Month: April 2011

[Book Review] Reasoning Together: A Conversation About Homosexualiy / by Ted Grimsrud and Mark Thiessen Nation

Reasoning Together brings two Mennonite theologians, Ted Grimsrud and Mark Thiessen Nation, into dialogue on an issue they disagree over – homosexuality. For Nation, the Bible’s witness on the issue is clear: homosexual acts are sinful; sex should only occur in the context of marriage between a man and a woman. For Grimsrud, to follow Jesus means to be on the side of the liberation of the oppressed – including homosexuals. This means the burden of proof is placed on the other side to prove that homosexual sex within the context of a same-sex marriage is wrong. For a number of reasons, he believe this burden is not discharged – particularly, the few passages which talk of homosexuality do not envisage homosexuality as an orientation nor do they refer to same-sex marriage.

The conversation moves around a lot, returning to several key points which are never fully resolved as the two writers respond to each others’ cases. How are we to conceptualise homosexuality? The contrast between the metaphors Nation and Grimsrud use is central to the debate. Aware of the offence it will cause – and pained by it – Nation conceptualises homosexuality as a disability, like blindness. For him, it is something that means a person is not functioning as fully as they should be. In response, Grimsrud believes a better metaphor is left-handedness, which was once thought to be a disability, but is now seen as a neutral trait, present in a significant minority of the population.  For Grimsrud, homosexual acts are not inherently sinful – they are only sinful if practised outside a same sex marriage. A number of times he states that he does not believe Nation has made a case for the inherent sinfulness of homosexual sex.

The two interpret Jesus’ silence on homosexuality in opposite ways. Does it mean that Jesus endorsed the Jewish status quo, regarding homosexual acts as sinful? In this view, it was a presumption that didn’t even need mentioning. Or does his silence mean that we shouldn’t prohibit what he did not prohibit?

The opening chapter of the book is an excellent and evenhanded survey by Grismrud of the ‘restrictive’ and ‘inclusive’ cases within Christian ethics. Both writers also supply an annotated bibliography listing what they see as the key resources.

While always respectful, each of them seem frustrated with the other at different points. Perhaps this means they are being honest. On a number of points, they are just not even able to arrive at a common definition from which they can depart. Nation thinks Grimsrud overstates the importance of hospitality in the biblical narrative – it is not the only emphasis. Grimsrud thinks Nation fails to prove the inherent sinfulness of all homosexual acts. Nation thinks the meaning of the scriptures is essentially settled and inclusivists like Grimsrud are trying to avoid the obvious. The book sums up the present debate well from an Anabaptist perspective, and shows what a divisive and difficult issue it is, while also offering an example of respectful if robust conversation.

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[Book Review] Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution / John Yoder

Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution
John Howard Yoder; Theodore J. Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker, editors.  Brazos Press, 2009.

Reviewed by Nathan Hobby.

Like Preface to Theology (2003), this book is the material for a unit Yoder taught, edited posthumously. It was published in rough form as a textbook for students taking his unit. The students who had access to this original publication for decades before the rest of us were very fortunate. This book is longer than anything else ever published by Yoder and is a significant work. It is a historical survey, tracing in Yoder’s refreshing and provoking way the attitudes of Christians toward war, peace and revolution through the centuries.

For me, the book is a lesson in the importance of history, a testament to the importance of knowing the history of a subject before you can claim to understand the subject at all.  In their preface, the editors’ sum up the book’s power:

In stating other perspectives in their strongest form, a surprising history unfolds. For Yoder, the history of Christian attitudes toward war and peace is clearly not a mainstream account that sees the church faithfully responding to the gospel by outgrowing its early pacifism, maturing and coming to accept responsibility, including the need to wage war. But neither is it a story of simple decline from the New Testament to the Anabaptists, as some within Yoder’s Mennonite tradition have told it. The most striking aspects of this story are the resilience through the centuries of the gospel of peace, and the abiding power of Jesus’s hold on people that invites them to imitate him in seeking peace and shunning violence. Again, and again, Yoder demonstrates, people throughout history have seen Jesus, and been drawn into the power of the cross. (p.8)

One striking example, which I’ll summarise at length as an example of Yoder’s method, is his re-reading of the Middle Ages in chapter 9, “The Peace Dimension of Medieval Moral Concern”. Yoder describes various ways in which violence and war were restrained in the Middle Ages (476-1453), and the church embodied a partial peace witness. These include:

  • Holy times and places – fighting was forbidden in certain places (cemeteries) and at certain times (Good Friday, after sunset)
  • Penitents – when a person confessed to a major offence, they might commit several months of their life around being a penitent, perhaps going on a pilgrimage as a penitent. A penitent was to be nonviolent and unarmed. ‘In the life of medieval Europe, therefore, people renouncing violence because they were Christian were a visible minority.’ (p.119)
  • Priests admonished princes when they went too far. There was an element of accountability.

Yoder argues that the shifts involved in the Reformation actually increased the church’s support of war:

Protestants have been taught to think of the Reformation of the sixteenth century as undoing the mistakes of the Middle Ages – papacy, sacraments, justification by works, and other things. But on the morality of war, our model for interpreting the Reformation has to be turned around. The Protestant Reformation goes further in the direction of making war acceptable. (115)

Yoder identifies a number of ways in which this happened:

  • The Reformation dismantled confession and penance, both of which had restrained bloodshed.
  • The Reformation desacralized the world – everything was equally holy, or equally unholy; there were no holy places or holy times to avoid bloodshed.
  • Instead of the priest admonishing the prince, the chaplain emerges: ‘In the Reformation, the Protestant chaplain increasingly gives a religious mandate to what people do, whether it is celebrating marriages or justifying causes and crusades… The preachers are the people to make the case for the next war.’ (p.119)
  • The Reformation created nationalism – wars in the Middle Ages occurred within the Roman Catholic Church. Both parties ‘were at home in the same world, had the same moral heritage, and used the same yardsticks. They had a sense of being part of a wider civilization… The Reformation broke up the unity of the church and of the empire. It set aside the notion that enemy nations and adversary institutions have a claim on us. The beginning of nationalism in the modern sense – the notion that a nation constitutes a moral unit with no accountability to a wider community or culture – is a product of the Protestant Reformation.’ (p. 120-121)

The obvious objection is the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Yoder spends a couple of pages dealing with them, but not with the same questions we have in mind, and so his explanation is not satisfactory. He looks at how the Crusades were justified by priests (and the limits – not always followed – which they placed on them) and the sense in which the Crusades were a synthesis of the holy war and the just war. He seems unaware of the damage the existence of the Crusades do to his case.

Another chapter of particular interest to me was “Pacifism in the Nineteenth Century”. The nineteenth century seems to have been so formative for the current state of the evangelical church, seeing the rise of Churches of Christ, the Brethren, Wesleyanism and just afterwards, the Pentecostal movement. Within each of these restoration and renewal movements was a seed of pacifism –  now lost. Yoder makes this astute comment about Pentecostalism:

The Pacifism and racial integration of the movement as a whole were not deeply rooted, because Pentecostals did not believe in being deeply rooted. They thought history, theology and church structures did not matter, so they had no historical consciousness from which to sense a radical ethical position in the world. (262)

Interestingly, in Yoder’s account, Pentecostalism abandoned its original pacifism firstly in order to evangelise troops in World War One. He writes, ‘By the time of World War II, they created seminaries, because military chaplaincy required a seminary degree. They did not believe in seminary for their churches, but they gave chaplains a seminary degree in order to get them into the army.’ (263)

At the end of this chapter, Yoder asks a question deeply relevant to the AAANZ today:

Should we concentrate on trying to talk with institutional churches with long-established theological positions? If we are interested in propagating a witness against violence, should we instead look to the non-traditional renewal frontier, where people do not have as many good reasons for not listening, but also will be not as profound in their support or as thorough in their appropriation if they do hear? (270)

The ‘non-traditional renewal frontier’ which comes to mind for me is the house church and emerging church movements, and it seems to me that he has anticipated their response well.

There is just so much history I didn’t know in this book. The next chapter, “Liberal Protestant Pacifism”, paints a fascinating picture of the brief flourishing of pacifism amongst the liberal Protestant mainstream in the 1920s, which came fully unstuck with World War Two. He mentions in passing (p.277) the pacifism of three evangelical/ fundamentalist heroes – Jonathan Blanchard (founder of Wheaton College), Dwight L. Moody and William Jennings Bryan (creationist villain of the Scopes Monkey trial). He says that their successors have ‘falsified’ the record because of ‘their tactical alliance with the heirs of creedal orthodoxy and social conservatism’.

The book has its origins in the 1960s and was last revised by Yoder in the 1980s. The change in context since then is apparent; it is a pity we don’t have Yoder’s thoughts on the ‘War on Terror’, the acceleration of post-Christendom and the effect of church growth and the megachurch on Christian attitudes to war and peace.  He devotes a lot of space to responding to his great sparring partner, Reinhold Niebuhr, only to write in an obviously late addition, ‘By the early 1980s, Reinhold Niebuhr is less known or read, while the analysis of which he was the classical spokesman is more and more taken for granted.’ (p.308) His comment is more true now, which makes it feel tiresome at times to read so much material in response to Niebuhr.

Yoder is never easy to read, and at 472 pages this book is mountainous. (We owe our thanks to the editors, who judiciously trimmed it from a much greater length, as well as tidying up the manuscript extensively so that it is less repetitious and makes more sense.) It helps to remember that it is the substance of a semester-long unit. But who, then, is going to read this book? How many of us are willing to commit ourselves to the equivalent of a semester-long unit (albeit without the exam or essays or extra readings) on our own? Probably not many of us. If it seems too daunting, perhaps you should buy it and read four or five chapters. Save the rest for another time.

Catching up with Yoder: An Introduction

John Howard Yoder’s ideas are catching on as the rest of the world catches up to him.

Yoder was always reframing theological conversations, insisting we had the wrong assumptions and the wrong questions. He has important things to say about who Jesus was and what it means to follow him; war and peace; what the church is; and how to do theology – as well as just about every other question. He was ahead of his time, showing the world how to do theology beyond Christendom.

His Anabaptism was not that of a withdrawn Mennonite with nothing to say to the world, but an Anabaptism which was light to the world, even and especially in the peculiarity of its life and worship.

One of the reasons I got interested in Anabaptism was through reading his book, The Politics of Jesus.

Born in 1927, Yoder was an American Mennonite. He studied under Karl Barth and over the course of his academic career, taught many different subjects within theology, but particularly social ethics. At time of his death, he was working at the University of Notre Dame.

He died of a heart attack in his office the day after his 70th birthday on 30/12/1997. In the thirteen years after his death, at least eight books have been published from posthumously edited manuscripts.

For the uninitiated, let me offer three key themes of his work which will orientate you a little for the pages which follow. If these themes seem very familiar to you, it is because they have become foundational for neo-Anabaptists like the AAANZ. They were groundbreaking when Yoder developed them.

1. The Political Relevance of a Non-Violent Jesus

  • The Romans and the Jews didn’t have it wrong when they executed Jesus for being a threat to the political order. Jesus’ non-violent love of his enemies and the rest of his teachings and life threatened the way things were by establishing a new social order—a kingdom of people living at odds with the empire.
  • It was no accident that Jesus chose a path which led to the cross. Loving our enemies even to the point of dying at their hands is the nature of the kingdom itself. As disciples, we are called to follow Jesus’ way of the cross today.

2. The Constantinian Shift

  • The church began as a minority movement, prepared to live differently to the world. High standards were expected of Christians.
  • A few centuries later, Christianity was the state religion and everyone was a Christian. High standards were no longer expected of Christians and the church’s way of life was now identical to the world’s way of life.
  • Yoder calls this shift ‘Constantinianism’, as the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity symbolises the shift.
  • The alliance between state and church over the centuries since has watered down the church and discipleship and the challenge of Jesus to the status quo has been lost.

3. The Church’s Life and Worship Embodies the Good News

  • We don’t follow the way of the cross alone. We are part of a new people, the church, which lives out the good news together.
  • The practices of the church give the world a taste of the good news of the kingdom. In the church, old enemies like Jews and Greeks are made brothers and sisters. Food is shared between the rich and poor. Spiritual gifts are poured out on both the lowly and the important. Everyone is given a voice.

There are plenty of other themes we could choose to sum up Yoder’s work. The three I chose reflect some of Yoder’s original thinking. Yet much of his important work was done in re-reading history and theology in terms of these and other themes.

He also spent a lot of time engaging in conversations in other people’s contexts and using their assumptions, in order to call them to greater consistency and to live up to the best in their own tradition. Thus, for example, in When War is Unjust, he calls people who believe in just war to live up to their own convictions and be ready to declare when a war is unjust according to just war criteria—which would probably be the case for all the wars fought since World War Two. These conversations are another valuable part of his contribution.

Yoder the Sinner

Back in December, I edited a special edition of On The Road focusing on ‘Catching up with Yoder‘, as in the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. I’ve been meaning to put up articles I wrote in it ever since, and now as the next issue of OTR is about to come out, I’m finally going to do it.

Yoder the Sinner

Our heroes let us down – even our theological heroes. Of course Yoder was a sinner. Everyone’s a sinner. But more than most of us, Yoder’s sin had public consequences. With the publication this year of Stanley Hauerwas’s memoir, Hannah’s Child, we finally have in print an account that gets specific about what Yoder did (without feeding anyone’s appetite for salacious detail). Hauerwas says that, over several decades, Yoder abused his position of power to initiate inappropriate physical contact with a number of women. It stopped short of sexual intercourse, and – most disturbingly for me – was justified to Yoder himself and the women with some convoluted theological reasoning. (p.243ff)

Yoder’s colleague Ted Grimsrud writes:

Like many others, I was shocked and struggled to make sense of it all. It was and remains difficult to hold together the profundity of Yoder’s peace theology with the allegations of pain and trauma inflicted by his actions toward numerous women.

For four years from 1992-1996 he submitted to a discipline process which included therapy, an accountability group and apologies to the women he wronged (Religious News Service, 1992). During that time, he was barred from various activities in his church. In this discipline process, the church was being true to Anabaptist teaching and Yoder’s own writings about the ‘Rule of Christ’ from Matthew 18:15-18 – a believer caught in sin who repents should be disciplined by his brothers and sisters before being restored to full fellowship. The Mennonite church took the discipline process seriously and restored Yoder to fellowship a year before his death.

What are we to do about it? Should we place an asterix next to everything he said? Forgive him and not mention it any more? Forgive him and mention it occasionally?

When we know that all of us fall short of God’s will, why are we singling out Yoder’s behaviour? Because it was sexual? Because it went on so long and involved a number of women? Because of his position?

It’s hard to know how we might even attempt to ‘downgrade’ our estimation of his work if we felt it necessary. Surely sinfulness doesn’t exactly change the strength of Yoder’s arguments or the depth of his insight? It could lead us to conclude that there is too much of a contradiction between what he wrote and what he practiced for us to take his words seriously. But that seems too strong a reaction; he was a scholar, always pointing to Jesus as our example, not to himself.

The matter is made more complex by the abuse of his public position involved in the misconduct and his  role as a teacher and writer on Christian ethics. Is there a sense in which the wider body of Christ is to forgive him and restore him to full ‘fellowship’? (But surely for us who weren’t in his local congregation, ‘fellowship’ is really only a metaphor?) Does forgiveness involve a kind of forgetting?

I haven’t answered all my questions; I can only commend Ted Grimsrud’s conclusion:

Ultimately, though, I believe that Yoder’s positive contribution to my life, the life of the Mennonite church and the life of the broader Christian church remains. His witness was compromised by his transgressions. However, we are reminded by the Apostle Paul that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Many of our great heroes have had feet of clay.

References

Ted Grimsrud, “John Yoder: A Faithful Teacher in the Church”, Peace Theology. Accessed online 20/12/2010: http://peacetheology.net/short-articles/john-howard-yoder-a-faithful-teacher-in-the-church/

Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans: 2010).

Religious News Service “Mennonite Theologian Disciplined” Chicago Tribune, 28 August 1992. Accessed online 20/12/2010: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-08-28/news/9203180387_1_john-howard-yoder-sexual-misconduct-mennonite-church .

Love Wins: A Review

Love Wins generated heated denunciations before it was even published. It is Jesus-filled, hopeful, and inspiring – and just as the conservatives warned, it points toward a (Christocentric) universalism – without quite unequivocally endorsing it.

In typical Rob Bell style, Love Wins is a generous pastoral… ramble (in the best sense) through salvation and eschatology… or ‘heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived’. He has written this book because

A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it, is in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. (4)

Bell pulls apart this idea – what qualifies you to be one of the few? Does your salvation depend on having a youth pastor ‘who relates better to the kids’ when you’re a teenager? On the missionary who is coming to bring you the good news not having a flat tyre? If we grant that God might show mercy on children (because even most conservatives find it impossible to send children to hell) who die before the age of responsibility, wouldn’t the most loving thing to do be to kill every child? (8)

Bell goes on to set out his understanding of Christian hope for eternal life (‘the life of the age to come’) and the bringing of heaven to Earth. It will require judgement, the banishing of evil and injustice. He imagines heaven as a place of ‘learning how to be human all over again’ (29), a place of soil and rewarding toil as the prophets looked forward to. He writes:

It’s not about a life that begins at death;

It’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death. (33)

 

The flipside of this is hell, which Bell says we know is true because we see it in the world today. Examining the sayings of Jesus about hell, he says that rather than talking about hell to convert pagans, Jesus ‘talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love.’ (44) Judgement, Bell says, precedes restoration; the prophet Ezekiel even has a vision of a time when God ‘will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters’ (Ezekiel 16) – the story isn’t over even for Sodom and Gomorrah (45).

Chapter 4 is called “Does God get what God wants?”, and Bell demonstrates God’s universal salvific will  – ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2). He draws on the picture of God as the shepherd seeking out the lost sheep –

The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever. (52)

Bell uses a similar style of teaching to Jesus – a lot of questions, which point in the direction of universalism, without insisting on it. He tells of no-one less than Martin Luther being open to the idea of a post-mortem opportunity for salvation; Bell goes on to ask:

And then there are others who ask, if you get another chance after you die, why limit that chance to a one-off immediately after death? And so they expand the possibilities, trusting that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God. As long as it takes, in other words. At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. (55)

As if he hadn’t tackled enough big issues, Bell moves on to suggest that God is at work in Christ everywhere, beyond the boundaries of the church. It is an inclusivist perspective, finding God at work wherever there is truth and goodness (as opposed to exclusivism) and that God’s work is through Christ (as opposed to pluralism which would see religions as independently valid) – he calls it ‘exclusivity on the other side of inclusivism’ (78).

Bell’s most confronting words come in the context of a chapter about the prodigal son’s older brother –

And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians. They don’t love God. They can’t, because the God they’ve been presented with and taught about can’t be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable. (85)

This is the god, Bell says, who loves every person so much but will eternally punish someone in hell without any hope if they die in a car accident without accepting Jesus. ‘Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?’ (85) Many Christians’ conviction that God does leads them to be secretly terrified of God. He sums up the entire book well in this passage:

When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity.

Life has never been about just “getting in.” It’s about thriving in God’s good world. It’s stillness, peace, and that feeling of your soul being at rest, while at the same time it’s about asking things, learning things, creating things, and sharing it all with others who are finding the same kind of joy in the same good world. (87)

He goes on to say that we do not need rescuing from God and his wrath; God is the one who rescues us from death, sin and destruction (89).

Bell says in the preface that there’s nothing in his book which hasn’t been taught before; the historic, orthodox Christian faith is ‘a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years’ (6). He’s right, of course, and his book popularises ideas recently presented by Gregory MacDonald in the Evangelical Universalist as well as some (but not the universalism) from Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope. But the suggestion of universal hope is not one which has been flowing in the evangelical stream, not by a long shot, and Rob Bell has become a major evangelical figure. Nineteenth century devotional writer Hannah Whitall-Smith has routinely had chapter 22 of her autobiography excised for its embrace of universalism. ‘Gregory MacDonald’ wrote under a pseudonym to protect his position at an evangelical publishing house. When conservative pastor John Piper tweeted ‘Goodbye, Rob Bell’ and sparked the pre-publication frenzy, he was surely farewelling Bell from evangelicalism. I think there are many middle of the road or slightly right of centre evangelical churches which will farewell Rob Bell, adding him to the suspicious list and no longer playing Nooma DVDs in their youth services. Of course, he is already on the suspicious list for New Calvinists, the evangelicals in the mould of John Piper. But there will also be many of Bell’s readers who have felt so blessed by his deep love of Jesus and communication of God’s love that they will stick with him, and feel both challenged and liberated by this latest book.