Category Archives: Mennonites

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

How My Theological Mind Has Changed (Or Not)

Is it true that as we get older our views get more entrenched and inflexible? I hope not. I decided to run a test on this question. I discovered a set of sermons I presented in the summer of 1996, just weeks before ending the congregational ministry phase of my ministry and moving into college teaching.

These sermons addressed basic Christian convictions. Looking at them, I thought they could serve as kind of a base line for summarizing my views at that time of transition. Since then, I have taught dozens of classes, written several books, presented numerous papers, had countless conversations, read a ton of books and articles—all on theological themes.

How have my views changed (if at all)? Continue reading

Recent Blog Posts at ThinkingPacifism.net

Before posting the series of reflections on how my theology has evolved over the past fifteen years, I posted these other essays in the past couple of months.

Just prior to the celebration of Peace Sunday in early July, I posted these reflections on Pacifism: “Why Pacifism?”

As with many people in my generation, for me these are days of thinking about the future in more personal terms due to the (wonderful!) presence of grandchildren in my life. Some thoughts on that theme from June 18: “Grandchildren and Hope.”

John Howard Yoder’s peace theology has recently been critiqued from the theological right. I critique the critique in my May 29 blog entry at ThinkingPacifism.net“Defending Yoder: Part One—Responding to Peter Leithart’s Critique.” In the June 5 entry, I continue the analysis with this post: “Defending Yoder: Part Two—Earl Zimmerman’s Account.”

On May 27, I dusted off an old essay I wrote back in the early 1990s reflecting on some of the insights of Martin Buber in his classic book, I and Thou: “Affirming Life: Learning from Martin Buber.”

My discouragement with recent political developments in the United States triggered this essay: “Are We Living Under Totalitarianism?”, posted May 23. 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. Continue reading

Is the Mennonite Confession of Faith Anti-Gay?

Ted Grimsrud—June 20, 2010

The debate over homosexuality among Mennonites continues apace. Just this morning I learned of a recent lengthy and intense meeting held among leaders in Mennonite congregations in a regional district. It sounds like the meeting was, as these meetings have been for decades now, emotionally stressful and mostly non-conclusive. And, has been the case now since 1995, partisans for the churches taking a restrictive rather than inclusive stance toward sexual minorities insisted that they were simply defending the clear teaching of the Mennonite Confession of Faith (CofF).

These partisans do have formal warrant for their argument in that the Membership Guidelines that were formulated to set terms for the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church in 2001 do take a restrictive stand—and cite the CofF as offering crucial support for this stance. However, a careful reading of the CofF itself does not support such use. [The following paragraphs are taken from a longer article: “Mennonite Church USA’s ‘Teaching Position’ on Homosexuality: A Critique.”]

The first source that is cited in the Membership Guidelines in the statement asserting a restrictive stance for the new denomination is the 1995 CofF. That the CofF would be cited as the basis for the “teaching position” on homosexuality is interesting. This citation, without explanation, gives the impression that the CofF provides clear and direct teaching concerning homosexuality. However, the actual CofF does not in fact even mention homosexuality. So, here we have an example of theology by citation more than by exposition. It’s enough to cite the official doctrinal statement of MC USA with a proof text to establish a “teaching position” that then will be used by leaders to justify closing down discussion. Continue reading

A case study in the “gay issue” and Mennonite “church discipline”

Even though Mennonite communities in North America have been engaged in debates and controversies over the “gay issue” for decades, little careful historical writing has yet been done on these controversies. I am sure there are writings I am not aware of, but most of what has been published so far has been limited to first person accounts (as collected in Roberta Krieder’s excellent books), more generalized sociological and/or rhetorical studies (such as works by Michael King and Gerald Mast), and a few short historical overviews (such as Lin Garber’s article in the book edited by Norman Kraus, To Continue the Dialogue).

We now have a very specific but quite illuminating, carefully researched and clearly written study of one case of conference discipline of a dissident pastor. Kelly Miller, a 2011 graduate in history from Goshen College, has written her senior thesis on Kathleen Temple, the former pastor of Shalom Mennonite Congregation in Harrisonburg, Virginia. [Full disclosure: Kathleen is my wife; I figure tangentially in the story Kelly tells.]

Miller’s paper is called, “Behind Mennonite Same-Sex Sexuality Debates: Kathleen Temple and Virginia Mennonite Conference, 1998-2002.” It may be read here.

Certainly, Miller’s lengthy paper (it’s 53-pages printed out) is of great interest for those of us directly involved in the events that ended with Temple’s loss of ministerial credentials. However, it’s importance also lies in providing a careful look at how “church discipline” worked in this one case and the problematic consequences of the actions taken by Virginia Conference. Miller quite helpfully provides us with concrete, on-the-ground, information that can contribute to growth in our understanding of how these controversies have worked out in actual history with actual people.

A critique of the Mennonite Church USA’s “teaching position” on homosexuality

North American Mennonites are typical of Christian denominations in struggling with whether and how to be welcoming of gay and lesbian Christians in their midst. This struggle promises to be on the table at the Mennonite Church USA’s General Assembly in Pittsburgh this summer.

The citing of MC USA’s stated “teaching position” on this issue, especially by denominational leaders, both reflects the history of this struggle over the past several decades and plays an important role in present dynamics. But what exactly is this “teaching position”? Where did it come from and what is it based on?

I have an article, “The Logic of the Mennonite Church USA ‘Teaching Position’ on Homosexuality,” that was be published Spring 2011 in Brethren Life and Thought (volume 55.1-2, dated Winter/Spring 2010) and attempts to respond to these questions about the “teaching position.”

I argue that this “official stance” is based on shaky premises (for example, one key element is an assertion that the Mennonite Confession of Faith takes a restrictive position regarding homosexuality, an assertion I show to be unfounded). This “teaching position” is all too often used to stifle conversation on these issues. I conclude that the only way through for MC USA as a denomination and for MC USA congregations and other organizations is to welcome open discussion and decentralized, congregation-centered discernment.

Along the way, I also discuss the significance of how many restrictive advocates use the term “homosexual practice” (singular) rather than “homosexual practices” (plural). This usage then has the effect of actually reducing the important of the actual content of biblical materials that relate to the broader issues related to homosexuality in the community of faith. I also reflect on the role that “natural law” seems to play in this discussion, even for self-affirming biblicists.

Pacifism in our (Post)modern World

In 1998, I wrote a paper that brought together many of my thoughts about pacifism. When I was in college back in the 1970s, right at the end of America’s war in Vietnam, I had come to strong convictions that war was always wrong and that I could never participate in warfare or even support it. In the years since, this conviction had only only deepened.

The occasion for writing this paper was a conference at Bluffton University on Anabaptism and Postmodernity. The paper, “A Pacifist Way of Knowing: Postmodern Sensibilities and Peace Theology,” was published in Mennonite Life in 2001. I am finally getting around to making it available here on Peace Theology.

 

Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism

Ted Grimsrud

[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?”[i] 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 it 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 at the heart of our lives we 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.  On the other hand, we recognize that efforts to overcome evil all too often end up exacerbating the brokenness.  We recognize that resisting evil can lead to the use of tactics that add to the evil and transform the actors more than the evil situation.

So, how might we act responsibly while not only remaining 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” (R2P) 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,[ii] “just policing,”[iii] and projects such at the 3D Security Initiative[iv] and Mennonite Central Committee’s “Peace Theology Project.”[v]

The tension seemingly inherent for peacemakers in these efforts at responding to evil appears in 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 it 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 the tension as a call to devote our best energies to finding ways to hold together our nonviolence with creative responsibility?

I affirm the need (and the realistic possibility) of taking the “tension-as-opportunity-for-creative-engagement” path. A number of the people and writings cited in notes 2 through 5 below have been embodying just this kind of path; I do not mean to imply that peace church practitioners haven’t make significant progress in understanding and applying our peacemaking convictions to the “real world.”[vi] However, I am not content that we have yet done the necessary work at sharpening our understanding and articulation of the “faithfulness” side of the responsibility/faithfulness dialectic. Our creativity in engaging these issues may be drawing on increasingly depleted traditions of principled pacifism that found their roots more in traditional communities than in carefully articulated theological ethics. We may not have the resources to live creatively with this dialectic unless we do more work on clarifying and solidifying our understanding of our peace ideals.

With this essay I will articulate a perspective on pacifism that might be usable for thoughtfully engaging human security issues. My contribution is mostly as a pastor and theologian, not a practitioner. My hope is to help with the philosophical underpinnings, not to direct a program of engagement — though I will conclude with a few thoughts on how I see the pacifist perspective outlined here possibly applying to our present situation. Continue reading