Category: Peace Theology

Is Christian pacifism a thing?

Ted Grimsrud—May 20, 2019
I can imagine several ways that the question I ask in the title of this post could go, so I want to start by explaining what I mean. By pacifism, I have in mind the principled unwillingness to support or participate in warfare or other forms of lethal violence (though I will say a bit more below that will define pacifism in more detail). For the purposes of what I write here, I assume the validity of pacifism. My question has to do with whether there is a type of pacifism that is uniquely Christian—that is, in effect, only available to Christians.
To make this more personal, I can rephrase the question: (1) Am I a pacifist because I am a Christian? Or, (2) Am I a Christian because I am a pacifist? Which comes first? Which is more essential? Now, of course, most Christians are not pacifists. And surely many pacifists are not Christians. As I have thought about this lately, I have come to conclude that though my self-awareness of having an explicitly pacifist commitment came at a time when I would have believed #1 (that I was a pacifist because I was a Christian), I now think that #2 is true for me (that is, to the extent I would see myself as a Christian it is because I am a pacifist and I know of a kind of Christianity that affirms pacifism). I should also say before I go further that I recognize that so much of this kind of discussion depends on how we define our terms. I will try to do that with care as I move along—but I request of the reader some tolerance with the limits of our language. I offer these reflections more as a kind of thought experiment than pretending to present anything definitive.
A uniquely Christian pacifism?
I grew up mostly outside the church, and in a general and vague way I found war and other forms of violence pretty unattractive, mostly on humanistic grounds. My father had fought in World War II, but afterwards refused to have a gun in the house, saying he had seen enough guns to last a lifetime. My mother had also served in the military during the War, but certainly never valorized doing so.
When I was 17, I was encouraged by several important people in my life seriously to consider seeking an appointment to one of the military academies for college. I don’t remember the conversations very clearly, but in my memory is a sense of feeling that such a journey was not even remotely attractive. This was partly because of watching the Vietnam War on television and seeing it as deeply problematic. But it was also simply not being able envision myself as a soldier trained to kill other human beings.
Interestingly, the same summer that I had the most intense conversations about my possible future in the military I also had a conversion experience and embraced Christianity. Tellingly the Christianity to which I was initially exposed had no qualms about affirming the soldier’s path. For several years, it never occurred to me that Christian faith might lead one to reject fighting in war. My reluctance to go to war was much more intuitive.
About the time of my 22nd birthday, as I neared graduation from college with a journalism degree (I hoped to be a sportswriter), everything changed. The vagueness of my reluctance to be a warrior became a clear and specific conviction—I could never fight because I knew that it would be wrong to do so. This became a certainty (as it has remained)—and seemed at the time to be directly tied to my Christian faith. As I look back, though, I realize that at that moment I knew nothing about any Christian pacifist traditions or any explicit Christian peace theology. I’d had no conversations with other Christians about pacifism. I’d say that it actually was more a personal awareness about the wrongness of war than a specifically Christian belief.
My vagueness soon changed, though. My faith-seeking-understanding concerning my pacifism led me to discover Mennonites. We had a few Mennonites in our college town (Eugene, Oregon), and I tracked down numerous books and articles. A few years later, my wife Kathleen and I attended a Mennonite graduate school and I got an MA in peace studies. Then followed formally joining the Mennonite church, becoming a Mennonite pastor, and getting a PhD in Christian Ethics with a dissertation on conscientious objection to World War II.
During these years, I came to believe that my pacifism followed from my Christian faith and was shaped by that faith in ways that made it different from any other kind of pacifism. Jesus Christ taught and practiced the love of enemies and he is God’s Son. His path is costly and, ultimately, not based on beliefs about effectiveness. We count only on God’s vindication—which may take the shape of failure (even death) followed by the miracle of resurrection. At the center was the inextricable link between Jesus’s identity as God Incarnate and the truthfulness of his call to follow his pacifist path. His call made no sense and had no power apart from his identity.
I’m not sure, though, that that logic ever actually animated my pacifism at its core. I suspect that for me it was more a matter of believing that I should have an explicitly Christian rationale for any strongly held believe—and then trying to find such a rationale. Certainly, I now realize, my entry into my pacifist convictions was not based on theological reasoning. At the same time, it is not that I now believe that the Bible and Christian theology don’t support pacifism (nor do I no longer believe that Jesus is God’s Son). I do think the best reading of the Bible and the best understandings of Christianity’s core convictions point toward pacifism (I still affirm the two books I wrote making that point—God’s Healing Strategy and Theology as if Jesus Matters)—and I do think Jesus is God’s Son. But I now tend to see that my pacifist convictions are based on something deeper (and perhaps more fundamentally human, even universal) than the scriptures and theology of one particular human-generated religion.
Questions about Christian pacifism
As I said above, my initial experience as a Christian convert was in a church environment that was quite pro war—even militarist—in sensibility. So I have known all along that most Christians are not pacifists. That means most fundamentalist Christians and most liberal Christians. Most deeply involved and pious Christians and most marginally involved and profane Christians. Most high church Christians and most low church Christians. Most highly educated Christians and most lightly educated Christians. Most North American Christians and most Global South Christians. Even, most Quakers and, I daresay, most Mennonites. Most Christians (in many contexts, all Christians) reject pacifism.
In other words, it is simply a descriptive reality that very few Christians see an inextricable link between Christianity and pacifism. And that is not because too many Christians are, sadly, misinformed about Christianity or unserious about their faith. Certainly, many Christians are misinformed and unserious. However, most of the most informed and most serious Christians also are not pacifist. Maybe I could say that after more than forty years, that non-pacifist consensus is wearing me down. It does not make me doubt the truthfulness of pacifism when I realize that Christianity is, as a matter of fact, a non-pacifist religion. It does makes me doubt the truthfulness of Christianity (which does not mean doubting the truthfulness of the Bible or the truthfulness of Jesus).
I noticed a number of years ago when I read the 1995 Mennonite Confession of Faith carefully that this confession, though it does eventually affirm pacifism, presents its core doctrinal teachings (in the first eight articles) in a way that does not take pacifism into account. It seems as if the writers of the Confession wanted to make it seem as compatible as possible with the major Protestant traditions (none of which, of course, affirm pacifism at all). So, even for Mennonites, the core convictions of Christian faith do not require a pacifist sensibility (in contrast, see my attempt to write about the core convictions that does make pacifism central—Theology as If Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Core Convictions).
I think it is also a matter of historical fact that the vast majority of Christians since the rise of the Western nation-states have simply given their respective governments a blank check and willingly supported preparing for and fighting in whatever wars the state might engage in. I researched conscientious objection in the United States during World War II and discovered that the government recognized about 12,000 COs and excused them from military service—and drafted more than 12,000,000 soldiers into the military. Noting that most of those in either group would identify as Christians, we could make a ballpark estimate that one out of 1,000 American Christians was pacifist (0.1%)—that is, hardly any. It seems clear that there is nothing inherent in the actual embodiment of Christian faith that leads to pacifism.
I assume that there is a connection between a doctrinal system that does not make pacifism a part of its core theology and a willingness automatically for church members to go to war. We can construct a rationale for pacifism based on Christian theology, but I don’t truly think that we can call pacifism “Christian.” A kind of pacifism that presents itself as being uniquely Christian does not seem consistent with the understanding of Christianity that characterizes almost all Christians, at least since the 4th century and that affirms war.
I also have recognized for a long time that not all pacifists are Christians. And these are not only “pacifists” who merely see nonviolent tactics as the most effective way to achieve political goals. There are also non-Christian pacifists who are pacifists because they believe in and practice love for their enemies, even at great cost to themselves. Whatever it is that empowers a person to give up their lives out of love for others is present with at least some non-Christians.
So, I have not observed a positive correlation between Christian faith and the practice of self-giving love and refusal to use violence. Certainly many people who seek to follow Jesus and affirm orthodox Christian beliefs do practice self-giving love in impressive ways. But others practice that kind of love in equally impressive ways and do not believe themselves to be Christians. Praise God for both kinds of people!
Pacifism for everyone?
A key point for me is to expand the definition of “pacifism” beyond simply a rejection of war. I do think that rejection is an important aspect of the meaning of pacifism—and separates “pacifism” from merely “loving peace” or affirming “nonviolence”. However, I believe that pacifism signifies more than saying no to war and violence. It signifies a positive affirmation of the centrality of love for human ethics—not simply a negative stance regarding violence.
And I believe that the centrality of love is a core part of who we all are as human beings. We are all born needing connection with others and love is what empowers that connection. We are fragile creatures who easily are damaged and in that damage turn away from love—and the damage spreads to cultures and we grow up socialized by damaged cultures. But love is what drives us and living in love is how we best fulfill our human nature.
So, I don’t believe that the story of Jesus and his love distinguishes biblical faith from the rest of humanity. All cultures over all history have been healthiest when love is central (I state this more as a philosophical affirmation than as the result of careful scientific study—though the latter could possibly disprove the former should such a study be done). Biblical faith can confirm the broader human experience and provide a metaphysical framework for understanding it (e.g., the idea that we are created in and for love by a loving creator based on materials such as the creation story, some of the psalms, and teachings found in the gospels). However, we do not need the Bible to recognize the foundational reality of love.
Let me suggest that the dynamic is not that we start with the normal, innately human way of seeing life as inevitably violent and it taking “special revelation” to see something different. Rather, I believe that the normal, human way of seeing tends more toward pacifism and that the affirmation of violence is due to cultural deception, the consequence of what the Bible calls “idolatry” where people trust in nations and ideologies instead of the true God of love. “Special revelation” is not then special information from the outside that is not discernible to normal people but rather a cutting through of the idolatry to help any of us see how things truly are.
I will close with a suggestion that we can think of “Christian” pacifism in one of two ways. One way would be to say that there is a pacifism that is uniquely Christian, that depends upon God’s special revelation in Jesus and requires an affirmation, we could say, of a faith about Jesus—confessing his identity as God Incarnate as the basis for self-sacrificial love, even of enemies, and a willingness to die for one’s convictions. Such a pacifism stands or falls on this confession.
The second way would be to say that to live with love as our central moral imperative so that violence is always forbidden is simply the consequence when we recognize and affirm the universal human reality of love as our core reason for being. Christian faith is only one way to recognize and affirm that reality. Christian faith is true and worth embracing only insofar as it does empower such a recognition and affirmation. The distinctive elements of Christianity—its creeds and other doctrines, its rituals and sacraments—have their validity in providing such empowerment. Insofar as those distinctive elements become “autonomous” (or, ends in themselves) and comfortably coexist with war and violence, they lose their authenticity and contradict Jesus’s (and Torah’s) placing love as the incontrovertible center of faith.
In light of these points, I would say that Christian pacifists should not seek to present their convictions as unique or better than other forms of pacifism that place love at the center. For a pacifist to affirm that Christianity is true because it puts love at the center will then celebrate of other forms of pacifism that also put love at the center. Pacifism them becomes a basis for welcoming people of other faiths (or none), not another rationale for pride and exclusion.

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism


What’s wrong with how we view the Civil War?

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2019
As I continue to read and think about the American Civil War, I am continually impressed with how little questioning of the legitimacy of warfare as the default way to resolve conflicts I have encountered. I have seen even less skepticism about the Civil War as a tool for the good than I found in relation to World War II. I tend to think that so long as people accept those wars, they will continue to accept our present-day warring and preparation for warring.
A representative view of the Civil War
I encountered a representative view of the Civil War that illustrates my concern when I listened to an April 16, 2019, interview with Andrew Delbanco, history professor at Columbia University and author of The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, on a program called “Letters and Politics.”
I was impressed with Delbanco. He is knowledgeable and insightful about the Civil War era. He has good values and seems to be a reliable analyst. He makes helpful connections with the present. It is because he seems perceptive and humane that his comments about the “validity” of the Civil War seem especially useful (and troubling) for me. If someone with his general sensibility has these views, I think it is safe to imagine most other historians of the US do, too (and probably most people in the wider society). The comments that especially struck me came at the end of the interview as he was drawing some conclusions. Delbanco said:
In retrospect, I think most of us would say the price was worth paying. A million dead for the emancipation of four million human beings whose ancestors had been enslaved and whose descendants would have been enslaved if the war had not taken the course it took. But again I would suggest, how many of us today would willingly send our sons and brothers and friends to their deaths for any moral cause? How many of us on the progressive side of the political spectrum would be willing to contemplate war of that scale and savagery as a method to achieve a better society? I’m not sure I would. So, supporting the Civil War in retrospect is easy. Committing oneself to a war like that in prospect may not be so easy.
Two thoughts especially struck me. They seem to reflect the views of even the most perceptive and humane people who think about the Civil War. The first is that it was worth having one million people be killed in order to end slavery, and the second is that a war of even tremendous “scale and savagery” can work “as a method to achieve a better society.”
A “price worth paying”?
(1) How can we say that a million dead was a “price worth paying”? Can we even imagine such a cost? What was lost with all those lives? I am often struck with how sanguine people are about the costs of warfare. My sense is that we have no idea what kind of “price” a million war dead might be. I will reflect below on what it might have been that this “price” purchased—that is, what actually was accomplished by the Civil War. But now I want to stop for a moment at the thought of the “price… of a million dead.”
Of course, the “price” was more than simply about those whose lives were ended (as astronomical as that “price” itself was). It’s also the ripples down through time—the descendants of those who died who were never born, the broken hearts and emotional trauma of the loved ones of those who died, the “moral injuries” of those who did the killing and the devastating effects of those injuries, the immense toll of this massive violence on the flora and fauna of the battlefields, the wasted resources poured into conflict, the incredible destruction of the infrastructure of the areas where the fighting occurred, and many other costs.
How can we possibly imagine an amount of “good” that was worth this kind of cost? The fact that we don’t even try to tally the sum of the “price” that was paid does not erase the tremendous sum that was indeed exacted. I find it impossible to think otherwise than that the cliché that “the price was worth paying” is a lazy kind of moral evasion that allows us to avoid the reality that the “price” was in fact almost infinite—that no “good” could possibly be worth that price if we were actually able to approximate its sum. If we actually made an effort to test the validity of whether or not the “price” was worth it, we would recognize that no war (and certainly not the particular war that was fought between the Union and Confederacy) was ever “worth” the price—or ever could be.
Was it obviously “worth it”?
(2) Ironically, it is not as obvious as Delbanco seems to assume that the “benefit” side of a cost/benefit accounting of the Civil War is all that positive. That is, I suspect both that the “cost” (or “price”) of that war is much higher than is assumed (my point #1) and that the “benefit” is much lower.
What actually were the “benefits”? I will grant that the formal ending of slavery in the South was in itself a benefit. Slavery was without qualification an extreme evil. Ending it was necessary and a good outcome. However, we must ask how deep the changes occasioned by the formal end of slavery actually went. An influential book from a half-century ago, The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson, by black historian Rayford Logan, famously argued that the time between 1901 and 1915 marked the “lowest point in the quest for civil rights” in American history—in other words, that in important ways things were worse with regard to racial justice in the United States fifty years after the Civil War than they had ever been before.
Perhaps slavery formally ended, but the devastating power of white supremacy and its impact on the descendants of those who had been enslaved to a large degree only got worse. Whatever the benefits of the Civil War might have been, they were pretty puny insofar as they affected the lives of those whose ancestors had been enslaved.
So, when we consider Delbanco’s comment that we should recognize that a war of even the “scale and savagery” of the Civil War worked to “achieve a better society,” we have reasons to be profoundly skeptical about his assumptions and to ask how much of a “better society” actually resulted, especially for those Delbanco has in mind, the formerly enslaved.
To the credit of the former slaves themselves, of a few powerful politicians, and of numerous other people of good will, the decade following the end of the war (called “Reconstruction”) did witness some genuine progress and attempts to empower the formerly enslaved to move into a time of healing. However, the demon of white supremacy remained at least as strong as ever. The efforts to bring justice to the South during Reconstruction met with intense resistance. And, by 1877, the work of “Redemption” by the white supremacists had succeeded to a large degree (that is, the work to “redeem” the South from the efforts of the Reconstruction years to provide for the wellbeing of the formerly enslaved).
Post Reconstruction, the dynamics of Jim Crow, segregation, intense violence including uncounted lynchings, reworking legislation that had opposed discrimination, and crucial rulings by the courts (especially the Supreme Court) negated the potential of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution that had ended slavery and provided for civil rights, most importantly the right to citizenship, the vote, and equal protection under the law.
Even the impact of the acceptance by the South of the formal end of slavery was greatly lessened by a fateful clause in the 13th Amendment. This clause allowed for the continuation of enslavement in cases where it served “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This clause allowed for the practice of the prosecution of thousands of black men in the South for trivial offenses (often called “vagrancy”) who were then assigned to long term work projects for which they were paid little or nothing and that often lasted until death (see Douglass Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II).
A “better society”?
The Civil War did not, thus, have the impact of creating a “better society” in a sustainable way. Whatever improvements there were for the formerly enslaved and their descendents were countered by the re-entrenchment of the white supremacist regime. The century that followed the Civil War certainly saw some advancement in the fortunes of many black Americans—due, to the most part, to their own resilience and creativity in refusing to accept their status as the victims of white supremacist America.
However, I don’t think we may accurately say that there was a white people’s intervention of massive warfare for the sake of freeing the slaves that actually did contribute to “a better society” that was worth “the price” of “savagery” on an enormous scale. I suspect that as long as we imagine that paying the “price” warfare exacts can be anything but an unmitigated disaster, we will be unable to move very far toward truly achieving a better society.

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

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

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

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

Despairing for Mennonite Church, USA

Ted Grimsrud—February 23, 2019
When Mennonite Church USA was formed in 2000 by the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church (minus the Canadian halves of those two denominations who joined to form a separate denomination, MC Canada), its total membership was well over 100,000. Now, eighteen years later, that number has dropped to about half of what it was. I have no analysis as to why exactly this has happened, but I do think just about everyone involved would agree that these are difficult times for this young denomination.
I also think that many of us feel a bit despairing about this trajectory and the possibilities for the near future. In this blog post, I will reflect on just one element of the situation that has fostered my discouragement—the difficulties we have had for many years in engaging one another in serious conversations about the issues that matter the most to us, often issues that involve tension and conflict.
A rocky beginning
I had a difficult beginning to my pastoral career. In my first permanent pastorate that began in 1987, I immediately faced the challenge of how to process a request for membership from two gay men in a committed relationship. I strongly supported them but was not sure how to process the request in our small congregation. We were quite liberal for a Mennonite congregation at that time, but this was a new question for most of the people.
Not long before I started at the church, it had spent some time discussing biblical and theological issues and people quickly realized they could not hope to find agreement. So, to my disappointment, they weren’t interested in me leading them in an examination of the issues on an academic level (even though when I joined them, I was in the midst of writing a dissertation in Christian ethics and was chomping at the bit to utilize my expertise).
Our leadership team decided the best approach would be to interview members and active participants individually to get a sense of the overall attitude, and then to have a congregational meeting to discern together how to move forward. We insisted that the two prospective members be fully involved and always be informed of what was happening. The interviews indicated that while most people were in favor of affirming the membership request, there was also some significant opposition.
A broken relationship
Our congregational meeting was, as one would imagine, pretty tense. We went around the circle and each person briefly and calmly shared their thoughts. I was sensing that we didn’t have a strong enough group agreement to proceed with membership—the main objections had to do with concern about getting in trouble with the wider conference. But then came a disruption. A long time member of the congregation burst out angrily that the process was a sham, that he was shocked we were even considering welcoming these men into our fellowship, and that he had had enough. He walked out, leaving the meeting and the congregation. I actually never saw him again over the next seven years I served that congregation—that relationship was permanently severed.
I was stunned. I thought we were engaged in a helpful discernment process that actually was trending toward what I would have assumed he would have considered a victory—to say no to the membership request. As it turned out, after he left we regained a sense of equilibrium and completed our reporting, I suggested that it did seem that we weren’t agreed enough to move forward. I proposed that we not move forward with membership, but that we find ways to welcome the two men as “active participants.”
As events played out, this seems to have been a good course to follow. The congregation avoided conflict with the wider conference and the two men continued to be involved with us until they moved to Europe about a year later. I think that because they had been present for the decision-making, they understood the situation and respected where we ended up. Most of the people seemed pretty happy with how things worked out.
However, the man who left our meeting remained alienated. I talked with him once on the phone, but that was all. His wife, who had stayed for the rest of meeting, also never came back. I was deeply troubled by that incident. It violated my sense of how a church community should work. We need to talk together and should be very reluctant to end the conversation. In this case, the objections of this person were very important in our group discernment. Even though two-thirds of the people wanted to say yes on membership, we heard the dissenters and agreed not to move ahead with a “yes.” But for someone to simply walk out seems to reject the dynamics of communal discernment.
Foreshadowing a difficult history
In some ways, that membership process back then foreshadowed a lot of what I would experience among Mennonites over the next three decades. In that situation, we did have the ideal of communal discernment. Imperfectly, we did come close to meeting that ideal and ended up with a compromise that at the time worked out pretty well. But we also experienced a painful refusal to stay engaged on the part of some important people in the community.
Over the years that followed, I have seen quite a bit of this refusal to engage. I became involved with others who sought to influence the Mennonite Church to be more welcoming of sexual minorities. We faced a lot of opposition in even getting conversations going. My argument was always that those on the welcoming side were a significant part of the denomination, albeit surely at the time a minority. It seemed that the minority voice should not simply be ignored and silenced. [Here is an essay I wrote at the time about this.] But it was difficult, and at times costly, to speak out.
During my seven years at that first permanent pastorate, I did not speak out very loudly. But when I was asked during my ordination interview, I cautiously expressed doubts about the Mennonite Church’s rejection of the possibility of church-blessed same sex relationships. That expression of doubt was enough to trigger resistance to my ordination that lasted two years and only ended with the departure from the conference of three congregations. After two years of quiet in the Midwest, my family moved to Virginia and I began teaching at Eastern Mennonite University.
The struggle to speak at EMU
Early in my time at EMU, I was briefly quoted in the school newspaper saying, in response to a direct question, that the Bible didn’t say much about “homosexuality.” A few days later, I was visited by a senior fundraiser and told to keep my opinions to myself. I found this frightening. I spoke to the academic dean who assured me that this man was out of line to approach me like this, and I learned later that he had been reprimanded. But I also learned that he agitated behind the scenes to get me fired.
A few years later, I added my name to a full-page ad in The Mennonite Weekly Review that called upon the Mennonite Church to be more welcoming. It turned out that I was the only ordained minister in Virginia Mennonite Conference to do that, and soon an effort was made to take away my ordination. The president of my college met with me and demanded that I voluntarily give up my ordination. He said that if the conference took it away I would lose my job. Fortunately, some conference leaders agreed that I was okay and I remained credentialed.
Around this time, the EMU Board of Trustees issued a statement forbidding any faculty or staff from speaking out on the issues of sexuality. As well, Virginia Conference formally forbade ordained people from expressing “contrary advocacy” on these issues. This was all kind of intimidating, but I tried to continue to find ways to express my views. I published a short article on academic freedom where I argued that Mennonite theologians have a responsibility to the churches to express their views as part of the discerning work of the church.
Conversation becomes more possible
Then things started to change a bit at EMU. A new president was greeted with a challenge when some students unfurled a large rainbow flag in the middle of campus and made the TV news. He promised that we would have some conversations and formed a committee to work at such conversations. They spent their first months at internal conversation, most of the conservative members then left of the committee, and its work essentially petered out. But first, it did move ahead in one way. A member of the committee, seminary professor Mark Thiessen Nation, while himself a “traditionalist,” agreed that conversation was needed. He proposed to recruit me as a dialogue partner for some public conversations.
I allowed Mark to persuade me. I didn’t feel totally safe about stating my views in public, but decided I should take the opportunity with assurance that as long as I spoke the context of a back and forth with someone with the traditionalist view I would be okay. We spoke in several venues, including a chapel service in front of six hundred or so people. I would guess that I was the first EMU faculty person in an approved event to state explicitly that I supported same-sex marriage. And I didn’t get in trouble for it.
Mark and I put together a book, Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexualty, published in 2008 by the Mennonite Church’s publishing house, Herald Press. It (and still is) one of the very few books of its kind—an extended point/counterpoint debate on biblical and theological materials between people with opposing views. It was a difficult book to put together because we truly did disagree. Some of the tensions we felt with each other are present in the final product, and the book ends without resolution (though we do conclude with a chapter of our shared convictions). The book did not gain traction in the way we hoped. It certainly did not usher in a movement for serious and open theological engagement in Mennonite settings.
Things continued to evolve at EMU, as a few years later a process was begun to decide whether EMU should be openly willing to hire people who were in same-sex partnerships. However, the process did not involve “serious and open theological engagement” on the issues. In fact, it intentionally did not. Neither Mark nor I were asked to share our expertise. Faculty and staff did have the opportunity to share our views briefly in group settings, but the actual decision making was pretty hidden. I was pleased that EMU affirmed an explicit policy of non-discrimination, but I did not feel happy about the lack of theological reflection.
MC USA struggles
The broader Mennonite Church USA has continued to be an environment of tension and uncertainty (here’s an account of events in the 1980s and 1990s). While it has not changed its restrictive formal policies, various congregations and conferences have been allowed to remain in good standing while welcoming LGBTQ members, hosting weddings, and even calling LGBTQ pastors. At the same time, a large swathe of congregations and even conferences have removed themselves from the denomination.
I don’t know how things could have worked out differently. It seems, perhaps, that the irresolvable conflicts were inevitable and could not have been prevented. However, I deeply regret that in these past thirty years, the denomination did not work harder at finding ways for open and inclusive theological conversations. I can think of a few moments where that began to happen and was squelched. In the 1983 Mennonite general assembly, a fledgling group supportive of LGBTQ Mennonites now known as the Mennonite-Brethren Council for Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, and Bisexual Interests was given display space in hopes of conversing with delegates. Midway through the convention, an edict came down from denomination leaders that the permission to be there had been revoked. The display booth was dismantled and potential for conversation aborted. Over the next several decades, requests for a similar presence were always denied by convention leaders.
Shortly afterwards, a denominational task force was created to produce a study book on a broad range of sexuality issues. The task force met over several years, doing a thorough study and producing a careful, nuanced book. The book encouraged Mennonites to pursue conversations and provided guidance that would consider various points of view. However, the book did not find widespread usage and the recommendation for conversation never found affirmation from the church leadership that had commissioned the work.
Finally, another task force was created by denominational leaders in 1990, a Listening Committee for Homosexuality Concerns, that convened at several Mennonite general assemblies to talk with all interested persons about these issues. The committee had an active presence for a few years and as it concluded its work created a summary document that also recommended further conversations. Denominational leaders decided not to release the summary statement or to pursue any of the recommendations to encourage conversations.
It does appear in recent years that the numbers of Mennonites who support same-sex marriage and the calling of LGBTQ congregational leaders has gotten large enough that these views are acceptable in MC USA. However, there have been no denominationally sponsored efforts to address these dynamics theologically. Such conversations would obviously be difficult and would not likely yield clear and immediate benefits. However, as with EMU’s decision consciously to avoid theological input in processing what to do with its hiring policies, such avoidance sends a message that biblical and theological discernment is of marginal value—and that our differences truly are irresolvable.
Is turnabout fair play?
A recent development reveals another layer of complexity—and furthers my sense of despair. A conservative Mennonite pastor, Harold Miller, has for years engaged in conversations with progressive Mennonites on sexuality themes. (I have interacted with Harold in various on-line contexts for about 20 years myself—our most recent and most detailed exchanged happened in 2017.) In a recent post on his personal blog, Harold attempted to summarize the arguments for and against accepting same-sex marriage (s-s-m). Mennonite World Review, with Harold’s permission, reblogged Harold’s post and then posted a link to the blog on its Facebook page.
I have had several of my posts reblogged like this. MWR, as I understand it, subscribes to numerous blogs by Mennonites and occasionally finds a post deemed worthy of greater circulation. These posts are not commissioned by MWR and do not reflect the views of MWR staff (one of their former staff people who vociferously disagreed with me on numerous issues was the one who asked my permission to reblog several posts). My sense is that MWR sees value in various points of view expressed by people in their constituency getting more attention—a means, I could say, of furthering the conversation.
In this case, Harold’s post elicited many negative responses on Facebook. A few of the responses criticized his treatment of arguments about s-s-m. However, most focused on an analogy Harold used that was seen to be racist. I do think Harold was clumsy in how he wrote at this point. He later acknowledged that and apologized and tried to rewrite the offending sentence. It was interesting to me, though, that most people seemed to miss the point Harold made. He was trying to summarize the pro-s-s-m view and how it used the analogy of civil rights for black people to argue for civil rights for LGBTQ people. That is, it is the pro-s-s-m people who are the ones who made the analogy between blacks and LGBTQ people that Harold alludes to.
Where Harold got clumsy was when he tried to give the counter argument to the civil rights analogy. He says, in effect, that while black people can’t choose the color of their skin, gays and lesbians can choose whether or not to be sexually intimate. This appeared to be implying that there is something wrong with being black, that if they could they should want to change their skin color. I believe that this is not what Harold thinks or wanted to imply.
I think part of the problem is that the analogy Harold refers to is an analogy about being discriminated against because of one’s unchosen identity—the civil rights issue is about this kind of discrimination. It’s not about behavior. The idea would be, for supporters of nondiscrimination against LGBTQ people, that just as we now reject discrimination against people of color due to their racial identity, so we should reject discrimination against LGBTQ people due to their sexual identity.
However, the terrain of the discussion has changed. Harold himself would not, I think, now want to claim that there is something wrong with the sexual identity of one who is same-sex attracted. He’s not advocating a change in sexual identity but focuses on opposing s-s-m (i.e., a certain behavior he believes is immoral). So he’s wanting to say that one would counter the civil rights analogy now by saying that while there is nothing wrong with the gay or lesbian person’s sexual identity (as there is nothing wrong with a black person’s skin color), it is wrong when the gay or lesbian person acts immorally (i.e., engages in sexual intimacy outside of a heterosexual marriage). But he mixes up identity and behavior and ends up making a clumsy statement.
Because of Harold’s confusion, he is read as making a racist statement. The criticisms of are sharp. I suspect, though, that some of the heat was due to people’s antipathy toward Harold’s opposition to s-s-m—and that he is known to many of the responders for his earlier writings and public statements to that effect. What is most notable and troubling to me, though, is what Harold’s critics say along with disagreeing with him. They expressed anger with MWRfor reblogging Harold’s post and many stated Harold should never be allowed to be published again.
Those comments felt like a call to censorship to me. It felt like a new version of the ways those opposed to welcome tried to shut down conversation a generation ago. It felt like the dynamics of polarization are being ratcheted up even more.
To be clear, I disagree with Harold about most of these issues—our long debates show that. And I also think he did not do a good job of making his argument. I’m all for vigorously challenging his ideas. But I think those who criticized what he wrote should have tried harder to understand what he actually said (though I will confess to having difficulty doing that myself at times; I have always tried to be accurate in my representations of his thoughts, even when I failed). I think in this case, Harold’s critics jumped to the worst possible interpretation of what he wrote. I also think they may have been a little disingenuous in sharply critiquing him for racism when likely their main beef with him is his views of sexuality.
I think the responses to Harold—and especially the calls to silence him—are not positive contributions to conversation. As I have tried to show in this post, I believe that the failures in MC USA to work together at discernment are mainly the responsibility of those on the traditionalist side of the spectrum. And, I should add, the disintegration of MC USA seems to me to be happening mainly because of that refusal to respect dissenting points of view. However, it only adds fuel to my despair about MC USA to see this recent reaction to Harold’s blog post.
A philosophical conclusion to lessen despair
I also realize, though, that my entry into the Mennonite world as a young adult forty years ago had everything to do with my idealism. I thought the Mennonites would be partners in changing the world for the sake of the radical gospel of Jesus. My idealism was never in sync with the perspective of most Mennonites, who weren’t thinking in terms of changing the world and weren’t interested in being radical.
It is possible that my “despair” reflects a remaining residue of my unrealistic idealism about Mennonite radicalism. I had hoped for better. Perhaps a better sense of our current situation would come from a more historically sensitive, down to earth sensibility. I should recognize that the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition has had a long life. It has persevered through many threats and still managed to continue on. Mennonites have not changed the world, really, but they have managed to do a little good here and there—and surely will continue to do so whether the formal denomination, Mennonite Church USA is sustainable as an institution or not.

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

Socialism and capitalism: Two exhausted labels (Looking West #4)

Ted Grimsrud—February 19, 2016
When I was trying to find some glimmers of hope after the 2016 election, I wrote in a blog post that one of my thoughts was that hopefully we would see the renewed interest in progressive politics stirred by the Bernie Sanders campaign expanded. It does seem that that has happened. We certainly are getting more conversations about “socialism,” a word earlier in my lifetime generally only heard on the public airwaves as a cussword.
A lack of clear meaning
I welcome these conversations. Just yesterday, Kathleen and I listened to a couple of podcasts with interviewees talking about socialism in a positive way—one the renowned Harvard historian Jill Lepore and the other Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Breunig. But I was actually troubled by something. I never truly got a sense of what the word “socialism” means these days—or, for that matter, what “capitalism” means. Lepore even said that “socialism” doesn’t really mean anything, but then proceeded to use the term as if it did mean something.
I believe that something real is being advocated by politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. But I’m not sure it should be called “socialism”—though I get why they might want to use that term to indicate that they are seeking something different than the standard corporate liberalism of mainstream Democrats. Still, the term does not seem to me to be helpful. When Bernie and AOC advocate for “socialism” and Trump uses his State of the Union address to insist that “we will never have socialism” in the US, it seems all we are getting is fuel for our polarizations.
And maybe it is even worse when someone such as Lepore uses the word “capitalism” seemingly as an accurate term for our current economic system that is characterized mainly by unrestrained corporate oligopolies and monopolies. Such use ignores differences between our current system and the actual practice of competitive, free market oriented economics.
Perhaps it was an expression of capitalism when Bill Pruett moved to Elkton, Oregon, when I was in high school and opened an Arco gas station just west of town. He triggered a gas war where Joe Bishop’s Chevron and Walt Esslinger’s Texaco stations had to lower their prices to compete. But that was quite a different dynamic than our current situation where gas prices at the pump are set by a small handful of big corporations leaving the local station owners no slack for competing with their neighboring rivals.
These two words, “socialism” and “capitalism,” do not seem to be capable any more of doing the work useful words do. They seem more like exhausted labels that mainly serve as cudgels for unhelpful and polarizing posturing. They do not help us communicate and find common understandings and possible common ground for important conversations about the direction of our society.
Market-oriented economics not necessarily bad
Back in the late 1970s, I read insightful writers such as E. F. Schumacher and Barry Commoner who helped me see that a market-oriented economy is not a bad thing when it spurs innovation and meets the actual needs of people. And to see that monopolistic, corporatist, state-dominated, and other anti-democratic practices are what’s bad—whether the Soviet version or the American version (later, James C. Scott reinforced these points in his book, Seeing Like a State, arguing that the problem is centralization).
Which approach is capitalist? That depends on how we define the term. If we center on free markets and the enhancement of fair competition, then capitalism is something that can enhance democracy. But if we center on the ruthless quest for ever-increasing profits that invariably leads to centralization and reducing free competition, then capitalism undermines democracy. I tend to think that we should never refer to the latter focus simply as “capitalism” but should call it “corporatism” or “monopoly capitalism”—and make clear that it is antithetical to democracy.
“Socialism” or simply “democracy”?
And what about socialism? Certainly our current “socialist” leaders are the polar opposite in their views from what was usually called “socialism” back in the 1970s—i.e., the Soviet Union and Eastern and Central Europe. Of course, we have also long had the model of the Scandinavian-style of social organization that has often been called “socialism” as in social democracy. These are two very different models. But because they are both called “socialist,” I wonder whether the term is essentially irredeemable. I think we could accurately use “social democracy” for a political philosophy that places human wellbeing above corporate greed and affirms investing in public good over being consistently deferential to the wishes of the rich and powerful.
I actually am most attracted to advocating a strengthening of the stand alone term “democracy”—meaning something similar to what others have recently called “deep democracy” [Cornell West] or “radical democracy” [Romand Coles; Sheldon Wolin]. The heart of the notion to me actually has an anarchistic kind of tinge in that it emphasizes self-determination and a suspicion of all tendencies toward centralized, top down power (be it state-centered or corporation-centered).
A more vital democracy would mean, among other dynamics, an even playing field (or better) for locally-owned small businesses vis-à-vis the big boxes; access for voting for everyone; a guaranteed living wage; an end to big money dominating politics; universal healthcare; rebuilt infrastructure with union jobs; revitalized labor movement in general; renewable energy; support for family farms; et al. None of this is socialistic per se, none is contrary to market-oriented (non-monopolistic and corporatist) capitalism.
For a future post, I will reflect on how this notion of democracy is actually pretty biblical. I was interested that Jill Lepore, in her interview mentioned Eugene Debs, America’s great socialist, as actually a kind of social gospeler. I also hope soon to read Gary Dorrien’s recent books on the black social gospel. He’s trying to recover a vital American tradition that has a lot to offer us today.
[This is the next in a series of blog posts under the rubric of “Looking West” that will include reflections on numerous issues of our current day—politics, theology, memoirs, spirituality, and what not. An index for the series may be found at “Looking West.”]

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

Looking West – Introducing a Blog Series

Ted Grimsrud—February 15, 2019
I was born in Eugene, Oregon, back in the mid-1950s and lived my first eighteen years in the tiny town of Elkton, Oregon, about an hour’s drive southwest of Eugene. After a couple of years going to college in Monmouth, Oregon, I ended up back in Eugene at the University of Oregon and except for a couple of excursions for graduate school spent the next twenty years there.
It’s now been almost twenty-five years since our family moved away from the West Coast, the last twenty-two being in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Part of my soul remains in Oregon, though. When I raise my eyes from my computer right now, I look west. I do that a lot, often for minutes at a time. Sometimes, I’m just taking a break. But often my mind moves to the years gone by and to the sensibilities of the world in which I grew up. I’m still that person in so many ways.
The lure of writing
For as long as I remember, I wanted to be a writer. I decided in middle school to major in journalism, thinking at the time of being a sportswriter. I got the degree but decided against the career path. My writing energies turned in a more, I guess I could call it, ecclesial and academic direction. As a pastor and college professor, I did write a lot, some of which was published. I imagined when I retired from teaching a couple of years ago that the writing would come easier and my productivity would ratchet up. So much for the best laid plans. It’s been kind of interesting for me in that the ideas have continued to bubble up as much as ever, but the actual effort to turn the ideas into something concrete has not been as easy to generate as I had hoped.
I have moved forward on several projects, but not at anything close to the rate I had hoped to and with as yet no publishable fruit. I still have hopes. I may be a couple of years older, but other than some arthritic discomfort that ironically first emerged about a week after I turned in my final set of grades, I feel that I have as much potential for productivity as ever.
For a variety of reasons, some clear, some inchoate, I have decided that some self-conscious blogging might help move me forward. Part of what I hope to address in the days to come is some more reflections on the process of (and difficulty in) writing in our present context, with least some autobiographical reflection. At this moment, though, I simply want to note what I hope to do more than why. I imagine most days sitting down and typing for an hour, and then calling that blog post done. I imagine cranking out about a thousand words or so each time. One of the main emphases will be current affairs. But I expect to do some deeper theological reflection, to report on some of my bigger writing projects, to think about timeless kinds of issues, and who knows what else.
One of the reasons I have always wanted to write is simply because I have had things I want to think about and writing seems to help. It’s a way to think through something big—such as the process of writing books about how to interpret the book of Revelation, about how to think of salvation, and about how to respond to World War II. But it’s also a way to think about more immediate issues and concerns—articles, sermons, lectures, and magazine columns.
I’ve enjoyed writing blog posts over recent years. Occasionally, these have gained a bit of an audience—though only for brief times—and have stimulated some engaging conversations. But even when they didn’t seem to get any attention, I always felt good about writing them. So, I guess one way to frame what I hope to do with this “Looking West” series is that I hope to get into a habit of regular posting in order to give myself pleasure.
I know that blogging has seemingly lost a bit of its cache by now. I’m not trying to catch any waves of trendiness by investing energy into what now may be a passé medium. But I know that I will feel better each time I post something. And I also hope that having the regular discipline of setting fingers to the keyboard and letting my thoughts find their way on to the computer screen might grease the skids a bit to make it easier for some more large scale writing to happen.
“Looking West”
By “Looking West” I guess I have in mind looking out my window through the trees to the mountains and imagining what’s beyond as a mode of reflection, even imagination. There are some thoughts out there just beyond the horizon waiting to be found and wrestled with and articulated. And it is also true that something of my sense of self and of having something to say links with the world of my first forty years of life out West.
Last night, before I went to sleep I decided to try this form of writing. Then I started thinking of possible themes and made a list. I don’t expect to address each of these and I, of course, expect many new ideas to bubble up if I do get some momentum going. But these are the kinds of random (and presently often cryptic) possibilities of what might be coming: squirrels, anti-semitism, Trump, Mennonitism, Tom Waits, cooking, losing weight, John Howard Yoder, grandchildren, road food, the Civil War, abortion, Ralph Northam, pacifism, New York City, freeways, electricity, big box stores, fatherhood, feminism, retribution, death, white supremacy, and rivers.
One of my more satisfying writing experiences came a number of years ago when I was asked to write a monthly column for a denominational magazine devoted, I guess, to spirituality (broadly defined). I was asked to write some reflections on peace each month related to the general theme for that issue of the magazine. I never got much feedback, but I thought it went pretty well. It was a creativity-enhancing experience to be told in a quite general way what I should write about but then having freedom about how to do that. So I thought about peace in relation to a number of things I wouldn’t have otherwise.
I envision this blog series to be a bit like that. Almost everything I can imagine writing about will be oriented toward my peace convictions. But I don’t know what all of those topics might be nor do I know exactly how they will relate to my core convictions. It should be fun to find out.

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (III—An Alternative)

Ted Grimsrud—November 8, 2018
Greg Boyd’s book on reading the Bible nonviolently, Cross Vision (CV), sets before us a challenge. Is it possible to accept the Bible’s truthfulness while also affirming a consistently pacifist worldview? I conclude, after reading both CV and its more scholarly companion, Crucifixion of the Warrior God, that indeed the best, most respectful, reading of the Bible does support a pacifist commitment. However, I think the case for this might be made more persuasively following a somewhat different approach than Boyd’s. In this post I will sketch an alternative approach to Boyd’s for a biblical theology that also places God’s nonviolent love at the center.
Starting with God’s nonviolence
Like Boyd, I begin with God’s nonviolence (see my blog post, “Why we should think of God as pacifist”). I believe that the fundamental reality in our world is love. And God is love. So my interest in writing this piece is not to try to persuade people who might think otherwise that God is nonviolent. Rather, I want to explain why I think the Bible supports that conviction. What in the Bible leads to confessing God’s nonviolence? And what should we think about the parts of the Bible traditionally cited as the bases for denying that God is nonviolent?
Let me first, though, say just a bit about what saying “God is nonviolent” means for me. In a nutshell, to make such an affirmation is to confess that the Bible teaches that God created what is out love and for the sake of love. It also teaches that God participates in the world most directly in how God brings healing in the face of brokenness, binding wounds, reconciling alienated relationships, and empowering creativity and compassion.
And also like Boyd, I believe that the Bible’s definitive portrayal of God is found in the story of Jesus. That is, God is most clearly and reliably known to humanity in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. My affirmation of God’s nonviolence finds its strongest grounding in my affirmation of Jesus’s nonviolence. Just as it is unthinkable to me that Jesus would punish, hate, exploit, or violently coerce, so is it unthinkable that God would.
Jesus’s nonviolence?
After these agreements with Boyd, my differences begin to emerge in the discussion of how we best understand Jesus’s nonviolence. Boyd centers his emphasis on the crucifixion of Jesus, following Protestant theology by understanding the cross as a sacrificial act necessary for the effecting of salvation—though he does differ from most other Protestants in drawing pacifist conclusions from this affirmation. He does not deny that the meaning of the cross extends to understanding Jesus’s life as exemplary. However, in his rhetoric, the cross is almost always mentioned all by itself and not spoken of in relation to Jesus’s life and teaching or in relation to the cross being the Empire’s method of executing political offenders.
I focus more on Jesus’s life than his death. I see the meaning of Jesus’s death having most to do with the hostile reaction of the powers-that-be of empire and temple to his subversive way of living. When God vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead, God vindicates Jesus’s entire way of life and declares it as the model for all people of good will. So, I would say that we know that God is nonviolent because we confess that Jesus shows us what God is like and Jesus’s life and teaching were thoroughly and consistently nonviolent. The cross is the consequence of that life, not itself actually a core revelatory moment. In itself, the cross is simply an act of terrible violence where the powers-that-be once more simply crush dissenters. The cross only becomes meaningful when God raised Jesus from the dead, defeating his killers, and vindicating his life. Such an act by God shows that Jesus reveals the true God. The self-important leaders of empire and institutional religion do not serve God but usually are in rebellion against God. They should not be given loyalty due to God.
So, for me it is not the cross as the central truth about Jesus and God. The meaning of the cross is mainly that it demonstrates what happens when political and religious institutions seek to silent the message of God’s rejection of domination and violence. They try desperately and ruthlessly to silence that message. The resurrection shows that they fail in their efforts. Jesus’s life and teaching are vindicated and proven to witness to God’s healing and reconciling love that cannot be defeated by the powers-that-be.
I believe a key element of the NT’s portrayal of God as revealed in Jesus is that Jesus’s witness, in his life and teaching, is in full continuity with the witness of the Old Testament (properly interpreted). Boyd tends to portray the OT as deficient and in many ways in tension with Jesus’s message of God’s nonviolence. I disagree. The revelation of God we see in Jesus is not a new revelation that relativizes Torah and the prophets. As Jesus himself said, he confirms the law and prophets.
Jesus’s message may be summarized by his central affirmation—that what matters most is to love God and neighbor with all one’s heart. He insists these words summarize the message of Torah and the prophets. When we recognize this connection, we will see that Jesus provides a lens for reading the OT on its own terms. Read in light of Jesus’s core command, the OT is not mainly a source of predictions or foreshadowings of a future messianic figure whose death would move things in a different direction—where the death is the central revelation.
I believe Jesus helps us see that the main message of the OT is the same as his message—the call to love God and neighbor with our whole hearts. As Jesus does, so does the OT place love and compassion at the center both of the human vocation and of the self-revelation of God. As well, Jesus and the OT both teach us that the flip side of the coin that tells us to love is the call to critique and resist domination and oppression. Jesus’s message clarifies and continues the OT message that affirms God’s mercy and rejects domination and violence. Jesus himself does not so much offer a new or distinct message centered on his identity as God Incarnate revealed in his death, but more a message that God’s kingdom is distinctively present in his life and teaching.
The Big Story
I believe that affirming the Bible’s truthfulness and inspiration is important for Christian theology. However, I understand the meaning of that affirmation quite a bit differently than Boyd seems to. Boyd cites 2 Timothy 3:16 without discussion as his proof text for insisting that the Bible is inspired (or, “God-breathed”, CV, pp. 4, 7). He implies that “God-breathed” means each verse, maybe even each word, is from God. This view leads him to pit texts against texts and to understand differences between specific texts to be a problem. He constructs an ingenious argument to resolve those problems—his “something else must be going on” approach. As I discussed in the second post of this series, I have some problems with that approach.
Ironically, the main evidence Boyd cites to justify his approach—2 Tim 3:16 and the idea that Jesus affirmed the truthfulness of the Bible—need not necessarily lead to this kind of “verbal plenary” (that is, individual word-based) sense of inspiration (here Boyd seems simply to echo standard evangelical theology). Both 2 Tim 3:16 and Jesus actually take a more practice-centered view of the Bible. The 2 Tim text emphasizes the practical significance of inspiration—that the Bible seems inspired because it is useful for guiding us to live faithfully—not some kind of more formal definition of inspiration. Likewise, Jesus emphasizes in his use of the Bible that it is useful for helping people of faith to embody his message of shalom.
I believe, consistently with 2 Tim and Jesus, that the best way to appropriate the Bible as useful for faithful living is to read it in terms of its overall message when read as a whole—what I call its “Big Story” of “God’s healing strategy” (articulated in my book with that name). God is a God of healing and wholeness whose character as such is the central theme of the Bible. The way the Bible’s inspiration works is on the level of the truthfulness of the Big Story—not on the level of each particular text being equally authoritative or truthful nor on the level of the historical facticity or the accuracy of each text. Rather, the inspiration is to be seen in how the story as a whole provides life-shaping guidance into key themes such as God’s character, the human predicament, the path we are offered for faithful living, and the critical insights the Bible provides for understanding the world we live in.
The key move for understanding the Bible, then, is to orient each part of the Bible toward the Big Story. We read the parts in light of the whole, and recognize that some times we will encounter tensions in that reading where some specific parts do not seem to be in harmony with the Big Story. Those tensions are important and deserve careful attention. However, they do not lesson the truthfulness of the Big Story when we consider all the pieces together.
The centrality of peace
I will acknowledge that it’s not totally accurate to say that the Bible obviously has a single Big Story. Or, at least, not everyone will agree precisely about the content of the Big Story. Identifying this story is a bit of a subjective exercise. And I agree that we shouldn’t want to insist on a single interpretation of the Bible’s storyline. Part of what it means to be part of the community that respects the message of the Bible is that we engage in conversations with different versions of what that message actually is. We are not given an objectively provable interpretation of the Bible. What we should do is engage the Bible as an exercise in discernment for how it speaks to our lives in our world, expecting that it will offer guidance and encouragement.
At the same time, though, I think that most serious readers of the Bible over the ages do share a general sense of what the Big Story is about—a story of creation, fall, peoplehood, and ultimate healing. My version of the Big Story emphasizes what I call “God’s healing strategy” (see Ted Grimsrud, God’s Healing Strategy, 2nd edition). God creates the world out of love; humans exercise their freedom in ways that disrupt their relationships with God, each other, and the natural world; God initiates a long process to bring healing to all those relationships centered on communities of faith that culminates in the ministry of Jesus; and story ends with hope of completed healing in New Jerusalem.
To say that this Big Story is where the inspiration of the Bible finds its central expression is to say that the reader of the Bible should consider each discrete part of the Bible in light of this Big Story. The Big Story is about God’s commitment to peace, to wholeness, to healing. Along the way it tells of many human acts, beliefs, and commitments that violate peace and lead to brokenness. The ways of healing only ever find partial expression—often characterized by mixed motives on the part of the human players in the story. But there is a direction, a trajectory, a hope that understands the plot in terms of growing knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of God’s healing strategy.
So, the Bible as a whole is a book of peace. The God of the Bible is a God of peace. The clearest manifestation of God’s will to peace comes in the life, death, and resurrection of the one called “the Prince of Peace.” A reading strategy for the Bible that places the Big Story at the center will not see the presence of violent portraits of God as contradicting or threatening the message of peace and of God as the nonviolent author of peace. The discordant bits are to be expected in an ancient human document. They provide context, creative tension, and a counter-narrative that must be overcome for the story to be resolved. It is altogether possible that at times specific biblical authors intend to present a violent God, a God who approves of human violence. However, the intention that matters more, the intention of the Big Story, is to illumine how God is a God of peace. The various bits, including the discordant ones, do together give a peaceable portrait of God.
So, when we read the violent portraits we ask how they serve the Big Story, not how to understand them as autonomous accounts that contradict the centrality of the overall message of peace. We privilege the parts that reinforce the message of peace and subordinate the parts that challenge that part—recognizing, though, that the violent parts are necessary parts of the peaceable whole and should not be simply ignored and discarded.
We recognize that the Story finds its culmination in Jesus. With Jesus as the outcome, we read the OT with special attention to its elements that Jesus makes clear are the center of the Story. We don’t pit Jesus over against the OT (something Boyd at times comes precariously close to doing), but we look for how Jesus catches up the core aspects of the Big Story, especially the aspects that portray God as merciful, healing, just, and peaceable. Jesus’s message confirms that from the start the Bible presents a vision of peace—which includes a sense of perspective about the non-peaceable elements. These non-peaceable elements are a genuine part of the Story, but are subordinate to and interpreted by God’s healing work.
Israel and the land
Perhaps the most difficult text in the OT for the reading strategy I advocate is the Conquest story in the book of Joshua. This well-known account of the entry of the Hebrews into Canaan, the takeover the Promised Land, celebrates extreme violence both by God and by God’s people. Taken as a straightforward account of how Israel gained the land, the Conquest creates many difficulties, not only for pacifists but for any believer who does not believe that their God is the author of genocide.
A Big Story reading strategy does not provide a magic resolution for the difficulties. But it does allow for a more peaceable interpretation. A key point is that we should read the Conquest story in the context of the rest of the Big Story, asking how this particular story contributes to the peaceable message of the overall story. When so read, we may recognize that the takeover of the land actually was the first move in what proved to be a failed strategy for sustaining the community of the Promise. This community was established in Genesis 12 with the calling of Abraham to found a people that would ultimately bless all the families of the earth. With the takeover of the land, the community entered into an era of territoriality.
The community in the land required boundaries that required violent protection, fostered a sense of possessiveness, and ultimately led to efforts to expand the territory. Before long, the community desired to be like the other nations and its elders requested and received a human king—who, among other things, gathered weapons of war. The story that follows is largely a story of the failure of this kingdom to embody the main directives of Torah. Prophets rose to challenge Israel’s leadership for its injustices. Before long, the prophetic warnings of the ending of the territorial kingdom were fulfilled.
Dramatically, the story tells how shortly before the destruction of the Hebrew kingdom of Judah, servants of King Josiah found an old law book that triggered a reform movement that sought to reinstate observance of Torah. The reforms did not prevent the destruction of the kingdom, but they did provide the key element that allowed the community to sustain its identity—which from then on was to be a people centered around Torah that would be scattered widely, not a people in a particular territorial kingdom.
So, the meaning of the Conquest became not a story of the permanent founding of a territorial kingdom requiring profound violence at the start and on-going violence to sustain its existence. Rather, the Conquest is the beginning of the story of a path that proved to be a dead end. The promise remained in effect, but its sustenance became non-territorial, centered around the practice of Torah in communities where the people of faith were often a relatively powerless minority in relation to the wider society. So the peaceable meaning of the Conquest story is that territorial conquest and a territorial kingdom are not ever again going to be part of God’s healing strategy.
Jesus seems to have embraced this change of focus when he proclaimed as his central message the presence of God’s kingdom as a decidedly non-territorial kingdom—that would be constituted of scattered communities of faith that did not require violence for their sustenance. A kingdom of peace. Jesus, the new “Joshua,” rejected violent conquest when tempted by Satan at the beginning of his ministry. Instead, he offered a vision echoing the call that Jeremiah made to the people of the promise to seek the peace of the city where they lived (Jer 29:7)—to embody nonviolence. Jesus was not apolitical and only concerned about getting people to heaven. But his politics were the flexible, resilient politics of witness to God’s will for humanity through local communities of faith in nations that they did not govern.
The Bible and peace
What I have all too briefly sketched above is a reading strategy that takes as its starting point the conviction that the Bible as a whole presents God as a loving and healing God whose justice seeks to restore wholeness in human relationships with God, each other, and the natural world. The coherence of this understanding of God and the Bible does not depend upon a perfect harmony where each part of the Bible directly supports the whole. We may accept the presence of counter-images and seek to learn from those “problematic” texts.
However, the plot is clear, and from the very beginning we find testimony to God’s peaceable character and intentions for humanity. The Bible presents the life of faith as being a process of choosing among various options for understanding what’s most important in life—some options contribute to the healing project of God and some do not. The process of choosing appropriately requires wisdom, collaboration with other people of faith, and the willingness to turn away from paths that lead to brokenness—even when turning is difficult.
The choices also involve discernment into the teachings and stories of the Bible. How might we use the Bible as a resource for peace and not for brokenness? That God’s people have made wrong choices about how to read the Bible is shown within the Big Story itself—and certainly is visible in the past 2,000 years. Simply saying that we believe in the authority of Bible is not enough to assure that we choose the healing path over the path of brokenness. I believe, though, that when we read the Bible in light of the message of Jesus and with confidence that the Bible indeed does guide us toward wholeness when we let it, we will perceive the Bible’s Big Story and be empowered to move toward peace.
The first two parts to this three part series responding to Boyd’s Cross Vision:
Part One: Boyd’s Argument
Part Two: An Assessment

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

The centrality of God’s love: A response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (Part 2: An assessment)

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2018
 Greg Boyd’s book, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Fortress Press, 2017), deserves praise simply for being a book of serious theological scholarship with an original and creative argument about a crucially important issue that is written for a wide audience. I don’t find Boyd’s effort totally successful, but even as I raise some sharp criticisms I want to emphasize how grateful I am for Boyd’s book. This post is the second of three. The first summarizes Boyd’s argument and the third sketches an alternative view on the issues Boyd addresses.
For many years, I have been deeply troubled about the role Christianity plays in the acceptance of state-sponsored violence in the United States—to the point where self-professing Christians are quite a bit more likely to support wars and capital punishment than those who make no such profession. I’ve concluded that a key problem that contributes to this undermining of the message of Jesus Christ is theological—convictions Christians have that actually make acceptance of violence more likely.
Boyd may not fully share my critique, but he certainly is aware of the problem. And he is willing to write some gutsy and accessible books that take the problem on head on. Cross Vision (CV) is a much shorter and less academically rigorous adaptation of his two-volume work, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). I recommend starting with the shorter book, which does a nice job summarizing Boyd’s argument—but the longer book is also pretty accessible and contains a wealth of analysis that those who are attracted to Boyd’s argument will want to explore (I have written a long series of blog posts that summarize and critique CWG).
What Boyd gets right
The main contribution CV makes is actually an assumption Boyd starts with more than a proposition he demonstrates. He asserts that Jesus Christ is the central truth for Christianity, that Jesus shows us the character of God more definitively than anything else, and that because Jesus was (and is) resolutely nonviolent we should recognize that God also is nonviolent—and always has been. Making such an affirmation about God a starting point means that Boyd does not equivocate when he comes face to face with difficult biblical materials. He focuses on how those materials might be understood in relation to the core convictions about God as nonviolent. This clarity is bracing and empowering. What the world needs now, I believe, are people who are committed to embodying healing love, not people who struggle over whether or not to kill others or whether or not to support the killing of others. It’s that simple, and Boyd gives us an important resource for following such a path.
Now, certainly the violent portraits of God that are all too common in the Old Testament raise problems for someone with Boyd’s convictions. Surely, part of his motivation for this work is simply to help him strengthen the coherence of his own theology. How does one who believes in nonviolence andin the truthfulness of the Bible understand the Bible’s (occasional) affirmations of violence? However, Boyd is also motivated by a more pragmatic concern that is all too often given short shrift by those who are not troubled by OT violence: What can we do as Christians to counter the pervasive and devastating violence in our culture that embraces the myth that this violence is redemptive?
Those who are sanguine about the Bible’s violence tend to be sanguine about violence in our world and, as a consequence, contribute to an enormous problem. Part of this problem is the way that accepting violence undermines the witness of Christianity and leads even Christians themselves to misunderstand and contradict the testimony of Jesus that our world so needs in order to find healing. So, this is not mainly an intellectual project for Boyd. Much more so, it is—we could say—a kind of evangelistic project. It has to do with the practical expression of the good news (the “evangel”) of God’s healing love. To embrace and embody that healing love, we have to be clear about its reality, clarity that affirming the ugly images of God that are contained at times in the Bible renders unavailable.
The centrality of the cross
Boyd powerfully affirms the centrality of what he calls the “cruciform motif” for understanding Jesus, God, the Bible, and life in the world. The heart of everything is the love that led Jesus to a life of compassionate service and resolute nonviolent resistance. Such a life inevitably put Jesus in conflict with the powers that be, human and demonic, and led to his terrible death on the cross. God, though, did not desert Jesus but instead raised him from the dead, turning terrible defeat into victory. The love of God that conquers sin and death found its defining expression in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Everything about God and God’s revelation in the Bible must be understood in light of the cross (by which Boyd means all the events leading up to and following Jesus’s crucifixion). God is not and has never has been different than the God revealed in the cross. We may take that as a certainty. Sure, we may struggle with understanding how best to understand this notion of God in relation to what other parts of the Bible teach. But the issue is never, for Boyd, whether or not God is always the cruciform God of the cross. It is always only an issue of understanding how to affirm God’s love and nonviolence in relation to various portraits.
Now, as I will discuss when I get to my critique of Boyd, I want to apply the centrality of Jesus for understanding God and the Bible differently than Boyd does. However, my differences with him on these issues arise within a much more profound agreement—that God has always been nonviolent and that we understand God’s character, always, in light of the revelation of God in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.
Implications of cruciform theology
A key part of Boyd’s application of his cruciform theology is his affirmation that God relates to human beings through loving influence rather than through coercion. He reads the texts that seem to imply otherwise as God’s accommodation to human weakness. The people who wrote those texts indeed were writing inspired scripture, Boyd says, but God allowed them to record their distorted views of the story shaped by cultural values that were contrary to God’s values. I do not find this approach particularly persuasive in the end (as will discuss below), but I do affirm Boyd’s sense of God’s non-coercive approach to relating to humanity. And I also affirm that the biblical texts that conflict with God’s nonviolence are not to be understood as accurate historical accounts—and, in fact, are to be rejected as truthful portrayals of what God truly is like.
Boyd discusses God’s judgment at length. I find his acceptance of the motif of “punishment” to be troubling (again, to be discussed below). However, his sense of God’s judgment as Aikido-like seems pretty attractive to me as is his distinction between “judicial” and “organic” punishment. These insights follow from the notion of God as non-coercive, a notion that leads to a careful (and attractive) description of God’s “wrath” not a active, interventionist anger but as God’s willingness to let human beings experience natural consequences for their moral failures.
Boyd suggests that God’s willingness, out of non-coercive love, to allow Jesus to suffer the consequences of human sin at the cross serves as a paradigm for God’s general approach. I’m not totally convinced by this comparison, but I do like that the way the story of Jesus portrays God as non-coercive shapes how Boyd reads everything else. To reject the common notion of God as an angry and punitive judge seems essential for an authentic peace theology.
Boyd helpfully discusses a number of examples in the OT of where the judgment that is described is of an organic and not judicial variety. And he points out, in fact, that scholars argue that the OT actually does not even have a word that directly means “punishment.” The entire Bible supports the idea that God’s judgment tends to be non-interventionist. So, though Boyd is willing to apply his “something else is going on” to the texts where the intervention seems to be direct, he also makes the case that as a rule the texts themselves do support his approach once one is sensitized to look for this.
The cosmic powers
I found Boyd’s discussion of the presence of evil cosmic powers in OT stories such as the Flood and the Exodus to be helpful. Even if I don’t want to take this insight as far as he does, it does make sense to me that we should recognize the reality of other forces at work in the world than only human beings and God. I don’t think of Satan and the Powers as malevolent personal beings so much as personifications of the more impersonal social and cultural dynamics at work in our world where human choices for evil take on a social dimension.
However, that the world can be an unfriendly place, that idols do seek to separate human beings from God, and that when we do not trust in the healing love of God we suffer consequences all seem true. Boyd’s point, as I understand it, that much of the organic judgment described in the OT can be seen in terms of malevolent forces taking advantage of human vulnerability when people separate themselves from God seems true. The destructive consequences are not the result of direct punitive actions by God but rather the result of the malevolence exploiting human vulnerability when people have separated themselves from God.
Peace and God
Boyd’s conclusion, while stated a bit more frankly than one might expect in book such as CV, seems accurate to me. “The depth of your passion for God and of your transformation into his likeness will never outrun the beauty of your mental representation of God…. To the extent that you entertain lingering suspicions that OT authors might be right when they ascribe atrocious behavior and attitudes to God, it can’t help but compromise your passion for God and, therefore, the beauty of the person you’re becoming” (p. 248).
And yet…
Perhaps it is because of my appreciation for Boyd’s effort to apply his unapologetic commitment to nonviolence to his way of interpreting the Bible that I nonetheless finish with strong ambivalence about CV. In the end, I do not think he actually does read the Bible with as much of a consistently nonviolent hermeneutic as he could (and should). And because of this lack of consistency, I wonder about how well CVwill actually effect the nonviolent transformation Boyd seeks.
Biblical inspiration
I think Boyd offers his readers a worthy challenge when he sets up the problem as the tension between both affirming the inspiration and authority of the Bible as a whole and believing that God is definitively revealed in the thoroughly nonviolent Jesus. However, in working at that challenge, I think he gets us off track with his understanding of “inspiration” in terms of “infallibility” (that is, the sense that each detail in the Bible is in some sense approved by God and to be understood as truthful).
At the same time, Boyd seems throughout CVto treat the violent portraits as if they are not actually truthful, at least when read in the most direct and straightforward ways. To deal with this confusing dynamic, he develops what he calls the “divine accommodation” approach where the most straightforward readings of the OT violent text show us that God accommodates to human sinfulness by allowing the writers to tell us things that are untrue (e.g., that God commanded the Hebrews to massacre every man, woman, and child in the story of Joshua). I fear that this approach is a kind of mystification—where in order to hold on to what he calls a high view of biblical inspiration he makes incoherent moves. I doubt that very many readers with a typically evangelical view of biblical authority would agree that Boyd does in fact demonstrate a “high view” of the Bible (I have seen a few responses that support this point).
I will admit that the issues Boyd addresses are indeed challenging and do not lend themselves to easy resolution (I will outline my alternative approach to affirming both an inspired Bible and confessing of God as nonviolent in the third part of this series of posts). But the idea that God “steps back” and allows untruths to be present in inspired scripture (untruths that Boyd himself acknowledges have had quite a destructive impact on Christian behavior these past 2,000 years in wars, crusades, and the like) seems unacceptable.
That “something else is going on” in such texts at times is a helpful thought (Boyd does provide some persuasive readings where he points to details in the texts we have often missed—e.g., the likelihood of the presence of a demonic “sea monster” in Exodus’s Red Sea). But often it seems that the claim that the text doesn’t mean what it clearly states is simply special pleading. I think part of the problem is Boyd’s claim to affirm an evangelical understanding of biblical inspiration rather than admit his approach does allow for seeing that the Bible is not inspired in the details of the text. It seems okay (I’d say, necessary) to admit that the Bible is fundamentally a human book (with many inaccurate portrayals), and that “divine inspiration,” however it works, does not mean that the Bible transcends its humanness.
How do we think of the Old Testament?
Another element of Boyd’s approach to the Old Testament that I see as problematic is his characterizing it as only a “shadow” revelation in relation to the New Testament. He denigrates the Law as presented in the OT. In general, though he hints at some positive elements in that part of the Bible, he presents the Old Testament as mainly a problem. He tends to treat the violent parts as self-contained stories rather than as part of a bigger story.
This leads to him giving the sense that in his understanding, Christ and the cross and Christian revelation replace the teaching of the OT. Such an emphasis on discontinuities between the OT and NT actually makes the OT violence seem worse and more definitive of the message of the OT than it actually is. And, ironically given Boyd’s own pacifism, it unhelpfully narrows the meaning of Jesus’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection to being more religious and doctrinal (in line with later Christendom) rather than more social and political (in line with the OT story).
The reader of CV gets little sense of the peace vision of the OT and its powerful critique of empires, injustice, and militarism. For Boyd, the problem of the violence in the OT can only be resolved, we could say, Christologically—that is, by reference to the cross of Christ understood as a uniquely salvific event. I will suggest in my next post that a much better approach to the violent texts is to read them in the context of the bigger OT presentation of God’s shalom (peace, justice, and loving kindness). Seeing much more continuity between Jesus and the OT also, I will explain, leads to a quite different understanding of the cross than we get in CV.
The “cross”?
For Boyd, the cross is at the center of everything else he addresses in CV. The cross reveals what Jesus (and therefore God) is about more than anything else. All of his main arguments go back to this revelation. While I strongly affirm making Jesus the center of how we read the Bible (and of our theology; see my book, Theology as if Jesus Matters), I am uncomfortable with how Boyd seems to reduce Jesus to the cross—and to construe the cross in an overly narrow sense.
Boyd certainly intends to include Jesus life, teaching, and resurrection in his sense of what the cross means, but in practice throughout CV (and also throughout the much longer Crucifixion of the Warrior God) he abbreviates things to “the cross.” And I don’t think this is simply for convenience sake. The actual crucifixion of Jesus is where it all comes together for Boyd. Something happens in the cross itself that matters more than anything else before or after.
That Boyd makes the cross so central, though, makes it unfortunate that he does not discuss more clearly how exactly the cross works for his theology. He rejects the penal substitutionary atonement theology so prominent in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. He does not believe that Jesus died as a necessary sacrifice to take the punishment God owes to us onto himself as a means of gaining us salvation otherwise not available. But he still seems to see Jesus’s death as uniquely salvific. Due to his reticence on spelling out the mechanics of the cross, Boyd leaves me with a sense that God is not necessarily free simply to forgive and heal.
How is the cross a revelation of a thoroughly nonviolent and loving God if it is a required element of God’s offer of salvation to humankind? What is the “curse of sin” that the cross is necessary to release humankind from? How is there not an angry and punitive God behind the necessary crucifixion? I am not sure how Boyd would answer these questions.
Boyd does seem to have a pretty negative view of humanity. We are characteristically imbued with “twisted minds and hearts that suppress God’s Spirit” and dominated by an all-powerful Satan who is earth’s ruler in the present. This kind of theological anthropology typically is linked with the idea that for human beings to find salvation we need some intervention from the outside—usually seen as Jesus’s necessary sacrifice on the cross. And the negative anthropology is often linked with a notion of God as punitive. I do not believe that God can be both punitive and nonviolent at the same time since punishment seems by definition to be violent.
God and punishment
Boyd gives us some mixed signals about God and punishment. As mentioned above, I appreciate his discussion of God’s “wrath” not as angry, punitive judgment but more as allowing human beings to experience the natural consequences of their wrongdoing. And he helpfully points out that the OT itself seems to place little emphasis on punishment.
At the same time, Boyd still commonly uses the term “punishment” as if he still wants to see God as in some sense a punitive God. One way this comes up is the common reference to God’s strategy of withdrawing protection when God wants to exercise judgment against human wrongdoing. It’s as if what matters in making a case for a nonviolent God is that God does not directly intervene effecting violent judgment by God’s own hand. But it does not seem consistent with being nonviolent for God to choose to step back and allow violence to fall upon wrongdoers that God could otherwise have prevented—and that in doing so God actually does want this violence to be punitive.
Boyd’s move on this topic seems a bit like casuistry. God’s hands remain clean when God only intentionally allows the judgment bearing violence to occur rather than directly causing it. This distinction seems problematic. Boyd’s God still seems governed by the logic of retribution where wrongdoing must be met by retributive, punitive violence. I believe that in arguing that God does punish by withdrawing protection, Boyd draws the line in the wrong place. Rather than presenting the line of violence/nonviolence being between direct and indirect punishment, I believe that a Jesus-shaped reading of the Bible would help us to see that we should draw the line between punishment of all kinds and restorative justice.
The issue with so much of the violence in the world—and at times in the Bible—is that it reflects the myth of redemptive violence and the logic of retribution that tell us that punishment is the necessary response to wrongdoing. The Bible, including parts of the OT, tells us that efforts to restore the relationships violated by wrongdoing do not require punishment. A consistently nonviolent God may been seen in stories such as Esau’s response to Jacob, Joseph’s response to his brothers, and the father’s response to the prodigal son. Boyd’s retention of necessary punishment undermines his hope for a nonviolent understanding of God.
Back to the Bible
In the end, my take on CV is that Boyd has made a useful start in the right direction. His assertion that the best way to read the Bible is to understand it to be presenting us with a thoroughly nonviolent God is precisely what Christians need in our present day—especially Christians in the United States. And, as Boyd insists, the way we get to the nonviolent character of the biblical God is through the story of Jesus. And when we read the Bible in light of Jesus, and hence with a nonviolent God, we will be able properly to understand the violent portraits not as an unresolvable contradiction but as only one non-authoritative part of a bigger picture.
However, I also think the residue of Boyd’s doctrinal evangelicalism has prevented him trusting the Bible enough to resolve his conundrum without his special pleading. His notion of biblical inspiration appears to be a theological construct imposed on the Bible more than an inductive approach that reads the Bible as it comes to us. His notion of the cross also owes more to doctrinal theology than to a straightforward reading of the story told in the gospels that presents Jesus’s crucifixion as the culmination of his life of radical obedience (and disobedience to the ways of empire and establishment religion). When Jesus called on his followers to “take up the cross” he wasn’t talking about a one-off cosmic transaction that deals with the “curse of sin.” Rather he is talking about the social strategy that was to be imitated, in line with the prophets and the embodied Torah.
Indeed, we need a “cross vision” that envisions the way of Jesus and his nonviolent God as the way his followers share in fulfilling the calling for all the children of Abraham to bless all the families of the earth. I think Boyd gets us started on that journey. I’ll share in my next post more about how I would suggest reading the Bible as guidance for pursuing the journey further.
[Post one of this series summarizes Boyd’s argument. Post three sketches an alternative approach to the issues of violence in the Bible.]

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

Why Abortion Opponents Should Oppose Brett Kavanaugh…and all Other Republicans

Ted Grimsrud—9/29/18
I am acquainted with several people (and know of many, many more) who were troubled by Donald Trump’s lousy character and shady business dealings yet still voted for him. The basic rationale seems to have been: “Sure, Trump is awful. Clinton’s awful too. The difference is that Trump will appoint Supreme Court justices who appose abortion.” The vote in the 2016 election was close enough to imagine that these people may have tipped the balance.
And now Trump is rewarding such choices. First, he got the rigid right-winger Neil Gorsuch on the Court to replace rigid right-winger Antonin Scalia (some analysts have suggested that Gorsuch is even more extreme than Scalia in his embrace of a corporatist agenda, hard as that may be to imagine). Now, we are likely just days away from Brett Kavanaugh (a long time Republican Party operative) joining four other rigid right-wingers to form what will likely be a long-term Supreme Court majority.
It’s hard to say precisely howthis new unequivocally “anti-abortion” majority will act to undermine abortion rights. They may simply overturn Row vs. Wade and allow whatever states choose to to make abortion in all situations illegal. However, I have read commentators who suggest that, realizing such a direct move would energize the pro-choice forces, the Court may move in a more piecemeal direction. They may make decisions that continue to chip away at abortion rights until, while technically legal, abortions become virtually impossible to obtain in most of the country.
A counter-productive strategy
Ironically, though, I believe that this strategy will backfire on those who, out of genuinely humanitarian motivations, desire a sharp reduction (if not complete elimination) of abortion in this country. Basically, in helping to elect Trump and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, “pro-lifers” have actually put into power forces that are profoundly anti-life (militarist, anti-environment, ruthlessly pro-corporate, pro-mass incarceration, etc.). The “success” of getting an iron-clad “pro-life” majority in the Supreme Court will not only lead to heightened misery for non-wealthy Americans, but ironically likely will do little, if anything, to eliminate abortion.
I believe that the abortion debate is incredibly complex with strong feelings and important truths being expressed across the spectrum. It won’t be resolved in my lifetime.
So, let’s say that Kavanaugh will be confirmed (or, if not, we may expect that some other equally “anti-abortion” person will be). What follows will be more and more legal barriers against abortion, with the Supreme Court as the final arbiter with its “anti-abortion” majority in place perhaps for decades.
Will legal changes actually end abortion?
Yet, giving the opponents of abortion all they want in making abortion illegal certainly will notend abortion in this country. It may not even reduce the abortion rate (though it will certainly increase the rate of illegal abortions and the attendant rate of deaths due to unsafe abortions). Many countries that outlaw abortion completely have some of the highest abortion rates in the world (e.g., El Salvador’s rate of abortion is around 30 per 1,000 women aged 15-44)—and countries with the lowest abortion rates have legalized abortion (e.g., Switzerland, where abortion is available with no restrictions as to the reason for abortion, has the lowest abortion rate in the world, around 5 per 1,000). Obviously, there are other issues that drive the abortion rate more than legality.
So, people who truly want to reduce (and even ultimately end) abortion shouldbe asking how Kavanaugh’s likely positions on a wide range of issues would impact the one issue that matters the most in relation to abortion. That one issue is the prevalence of unwantedpregnancies. It seems like a simple point—the reason anyone has an abortion is that they don’t want to be pregnant. If someone doesn’t want to be pregnant bad enough, making abortion illegal will not stop them. And if someone doesn’t get pregnant when they don’t want to, they will not get an abortion.
So, are the policies that Republicans such as Kavanaugh support likely to decrease the cases of unwanted pregnancies? In a word, no. They are almost sure to increase the number of unwanted pregnancies (e.g., reducing funding for Planned Parenthood and in other ways limiting access to birth control; limiting access to sex education; reducing the safety net including programs that provide prenatal care, food stamps, and other social services; heightening the shame associated with unmarried pregnancies).
In general, the Republicans (and remember that Kavanaugh has been a loyal Republican operative for a long time) are pushing a political agenda that moves the U.S. more toward El Salvador (with an ever greater divide between rich and poor and a hollowed out middle class; fewer limits to corporate and police power; stricter legal barriers to access to abortion; an ever-shrinking safety net—not to mention ever-growing militarization and democratic practices growing ever-weaker) and away from Switzerland (with its robust safety net and vital democracy).

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism


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