became—and remains—one of faith seeking understanding. What does it mean to be a Christian pacifist? How should I read the Bible in relation to these convictions? What about all the questions and problems—and the stubborn fact that just about all Christians for hundreds and hundreds of years have not accepted pacifism?

It helped that I had some experience being a minority. I was the only boy with four sisters. I was the only University of Oregon fan in a community filled with Oregon State fans. I was used to being a bit different, so being part of the tiny pacifist minority in a religion filled with warriors was not itself enough to make me think I was wrong…. Read the rest of this entry »

A new book!

In Biblical theology, Mennonites, peace theology, same-sex marriage, World War II on September 6, 2016 at 8:05 pm

Ted Grimsrud—September 6, 2016

I am happy to announce the publication of a new collection of my writings, Mennonites and “Homosexuality”: The Struggle to Become a Welcoming Church. The essays, blog posts, and lectures in this collection were produced over the past fifteen years in the context of the conversations in Mennonite communities concerning inclusion of sexual minorities.

Some of the chapters focus on biblical interpretation, some on the history of Mennonite responses to these issues, and some on responding to many of the writings Christians have produced during these years.

The book both provides a historical perspective on these challenging years for Mennonites and a coherent biblical and theological argument in favor of inclusion.

Here is a link to the book’s website that includes information on purchasing the book. It is now available as a paperback online from Amazon ($20) and Barnes and Noble ($15.58) and as an e-book on Amazon Kindle ($8). It may also be purchased directly from the author ($10 in person and $15 postpaid through the mail).

Is Revelation’s God a God of peace?

In Biblical theology, God, Jesus, Pacifism, peace theology, Revelation on May 13, 2016 at 7:19 pm

A sermon preached at Community Mennonite Church Lancaster

May 8, 2016 by Ted Grimsrud

The book of Revelation is a mystery, right? Scary, intimidating, fantastic, wacky, off-putting. When Kathleen and I first moved to Harrisonburg 20 years ago, we attended Park View Mennonite Church. We learned there how back in the 1950s, the Mennonites in Harrisonburg had intense conflicts about the interpretation of Revelation. So, in good Mennonite fashion, they decided they needed to stop talking about it. So, those who grew up after that had no exposure to Revelation. However, maybe, also, Revelation is fascinating and even inspiring. I think it’s worth wrestling with, and it may even have special importance for we who live today in the center of the world’s one great superpower.

What are we looking for?

When we take up Revelation, though, just like any other religious text, so much depends on what we are looking for. Let me give some examples from who have written on Revelation. Are we looking for the date of the rapture and the identity of the Antichrist (like with the Left Behind books)? Or are we looking for the lunatic ravings of a hallucinating first-century fanatic (that’s what British novelist D. H. Lawrence thought)? Or are we looking for words of encouragement in face of a vicious authoritarian state (like South African theologian Allan Boesak 30-some years ago)? Or are we looking for a challenge to American imperialism (with the great American prophet of the 1960s and 70s William Stringfellow)?

And what kind of God do we expect to find “revealed” in this book? We all tend to try to find what will reinforce our already existing beliefs. We don’t always look very kindly toward images and ideas that threaten what we think we know. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, from the social thinker John Kenneth Galbraith: “Sometimes we face a choice, do we change our minds or do we prove that we don’t need to. When faced with such a choice, most of us most of the time get busy with the proof.”… We tend not to want to change our minds. So if we expect a mean God in Revelation, that’s likely what we will find.

Still, it is a good idea to at least try to listen to different views. And certainly it’s a good idea to try at least to listen to the Book of Revelation with an open mind, to listen with the possibility that it might have something to say to us a bit different than what we expect—maybe it’s actually meaningful! Or meaningful in a different way that what we have assumed.

My sense with Revelation is that most people start with the assumption that Revelation’s God is violent and judgmental. Some might want that kind of God—some don’t. One of the pivotal moments in my own theological journey came nearly 40 years ago when a couple of friends had a formal debate in our church about pacifism. The non-pacifist drew heavily on the judgment in Revelation. He used it to support his belief that sometimes God is violent and thus may, at times, want us to be as well. That statement challenged me to study Revelation to see for myself. Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (Chapter 19)

In Biblical theology, Eschatology, peace theology, Revelation on July 21, 2015 at 6:09 pm

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes on Revelation 18]

Though both at the end of chapter sixteen and chapter eighteen, John writes of the completion of the destruction of Babylon, the story is not over, not even the destructive elements. However, it is crucial for the storyline that Babylon not longer exists as a lure to turn people from God. John turns toward another celebration scene at the beginning of chapter nineteen. Here, though there is a sense of something new—unlike earlier worship visions, this one is not so much celebrating the Lamb’s victory amidst the plagues. Now a crucial corner has been turned, Babylon is no more, and the New Jerusalem is much closer.

The final “battle” is just ahead, followed by the final judgment of humanity and the Dragon meeting his end. In all of this, John’s readers are challenged to remember the Lamb’s way as the way of God—and the path to victory for the entire world. The outcome is the healing and genuine justice of the New Jerusalem.

Revelation 19:1-10

The worship scene picks up on several images from earlier in the book. The “great multitude” points most directly back to chapter seven, though it also evokes the worship scenes from chapters five, twelve, fourteen, and fifteen. In chapter seven, in the midst of the seal series of plagues, John sees “a great multitude” beyond counting, “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” praising God and the Lamb to whom “salvation belongs” (7:9-10). Both “great multitudes” are dressed in white robes (7:9, 14; 19:8).

As with the earlier visions, here we have massive praise, “salvation and glory and power to our God” (19:1). The new dimension is that now we are told that God has “judged the great Harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication.” God has brought justice due to the Harlot shedding “the blood of God’s servants” (19:2). As we know, and will be confirmed again in the second half of chapter nineteen, God’s method of gaining justice in relation to Babylon through persevering love even in the face of violent bloodletting by the structures of domination. And this justice will result in the destruction of the powers of evil and the healing of the kings of the earth and the nations. Read the rest of this entry »

Revelation Notes (Chapter 16)

In Biblical theology, Eschatology, peace theology, Revelation, Theology on July 17, 2015 at 4:00 pm

Ted Grimsrud

[See notes of Revelation 15]

Revelation sixteen describes all seven of the final set of plagues—the “bowl plagues” where seven angels pour out onto the earth “the wrath of God” (16:1). Unlike the partial destruction that the two early series of plagues (seals and trumpets) describe (in turn, one-quarter and one-third—perhaps the thunder plagues that were “sealed up” and not reported [10:4] would have told of one-half destruction), here the destruction is total (“every living thing in the sea died,” 16:3). With the seventh plague “a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying ‘It is done!’” (16:17). Now, John’s reporting of the “revelation of Jesus Christ” is not done. We still have six more chapters and several important visions to go. But this is the final plague and the expanding circle of destruction has reached its climax. The dynamics of wrath and destruction seem to have reached their culmination here. We will need to think carefully about these plague visions and also consider what is to come in Revelation—all in light of the core visions we have already heard, especially chapter five’s vision of the triumph of the Lamb—before we draw conclusions about what is being communicated in this chapter.

Revelation 16:1-11

The “loud voice from the temple” almost certainly is God’s voice telling the angels to “pour out on the earth” bowls of the “wrath of God” (16:1). We should read this description in light of what we have already discerned about God, the plagues, and wrath. The basic idea may be we are again going to have described for us the dynamics on earth during the “three and a half years” where the Dragon and his minions are wreaking havoc—but not in a way that will actually defeat God. “God’s wrath,” thus is not God direct anger being visited upon the earth in order to punish wrongdoing. Rather, it is what results when people turn against God and order their lives on the values of domination and exploitation—gaining their marching orders from the Beast and not from the Lamb. On a certain level, we may say that God allows the spiral of destruction loosed by the Dragon, but also that this spiral of destruction actually leads to the destruction of the Dragon himself along with the Beast and the False Prophet. Read the rest of this entry »

Sin: What it is and what to do about it—Paul’s message in Romans 6

In Apostle Paul, Biblical theology, peace theology, Romans on June 15, 2015 at 9:52 am

Ted Grimsrud

A sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—Harrisonburg, VA, June 14, 2015, Romans 6:1-23

Sometimes little things are powerful—the most dangerous spiders are those little brown recluses. The hottest chili peppers are the tiny Carolina creepers. And the word “sin”—with only three letters—has all kinds of significance for religious people, and those who know religious people.

Problems with “sin”

One of the problems in North American Christianity is that the word sin is used mainly by people on one side of the theological spectrum. It feels like a harsh and finger pointing kind of word. So good peaceable progressives tend to avoid it. The result is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where everybody cedes the meaning of sin to those who do use it in hurtful ways.

We all do know that to call something a sin is to say it’s very bad. It’s like the famous story about President Calvin Coolidge back in the 1920s. He was notoriously a man of few words. One Sunday he went to church and later met with some reporters. “What was the sermon about,” he was asked. “It was about sin.” “What did the preacher say about sin?” “He said he was agin it.” … What more is there to say?

Well, a few decades later, the Louvin Brothers, one of the great country music brother singing acts , recorded a song called “Broadminded” that did say a little more: “That word broadminded is spelled s-i-n. I read in my Bible, they shall not enter in. Depart, I never knew you. That word broadminded is spelled s-i-n.” The song goes on to list the really bad sins—to “gamble now and then for pleasure,” to “drink a little whisky to please a friend,” and to go “dancing with friends.”

Of course we can think of even more hurtful ways the label sin is used. If it’s people others want to exclude or silence or marginalize, they can be accused of being sinful, of “living in sin.” One of the reasons this hurtful use of sin language is too bad is that many of us tend to react against using it at all then—and that makes for a challenge when we want to find language to use to talk about things that are genuinely wrong—like war and environmental exploitation and racism. We don’t find it meaningful to say those things are sinful—but we don’t have other words that work, either.

But there is another problem with the way “sin” is used among Christians. If it’s used as a word for the evils of “broadmindedness” or if it’s a word we refuse to use—in both cases we think of “sin” mainly as rule violations or moralistically objectionable behavior. To think of sin in these ways makes it harder to understand one of the Apostle Paul’s use of sin language—and we miss Paul’s helpful contributions to how we might approach life in healing and creative ways. Read the rest of this entry »

It all starts with love: Paul’s message in Romans 5

In Apostle Paul, Biblical theology, peace theology, Romans on May 18, 2015 at 9:09 am

Ted Grimsrud

A sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite, May 17, 2015, Romans 5:1-21 

You know, growing older is a crazy thing. On my birthday a bit more than a week ago my sister posted on Facebook a picture of me when I was about one year old. I looked at that picture (which I don’t remember having seen before) with wonder. That happy, chubby little kid was me—sixty years ago! Then I realized that I am as far from that picture now as I would have been then from a picture taken in 1895.

Or, as I put this sermon together I was thinking of a popular song I remember by folksinger Joan Baez called “Love is Just a Four Letter Word.” Written by Bob Dylan, it was a song I liked when it was new. Well, it came out in 1969. Back then, a song as old as that one is now would have been released in 1923—before country music was invented, and about thirty years before rock and roll.

As is typical with Dylan songs, the lyrics are a bit cryptic, unclear, oblique, and obscure. But the title, repeated many times as a chorus, has stuck with me. Is love “just a four letter word”? We Christians would say, no way. Love is one of our most important positive words—love is the opposite of an obscenity. God is all about love. If we believe in God, we believe in love, right?

God is all about love

But what do we actually mean when we say “God is all about love”? We might even say, quoting one of the letters of John, “God is love”—I certainly believe that. I think the Apostle Paul did, too. And I think this statement, “God is love” is an important clue for understanding Paul’s letter to the Romans.

It’s interesting, though, that sometimes it seems difficult to articulate what we actually mean by love—both when we attribute it to God and when we think about what exactly it is in human experience. I think more than ever, it is important to think carefully about love. Like the British poet W. H. Auden famously wrote at the outset of World War II, “we must love one another or die.”

The fifth chapter of Romans is an important love chapter—maybe not quite as potent at 1 Corinthians 13 (“These three remain, faith, hope, and love—but the greatest of these is love”) yet potent enough, if we can get a sense of what Paul is saying. Read the rest of this entry »