Category: Peace Theology

Losing inerrancy: Theological memoir #2

Ted Grimsrud—July 10, 2019
When I was 17 years old, almost exactly 47 years ago, I made a decision to become a Christian. At the time, my motivation was that I wanted to know the truth. As a thoughtful, idealistic adolescent, I thought about truth a lot. I didn’t have many people to discuss this with, hardly any actually. But I was thinking and thinking.
I was ready to make a move, though, and I did get an explanation from one close friend that I found persuasive. So I took the step of asking Jesus to be my savior. I truly meant it, and my life did change—mainly, I’d say now, in terms of consciously thinking of myself as a Christian and getting involved in a local church and trying to follow the guidance I was then given in that church. I also began to pray and to read the Bible.
As I think about it now, I find it helpful to separate two basic ways of entering Christianity with a desire to “know the truth.” There may be others, perhaps many, but these are the two that come to mind now.
The first, is that Christianity offers a truthful explanation for the meaning of life that one accepts as authoritative. The Christian’s task is to grow in acceptance of that explanation, that authoritative teaching of what is true. This approach offers a sense of certainty and security along with the comfort of knowing that one is on God’s side and will spend eternity with God. The Bible works as a repository of facts, definitive commands, direct guidance, the way God speaks to human beings—a detailed blueprint that offers absolutes that are over against other truth claims.
The second way is to think of the truthfulness of Christianity as a prod to the imagination, a kind of lens for looking at life in the most perceptive way possible. In this approach, Christianity offers a story that helps connect with other stories. The Bible is perceived to be a master story that helps uncovers truths told in other stories.
Without realizing it at the time, I was looking for truthfulness in the second sense, I was looking for a way to feed my imagination—and I found myself in a community that presented Christianity as being truthful in the first sense. I’d say now that I experienced enough of the kind of truthfulness that I was looking for to keep my faith alive. However, my first four years or so as a Christian were pretty uninteresting, even stilted. These years included my senior year in high school and my first three years in college. I have a hard time remembering ever being excited about anything intellectual. I feel like I was kind of in a daze during that time, more or less sleepwalking through my classes and reading light stuff just for fun in my spare time. As I think of my experience of the Bible, it illustrates what my overall Christian experience was like.
Gaining inerrancy
Part of what I was taught when I first entered Christianity as a new convert was that the Bible is our central authority. The Bible is error-free (inerrant) and completely to be trusted. As I now realize, I was taught in effect that what matters most about the Bible is our doctrine of its perfection, more than its actual content. Certainly, biblical content was emphasized, but mainly as individual verses that give us direct rules for living and through which God speaks personally to us, not as a collection of stories to be in conversation with. I struggled to put in the time to memorize verses and to find the right directives. And I always felt guilty about the lack of effort I put into that work. The Bible just wasn’t interesting to me in that form.
I did accept the doctrine of inerrancy. I knew nothing of any debates among Christians about how best to read and apply the Bible. I knew that “liberal” Christians weren’t really true Christians, partly because they didn’t believe in the Bible. But I didn’t know anything about their actual views.
I realize now that I was being indoctrinated into a kind of “house of authority” where it wasn’t just an inerrant Bible, it was also an authoritative tradition of how to read the Bible, and a community of faith that centered on authoritative teachers and leaders who explained what the Bible means. In actuality, the Bible’s truthfulness needed these other authorities to be actualized—even though everyone acted as if they were simply following the Bible. That was how human doctrines and traditions and community standards could be seen not as human interpretations but as “biblical truths”—meaning that they were not up for discussion and that to disagree with them was simply an act of rebellion.
Happily for the development of my faith, when I went to college I joined a somewhat different kind of church. Initially, it was not the less authoritarian approach to faith that attracted me. This new church was still quite conservative. But it was a friendly place where a good friend attended and seemed “safe” theologically (and also had a very favorable female to male ratio of members…).
Crucially, for me, this church was missing key elements of the house of authority. It was an independent fellowship made up of college students and other young adults from several different traditions. There was not a close link to any particular tradition and the leadership was mostly collaborative and non-authoritarian. So, there was quite a bit of psychic freedom even if most people’s theology was pretty standard conservative evangelical.
It is interesting in retrospect to think about how important for my intellectual development the thought of Francis Schaeffer was (here are more of my reflections on Schaeffer—also here). As it turns out, Schaeffer was a strong advocate of a rigid doctrine of biblical inerrancy and later became a partisan in major conflicts among evangelical Christians on this issue. But that was not the important message I got from Schaeffer. Rather, I got something that pointed me in a very different direction. Schaeffer, unlike the Christians I had been mentored by, celebrated the intellectual life. He insisted that doubt is not a bad thing and that we should openly embrace a questioning stance toward the world around us. We can seek the truth in all areas without fear, because all truth is God’s truth.
Of course, Schaeffer himself remained hostile toward any theology that he saw as “liberal”. But he pushed me in a direction that soon led me to escape the confines of conservative evangelical theology and its insistence on biblical inerrancy. All I needed was his push to start thinking more openly about my faith and to see how it connected with the world around me.
Shortly after Schaeffer, the next big step in my faith development came when I embraced Christian pacifism—stimulated by a several-year process of soul searching concerning participation (or not) in the Vietnam War. Though that war wound down before I was faced with the actual choice of whether to accept being drafted or not, my thinking while facing that possibility remained active for me. At a certain point, I did find clarity and realized that I could not participate in war. I was helped by some writing by Schaeffer’s close colleague Os Guinness (Guinness was not himself a pacifist, but drawing on Jacques Ellul he had a good critique of revolutionary violence). Before long, I discovered Mennonite peace theology, especially the writings of Millard Lind, Norman Kraus, and John Howard Yoder. They helped me read the Bible as a peace book, but initially I did not question my commitment to inerrancy.
Losing inerrancy
Ironically given Schaeffer’s commitment to inerrancy, the movement in my thinking that followed my encounter with his ideas prepared me to read critically the bestselling polemical case in favor of inerrancy by Harold Lindsell called The Battle for the Bible. After all, we should embrace our questions and demand truthful answers. It has been over 40 years since I read that book, so I don’t remember the details. But I do remember the impact the book had on me.
Lindsell was a prominent American evangelical leader, and he wrote his book to raise the alarm about the problem of evangelicals accepting a weakened view of biblical authority. When I started the book, I was assuming I would agree with Lindsell. When I finished, I realized that I did not. I was offended by his sharp, and often unfair, criticisms of people that I respected. Even more, when faced with his actual rationale for the inerrancy position, I realized that it was a deeply flawed argument.
The one example I remember is how, in arguing that the gospels all agree with each other, Lindsell proposed that the rooster that crowed when Peter denied he knew Jesus after Jesus’s arrest actually crowed five times—even though the different stories all say that it crowed just one time or two times. Lindsell’s point was that the only way to believe that each mention of the crowing in the different gospels was totally accurate was to conclude that each mention referred to a different crowing. That struck me as an unbelievable, and unnecessary, argument. Why couldn’t we simply accept that the precise details weren’t, and didn’t need to be, accurate?
Several of my close friends were on a similar path in their theological journeys, both in terms of affirming pacifism and of seeing major problems with the doctrine of inerrancy. So, for the next several years we read and talked about these issues. I was also able to take a summer school class from a prominent evangelical theologian, Clark Pinnock, who was working through his own departure from the strict, conservative doctrine of scripture.
As it turned out, the deconstruction of my belief about inerrancy was relatively painless and led to a greater appreciation of the message of the Bible. Whereas, during my fundamentalist years I had struggled to find the Bible interesting and relevant, after losing inerrancy and affirming pacifism, I started to love reading and studying the Bible.
I spent an eventful school year (1980-1) at what was then called Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Indiana. Several classes taught by Millard Lind (Old Testament), Willard Swartley (New Testament), Gertrude Roten (New Testament), and John Howard Yoder (Peace Theology) were of enormous value in helping me to reconstruct a much more vital and truthful understanding of the Bible—one that centered on the stories and broad teachings in the Bible and decentered doctrine about the Bible as the key issue.
I was not taught that the Bible is “errant.” Rather, I was taught that “inerrancy” vs. “errancy” is not a helpful question. We should recognize the Bible for what it is—an ancient collection of a wide variety of writings, written by human beings for edification and for guidance to faithful living. Our interest in the Bible is not about looking for an absolute, never erring blueprint that tells us exactly what to do and think. Rather, our interest in the Bible is about looking for help in our own faithfulness. It’s a great, human, humane, historically conditioned collection that has time after time provided such help.
In the years that followed, through a ten-year stretch of pastoral ministry where I preached most Sundays (over three hundred times working through much of the Bible), my several years completing a PhD in Christian Ethics (which involved a major focus on reading the Bible as a resource for ethics), and twenty years as a college theology professor (including every year teaching “Biblical Theology of Peace Justice”), I became ever more interested in the Bible and ever more convinced of its value as a flawed but powerful guide for embracing the sacredness of life (see my Peace Theology website for many of the writings from these years).
What is the Bible for?
What matters most about the Bible, I have come to believe, is its witness to Jesus’s command to love God and neighbor. The Bible witnesses to this call by telling a story—a bunch of stories, of course, but stories that fit together (loosely!) in pointing to one great story. This one great story tells of God’s love that created us all with the freedom to resist that love, that remains committed when we do resist, and that continues to persuade us to trust in that love and find healing.
The Bible tells about the challenges of living here and now, in history, with genuine human sorrows and joys, failures and successes, struggles and moments of peace. The Bible has become for me a source of encouragement but also something to be questioned and argued with. Something truly human in the best sense of that term. A source for genuine conversation.
The Bible is truthful, then, in the second sense that I discussed in my opening to this post. It is a source that opens us up to other truths, that helps us find points of connections with other stories that also point to the sacredness of life and healing amidst brokenness. The Bible matters because of how it helps us interpret God’s self-disclosures that come to us in all of life. We understand the big story of the Bible, and the various little stories, as helping us discern how God communicates, what God communicates, and why God communicates.
[The “Theological Memoirs” series of blog posts]

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

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Revelation for post-Christians: Peaceable Revelation #1

Ted Grimsrud—June 27, 2019
Let’s imagine a bright, compassionate, spiritual-not-religious churchgoer—I’ll call him “Justin.” “Justin” is a person who grew up in a fairly traditional Christian home. He experienced church as a relatively benign part of his life, though he never took the belief system very seriously. He got married fairly young to someone with a similar background, became a schoolteacher, and had a couple of kids. He’s politically progressive and likes hanging around with like-minded people.
“Justin” would not necessarily call himself a Christian—he’s repulsed by the current expression of popular conservative Christianity with its support for Trump. But he also wouldn’t call himself an atheist and he is comfortable being active in his local congregation. We could say he’s a “post-Christian” (in distinction from anti-Christian atheist, secular humanist, or even unaffiliated agnostic). What would you expect that “Justin’s” attitude about the book of Revelation would be?
If he has given it any thought, I would assume that “Justin” would think Revelation is pretty bad. He wouldn’t feel any obligation to give it the benefit of the doubt because he has no loyalty to each book in the Bible as inherently authoritative and normative. He may know about how Revelation is used as predictive prophecy by conservative Christians to, for example, justify blind support for Israel’s vicious policies toward Palestinians. He also may know that Revelation is often cited as a basis for belief in a near future terrible “Tribulation” that will lead to great punitive judgment for most of the world—and the miraculous rescue in the Rapture of conservative Christians. All this seems quite repulsive to “Justin,” and he has no reason to doubt that these views are an accurate interpretation of Revelation itself.
I would like to invite “Justin” to give Revelation a chance. I think there are good reasons for post-Christians (as well as pre-Christians and current Christians!) to look to Revelation for hopeful and inspiring guidance. I will sketch a few of those in this post, recognizing that a positive appreciation of Revelation is a learned disposition—and one that requires some nuanced reading. I can only be suggestive in the short space I have allotted myself here, and point to further explanations I have given elsewhere.
Revelation is not predictive prophecy
It is a misreading of the book of Revelation to see it as containing accurate predictions about the future that was far off when it was written. Like the other books in the Bible, Revelation was written in a specific historical moment with the intent of speaking to people in that moment. John, the author of Revelation, wrote to a group of seven congregations in the eastern part of the Roman Empire with the intent to help give them encouragement to live free from blind obeisance to Rome.
John drew on various images from the Bible (our Old Testament) and elsewhere to present an imaginative retelling of the story of Jesus and a challenge to his readers to live like Jesus did—“faithful witness” to the path of love and compassion, willingness to resist the call by the Empire to fall in line with its anti-human practices, and trust in being vindicated by the God of love and compassion. That is, John was deeply concerned with humane living in his inhumane social context. His focus was totally on his present.
John practiced the art of prophecy as “forthtelling” in challenging his readers with a restatement of the core truths of their tradition that were expressed by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus. His only nod toward prophecy as “foretelling” was not to set out a schema of far future events that would signal the coming final massive catastrophe that would usher in New Jerusalem. Rather, John did foretell of negative consequences in the near future should his readers continue to accept Rome’s definitions of reality. The Empire will self-destruct and those who trust in its ways will likely go down with it.
However, this nod toward “foretelling” was in the mode of what we could call “futurology,” the effort to project what the near future will hold based on an understanding of present day trends and trajectories. In the prophetic mode, this looking ahead was not for the purpose of guessing at what the future actually would bring but for the purpose of challenging people to follow the moral path that Jesus established.
In contrast, the type of looking to the future we could call “fortune telling” (which is characteristic of future-prophetic theology widespread among conservative Christians) where certain events are set in stone in a deterministic way and only those with special insights can know about these “signs of the times” is actually presented in the Bible as deeply problematic. Future prophetic “soothsayers” were generally condemned in the Bible as trafficking in magic and as the enemies of the true prophets.
In general, reading Revelation as future predictive prophecy requires reading it in little pieces that are stitched together with other little pieces from elsewhere in the Bible (for example, the term “antichrist” is never found in Revelation, it comes from the letters of John in the New Testament, nor is the notion of the “rapture,” which is extracted from a cryptic reference in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians—both of these terms from outside of Revelation are then linked with texts within Revelation to create the current speculative understandings that have become poorly supported doctrines). As with the rest of the Bible, we read Revelation much more authentically when we read it as a book, focus on the interior developments within the book, and try to discern their meaning in relation to the context of the book’s original writing.
What Revelation actually is about
The book of Revelation itself gives us clear clues about its intended meaning. It begins with a strong statement of focus—“the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1), meaning an account that will illumine the meaning of Jesus’s life and death and its relevance for living faithfully in the context of the late first century Roman Empire. This Jesus is described in the early verses of the book (1:3-5) as “the faithful witness” (an allusion to Jesus’s life of active love and resistance to the domination system in service to the vision of life articulated by Torah and the prophets, a life that ended with murderous violence by the Empire), “the firstborn of the dead” (an allusion to God’s vindication of Jesus’s way of life when God raised Jesus from the dead and repudiated the judgment the political and religious leaders had placed on Jesus), and “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (a surprising reference that will require the rest of the book to unpack—in fact we could see this third characteristic of Jesus here as pointing us to the task of discerning what the meaning of such a “rule” might be, which will turn out to be the focus of the book—how does Jesus exercise this “rule”?).
Again, in harmony with the rest of the Bible, Revelation is best seen as a call to practice a certain way of life, a life of embodying the core messages of Torah, the prophets, and the teaching of Jesus. That is, Revelation challenges its readers to live faithfully. All the dramatic and fantastic allusions to plagues and empires and the evil Powers ultimately serve that challenge to a certain style of living. We have what we could call “prophetic knowledge” offered in this book—knowledge that helps in the discernment for the task of living humanely and creatively and compassionately in face of the Empire that murdered Jesus and all too often treats his followers (and all other vulnerable people) likewise.
The meaning of Jesus as “ruler of the kings of the earth” becomes clear over the course of the book. In chapters 4 and 5, we are given a vision of Jesus as the Lamb who is closely linked with the One on the throne, capable of opening the “scroll” that contains the message of the meaning of history. The Lamb may do this only because of its faithful life and self-sacrificial death. And, as a consequence, the victorious Lamb is praised by all of creation and people from throughout the world. Visions of this widespread praise are repeated in the rest the book and offer what is actually a wildly optimistic view of the fate of human life and the creation—even in face of powerful and destructive opposition from the structures and ideologies of domination. In the end, in a powerful redemptive vision we learn that the rule Jesus exercises over the kings of the earth results in their healing (even though they are portrayed prior to the end as rebelling versus God).
Ultimately, the book of Revelation does not offer an ironclad guarantee to a happy ending to history. Its author, an otherwise unknown early Christian prophet called John, was not capable of offering that kind of knowledge. Rather, what Revelation offers is a vision for how such a happy ending might be attained. The message that matters most here is a message about method. It is an echo of Gandhi’s main tactical argument: what matters are the means, not the ends. As we follow the ways of peace, we will learn where they will lead us. The means to attain New Jerusalem are following the way of Jesus, practicing compassion and restorative justice in resistance to the ways of Empire embodied by “Babylon.”
Revelation calls its readers to be “conquerors” (see the seven messages to local congregations in chapters 2 and 3). The key idea in this notion of “conquering” is given in chapter 12 where we are told that the human conquerors attain victory through the means of “the blood of the Lamb” (which the book as a whole shows us refers to the whole of Jesus’s way of life that included a willingness to persevere even to the point of death) and “the word of their testimony” (their willingness to stay on message in publicly resisting the Empire).
How Revelation speaks to “post-Christians” today
The key for understanding Revelation as being of great value for “post-Christians” today is to recognize that it may be read as having a political more than religious message. John is actually very critical of the formal churches of his day. Five of the seven he writes to face severe criticism. He would surely turn over in his grave were he to learn that Revelation (like the rest of the Bible) ultimately became a tool for the status quo (recognizing, though, that Revelation itself was always on the margins of the Bible that Christendom domesticated; it often was ignored and left to the “crazies” on the margins of the official Church). John wanted to shape the Christian movement into a vanguard of subversion and resistance in relation to the social and political status quo.
The politics of Revelation may be understood as a politics of truth telling—in contrast with the politics of deception that characterized Rome (presented in Revelation both as the “Beast” and as “Babylon”—two symbols that apply to all later great nations as well). The “truths” that matter are that the Lamb and his way are an alternative to the way of the self-aggrandizing Beast, that the economics that commodify everything—including human beings (18:11-13)—are idolatrous and death-dealing, and that persevering love stands as more powerful than coercive violence.
“Worship” in Revelation must be understood in the context of such truth telling. The visions of celebration do not find their best present-day analogy in segregated Sunday morning religiosity that reinforces the classism and racism of our modern societies. Rather, we find more appropriate analogies in various public displays of defiance, solidarity, and aspiration that people in societies around the world enact that point to alternatives to domination and to the stifling of social justice. Or in smaller, more intimate gatherings where peacemakers empower one another to break down the walls of inhumanity and exploitation.
The God of Revelation is not some autonomous, perfect being up on the sky. Rather, the God of Revelation is revealed as present in the nitty-gritty of the Lamb’s witness of healing and resistance to domination. Revelation presents the Lamb and the One on the throne as being unified in will and presence. This unity has generally been misunderstood in the history of Christendom as indicating Jesus’s divine identity as part of the Holy Trinity, abstract and otherworldly. More accurately, we may see the unity as indicating an imminent, engaged, passionate God of compassion and restorative justice.
There are images and rhetoric in Revelation that exalt its God in the highest terms. However, when we recognize that the power of God in this book is the power of persevering love that suffers rather than inflicts violence in order to conquer, we will read the exaltation materials differently. Ultimately, Revelation exalts the Lamb-like method of conquering through self-sacrifice. This is a message that post-Christians like “Justin” might well be able to rally around in a world that seems increasingly chaotic as our contemporary idols of nationalism and corporate capitalism lose their hold and we struggle to create life-affirming alternatives.
[The “Peaceable Revelation” series of blog posts]

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

Pacifism in America, part three: Making peace through service

Ted Grimsrud—June 5, 2019
 The resilient response to World War II by those few who retained their pacifist commitments insured that when the war finally ended, there would be peacemakers to devote themselves to overcoming the effects of the massive violence. As we will see, these efforts often took the shape of nonviolent direct action for social change. However, the experience of a world at war also greatly stimulated expanded works of service from pacifist groups.
The Civil Rights and nuclear disarmament movements sought directly to transform American culture through social activism. They were ad hoc uprisings made up of a variety of citizens whose energies ebbed and flowed over the time of the movements’ activities. Their significance lies in their quest, at times remarkably successful, for genuine democracy from the bottom up, based not on coercive force but on the exercise of self-determination.
Alongside these transformation-seeking movements, we should also be attentive to several long-term efforts, largely motivated by pacifist sensibilities, to work for self-determination and disarmament through acts of service. The first of these “service committees” was the American Friends Service Committee. I will also discuss two other quite different but parallel service-oriented groups, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Catholic Worker.
American Friends Service Committee
AFSC established a presence in numerous international locations during the inter-war years, but also invested significant time and money in working inside the U.S. in relief and development work during the Great Depression. AFSC leaders worked skillfully with government officials—even to the point that long-time AFSC director Clarence Pickett developed a strong working relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and through her had significant contact with President Roosevelt himself.
AFSC had links with numerous Quaker centers throughout Western Europe that had begun with the post-World War I relief work. With the rise of Nazism, these Quakers, with support from AFSC, sought to facilitate the emigration of beleaguered Jews. They met with resistance from the American and British governments, so were unable to help nearly as many people as they wanted to. But they helped some, they sounded the alarm (too seldom heeded) about the increasing danger faced by Jews, and they challenged (not successfully enough) the political structures in the U.S. to respond to this crisis.
AFSC also worked to provide alternatives for military service for draftees. With their years of work with government, Quaker leaders were uniquely situated to lead peace church efforts to shape government policy toward conscientious objectors. They worked with government officials to create and operate what became the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program in collaboration with Mennonite Central Committee and the newly created Brethren Service Committee.
As it turned out, the Friends CPS camps attracted a wide range of COs from various traditions (the Mennonite camps were populated mostly by Mennonites; and the Brethren camps had a strong Brethren identity), partly due to a disappointingly small number of Quakers who chose to be COs. Throughout the war years, AFSC leaders debated the validity of the agency cooperating so closely with the war-making government. In the end, when the government insisted that the CPS camps continue for nearly two years even after the War ended, AFSC opted out of its involvement with CPS.
As with World War I, so also in the devastating aftermath of World War II, AFSC effectively devoted extraordinary resources to relief work. This work was recognized when AFSC and its British counterpart the Friends Service Council were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their relief work in 1947. During the Cold War years, AFSC continued with its relief and development work, giving special focus to aiding victims of warfare. As had been the case since its founding in 1917, AFSC gained wide respect from various sides in these conflicts as genuinely oriented toward humanitarian aid and not political partisanship.
At the same time, within the United States, AFSC did take strong stands critical of the American National Security System. One influential AFSC publication, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, was issued in 1956 and gained wide attention for its critique of American (and Soviet) nuclearism and its articulation of an alternative vision for the international order based on “the effectiveness of love in human relations.” AFSC provided important support and leadership in the early development of the Civil Rights and nuclear disarmament movements. When the American participation in the Vietnam War grew during the mid-1960s, AFSC joined with various other long-term peace organizations (such as Fellowship of Reconciliation, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and War Resisters League) to provide organizational resources for the anti-war movement.
Throughout the Vietnam War years, AFSC worked hard at antiwar activities, provided widespread draft counseling in aiding prospective inductees who sought CO classification, worked with members of the military who sought help in dealing with their traumatic experiences, and engaged in extensive aid and development work in Southeast Asia.
During a time of intense debate, agitation, turmoil, aggressive protest, and polarizing conflicts, AFSC provided a distinctive presence. On the one hand, operating from a consistently pacifist perspective, AFSC offered a rigorous critique of American involvement in this war. This critique also included skepticism toward the various public relations efforts by American governmental officials. Yet, also drawing on its pacifist convictions, AFSC rejected the more militant and at times even violent reactions by the antiwar movement against American policies and policy-makers.
After 1975, AFSC worked hard at reconciliation efforts with the Vietnamese, actively but futilely seeking the normalization of relationships between the United States and Vietnam. AFSC also actively participated in efforts to resist American intervention in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America during the Sandinista years. Probably most controversially, AFSC has supported the Palestinian resistance to Israel.
Prominent Quaker sociologist and peace educator Elise Boulding offered this recent evaluation of the efforts of the AFSC:
“The AFSC had gone far in acknowledging kinship with and staying in relationship with groups whose lifeways differ sharply from those of middle class pacifists, groups that sometimes seek more far-reaching changes than the average pacifist feels called upon to support. This has led the AFSC into uncomfortable situations that many of us have never had to confront. Keeping a steady and loving spirit in those situations, and upholding the commitment to nonviolence requires great inner strength. Certainly the AFSC has made mistakes. But they have been the mistakes of love and concern. We can choose to stay in risk-free spaces where the purity of our pacifism is never questioned, or we can choose to move into those spaces where humanity’s growing pains are more acutely on display.”
In spite of, or perhaps in some sense because of, the messiness of its direct engagement in peacework in the midst of intense conflicts, an engagement that has certainly included remarkable and exemplary relief work but also has gone beyond relief work to attempt to address causes of conflicts and take sides on behalf of the victims of warfare (hot and cold), the AFSC has embodied a powerfully transformative ethic of servanthood. Part of the power of the AFSC surely has followed from its rootedness in a particular Christian tradition. It has certainly practiced an impressive inclusiveness both in welcoming as its workers people from a variety of religious and non-religious traditions, and in offering its services to all in need regardless of ethnicity or creed. Yet it has also remained firmly anchored within the Quaker tradition and drawn most of its support from Quaker sources.
Mennonite Central Committee
American Mennonites’ experience during World War II shaped their pacifist convictions in several important ways. The generosity Mennonites had expressed through MCC’s relief work in the 1920s was also expressed in the churches’ financial support for the CPS program. Mennonites supported their own CPSers, but their contributions also underwrote the expenses for other COs who lived in the Mennonite-operated CPS camps.
For many, CPS participation led to greatly expanded horizons. If prior to World War II, Mennonites had tended to think of their pacifist convictions primarily in terms of living faithfully as “quiet in the land” who practiced their nonresistant faith in neighborly ways in their isolated communities, as a consequence of their exposure to the wider world, many accepted the challenge to apply their convictions much more broadly after the War ended (see Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism).
This urge to apply Mennonite peace convictions more broadly led to an expanded ministry for Mennonite Central Committee. In 1940, MCC’s work was mainly focused on offering aid to impoverished Mennonites in the Soviet Union and those who had migrated from the Soviet Union to South America. Over the next several years, MCC work began in England, France, Poland, India, China, Egypt, and Puerto Rico. Immediately following the War, MCC entered seventeen more countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. MCC sought to be non-involved in partisan politics. However, in a broader sense, MCC’s work was deeply political. MCC did seek to further self-determination everywhere on earth—echoing the ideals of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter—without the use of coercive methods.
When the United States reinstated the military draft in the late 1940s, the policies concerning alternative service changed. Instead of requiring COs to take assignments in government-operated Civilian Public Service camps, nongovernmental agencies could provide assignments for COs. As well, the service was no longer restricted to North America. Consequently, during the 1950s and 1960s, MCC accepted thousands of COs performing alternative service and placed them throughout the world (see Calvin W. Redekop, The Pax Story: Service in the Name of Christ, 1951-1976).
One major impact of World War II on Mennonite young adults was an exposure to the wider society through their CPS work. For many, this exposure led to an interest in applying their pacifist convictions to problems of the day. They also tended as a consequence to have a more positive attitude both toward other peacemakers outside their Mennonite communities than had been the case in earlier generations and toward society and the state in general. The long-term, deep-seated Mennonite suspicion toward “political involvement” began to lessen.
Numerous Mennonites responded positively to Martin Luther King’s active nonviolence. For example, Guy Hershberger, the prominent author of the standard book on Mennonite peace convictions, War, Peace, and Nonresistance (1944), made an effort in the 1950s to understand King’s work and ended up as a supporter, even arranging a King visit to Goshen College, the Mennonite school where Hershberger taught.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s, led by King and inspired by Gandhi’s practice of nonviolent resistance, made a strong impact on many Mennonites. Vincent Harding, an African-American pastor for a time affiliated with Mennonites, worked closely with King and thus also helped to acquaint Mennonites with nonviolent resistance. Harding also played a major role as King’s own peace witness became more radical. He wrote the initial draft of King’s widely noticed speech, April 4, 1967, that provided a sharp critique of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
Mennonites responded much differently to the Vietnam War than they had to World War II. A Kansas Mennonite, James Juhnke, won the Democratic nomination and ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress as a peace candidate. A number of Mennonites practiced tax resistance, joined in public antiwar demonstrations (including civil disobedience), and for the first time in the U.S., some Mennonite young men refused to cooperate with the draft, choosing prison or exile in Canada over alternative service.
During the entirety of World War II, virtually no American Mennonites went to prison as draft resisters. With Vietnam, several dozen Mennonites did go to prison and numerous others exiled themselves to Canada (see Melissa Miller and Phil Shenk, eds., The Path of Most Resistance: Stories of Mennonite Conscientious Objectors Who Did Not Cooperate with the Vietnam War Draft). This resistance reflected a growing acceptance of non-Mennonite sources for war resistance such as Thoreau, Gandhi, and King. Many of these Mennonite resisters had contact with the wider anti-war movement.
Though the actual number of Mennonite draft resisters was quite small, their stance did gain the official approval of the two largest Mennonite denominations. Later, when President Carter reinstated draft registration in the late 1970s as a means to “show resolve” toward the Soviets, a number of Mennonite young men refused to register. The denominations offered support for these resisters (while not recommending that course of action for all registrants). The main governmental sanction for non-registrants has been the refusal to allow non-registrants to receive government financial assistance for college. So the Mennonite Church USA offers grants for non-registrants partially to offset that loss.
With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the focus of Mennonite peacemakers changed to several new initiatives with links to MCC, as well as continued relief and development work. MCC had earlier established a “Peace Section” to further reflection on peace issues in light of Mennonite theology and a “Washington Office” to aid in listening to federal political issues and to provide a base for witnessing to legislators. Early in the history of the Washington Office, MCC facilitated testimony to Congress by various MCC workers who had served in Vietnam during the war years.
The Catholic Worker
World War II changed everything for the Catholic Worker movement. Dorothy Day and her closest colleagues remained resolute in their opposition to all warfare, even in the face of strong support for the War among their main constituencies. As a whole, Catholics supported the War at least as strongly as the wider American population. During the war years, support for the Catholic Worker shrank drastically. Numerous houses of hospitality had to close due to lack of support and circulation for the Catholic Worker newspaper dropped to a fraction of its prewar numbers.
However, the Catholic Worker’s costly pacifist stance became a foundation for the expansion of Catholic peace activism in the following generation. Two Catholic converts helped shape the Catholic Worker peace witness in the Cold War years. Robert Ludlow, a World War II CO, wrote about Gandhian nonviolence in the Catholic Worker, presenting it “as a potential substitute for war and as ‘a new Christian way of social change.’” Ammon Hennacy, a World-War-I-socialist CO and a lifelong political radical, joined with the Worker and pushed the group to more direct engagement in peace activism.
Dorothy Day herself made the news beginning in 1954 for being arrested due to her refusal to participate in legally mandated civil defense drills—participation that she believed implied an acceptance of American nuclear weapon policies. This was the first step in what has since become a long tradition of Catholic pacifist civil disobedience.
With Catholic Worker urging, Pax Christi, an international Catholic peace group founded by French and German Catholics in 1945, established an American branch in 1962—notable for bringing together pacifists and non-pacifists. Two years later, a new group with an overt pacifist commitment also got underway—with the intent of complementing the work of Pax Christi. The Catholic Peace Fellowship, with strong Catholic Worker connections, affiliated with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The FOR connection signaled a new—and permanent—bridging of distance between Catholic pacifists and organized Protestant pacifism (see Peter Brock and Nigel Young, Pacifism in the Twentieth Century).
Another inspiration for American Catholic peace activism was the brief, transformative papacy of John XXIII. John convened Vatican II that moved Catholics into the twentieth century. Shortly before he died, John issued the encyclical Pacem in Terris, a call for peace that made it possible for “good Catholics” to begin to consider pacifism as an officially acceptable option. At the Vatican II council, two Americans, well known Trappist monk Thomas Merton and a lay theologian, James Douglass, lobbied for pacifism. Both men helped to shape the further development of American Catholic pacifism.
Merton, a prolific writer read far beyond Catholic circles, advocated for Gandhian nonviolence and sharply critiqued America’s war in Vietnam. While Merton’s understanding of peacemaking continued to develop, his conviction about “the essentially nonviolent character of the Christian message” remained firm. He believed that nonviolent tactics were always best in responding to evil and oppression. Douglass, also a prolific writer, had a major impact as a creative antiwar activist—most notably with his Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action near Seattle in the 1970s and 1980s. Douglass’s writings, beginning with The Non-Violent Cross in 1968, broke important ground in catholic theology by presenting Jesus as a nonviolent revolutionary.
The names most commonly associated with Catholic resisters to the Vietnam War are Daniel Berrigan and his younger brother Phil (see Murray Polnar and Jim O’Grady, Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Life and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Brothers in Religious Faith and Civil Disobedience). Both were priests, and they collaborated with close colleagues to perform a series of acts of civil disobedience beginning in 1968 that stretched Catholic peace concern to new extremes.
The Berrigans had close connections with the Catholic Worker, FOR, and Catholic Peace Fellowship. They valued Merton’s writings highly and drew deeply on Jesus’ teachings (more than on the Catholic natural law tradition). Their additional step was to perceive a calling to go so far in their protests as to destroy government property. They believed, though, that such protests remained consistent with nonviolence—even as they burned draft board files or despoiled them with demonstrators’ blood. In face the of the horrendous war they were ready to become “criminals for peace.”
The Catholic resistance sustained its activities—moving after the end of the Vietnam War to anti-nuclear activism and involvement in the sanctuary movement that resisted American intervention in Central America. Philip Berrigan especially received prison sentences on many occasions. He worked closely with Catholic Worker communities, which had retained a thoroughly pacifist witness after Dorothy Day’s death in 1980.
The influence of Catholic pacifists became so extensive by the early 1980s that they played a major role in the writing and discussion of the American Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on nuclear war, The Challenge of Peace (see Philip J. Murnion, Catholics and Nuclear War: A Commentary on The Challenge to Peace, The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Letter on War and Peace).
The letter did not fully embrace pacifism. However, to an unprecedented degree it affirmed pacifism as a fully legitimate option for Catholic Christians. Notably, at this time several American bishops did publicly express thoroughgoing pacifist convictions—including the influential bishop of Seattle, Raymond Hunthausen, who worked closely with James Douglass and the Ground Zero Community. Hunthausen and the other pacifist bishops also cited Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker as an important influence along with the writings and witness of Thomas Merton.
[This post is part of a series of posts on the history of pacifism in the United States adapted from the third section (“Alternatives”) of Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy (Cascade Books, 2014). Here is a list of the posts in the series:

The roots of war resistance
Pacifism in face of the “good war”
Making peace through service
The role of pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement
Opposing war and warism
Civil society and peacebuilding

Check out this link for more on that book: The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters.]

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

Pacifism in America, part one: The roots of war resistance

Ted Grimsrud—May 31, 2019
The United States has an extraordinarily ambivalent legacy when it comes to war and violence. On the one hand, we originated, in the view of many, as the victor in a war of rebellion against the British Empire; we have engaged in war and after war throughout our history; we are the only country ever to drop a nuclear weapon on another country; and now we are the world’s one “superpower” that spends more on its military than virtually all the other countries in the world combined.
Yet, on the other hand the United States has a long legacy of peace movements, acceptance of the rights of conscientious objectors, and the development of philosophies of nonviolent social action. The US from its early years provided a home for members of the “historic peace churches” and provided them a largely persecution free home in contrast to many other places in the world that had driven pacifists out.
I recently listened to an interesting series of podcasts on the history of nonviolence that reminded me of much of the peace legacy in the US. The third season of “The Thread” focused on the history of nonviolence. In six episodes, the series discussed key figures in that “thread,” moving backwards from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Bayard Rustin to Mohandas Gandhi to Leo Tolstoy to William Lloyd Garrison. There are many details in this series that I could nitpick about, but overall I found it interesting and inspiring—and I would recommend it.
One inspiration that emerged for me was to post some things I have learned about this history. I will share some thoughts in several installments about the history of pacifism in America, starting today with background to the emergence of pacifist opposition to World War II—opposition that obviously had little impact on the execution of that war but that planted seeds for a number of significant efforts to oppose war and injustice nonviolently in the decades that followed.
The early generations
From colonial times, the population of North American has always included significant numbers of people who by conviction believed they could not participate in war. These pacifists varied in how they believed those convictions should be applied to public policy, some actively engaged in seeking for governments to repudiate warfare, others focusing their energies primarily on encouraging those within their own faith communities to refuse to participate.
Pacifism established itself in the North American colonies when the British government granted William Penn, a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), a charter to establish the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682 (see Peter Brock, The Quaker Peace Testimony, 1660-1914). The Friends had emerged as a distinct movement in Britain in the mid-1650s under the leadership of George Fox. Fox combined a close adherence to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount with a mystical sense of the presence of God’s Spirit in the believer’s heart, in the hearts of all other human beings, and in the broader creation.
The combination of placing the highest priority on the message of Jesus with the belief in the active work of the Spirit throughout the world inspired many Friends to affirm at the core of their faith the belief that all human relationships should be characterized by compassion, respect, and mutuality. This belief led them to repudiate warfare as a way for human beings to settle their differences.
In its early years, the colony of Pennsylvania operated under the leadership of people who were part of the Society of Friends. The colony sought to establish peaceable relationships with the Natives who were living within its borders. The colony also saw itself as a haven for other religious dissenters who shared similar values as the Friends, thereby becoming a pioneering political community that practiced genuine religious freedom and did not center its policies on the sword.
From the start, the colony of Pennsylvania lived with significant tensions between the ideals of its Quaker leadership and the realities of the broader colonial enterprise in North America not shaped by those values. In time, the numbers of colony residents who were not Quakers (or those of similar convictions) grew much larger than the population of Friends. In the face of growing conflicts with Natives in the western part of the colony, the Friends relinquish their leadership role by 1756.
During these 75 years, though, Pennsylvania became home not only for Quakers, but also a haven for a few other sizeable pacifist groups, most notably Mennonites and Brethren. The Mennonite tradition actually predated the Quakers by about 130 years. Its origins lay in the Swiss Reformation, specifically in Zurich. In 1525, a group of supporters of the early Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli set off on their own due to differences with Zwingli over the place of secular government in determining the types of reforms the church would pursue. The issue that came to the surface in this split was baptism—the “Brethren” became known as “Anabaptists” (re-baptizers) due to their rejection of infant baptism. To reject infant baptism was also to reject the entire institution of the state church and the assumption that church membership equaled national citizenship.
Presaging key Quaker convictions, the early Anabaptists took Jesus’ direct teachings as the center focus for their beliefs and practices, especially as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. From very early, for most of the Anabaptists, the teaching of Jesus concerning love of enemies and turning from the sword led to a principled pacifism (see Gerald J. Mast and J. Denny Weaver, Defenseless Christianity: Anabaptism for a Nonviolent Church). Over the next several decades following the first Anabaptist baptisms in 1525, the beliefs about non-participation in war became one of the convictional pillars for these radical Christians. As the movement gained a strong foothold in Holland, a former Catholic priest named Menno Simons became an important leader, and ultimately most of the various Anabaptist groups took his name—“Mennonites.”
The Mennonites faced generations of harsh persecution in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. Though Mennonite groups remain in those countries, many communities and individuals migrated to locales that offered them safety—including the Pennsylvania colony beginning in 1683. The state of Pennsylvania remains today the home of the largest concentration of Mennonite communities in the United States.
Early in the 18th century, a new movement arose in Germany, deeply influenced by Anabaptist convictions but remaining a distinct fellowship. Members of this emerging movement, numbering only in the dozens, migrated en masse to Pennsylvania not long after their emergence and in North America took the name Church of the Brethren. The Brethren, like the Mennonites and Quakers, had as one of their defining characteristics belief in non-participation in war. During the last few decades of Quaker rule in Pennsylvania, the Brethren and Mennonites offered what support they could—and welcomed the freedom to practice their faith (including the open commitment to pacifism).
Members of all three groups (sometimes called the Historic Peace Churches) in time moved to the west and south from Pennsylvania, establishing communities in other colonies. The war that marked the American colonies effort to break free from British control proved difficult for Peace Church members, and a number migrated to Canada to avoid the conflict. By and large, though, the pacifism of Peace Church members was respected by government and they were allowed to avoid military involvement. Their presence was significant enough that James Madison, in an early draft of the Bill of Rights following the Revolution, included a provision establishing the constitutional right for conscientious objection in the face of war. Ultimately, this right was not granted. As a consequence, those seeking provisions of conscientious objection in face of the military draft have continually needed to request that Congress include provisions for COs in the draft legislation.
The 19th century: The first peace societies and total war
In the early 19th century, the United States, the world’s pioneering democracy, became the home of numerous citizens’ groups, established for numerous reasons—some having to do with social justice, some with education, some with various other civic issues. In this ferment of activity, the world’s first non-denominational peace societies were formed (see Peter Brock, Radical Pacifists in Antebellum America).
These early peace societies were notable for a couple of reasons. They signaled the spread of explicit convictions about rejection of warfare beyond the Peace Churches (a significant potion of those engaged with the peace societies were Quakers, but many were not). These may be the first organizations in the world with the specific purpose of furthering political opposition to war as an instrument of state policy. As well, some elements of this small peace movement connected with some elements of the much larger anti-slavery movement. Prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was an outspoken pacifist as well and sought to hold the two movements together.
The peace societies remained small. As the abolitionist movement grew in strength and conflicts over the issue of slavery increased, the peace societies shrank even more and eventually more or less died out. Garrison himself struggled with the growing tensions between his desire for an end to slavery and his opposition to warfare. In the end, he never explicitly endorsed the Civil War, but his abolitionist convictions led him tacitly to accept the Civil War as an appropriate tool for achieving the end of slavery.
During the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy imitated practices Napoleon had initiated half a century earlier and formally conscripted young males into their militaries. In the Union, the prominence of the Quakers especially led Congress to make provisions for conscientious objection. These provisions were somewhat ad hoc, the process did not satisfy either the Peace Church communities nor those who opposed conscientious objection altogether. However, those whose convictions led them to reject participation in warfare in principle were generally able to avoid fighting (see Lillian Schlissel, ed., Conscience in America: A Documentary History of Conscientious Objection in America, 1757-1967). And precedents were set that would inform future confrontations between principled pacifists and a warring American government.
The turn toward warism and the pacifist response
Following the Civil War the United States government did not decide put together a large military for about half a century. During that time, pacifist beliefs, especially among the Peace Churches, continued to be taught. However, without the test of actually facing the challenge of wars, the strength of the convictions likely weakened. In the broader society, some peace interests found expression in the emerging awareness of the need for strengthened international safeguards to provide alternatives for overt warfare, such as mediation and arbitration. This awareness was not generally linked with full pacifism.
The U. S., in general, continued to have the self-image of remaining aloof from “foreign military entanglements”—with the key exception of the decision by the McKinley administration at the end of the 19th century to enter the imperial age via the Spanish-American War and the subsequent annexation of several pieces in the former Spanish Empire, most notably the Philippines (which involved a clandestine war that left hundreds of thousands of Filipinos and as many as 30,000 Americans dead). The Spanish-American War and its aftermath did lead to the emergence of anti-imperialist sentiment in the United States, sentiment that shortly would help fuel opposition to American participation in what came to be known as World War I.
As the nations of Europe started moving toward major conflicts, engendered in part by greatly expanded military spending, Americans tended to assume that the U.S. would remain neutral. Americans had a long tradition of noninvolvement in European wars. However, President Woodrow Wilson, elected in 1912, had strong connections with Great Britain. After the formal war in Europe began in 1914, Wilson moved ever closer to a commitment to join the British and French. Finally, in 1917, the Americans took the big step and for the first time entered into a war in Europe as a formal belligerent.
The American entry into the war came after three long years of mostly devastating impasse between the two warring sides in Europe. Historians still don’t fully agree on the significance of the American involvement. Certainly, this involvement was brief, since the war ended in November 1918. The general consensus now seems to be that the American entry actually did play a major role, certainly at the least helping the Germans see that they simply did not have the resources to continue the war of attrition that the conflict had evolved into.
This brief experience with such a massive war served as a wake-up call for many peace-oriented Americans. As with the Civil War, draft legislation was passed and did make allowance for conscientious objectors, but in ways that were highly objectionable for many Peace Church people and other pacifists. Around 50,000 draftees claimed CO status. However, the policy required all those inducted to go into the military. Only then, as members the military, could the prospective COs seek to make their case. Their fate would be determined by military officials. Not surprisingly under these circumstances, over 80% of those who had originally sought CO status gave up and became regular soldiers.
The immensity of the war led to the formation of several important pacifist organizations during the war years or the time shortly after the end of the war. Four in particular will play major roles in the story of war resistance during the century to follow. Two of these groups were linked with specific peace church denominations—the American Friends Service Committee and the Mennonite Central Committee. The other two sought a much wider membership—the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resisters League.
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was formed just as the United States entered the war in 1917 (see Marvin R. Weisbord, Some Form of Peace: True Stories of the American Friends Service Committee at Home and Abroad). With the draft legislation, the Quakers desperately sought to find alternative forms of service that pacifist young men could perform as an alternative to going to war. By this time, the devastation in Europe was clear and so there was no lack of need for food distribution and medical care.
The AFSC sought to communicate to potential COs and inform them of the possibilities for alternative service and to garner the military’s acceptance of these alternatives. As the war ended fairly soon after the Americans joined, the AFSC programs barely got started. The most successful program was service in war zones as medics and ambulance drivers.
With the end of the war, American Quakers concluded that the work of AFSC would continue to be needed, especially immediately in postwar repair work. AFSC played a major role in the distribution of food in many parts of Europe, saving millions of lives. The AFSC also understood that part of their needed work would be to seek to revive awareness of the Quaker peace testimony for younger people. Many Quakers believed they had not been as prepared as they should have been for responding to the war when it arose. They saw a need to help their young men understand the Quaker peace testimony and respond to the war in light of it.
Many Mennonites also felt they were unprepared for this massive war when it came. In the aftermath of the war, they began to seek ways to help some of those who suffered the most from the war’s consequences. Mennonites tended to focus their energies on their own communities. One large Mennonite community with ties to many North Americans was the Mennonite community in the newly established Soviet Union.
So, North American Mennonites created a new organization to bring together Mennonites from their various branches into one “Mennonite Central Committee” (MCC) for the purpose of offering aid to the severely traumatized Mennonites in Eastern Europe, especially Mennonites suffering famine in the Ukraine. After a burst of activity offering aid to the Russian Mennonites, MCC remained relatively dormant for a number of years. World War II provided the catalyst for the reinvigoration of MCC, both as the central agency that would work with the U.S. government in providing for alternative service for COs and, more importantly in the long run, as the arm for the North American communities to provide a wide range of relief, development, and peace education and advocacy work (see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America).
The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) had its origins among British pacifists (mostly Quakers) during World War I who issued a public statement making an explicitly Christian case for rejection of warfare. The FOR was formed in Britain in December 1914. An American FOR began in November 1915, and the International FOR was formed in 1919 (see Paul R. Dekar, Creating the Beloved Community: A Journey with the Fellowship of Reconciliation).
In its early years, the FOR drew its membership from four groups—many Quakers, Protestant Christians influenced by the Social Gospel movement that had emerged at the turn of the century (and was not itself committed to pacifism), participants in another new organization called the Young Men’s Christian Association, and participants in the women’s movement that had coalesced around the voting issue (another parallel organization with many members in common with the FOR that was formed at this time was the Women’s League for International Peace and Freedom).
The FOR grew rapidly following World War I, becoming the gathering place for many people who became disillusioned with war because of the less than satisfactory outcome of the Great War. Many leaders in American Protestant denominations (especially Methodist, Congregational, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian) affiliated with the FOR, giving it a prominent place in ecumenical interactions (see Joseph Kip Kosek, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy).
Many pacifists during World War I and its immediate aftermath found themselves desiring an organization that would be more open to non-Christians than the FOR was in its early years. With the FOR’s blessing, an FOR member, Jessie Wallace Hughan established a new organization in 1921 initially called the Committee for Enrollment Against War. Over the next few years, the term “War Resisters League” (WRL) came increasingly to be used, and by 1923 was the group’s official name.
The WRL focused on providing moral support and guidance for people who had come to reject warfare in principle—especially people who did not have strong connections with religious communities. From near its beginning, the WRL’s declaration stated, very briefly, its core conviction: “War is a crime against humanity. I, therefore, am determined not to support any kind of war, international or civil, and to strive for the removal of all the causes of war” (see Scott H. Bennett, Radical Pacifism: The War Resisters League and Gandhian Nonviolence in America, 1915-1963).
The other pacifist group that will play a major role in the story of pacifism in America also began in the aftermath of World War I, but in quite a different milieu. This entity, the Catholic Worker Movement, essentially got its start with just two people, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. They were Catholic lay people, Day a young adult convert and Maurin a French immigrant. The two met in the early 1930s in New York City, found themselves to be kindred spirits—Day deeply influenced by Marxism, Maurin by Franciscan personalism—with a deep concern for caring for suffering people in the depths of the Great Depression.
They began publishing a newspaper called The Catholic Worker and established houses of hospitality modeled somewhat after rescue missions but without the coercive religiosity. Day became the main leader for the movement. She felt it was essential for the Catholic Church to be involved in caring ministries that would provide a basis for a nonviolent kind of revolution in a time with much ferment in favor of not so nonviolent revolutions. So she sought to work closely with the Church and always endeavored to remain in positive relationships with the hierarchy.
Day’s theology remained fairly simple. She drew most centrally on the gospels (much more so than from Catholic natural law moral philosophy). From the beginning of her work with the Catholic Worker, she articulated a strong gospels-centered pacifist commitment. She insisted that the Movement as a whole be pacifist—especially as represented in the newspaper. Because of the obvious fruitfulness of the Worker’s service-oriented ministry, many Catholics, including bishops and cardinals, provided support and the Movement expanded greatly during the 1930s (Mel Piehl, Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in America).
During the difficult years of the Great Depression in the 1930s and the rise of the war clouds that were soon to burst forth, these various strands of pacifist conviction in the United States grew stronger. As it turned out, they ended up in largely a defensive mode during the years of World War II (1941-5), but though each one faced a great deal of stress they emerged strongly committed to the way of peace and ready for positive action.
[This post is part of a series of posts on the history of pacifism in the United States adapted from the third section (“Alternatives”) of Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy (Cascade Books, 2014). Here is a list of the posts in the series:

The roots of war resistance
Pacifism in face of the “good war”
Making peace through service
The role of pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement
Opposing war and warism
Civil society and peacebuilding

Check out this link for more on that book: The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters.]

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

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

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