Category: Ethics and Social Justice

The Weirdest of Animals

Human beings are by far the weirdest of all God’s creatures. I say this with all due respect to the wild and extravagant diversity of the animal kingdom, much of which, regrettably, I remain woefully ignorant. The species of our world are truly bewildering both in number and variety, and their capacity to astonish and confound seems virtually limitless. But we are by far the strangest of the bunch.
Today’s evidence for human weirdness comes via an article in the National Post called “Is microdosing LSD a solution to the ‘crisis of meaning’ in modern life?” One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at such a headline. The image of people plodding off into carefully calibrated LSD trips to take the edge off their lack of meaning seems somehow comical to me, one level. But of course, it’s also alarmingly sad. This is what we’ve come to as a species? No more heroic existential quests or deep convictions arrived at via ecstasy and suffering, no more mining the deep shafts of historical wisdom, no more denial of self as a route to divine encounter for us. We’ll microdose our way to “mental health,” thanks very much. According to one of the Canadian researchers quoted in the article, microdosing “has become like a new religion—one based not on a god but on a desire for self-enhancement.” Well, yes, I suppose they’ve at least got the terminology mostly right. A religious quest, this certainly is.
This is not the first I’ve heard of this potential “solution” to the crisis of meaning in modern life. Johann Hari brings it up as a possibility in his otherwise excellent and timely diagnostic of our cultural moment, Lost Connections. At the time I sort of laughed it off as a kind of fringe notion, not to be taken seriously by, well, serious people. Evidently, I overestimated our species (something I am rarely accused of). Research dollars are being invested, GoFundMe pages are being dutifully set up (a $100 donation gets you a snappy “Psychedelic Scientist” T-shirt!). Scientists are hard at work. We will soon be furnished with the evidence required to answer the question of whether or not microdosing on LSD is the, ahem, solution to our crisis of meaning.
But as weird as all this is (or seems to me, at any rate), it’s not really the weirdness I’m thinking of today. Weirder than microdosing our way to meaning is the reality that lies behind this religious quest. What’s weirdest about human beings is that we need meaning at all, that the absence of meaning is deemed a “crisis” requiring a “solution” in the first place. What’s weird is that we can’t seem to do without meaning. What’s weird is that we don’t seem to notice how weird this is.
If, as the popular story goes, the march of history is that of a gradual and inevitable unshackling of humanity from the illusions that have long plagued and divided us, a slow but necessary realization that we’re not really so special, that we’re really no more than matter in motion on a chunk of rock hurtling purposelessly toward cosmic extinction, that the gods, myths, and morals that we’ve invented to motivate, pacify and placate ourselves with over the years are just so many fairy tales, then why not just shrug our shoulders and get on with the futility? Why not, like all the other animals, just kind of eat, sleep and breed our way into meaningless oblivion?
But we can’t do this. And we don’t. We’re too weird for that, evidently.
And so we continue to pant after meaning in our various ways, whether it’s religion or politics or clinging faithfully to narratives of progressivism or conservatism or hedonism or “spirituality” or enlightenment or secularism or environmentalism or nihilism or any of the other narratives about who’s good and who’s bad and why the world is the way it is and what to do about it that we adopt to give our lives purpose. Or terrifyingly, some of the more extreme and violent ideologies that inevitably rush in to fill a vacuum of meaning.
(Not all “meanings” are created equal, of course, much as we might like to pretend this is the case, much as we might long to flatter ourselves with our tolerance for diversity. Some meanings correspond with the good, the true, and the beautiful better than others. Truths this obvious should not need to be stated, but they probably do. The suicide bomber and the Sri Lankan Christian celebrating the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday were both acting consistently within the narratives of meaning they have embraced. Same goes for the worshippers in the Christchurch mosques and their murderer. The truth of the matter still, inconveniently, matters.)
We are human beings and we will have our meaning. It seems, however, that we are rapidly running out of intellectual and spiritual resources to ask good questions about meaning in general (Why do we need it? What might this suggest about our species?) or to evaluate the merits of the various narratives of meaning out there (“whatever floats your boat” seems good enough, most of the time… until Christchurch, Sri Lanka, etc… or until your narrative of meaning is threatened in less devastating ways by bad and stupid people who don’t share it). The question of what, if anything, might be true when it comes the meaning we seek seems well and truly beyond us. We’ll have a little LSD to take the edge off reality instead.
We’re not nearly curious enough about ourselves or about the meaning we can’t live without.

Syndicated from Rumblings


Questions from the wrong side of Easter

Ted Grimsrud—April 24, 2019
Easter weekend was interesting for me this year. To be truthful, it left me feeling a bit uneasy. Usually I like Easter, at least if the weather is nice (as it was this year). But this time, the celebrative notes seemed consistently off key. I wonder if I have reached a tipping point where Easter imagery has the net effect of discouragement more than inspiration.
Easter “facts”?
My negative sensibility crystallized when, prompted by Facebook, I read John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” This is the first stanza:
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
Maybe I’m misreading, but I understand Updike to be making two key assertions—(1) Jesus’s resurrection, as a certain fact, was physical. His real body, reanimated, returned from the dead. (2) Upon this fact, the life of the Church depends. No factual resurrection, no Church.
Later, Updike doubles down on the factuality of Jesus’s resurrection:
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not paper-maché,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.
For Updike, to think of Jesus’s resurrection as metaphorical is to “mock God.” The stone that was rolled away from the tomb when Jesus arose was “not a stone in a story.” So, it struck me that Updike denies that the story of Jesus’s resurrection is simply a story. It has a level of factuality that removes it from the metaphorical. What then is it? I don’t know.
Stories are powerful
I can’t see Jesus’s resurrection as something other than “simply” a story. To think it is more than a story is to have too weak a view of what stories are (an ironic attitude for a storyteller such as Updike to have, it seems to me). I think to see what the gospels (and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians) tell us about Jesus’s resurrection as something other than simply a story seems to deny the actual reality of how we know about Easter Sunday.
The gospels are collections of stories that were passed down orally for maybe around 40 years after the events they recount (recognizing the likely existence of some kind of document, called “Q” by recent scholars, that provided the core narrative shared in common by Matthew, Mark, and Luke). These stories were gathered by the gospel writers and put together in the form of four more stories, the distinctive versions in each of the gospels. Paul’s version of the Easter story, as he tells us, was also the result of oral tradition (1 Cor 15:3).
So, the written versions we have (and it is important to note that they differ in important ways from one another) have been filtered through many retellings from the original accounts of eyewitnesses. Recognizing that ancient oral cultures passed down their stories with remarkable care, we still must acknowledge the distance between the events themselves and the records we have of them. In addition, we must (perhaps even more importantly) recognize that these stories were passed down, written, and thus shaped for a purpose. The purpose was not Updike’s kind of factuality but evangelistic, to persuade people to trust in and follow Jesus.
That what we know about Jesus’s resurrection came to be recorded for sermonic and not literalistic factual purposes does not mean that the information is false. But it does mean that making its meaning dependent upon factuality as Updike seem to do (echoing the mainstream Christian tradition, for sure—I don’t mean to single out Updike here, but on how he reflects the broader tradition and present-day piety) may end up distorting the core meaning of Jesus’s resurrection—with profoundly destructive effects for the practice of Jesus’s faith.
A weak kind of truth
The resurrection of Jesus, I would suggest, is best seen as a weak kind of truth. It is something we choose to believe, not something that hits us over the head, as it were, with its brute factuality. It is notable that the New Testament stories seem to make a point of reporting that only believers in Jesus saw him after he rose.
Typically, it appears, Christians such as Updike have and continue to want something more powerful and coercive than a “mere story.” In parallel fashion, they want a God who is in control, not a God who is “merely love.” They want certainty that things will end well, not merely a sense of hope that the universe bends toward justice.
They tend to want a story that they can control and that they can overpower others with, that they can turn into an enforceable boundary marker, that can serve as a line in the sand that divides true and false. That is, they want a story that isn’t just a story, a story that has more authority than a mere sermon, a story that provides certainty and security and not just tentative hopefulness.
I’m afraid that what this all comes down to is that Christians have a hard time trusting in the sufficiency of love—love that is not controlling or certain or absolutely secure; love that corresponds to the way life actually is and that empowers those who trust in it to be creative and compassionate in face of their fragility.
What if what matters most in the Easter story are not the details about Jesus’s body, not as Updike writes, that “the molecule reknit” and “the amino acids rekindle”? What if what matters most is simply the proclamation that God vindicates Jesus’s life? Our favorable response is not then due to irrefutable scientific facts (or to fearing that otherwise “the Church will fall”) but to our desire to be part of the same story as Jesus—where enemies are loved, when the rulers of the world are named as tyrants, where sinners are forgiven?

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

On Elections and Empathy

After a volatile and rancorous six weeks or so of campaigning (both by the candidates themselves and by their devoted and faithful supporters), it’s election day here in Alberta. There has been seemingly endless mud-slinging and accusations and labelling and self-serving platitudes. The UCP has mostly tried to frame this election as an overdue corrective for a staggering economy. The NDP has mostly tried to cast it as a referendum on progressive social policies. A friend commented this morning that this election might simply reveal what’s more sacred to us, sex or money. Probably not far from the truth.  At any rate, I did my duty on the way to work this morning. I sighed, and I voted.
Readers of this blog will know that I am no champion of partisan politics. I have voted across the political spectrum over my twenty-five years or so of voting, both provincially and federally. I try to stay informed, to weigh priorities, to vote for the local candidate that I think will do the most good (or the least harm). But my expectations are usually fairly low. My allegiance is to another king and a different kingdom (as I’ve written about before) and I am regularly puzzled by Christians who seem to think that politics is the primary way in which this kingdom comes.
I am also increasingly troubled by the nature of our political discourse. We are losing, it seems to me, anything like a conception that we share a common life with our fellow citizens. The realm of politics is becoming inherently adversarial. For me, this was illustrated by a relatively innocuous meme that I saw earlier in this interminable election cycle. It said something to the effect of, “Millennials, you now outnumber the boomers. Get out there and vote.” In other words, “You can defeat all of those ignorant, regressive old people with your vote. Get out there and win!” There are interesting assumptions at work here. There is no notion that millennials might share a common life with their elders or that they might have overlapping interests or that—gasp!—they might occasionally have something to learn from them. No, they are simply competitors, full stop. These kinds of assumptions abound on both sides of an increasingly polarized political sphere.
I find this trend deeply problematic. People who vote and think differently than me are no longer fellow citizens who have different views and who might calibrate priorities differently, they are very bad, very stupid people. They are enemies of all that is good and decent in the world. They are ____phobes and _____ists. They exist to be defeated by right-thinking people like me. Perhaps someday they will come to see the light like I do, but until then, they must be defanged, contained, mocked and belittled. This is the state of our political discourse these days.
I think that whatever else might be said about the above, at the very least it represents a failure of empathy, of the ability to try to see something from a perspective beyond your own. Over the weekend, I listened to an episode from NPR’s Invisibilia called “The End of Empathy.” It’s not about politics, per se, but it does paint a picture of our cultural moment that extends into the political sphere and well beyond. It contrasted the approaches of two reporters, both women, one middle-aged, one younger, who were given the task of telling the story of a recovering “incel” (about the most odious category of young men that you might imagine these days). The middle-aged reporter was more inclined to try to humanize the young man, to try to understand what could produce such a view of women and the world, and to even consider the possibility of a something like a redemption narrative in the way his story was unfolding. The younger reporter was not. The young man simply represented a category of humanity that was beyond the pale. His sins were too many and too great. There was no way back for him and it would be immoral to make it seem like there was.
It seemed to me, as I listened to the story, that this is a theme that reproduces itself across our public discourse, including the political sphere. We are losing the ability to see actual human beings behind the views they hold. Someone who thinks differently than us about sex or money or pipelines or education or healthcare isn’t someone to have a conversation with, they are disgusting sinners who have all but forfeited their humanity. Someone who has a different coloured sign on their front lawn is not a neighbour but an incomprehensible enemy. And so, we get what we get every election cycle: an ideological slugfest with results that swing wildly back and forth, dictated by whoever has enough people that feel like they’ve been on the wrong end of the score for the past four years.
My kids are not old enough to vote provincially this time around, but they will be by the time the federal election rolls around in fall. I don’t want them to internalize this vision of politics that we are modeling for them. I don’t want them to see a ballot in the election box as their weapon against the very bad, very stupid people. I want them to be willing to sit down with people who think differently than them and do the hard word of trying to understand them and what might motivate their priorities. I want them to see fellow citizens instead of ideological enemies to conquer. I want them learn how to live with difference responsibly, with both conviction and empathy.
I want the same for myself. And I want it for you, too, dear reader. If you have made it this far, and if you happen to live in Alberta and are voting today, and if you happen to be inclined toward weaponizing your social media feed later today either in exultant glee or righteous indignation, perhaps consider a different approach. Maybe have a conversation with someone you disagree with instead. Or ask, “I wonder why they might calibrate their priorities differently than I do?” Or consider a slightly more charitable interpretation than, “They’re an idiot.” We really have to do better, I think. Today is as good a day as any to give “better” a try.
Image source. 

Syndicated from Rumblings

Are we better off without God and Christianity? Thoughts on healing the world

Ted Grimsrud—April 15, 2019
I believe that human beings do have a purpose in life. That purpose is to do what we can to help bring healing to the world. Another way of saying this is to say that what matters most in life is that we live in love and that we resist the idols that undermine love. A big question for me is: Does belief in God, and in particular the Christian God, aids or hinders fulfilling this purpose?
Where does this question come from?
Let me give a little background on how I come to this question. I grew up in an interestingly conservative area of the United States—rural southwestern Oregon. What is interesting about rural Oregon is that people tend to be conservative in values and lifestyle, but they also tend not to be religious. Oregon has traditionally been the least “churched” state in the country. While the urban areas are pretty liberal, the countryside tends not to be.
My parents were schoolteachers who moved to our small town from the outside. They lived pretty conservative lives in many ways, but they were well educated and open-minded about most things. So they were a bit different from their surrounding community. I grew up attending church until the church closed when I was eight years old. I can’t say that I was explicitly taught that my purpose in life was “to help bring healing to the world.” But I would say that the values I absorbed from my family provided the framework for me to affirm that sense of purpose when I got older.
As a teenager, due to the influence of a close friend, I had a conversion experience and became a fundamentalist Christian. As I look back now, I see the influence of that experience and its aftermath as being quite a mixed blessing. It did get me in the door, so to speak, to serious Christianity, which meant (in part) a serious engagement with the Bible, especially with the life and teaching of Jesus. In those initial years, while I was part of a fundamentalist church, I was not encouraged to think much about loving the world, though. I would say now that I experienced two sides to belief in the Christian God—both how such belief can encourage working for healing the world and how such belief can undermine such work.
My sense, for some years after my conversion, was that my primary loyalty was to Christianity and that only because of my Christian faith was I then also to care about healing the world. Two types of experience worked to complicate this sense of loyalty to Christianity. One was learning to know people (and about many other people) who weren’t Christians yet were deeply committed to loving their neighbors and healing the world. The second type of experience was to see how Christians could be quite unloving. What made this second phenomenon especially difficult for me was seeing that often the “unlovingness” was not in spite of Christian convictions but because of them.
It has been a very gradual process over the course of most of my adult life, and I am not yet at the point of rejecting that primary loyalty to Christianity altogether. But I ask: Is it actually the case, when we factor in everything, that Christianity is more a part of the problem than part of the solution? Is it actually the case, when we factor in everything, that the authentic healing work that Christians due is in spite of their religious affiliation and not because of it? I don’t know….
How Christianity counters healing
When I think of Christianity as a problem, I think about the current dynamics in the United States of America, known to many as a “Christian nation” and also the creator of the most powerful and destructive military apparatus that the world has ever known. According to surveys (and my personal observations), in the US belief in the Christian God correlates with support for American warism and nationalism. It would appear that being a Christian makes a person more likely to endorse the violence and injustices of the American empire (this was actually also my personal experience immediately following my Christian conversion).
And it is easy to see how this might work when one looks both at the Christian theological tradition historically and at the theological motives currently articulated by many American Christians. These are some examples of what I believe are deeply problematic assumptions that characterize most of Christianity:
(1) The universe is portrayed in hierarchical terms. We have an all-powerful and autonomous (that is, separate from the creation) God on top, with various representatives of God mediating authority on God’s behalf in between, and the masses down below. A sense of divine hierarchy tends to translate to a sense of hierarchy among human beings—with the accompanying sensibility that our main purpose as human beings is to obey authority and accept God’s will as expressed by God’s representatives who are at the top of human hierarchies. This understanding tends to enhance militarism and the centralized power of the state and of large corporations (the entities that profit the most from militarism).
(2) Moral life rests on the foundation of retribution. When the harmony of God’s good order is violated by human wrongdoing, the morally necessary response is that there must be a payment in punishment and retribution. It would violate the very moral character of the universe to respond to wrongdoing with simple forgiveness. Whatever forgiveness might be gained must be paid for through punitive retribution. Such a perspective has had an obvious impact on criminal justice practices and more broadly in justifying wars and the preparation for war.
(3) A more general dynamic connects with the retributive sense of payback for wrongdoing—the sense of reciprocity where good deeds must lead to good deeds in response and bad deeds must lead to retaliation. One aspect of this dynamic is the sense that for God to be merciful we must earn it and that when we sin we must be punished. In this framework, God is not so much a God of generous love and compassion but a God who simply pays back what is deserved, for good or ill. This sense of God encourages a sense of human interaction that leads to an endless dynamic of a violation/retaliation spiral of violence.
(4) The churches and the theological tradition tend to reside, we could say, in a “house of authority.” This “house” presents Christianity as mainly a matter of obedience to the authority of the One in charge. Such a framework actually gives tremendous power to the human structures that mediate the will of the One. God’s authority requires authoritative revelation that is interpreted by human leaders who then enforce their interpretation by sanctioning any who violate the boundary lines of the church’s theology. This often punitive “house of authority” is the major way that the hierarchies mentioned above retain their power—power that is often coercive and generally supportive of the ecclesial and political status quo.
(5) One of the main consequences of Christianity’s close link with human institutions and strictly policed traditions is that it tends thereby to be tribalistic. A sense of identity that centers on one’s religious status can be empowering for healing work when it leads to compassion and a welcoming disposition toward outsiders (which seems to be one of Jesus’s main emphases). However, all too often, the sense of a particular religiously defined identity leads to seeing those outside the circle created by that identity as lesser, even less than fully human—often a prerequisite for violence against the “other.”
(6) The final example of how Christianity is part of the problem is the way Christians have tended toward a material/spiritual dualism that has objectified nature and underwritten an exploitative approach. If the material world is essentially inert, it has less inherent value. Christians have all too often taken the creation mandate in Genesis one as a call to exercise “dominion” in the sense of domination and possessive use.
One certainly may argue (as I would) that each of these problematic assumptions is based on a misunderstanding of the actual message of Jesus and biblical faith—and that at its best the Christian moral and theological tradition has recognized this. However, surely the dominant and often only visible approach of Christians and their religious and political institutions has been in line with these assumptions. At some point, we must face this question: Would the world have been better off without a religious system that has taken such a destructive shape in the world? Is the answer, then, to move ahead without Christianity or belief in the Christian God?
How Christianity supports healing
There is, though, a powerful counter-testimony within the Christian tradition, one that may claim a great deal of support from the Bible. Let me counter the six points mentioned above as problems with a list of six Christian themes that indeed do support healing. While rarely, if ever, the majority positions among actual Christians, these themes point to a lot of good that has come from professing Christians over the years.
(1) One source for an understanding of the purpose of human life being devotion to healing the world and resisting idols is the Bible itself. Though Bible readers have not always emphasized the healing message of the Bible, it is present from the beginning (see my book, God’s Healing Strategy). From the story of creation through the story of the trials and tribulations of God’s people down to the life and teaching of Jesus, the centrality of the love of neighbor shines strongly in the Bible—and, at times, in the teachings and practices of Christian communities. Christian faith has strong and clear bases to assert that love is our central calling in life—a message with perennial relevance both as a call to accountability for professing Christians who don’t live with love as central and as an unambiguous message to offer the wider world.
(2) At the heart of the biblical portrayal of the character of God is that God is bigger than the idols and that trust in God subverts the tendency to trust in idols. This sense of God vs. idols requires clarity about God’s character as a God of love, or else the god-who-is-not-loving simply becomes another idol that underwrites domination and violence. However, a clear and strong argument for the ultimate God as distinct from the various penultimate idols is indeed made in the Bible, centering on the story of Jesus that makes the true character of God clear.
(3) The story of Jesus is indeed the most powerful and influential healing story in human history. It is no accident that the only way Christianity could evolve into a religion that is part of the problem and has had an alienating and not healing influence is by marginalizing that story of Jesus. I call the dynamic of placing doctrines, creeds, and confessions at the center of faith the “christological evasion of Jesus” (see my book, Theology as if Jesus Matters, chapter 2). As Walter Wink asserts in Engaging the Powers, “if Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him” (p. 136)—his life and teaching point us to the true God like nothing else. We have a difficult time getting through the history of Christianity to the actual story of Jesus, but when we do we have an unmatched resource for healing.
(4) The Bible, though, does not give us the story of Jesus in isolation from other stories. Jesus culminates and embodies the story of Torah and the prophets. This older story is also a powerful resource for healing—and Jesus’s message makes no sense without it (which is why the history of Christian anti-Judaism has had such tragic consequences linked with a fundamental distortion of the Jewish Jesus’s own life and teaching). Torah teaches the centrality of people of faith taking with utmost seriousness their calling to bless all the families of the earth, to take responsibility for the work of healing. And the prophets, in reinforcing that calling provide a blueprint for resistance to the various idols that turn people from the trust in God that is required for healing work. Idolatry and injustice go hand in hand, according to Torah and the prophets, and they must constantly and actively be resisted.
(5) Jesus seems to have had an overtly political agenda, in continuity with the agenda of the Old Testament—empowering countercultural communities that would be devoted to shaping human social life in ways compatible with prophetic justice and compassion and contrasting with the domination dynamics of the world’s kingdoms. Throughout the past 2,000 years, various such communities have taken inspiration from the biblical story and embodied a kind of political practice that rejects the tyrannies of the world’s kings and places at the center the empowerment of the vulnerable. That such communities have all too often been treated with hostility by institutional Christianity does not mean that they should be seen as contrary to the way of Jesus. They likely are the most authentic expression of the faith of Jesus that humans have experienced.
(6) A final example of how Christianity has managed to be an influence for healing the world is how Christian theology has in its sources some important resources for constructing an integrated understanding of reality that counters the destructive spiritual/material dualism mentioned above. When God is understood more in line with the biblical picture than with the picture given in some Greek philosophy, we can understand God as both transcendent and imminent (a “panentheistic” view) in a way that encourages us to value nature and see our responsibilities toward the natural world in line with the biblical sensibility of stewardship and mutuality. Spirituality then becomes a call to, in Martin Buber’s words, “love that actual world that never wishes to be annulled, but love it in all its terror, but dare to embrace it with our spirit’s arms—and our hands encounter the hands that hold it” (I and Thou, p. 143).
Our choice
We have a choice without a certain answer—to decide whether if, in our vocation of seeking healing in the world, we are better off without God and Christianity. I tend to think that for those without a Christian background or those who have been profoundly wounded by Christianity, it may be possible that they are better off without God and Christianity. At least, I find such a choice understandable and respectable. For those of us who have had a reasonably non-abusive relationship with the churches and with Christians, perhaps a better choice is to say that we want to work to cultivate the ways mentioned above of how Christianity has been and can be part of the solution rather than the problem.
That is, our choice is to recognize that God is a God of love and that anything that limits love is an idol. Such a recognition has plenty of warrant in the biblical and theological traditions. With such a recognition, what matters then is not a definitive answer about whether or not we believe in God or whether or not we will self-identify as Christian or whether or not we will be active in a Christian church. Rather, what will matter most is finding whatever ways we can to practice love and to resist idols.
We will recognize that it is indeed possible to find such empowerment without belief in God and without involvement in formal religion. And we will recognize that belief in God and involvement in a religious community may be crucial sources of empowerment. In either case, we should support and learn from all the allies we can find.

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part two]

Ted Grimsrud—April 10, 2019
The purpose of this “thought experiment,” as I see it, is to reflect on how “Anabaptist” might work better than “Christian” or “Mennonite” as a descriptor of the radical faith that offers the best possibilities for responding creatively to the challenges of life in North America in the early 21st century. In Part One I described why I have problems with the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” ways of interpreting the Bible and our world and our faith. In what follows, I will describe more what I mean by “Anabaptist” as an alternative way of interpreting.
A way to think about Anabaptism
I believe that in approaching the topic of “Anabaptism” we should be straightforward about the kinds of questions we have in mind in approaching it as well as recognizing the need to be as accurate as possible in discussing the 16th century phenomena themselves. My questions have most of all to do with what resources might we find in the story of the original Anabaptists that might inform our lives today. I also wonder whether we might discern an Anabaptist approach to faith that could serve as a corrective to the interpretive angles we find in what I call the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” approaches.
A key theme for me in taking up this project of discernment is how these various angles relate to how we read the Bible. A central criterion for me is how helpful, accurate, and authentic the angles are to the message of the Bible. In fact, though the 16th century is of great interest in evaluating the Anabaptist take on faith, what matters even more is the first-century in that the truly normative “vision” that followers of Jesus should be concerned with is the one presented in the New Testament (and the Old Testament read in relation to the New). Is it possible that the Anabaptist angle gets us closer to Jesus’s take on things than the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” angles?
I have taken a cue from studies of Jesus for how I want to approach the Anabaptists—and seek for a sense of coherence among the diverse expressions of radical Christianity in the 16th century. It is common among historians of the Jesus movement to suggest that maybe the central question to ask for understanding what happened back then is this: Why was Jesus executed by the Romans? This is the version I ask of the Anabaptists: Why did they get into trouble? One thing that seems clear is that in their various iterations, just about all the Anabaptists got into trouble, and in their various locations they died by the thousands.
I suggest that we do find a sense of commonality when we ask this question. I think we may see four broad themes that were key reasons the large majority of them got into trouble—most of these themes are present in most of the Anabaptist communities, diverse as they might otherwise be.

They sought a church free from state control and free from the domination of the state churches. They believed the gospel of Jesus was incompatible with the power politics of the Domination System of states and their state-controlled churches. The meaning of baptism is at the heart of this theme. As “Anabaptists,” the radicals rejected the practice of infant baptism into state churches. This rejection followed from their understanding of salvation (something people ultimately must take personal responsibility for; not to be controlled by human institutions) but also of the freedom of the gospel that reaches to all peoples regardless of national borders and ethnic specificity.
They refused to participate in or even support wars of any kind. They affirmed the teaching of Jesus that calls his followers to radical love for their neighbors (including the neighbors on the other side of the conflicts between states). They understood the gospel to call for human communities shaped by self-giving love and not coercive power.
They understood social power in a way that was upside-down in relation to the common hierarchies of the kingdoms of the world. They challenged the ideas that kings are on the top, and they also challenged church hierarchies. Their “anticlericalism” signaled their affirmation of the centrality of self-determination among people of faith. They empowered the laity and understood the Holy Spirit to be at work most centrally in the process of communal discernment and the participation of all the people in their communities.
They taught and practiced an economics of sharing, generosity, non-possessiveness, and sustainability. The most extreme Anabaptists (e.g., the Hutterites) literally practiced the community of goods that rejected personal ownership, but all Anabaptists rejected social stratification, inequality, and economic self-aggrandizement.

In all of these ways, Anabaptists challenged the political and religious status quo. Like Jesus, they accurately were identified as threats to the powers of centralized power and wealth. They were killed as traitors to the particular kingdoms within which they lived. Part of the reason they were seen as so threatening is that they actively shared in their wider communities their insights into the message that Jesus had left with his disciples. They gained sympathetic hearings in many places, and hence the powers-that-be had to act decisively to still their outreach.
These trouble-causing convictions were social and political—but they were also theological and faith-centered. In the Anabaptists’ world (as in the Bible’s), there was no sense of private religiosity and public political realism. To reject infant baptism was a direct affront to the state. To insist on placing the highest priority on love of neighbor was a direct threat to the cultural consensus necessary to take a state to war.
The Anabaptists’ social and political witness directly followed from their theological convictions. Their theology made it inevitable that they would get into trouble. Recognizing that not all Anabaptists shared each theological conviction, we may nonetheless identify several of their key views in general that shaped their practices. They were deeply committed to a direct reading of the Bible where they saw themselves as part of the same story as the biblical people—most centrally, of course, they linked themselves with the Jesus of the gospels. They read the Bible in light of their trust in Jesus as the definitive revelation of God who allowed them to know God and modeled to them the faithful life.
They practiced a prophetic rather than creedal or sacramental approach to the Bible and to the Christian tradition. In their affirmation of the presence of the Holy Spirit in their midst, they practiced a communal hermeneutic where they read the Bible together and listened to each other for insights and directives on the meaning of the text. Tradition for them was a living connection with the biblical message and with those in the years after who sought to follow closely in Jesus’s way.
As the Anabaptists turned from magisterial Christianity with its close ties to the power elite in church and state, and as they suffered mightily as a consequence, they drew power from the immediacy they felt with the risen Jesus and his embodiment of the message of Torah and the Old Testament prophets—welcome to the vulnerable, suspicion of the powers that be, valuing the communities of the Spirit over the coercive states that subjected Europe to several generations of constant war during the 16th and 17th centuries. For the Anabaptists, the practice of resistance to Empire and the practice of embodied worship of the biblical God were two sides of one coin.
Tensions (or why “Mennonitism” ≠ “Anabaptism”)
The costly intensity of the first Anabaptists faced deadly hostility from the official Christianity of their day. Thousands of them, including most of their leaders, were killed and most of the rest were driven from their homes. The trauma of those early years etched itself on the communal identities of the survivors. The descendants of the Anabaptists, mostly Mennonites and Amish, shared a history of struggling to survive on the margins of the kingdoms of the world. These struggles, with the living memories of the early traumas, meant that Mennonites would evolve to be somewhat different from their early Anabaptist ancestors.
That the tradition survived at all is something for which to be thankful. The hundreds of years of Mennonite history since the 16th century show many examples of courage and faithfulness—including the sustenance of the original pacifist inclinations of the first radicals. So it is not a criticism of the Mennonite tradition to note that it moved away from original Anabaptism in many ways. However, after the renewal of interest in the 16th century sparked by Harold Bender and numerous of his contemporaries, Mennonites may too easily have assumed a closer connection than perhaps has been warranted.
Let me list several of the points where the tradition evolved away from the originating experience.

The immediate hostile and extraordinarily violent reaction from establishment churches and various states caused direct trauma to these radicals and in short order blunted their radicalism. Within a generation or two, the radicals focused their energy more on the quest for tolerance and enough safety to survive than on the transformation-seeking idealism of the first ones.
In the working out of this quest for toleration, Anabaptist communities, though initially known for their rejection of the top down coercive approach to power in the states and state-churches of their era, developed their own patterns of authoritarian dynamics within their own communities, with strong leaders and coercive boundary maintenance.
Over time, Mennonite and Amish communities survived as “quiet in the land” enclaves when they did find regions of toleration. They stayed largely to themselves and developed their own communities of “ethnic Mennonites” with distinctive cultural practices. This separatism fostered a kind of tribalism where self-consciousness of being part of their own “tribe” became a powerful identity marker.
To the extent that the first Anabaptists became “sectarian,” it was more a practical than ideological matter. The distinction they made between the community of faith and the outside world was strategic in the sense that they believed their witness to the world required a coherent sense of identity and strong communal support to allow them to pay the price of confronting the powers. In time, though, the sense of separation became more a matter of principle—the church and the word were truly distinct and faithful Christians do not bear responsibility for what Caesar does. So, for example, you see little public witness against war from Mennonites until that latter part of the 20th Another way to note this development is to consider the Anabaptists’ evangelistic urge. Invitation to outsiders to join their communities was a central part of the early Anabaptist approach to faith and played a major role in the hostility they faced from the state churches. This sense of invitation diminished a great deal as Mennonites became more inward focused and more distinct culturally from their surrounding environments.
While the first Anabaptists saw themselves as part of the Christian tradition and often cited pre-fourth century writings, they generally placed a clear priority on the biblical vision and only appropriated the tradition insofar as it supported their sense of the Bible’s message. In time, though, while continuing to cite the Bible profusely, Mennonites tended to develop their own traditions that they usually adhered to more rigorously than the radical vision of the Bible.

I recognize that the Mennonite tradition does validly recognize itself as the direct descendant of the first Anabaptists and that that connection remains important. I also recognize that at the heart of the Anabaptist understanding of faith is that what matters most is the concrete embodiment of theological convictions. Any sense of Anabaptism as a disembodied set of ideals misses the core truths of that tradition. At the same, time, though, these ways that the tradition has evolved that I have listed should prevent us from an easy equation of Anabaptism and Mennonitism (including the Mennonitism of Mennonite Church USA).
I believe that the spirit of Anabaptism reminds us that any concretizing of biblical faith runs the risk of calcifying the prophetic sensibility of the Bible’s message. It is always a danger that structures (both actual institutions and sets of beliefs) intended to sustain faith communities may take on a life of their own and become “Powers” that seek to separate people from the living Spirit of Jesus. The MC USA form of Mennonitism has been shaped by many influences that may well be in tension with original Anabaptism (and hence could stand to be corrected by reconsideration of the Anabaptist angle on reading the Bible). The evolution from Anabaptism to Mennonitism I outlined above certainly reflects one kind of influence—we could, say, simply the influence of the desire for communities to survive and find stability and safety.
More recently, MC USA Mennonites have been strongly influenced by various elements of American culture, including elements of the cultures of American Christianity. This includes, from one side of the spectrum, influences from North American fundamentalism and evangelicalism. From the other side of the spectrum, I would point to the influence of the secular academic world. I have seen both of these influences close to hand in my experience in Mennonite higher education as a professor. I have perceived strong reluctance on the part of both evangelical and progressive Mennonites to embrace an Anabaptist type of radical reading and applying of the message of the Bible and key theological convictions that follow from that reading (most notably, what I call “engaged pacifism” [see my article, “Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism”]).
How Anabaptism as a hermeneutic might work
I believe that the Anabaptist angle on faith and on how best to read the Bible remains extraordinarily relevant. It might even be that it provides an essential way of seeing that is required for Christianity to actually serve as part of the solution for human wholeness in our world today instead of being part of the problem. At its best, Anabaptism helps us to understanding and embody the way of Jesus.
Let me suggest five ways that Anabaptism might contribute, drawn from my list above of why the 16th century Anabaptists got into trouble. The first and most important contribution of an Anabaptist hermeneutic is to seek to make the message of Jesus and of the Old Testament prophetic expression of Torah central to the life of faith. I believe that this message stands in tension (and at times contradicts) the doctrine-centered approach of mainstream Christianity that reads Jesus Christ through the creeds (and thereby often disembodies his message) rather than vice versa. The message also stands in tension with ways that Christians since the fourth century have developed institutions and created allegiances to state power.
Second, Anabaptist-shaped faith will underwrite a strong suspicion of nations and empires. The dynamics of baptism are no longer points of contention as they were in the 16th century, but the underlying issue back then remains very present today. The vast majority of American Christians have automatically accepted and even amplified the call of the nation-state to go to war with perceived enemies—and to devote untold amounts of financial resources to warism. The unwillingness to baptize infants into the state church for 16th-century Anabaptists is a reminder for us today also to reject over-identification with the nation-state. Just as the Anabaptists practiced a costly form of sedition in rejecting baptism, so those who seek to follow their example should be seditious today insofar as that means refusing to offer allegiance to human empires.
A third element of the Anabaptist framework insists more specifically on refusing the call to participate in or support wars. The biblical and Anabaptist way to articulate this conviction is to make a positive affirmation, not simply a refusal. The call for followers of Jesus is so to love their neighbors that they insist that no demand or loyalty to any institution or ideology or way of setting up boundaries matters as much as the call to love the neighbor. One contemporary word for this commitment is “pacifism,” which can be defined as a love of peace (social wholeness, genuine justice) and a rejection of violence.
A rejection of hierarchical religious and political structures is a fourth element. As a rule, Christianity has reinforced hierarchical dynamics with a sovereign, all-powerful God on top whose will is mediated through human authority structures—leaders in the state and in the church. Usually, this embrace of hierarchy has been expressed as an embrace of patriarchy—again, both in religious institutions and political structures. While the Bible can be (and, of course, has been in practice) read to support hierarchical structures, the Anabaptists broke with the consensus of Christendom in rejecting that kind of reading. They recognized the prophetic critique of and resistance to hierarchies and themselves sought to practice a much more egalitarian approach that empowers all in the community to exercise power.
Finally, the practice of economic sharing and rejection of possessiveness concerning material goods remains an extraordinarily important part of the Anabaptist legacy. In face of today’s devastating ecocide and social stratification, this call to a politics of generosity and simplicity has become the requirement for human survival on our shared planet.
I believe that an Anabaptist hermeneutic will call us to pose engaged discipleship as an alternative to autonomous religion where rituals and doctrines become ends in themselves. The life of faith is meant to be, when centered on the message of the Bible, a life where rituals and doctrines instead serve direct engagement in the ministry of “tikkun”—a devotion to healing relationships on all levels (with the divine, in our society, in our local communities, with the rest of creation).
An Anabaptist hermeneutic will also call us to engage the Bible and the Christian tradition as conversation partners meant to empower us for transformative living, not as simple authorities to bow down to (with the inevitable sense that bowing down to the authority of the Bible or Tradition means granting top-down power to human leaders). Likewise, an Anabaptist hermeneutic will motivate a critical sensibility toward all human institutions (even Mennonite institutions) and a commitment that, to paraphrase Jesus, the institutions are meant to serve humanity, not humanity serve institutions.
For some time, I have sought to embody a pacifist hermeneutic (an affirmation of love of neighbor and a rejection of violence). More recently, I have wanted to add an anarchistic sensibility (affirming our human potential for self-direction and a suspicion of centralized power). I have tried to read the Bible and the tradition with these two lenses. As I think about it now, I wonder if I may want to use the term “Anabaptist” as shorthand for “pacifist and anarchist” when it comes to naming a desired approach.

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part one]

Ted Grimsrud—April 9, 2019
I have a good friend who is, shall I say, a little more conservative theologically than I am. We have some great conversations. Recently, he brought up the possibility of the two of us having a public conversation on the current state of Anabaptist theology. As we are both Americans, we recognize that we would be talking about Anabaptist theology in our context, acknowledging that there are many Anabaptist-oriented communities around the world with their own takes on Anabaptist theology.
My initial response was somewhat negative. Not that I would not enjoy having a friendly public “disputation” with my colleague, but I haven’t been thinking much about “Anabaptist theology” in any direct way for some time. However, after our talk I kept considering his suggestion. I doubt that we will have a public conversation (though it’s possible), but I have started thinking about Anabaptist theology again.
I realized that I am still interested in thinking about Anabaptism, though I look at it now from a bit of a different angle from when I wrote a book called Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the 21stCentury back in 2007. To frame it, as I do in the title of this blog post, as a question—“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)?—is to be intentionally provocative and a little facetious. However, carefully stated this is a genuine question for me.
So, I want to do a little thought experiment here, not make a profound pronouncement. Let’s reflect on hermeneutics—comparing an “Anabaptist” way of interpreting things, especially the Bible, with a “Christian” way and with a “Mennonite” way. When I pose them as alternatives (which they are not, literally, of course), I am asking about a basic way of interpretation that can be seen to contrast with other ways. What are the basic biases we wantto be a part of how we interpret?
Why “Not Christian”?
Before I explain what “Anabaptist” means in this conversation, I will say a little about why I would say “not Christian” and “not Mennonite.” By “Christian” here (noting that in trying to be a bit provocative I will make some big generalizations) I have in mind the mainstream Christian theological tradition dating back to the fourth century. This is the tradition that I would call “doctrine-oriented” (see my essay, “Practice-oriented vs. doctrine-oriented theology: An Anabaptist proposal”) in the sense that it places creeds, confessions, and formal doctrines at the heart of its construal of Christian faith.
One of the major realities in the Christian tradition since the embrace of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early 4thcentury has been its tendency to accept its role as a supporter of empire and the nation-state. One of the main reasons Christianity could be so cozy with state power has been its doctrinalization of the biblical message. When what matters most is belief in certain doctrines and belief in an autonomous God who transcends and exists outside of time and space, it becomes very easy for the religion to have little or nothing to say that challenges the social and political status quo. We need only note the long history of Christianity’s support for war to illustrate this point. Over and over again, movements that have challenged injustices such as slavery, patriarchy, poverty, and heterosexism have found their strongest opponentsto be the forces of organized Christianity.
On the other hand, it is, of course, possible to advocate for, say, pacifism or economic justice based on Christian theology. It is even possible, as I long have done, to argue that such advocacy is based on the best readings of the Bible and find support in the theological tradition. However, I can no longer avoid the conclusion that if we define “Christianity” in terms of what the large majority of Christians have been taught and tend to believe, we cannot avoid the conclusion that Christianity’s place in the world has been and continues to be one of support for injustice and the status quo of the Domination System (in the sense articulated by Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers). So, that is why I would say “not Christian” in my theological self-identification and in my understanding the meaning of “Anabaptism.”
Why “Not Mennonite”?
“Mennonite” is a different kind of referent than “Christian” in many ways. Mennonites would certainly see themselves as a subset to Christian, as in “Mennonite Christian.” For the sake of my point, though, they both provide distinctive, and somewhat competing, hermeneutical approaches. I defined “Christian” above in terms of its mainstream expression, inclusive of Catholics, most Protestants, and—to some degree—most Orthodox. That definition does allow for some non-mainstream Christians being partially distinct from the general definition. This would include Mennonites, as I define the term.
The distinctiveness of the Mennonite hermeneutic, I would provisionally suggest, has most of all to do with the Mennonite sense of identity. Mennonites would, I perceive, place creeds and doctrines less in the center and have as their central interpretive directive (at least implicitly if not explicitly) what we could call the sense of being part of the Mennonite community or tribe. I’ll use a story a friend of mine told many years ago to illustrate. His family would regularly go camping. As they set up camp, they would become acquainted with their fellow campers, generally people they didn’t know. When the others were not Mennonites, my friends’ parents would remain aloof, making few overtures for further connection. But when the neighboring campers were Mennonites, the aloofness would leave and the families would join together in friendly conversation.
The dynamics of this tribalism shape how Mennonites view the world and how they interpret and apply the Bible. As descendants of the original 16thcentury Anabaptists, Mennonites do articulate a theology of resistance to domination in many ways. However, over the years Mennonites have tended more to focus on their own communities and to find ways to live as “the quiet in the land” in relation to their wider societies. Their inward focus has also made it difficult for outsiders to join with their communities. In times of stress, down to the present, even the more progressive and open-seeming communities have often eventually made newcomers feel unwelcome.
So, in affirming a theological approach that is “Anabaptist” and “not Mennonite,” I am suggesting that this tribalism has served as the dominant element of Mennonites’ on the ground theology in a way that has actually distinguished them quite markedly from the original Anabaptist approach. Because there is a connection that we could call “genetic” between 16thcentury Anabaptism and present-day Mennonitism, we need to keep the Mennonite approach in mind as we think of what “Anabaptist” means. However, I think the differences are more important than the similarities. We certainly cannot simply equate the Mennonite approach to theology with the Anabaptist approach. I believe that as a denominational approach to faith with its own strong limitations, the “Mennonite” expression has limited value as a resource for facing the world we live in and are evolving toward, with its profound uncertainties and dangers.
The Anabaptists of history, their rediscovery and abandonment
Until the mid-20thcentury, the 16thcentury radicals known as Anabaptists who broke with the Protestant Reformation and suffered death-dealing persecution from both Catholics and Protestants in Western and Central Europe were little remembered or appreciated. I think it is important to note that the small groups that descended from those radicals—Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites—did not use the term “Anabaptist” of themselves until quite recently. The term was generally a negative term used by their ecclesiological enemies (note the pejorative use of Anabaptist in Lutheran and Reformed confessions of the 16thand 17thcenturies—confessions authoritatively cited down to the present).
However, owing in large part to a widely circulated 1943 essay by Mennonite leader Harold Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision,” the term came to signify something positive. Bender, though, was pretty specific in who he had in mind as authentic Anabaptists—those directly linked with the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 and who made its core tenets (such as separation from the world and nonresistance) normative. He left out those who did not fit with his criteria of authenticity (which, some have noted, seemed mostly to have been his criteria for what should be normative Mennonitism in the 20thcentury).
The role of Bender’s essay, and the thinkers and institutions shaped by it in the decades that followed, was to make of Anabaptism a construct of ideals about Christian faith. The fact that no groups in the centuries following the Reformation ever explicitly named themselves “Anabaptist” should help us recognize that this term has always only been about a perspective on faith, not an organization or institution. I think Bender’s big mistake was to push too hard at trying to create a normative “Anabaptist vision” that actually was an attempt to create a normative “Mennonite vision.” His work had a lot of influence, but inevitably also led to a backlash.
Three “secular” (i.e., non-Mennonite) academic historians joined together to write an epoch shifting essay, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis” (Mennonite Quarterly Review, 1975) that challenged Bender’s reading of Anabaptist origins and suggested that the movement emerged from several quite separate sources—with the implication that one could not accurately think of one definitive “Anabaptist Vision” in the way Bender did. They did not face (as they expected they would) strong rebuttals from Mennonite scholars but instead were soon joined by most of the Mennonite scholars of the 16thcentury. In a short period of time, the study of the 16thcentury Anabaptists among Mennonites became a matter more of seeking to describe history accurately and less a matter of trying to find normative guidance in the tradition for present-day Mennonites. Inevitably, interest in the 16thcentury among Mennonites dropped precipitously and before long there were virtually no professors in Mennonite colleges and seminaries whose main training was in 16thcentury studies.
What remains?
I am uncertain what the term “Anabaptist “ means any more. However, I’m a person who affiliated with Mennonites as a young adult about 40 years ago due in large part to my initial enthusiasm about what I knew about the “Anabaptist Vision.” I read the collection of essays, The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision (a festschrift that honored Harold Bender published in 1957), a couple of years before joining a Mennonite congregation in 1982. So I am reluctant simply to let the notion of Anabaptist faith go—this is true partly due to the problems with the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” orientations I mentioned above.
At the same time, I have become a bit disillusioned with the Mennonite expression of Christianity. Thus, I am reluctant simply to equate “Anabaptism” with “Mennonitism”—or even to see Mennonites having the privileged role of defining what “Anabaptism” might mean. In a sense, I suspect we need an understanding of an Anabaptist style of interpreting things that is, to some degree at least, untethered from Mennonite institutions and traditions.
I do think the polygenesis approach has been disastrous—maybe mostly for simply handing over to the “secular” historians the sense that the 16thcentury manifestation of radical faith is not particularly relevant for how people of faith might want to live today. When the agenda of those studying the 16thcentury was how to gain resources that might bolster and even guide radical faith today, some creative interpretations arose that inspired many to act in transformative ways in the present. When the agenda became simply describing what was back then, interest in the radicals quickly waned—and an important guiding resource was lost.
I have published a few pieces where I have tried to think about the on-going relevance of Anabaptism (two scholarly articles [“Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy” (Mennonite Quarterly Review, 2004) and “Anabaptism for the 21stCentury” (Mennonite Quarterly Review, 2006)] and a collection of essays [Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the 21stCentury (Wipf and Stock, 2007)]). In part two of this current piece, I will offer a few thoughts about Anabaptism today that will summarize and update what I wrote back then.
Part Two [coming soon]

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

Spirituality and Sexuality?

I grew up in a church environment that was quizzical and afraid about everything sexual. I mean everything! Anything that could be misconstrued as a sex act, or could lead to sex, or could make people think about sex, was forbidden. As a youth this meant purity rings, True Love Waits seminars, and books like … Continue reading Spirituality and Sexuality?
Syndicated from Ebony Johanna

Chaplains of Destruction

  It is National Poetry month and all month long, I will be sharing some of the pieces that I have worked on over the last few years. Here is one that I wrote last June, called Chaplains of Destruction.        Here we are doing the best we can Giving all we have … Continue reading Chaplains of Destruction
Syndicated from Ebony Johanna


    It’s National Poetry month and all month long I will be sharing some of the pieces that I have written over the last few years. First one up is a piece I wrote last spring, called Close. I always thought I had to be perfect to approach you That I had to be … Continue reading Close
Syndicated from Ebony Johanna

When You Feel Overwhelmed

Overwhelmed. I’ve been there too. And not in a good way like being overwhelmed by the beauty of a spring day, or overwhelmed by soaring music, or overwhelmed by love that fills your heart to bursting. It might not be a 9-1-1 emergency — no need to panic and act quickly, but how to get … Continue reading When You Feel Overwhelmed
Syndicated from April Yamasaki

Peace for the Going

Many Sundays, our worship service ends with me or someone else saying three words to the congregation: “Go in peace.” These are good last words. They are words I like to speak and words that I like to hear before heading out into another seven days of God knows what. Peace for the going is surely what each of us craves, even if only in the substrata of our consciousness.
As it happens, “Go in peace” provided the coda for the gospel reading during morning prayers today. In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus finds himself the recipient of a dinner invitation from one of the Pharisees. And Jesus rarely refused an invitation to dinner. As they’re getting ready for a delicious evening of food and theological conversation, an unexpected guest shows up. A “sinful” woman. Her sin is not identified, but we can use our imaginations. She begins to rather embarrassingly start fawning at Jesus’ feet, bathing his feet with kisses and tears, anointing his head with expensive oil. The scene was almost certainly uncomfortably sensuous and distasteful in all kinds of ways, and the Pharisee says as much. If this Jesus were any kind of prophet, he would know what kind of degenerate had her hands all over him. Jesus proceeds to use the scene as an object lesson about the connection between forgiveness and love. The one who has been forgiven much, shows much love. The one who has been forgiven little (or, more precisely, imagines they have been forgiven little) shows little love. “Thus concludeth today’s theology discussion,” I can imagine Jesus saying.
Jesus then says three things directly to the woman. “Your sins are forgiven,” “Your faith has saved you,” and “Go in peace.” These are three pretty remarkable statements. They are all the more remarkable given the scene that they are in response to. The woman, so far as we know, has said precisely nothing. She has made no professions of faith in Jesus’ lordship. She has not itemized and repented of her sins. She has not discussed theology with Jesus. She has not prayed or recited a creed. She has not verbally assented to a statement of faith. She has not declared her intentions to march off with Jesus to change the world.
What she has done—again rather embarrassingly—is shamlessly thrown herself at Jesus’ feet in context where she would have been most unwelcome. She has ruined a nice dinner by spreading out all of her sorrow and desire and longing and pain on the floor in a painfully vulnerable display of naked need. She has, not to put too fine a point on it, caused a scene. And yet it is this posture, not the abstract, forensic approach of the Pharisee, that Jesus praises. This, apparently, is evidence of the love that Jesus longs to see.
Like many people, I have friends who run the gamut from the very theologically conservative to the very theologically liberal. My very conservative friends sometimes treat the life of faith as a glorified theology exam with Jesus as the headmaster. There is much talk of right doctrine and proper interpretation of Scripture and agreeing to enough of the right facts about God to secure salvation. Our duty is to believe rightly enough about God to win the prize.
My very liberal friends sometimes treat the life of faith as a moral checklist or a political agenda with Jesus as the activist-in-chief. There is much talk of doing enough Jesus-y things for the right marginalized groups and severely denouncing all the very wrong and very bad people and systems and structures that oppress the vulnerable. Our duty is to act rightly enough to win the prize.
And then there are those who vacillate between these two poles, rarely able summon the requisite conviction for either. These people attach virtue to their grim realism and are deeply suspicious of anyone who seems more confident in their rightness (whether in the realm of beliefs or ethics) than is warranted. Our duty is to drift around above the fray, helpfully pointing out the errors and inconsistencies of others (for Jesus’ sake, of course).
I sometimes wonder if all of us—wherever we find ourselves on the spectrum above—might learn from the “sinful” woman who unceremoniously crashed the Pharisee’s dinner party. We are not nearly as smart or moral or humble or self-sufficient as we imagine ourselves to be. We are human beings. We are needy and poor (and, as Jesus reminds us in this passage, this is never more evident than when we are convinced that we are not). At the end of it all, beneath all of our shiny theology and estimable virtues and oh-so-humble and self-aware detachment, each one of us longs for precisely the same things that this woman did.
Forgiveness. You are not defined by your worst moment(s). Nothing is broken irreparably. There is nothing you have done that cannot be healed and transformed.
Salvation. Your faith will be vindicated. No act of hope and devotion to Jesus will ultimately go unnoticed and unrewarded. At the feet of Jesus is the best place for tears. God will rescue, restore, and redeem.
Peace. You need not be plagued by anxiety, worry, and guilt. There is a way of being in this broken world that can be received and extended as gift and grace. Whatever the road ahead holds, there is peace for the going.
The featured image above is taken from the 2009-10 Christian Seasons Calendar. It is a creation of Wayne Lacson Forte and is called “Mary’s Sacrifice.”

Syndicated from Rumblings

The Path Not Taken: More Thoughts on “Despairing for MC USA”

Ted Grimsrud—February 26, 2019
As I have reflected on dynamics in my church denomination (Mennonite Church USA) and my own involvements in this community, I have a few further thoughts beyond what I wrote in my February 23, 2019 blog post, “Despairing for Mennonite Church USA.” My focus in that essay was on “conversation”—its difficulties and how it has been repressed.
Imagining a path not taken
I asked myself: What could I imagine might have been done (or would be done)? How might conversation work? And what would be the role of “theology” be in such a conversation? Another kind of question is whether you could easily get caught in a loop of endless conversation, where you are just talking things to death with no resolution.
One response to this last question is to suggest that we are simply too hasty in early 21stcentury North America. We are too outcome oriented, too focused on quick resolutions, on getting over our differences and getting things done. That is, we are too unwilling to invest time and energy at genuine mutual give and take that can be messy and inefficient, but it a necessary part of fruitful human relating.
However, one can’t impose one’s patience and curiosity onto people who don’t share those tendencies. If we all shared a deep-seated sense of patience and curiosity, we likely would not have many of the problems we have. But we don’t…. Still, the starting point of any kind of discernment for how best to work within our denomination, or our conferences, or our congregations, has to be some kind of interest in the wellbeing of that community. And with that comes some kind of willingness to try together to figure out how to move ahead.
There are two other possibilities, of course. One possibility is that people simply are not up for any conversation. Some of these may simply wantto split, and they cannot be stopped. Others may want to stay together and simply avoid the differences. A second possibility is that people would be invested with a strong desire to win an argument against their opponents. Many of us are tempted with this desire and it is impossible to imagine a serious conversation about these issues without that desire surfacing—these are important issues to people. However, such a desire needs to be repressed if there is to be sustained conversations and fruitful outcomes.
Two kinds of good conversation
So, let’s assume at least a degree of desire to make things work as a prerequisite for some kind of communal conversation process. What might that then look like? I imagine it is important to have some end point in mind even as we start—though ideally we would be willing as well to adapt as new things emerge in the process of conversing. [Let me note here, that everything that follows is simply a thought experiment as I try to imagine a useful approach.] I can think, broadly, of two different kinds of goals that would lead to two different kinds of conversation strategy.
(1) We could have a sense that it would be desirable that everyone in our group (again, be it denomination, conference, congregation, or other kind of faith community) share the same general conviction or convictions (in the context of this thought experiment, the general agreement would be about issues related to how the community approaches inclusion of gender and sexual minorities [GSM]). The idea would be that all of us would more or less be on the same page.
(2) We could have as our goal that we live together with our differences. Our priority would be on accepting diversity and hoping for as broad a range of views as is workable. We think it is important to voice and understand the diverse views that we have (again, in this thought experiment, about GSM inclusion). We don’t want to avoid the differences, but we want to work at living openly with them.
I am not suggesting here that either #1 or #2 are better or worse. Rather, I want to sketch two somewhat different kinds of approaches depending on which of these is our desired outcome. It’s important to know where we hope to go as that will shape how we converse. I believe that either one of these strategies could have been appropriate in MC USA contexts over the past 35 years—and would have been far preferable to what actually happened in most cases.
What if we place the priority on general agreement?
If we are searching for a sense of general agreement, the conversation will focus on identifying the differences among us. This would be a descriptive task where participants simply name what they think the differences among them might be. Part of the work at this stage is trying to get that naming to be accurate, where each person accepts that they are being characterized accurately. The point is never to debate the differences or refute the various views, simply accurately to get them on the table.
The next step then would be to work at discerning whether the differences might be reconciled. How important are they? Might the views be reframed to make them less different? If people are patient and truly trying to understand one another, some new insights might be possible that indicate that the differences are not as deep as they may initially have seemed. Sometimes, what seems like a difference proves not to be when greater understanding about the perspective is achieved. I have a close friend with whom I have spent many hours discussing big ideas. Often we have found that what starts as a difference ends up being an agreement—sometimes because one of us changes our mind but often simply because the more we talk the more we discover we actually do agree. We just needed to reframe things a bit.
It is, of course, possible that the conclusion of this kind of conversation would be a mutual awareness that the differences are real and significant. This could lead to a shared sense that continued coexistence in one faith community is not desirable. I would imagine this awareness becoming apparent fairly quickly in many cases; it would not require extensive parsing and struggling to find common ground. However, I also imagine that if the awareness is the result of careful and respectful naming of core convictions and descriptive analysis of the differences, the parting of ways could be mutually respectful. I have another close friend with whom I have had hours of conversation with the result of recognizing some fundamental differences that would make it difficult for us to be in the same congregation. But we are able to remain friends and because of the work we have done on our differences, we continue to have fruitful conversations.
What if we place the priority on staying together?
If we are searching for a way to remain together even with our differences, we may have a different kind of conversation. In this conversation, we would start by focusing on the convictions that we share. Even if we sense that we have a lot of big differences, when we start with the shared convictions we will be more likely to set a constructive tone. Our hope will be that these differences might prove to be deep and significant enough that we will see that continued fellowship is desirable, even with the differences.
We would want to follow the conversation about the similarities with one where we do identify the differences. As in all of these conversations, we will focus on description, trying to identify the differences and do it in a way so we all agree with how they are characterized. In my experience, such an approach helps the conversation to be less tense and more constructive.
Of course, at some point as the conversation continues we will need to weigh the importance of the differences in relation to the similarities. It is altogether possible that we will decide the differences are too weighty. However, it is possible to imagine that in the context of this kind of discussion that decision will be a shared decision by all parties, that it will result from an authentic understanding of the respective views, and will result in a separation that is amicable and leaves the door open for further conversations.
Is “theology” central?
What is the role of theology in this kind of process? Well, that depends, for one thing, on what we mean by “theology.” Often, in relation to discussion about sexuality-related topics we tend to think of “theology” as debate about Bible verses and other related themes. I suggest we might instead think about theology a bit differently. I’d say theology has to do with the hierarchy of convictions about what matters most in life that we all have (see my book, Theology as if Jesus Matters, for a detailed but popular-level discussion of this point).
If we understand theology in this way, then our conversations will involve each of us articulating what those convictions are for us. What matters the most in shaping our approach to an issue such as inclusion of GSM people? The point, again, is more descriptive than argumentative. However, I believe it is crucial that we do not imagine that we would set “theology” aside when we take these issues up because it is too contentious—or, in practical reality, we think it is not helpful.
The point in talking about theology in descriptive ways is not that we are taking a relativistic approach to theological truth. It is rather that our goal in our conversation is not to win a debate but to process our differences in ways that the community might move forward. Whatever stance any of us in our faith communities take should be articulatable in terms of the convictions and values that matter most for us—even if we don’t think of those in overt or traditional theological ways. What doesmatter the most in our discernment? That’s what we should be able to talk about.
[Thanks to Brian Gumm and Rick Yoder for responses shared on Facebook that helped stimulate my thoughts here.]

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism


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