For anyone who is interested, I have just posted two essays in Academia.edu. (Both of them are on Bonhoeffer. One of them is the essay I had already posted here responding to Clifford Green. The other is a new essay responding to a critique by Michael DeJonge of our book as it relates to Anabaptism.) I may begin posting my more academic essays in Academia.edu all the time.
I became a Mennonite partly as a culmination of a decision I made in 1971. In October of 1971, when I turned eighteen, I became a conscientious objector. I was quite new to the Christian faith. But I had seen that the Scriptures—including my Lord—said that I was to love my enemies (which I thought should not include going to Vietnam to kill them). This set me on a trajectory. It would be years before I could name some of the implications of this very well. But I came to see this as implying two things, among others. First, my identity was to be defined centrally by being “in Christ.” Second, and related, I should not confuse this identity with being a U.S. American. They are different. (Though I also should not pretend I am not a U.S. American—as if I can be a disembodied “citizen of the planet.” I have to wrestle honestly with what it means to live out a faithful, embodied Christian identity in the midst of both a Christian community and the U.S. American culture. Recently I have often used the book by Emmanuel Katongole, Mirror to the Church, as a way to begin to name this.)
I say this simply to name what should be obvious to Mennonites—and I would suggest to all Christians—that the Supreme Court decision regarding marriage does not define marriage for us. Our understanding of marriage—like our understanding of violence and war—should be defined theologically. Though, of course, the court’s decision (and the public response) does tell us various things about our culture and country, which we should not ignore.
Furthermore, I have already seen some Christians saying that it’s good that this is now behind us; now we can focus on important matters. Well, again, nothing is behind “us,” i.e. the Church, simply because the Supreme Court has made a legal decision. But it does entail a significant change in our country as a whole—which will have far-reaching implications. I’m not sure how any of us who think about real life (or know the Scriptures or Christian Tradition well) can imagine that sex and marriage are matters of little import (or can imagine that the work of the Supreme Court relieves us of the need to attend to various and sundry matters of importance—including issues related to sex and marriage).
But what does seem true is that those who mostly ignored this set of issues can no longer do so. It is now pressed upon us in a new way.
A couple of people have asked me if I had any thoughts related to the upcoming bi-annual Mennonite Church USA convention. As I considered this I realized that I had already written two pieces that seem particularly pertinent for the resolutions on “The Status of the Membership Guidelines” and “Forbearance in the Midst of Differences.” So, I thought mostly I would reference these two, for those who are interested. But let me make a couple of other comments first related directly to the two resolutions.
From the second resolution on forbearance: “We also affirm the goodness of marriage, singleness, celibacy, sexual intimacy within a marriage covenant, and fidelity for all people, and we acknowledge that there is currently not consensus within Mennonite Church USA on whether it is appropriate to bless Christians who are in same-sex covenanted unions.”
This is one of those vacuous statements (all too typical in resolutions) that drive me crazy. You see, it seems to say something it doesn’t really say. In light of the last part of the sentence about not having a consensus on “same-sex covenanted unions” one is to have the impression that perhaps on other matters of sexual fidelity there is a consensus. But if there is it has not been named here (or not in any way that’s particularly Christian). Read carefully the words that follow “we also affirm the goodness of. . . .” Almost everyone—and I mean everyone—affirms the list given here (as expressions of personal choice). It’s like affirming peace. It’s when one gets specific (i.e. implying someone else’s personal choice is wrong) that the squirming begins.
Also from the same resolution: “The ways in which we have engaged the decades-long conflict in the church over issues related to human sexuality have diverted us from our central mission, divided us from each other and damaged the name of Christ in the world.”
I don’t doubt that there is truth in this claim, especially “the ways in which we have . . .” (though I would want to discuss what that truth is). But one of the things I fear is true is that what is being subtly implied by this statement is that (as suggested in the “Purposeful Plan”) matters related to sexual faithfulness are not only not considered a part of “our central mission” but in fact are perceived to divert us from it. This is not unrelated to another statement in the resolution which I applaud: “we affirm the centrality of Jesus Christ and the authority of Scripture.” I would have thought that, among other things, our “central mission” would include what has traditionally been called “the great commission.” (Mtt. 28.16-20) In these last words from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says that as we “make disciples of all nations” we are to know that this includes “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded.” Dallas Willard has suggested that the all-too-frequent muting of these words is “the great omission.”
And now a quote from the resolution on membership guidelines: “We hope to use the next few years in delegate assemblies to focus on the mission that draws us together rather than arguments that push us apart.”
What is this intended to imply? What is “the mission that draws us together”? (And who is going to define such a mission—in reality?) And what are those “arguments [topics] that push us apart” that are going to be avoided (with an almost forced silence)? Three years ago I wrote a piece for The Mennonite called “Naming What Unites Us.” As said above, it seems particularly pertinent for these present conversations. (About the same time I also wrote some comments for this blog on the initial version of “The Purposeful Plan.”) Since my earlier link to the published version of my essay for The Mennonite seems dead, I have copied it here, below: (more…)
In November I participated in a panel discussion on Bonhoeffer and pacifism at the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Diego. Though our book Bonhoeffer the Assassin? was not the subject of the discussion per se, it served as a reference point for much of the discussion. My paper for the panel was entitled “Eberhard Bethge & the Myth of Bonhoeffer the Assassin: Recovering a Persistently Christ-centered Ethic in a ‘World Full of Nazis.’” (For those who are interested, I am presenting an expanded version of this lecture at the Young Center for Anabaptist & Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College, in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania on Thursday, January 29, 7PM.) Clifford Green, the executive director of the seventeen volume “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition” was given the task on the panel of responding to all the papers. He has expanded his comments on our book so that they have become a review essay (Modern Theology January 2015, Vol. 31/1: 201-8). Below I offer a response to Green’s review.
Let me state the core of my response directly: there is a profound misunderstanding that is rather centrally distorting in Green’s review. Though present from the opening line, the claim is most clearly stated later: “The heart of the book is about non-killing, i.e. nonviolence, i.e. pacifism as so defined.” (205) Well, no, that is importantly not the heart of the book. Ironically, a few years ago in a lecture summarizing our book I quoted the following wonderful passage from Green’s essay on Bonhoeffer’s peace ethic:
Bonhoeffer’s Christian peace ethic is intrinsic to his whole theology. It cannot be separated from his Christology, his understanding of discipleship and the Sermon on the Mount, his way of reading the Bible, and his understanding of the gospel and of the church. It belongs to the heart of his faith. Accordingly, it cannot be reduced to a principle. It is not a discrete option on a menu of ethical ‘positions.’ It is not a separate interchangeable part that can be removed from his theology and replaced by something else called, perhaps, ‘realism,’ or even ‘responsibility’. His peace ethic is woven throughout his theology and discipleship as a whole. It can’t be removed without shredding the whole cloth.[i]
The reason I quoted these sentences is that I cannot imagine a clearer summary of the purpose of our book than this one. I specifically chose Dan Umbel and Anthony Siegrist to write their more theological chapters of the book for two reasons. First, I knew they would not make pacifism central to their chapters. And second, they both have fine theological minds and have written chapters that clearly display exactly what Green has named in the passage I just quoted. That is, they have made Bonhoeffer’s theology—especially the centrality of Jesus Christ—the subject of their chapters. I am grateful that Green affirms that the four chapters by these two men “are the strongest parts of the book” (202). And I am pleased that he says that two of my three biographical chapters provide “a generally reliable overview in concise compass” of Bonhoeffers life (201). However, then I would say that it makes no sense for Green to affirm these theological chapters and then go on to say that “the problem is that they presuppose the book’s conceptual frame, and are designed to reinforce it” (202). Of course they do. For the book is specifically intended to establish the theological coherence that Green names concisely in the passage I quoted from him. Therefore there should be a fit between the biographical sections of the book and the theological sections. This is precisely because, to quote Green again, “Bonhoeffer’s Christian peace ethic is intrinsic to his whole theology.” (more…)
Legal and Religious Considerations
J. Glenn Friesen
[Note from Mark Thiessen Nation: The following essay is not the way I would frame these issues. For that see my previous blog posts. But I believe Dr. Friesen has gone through the facts in a very careful way that is clarifying. I believe his essay, framed by an attorney, adds much to the current discussions that are underway.]
During my graduate studies in philosophy, I considered studying with John Howard Yoder. I tentatively booked an exploratory session at the seminary in early 1976. I cancelled it. Instead, preferring the ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture to The Politics of Jesus, I became a lawyer. Later, I completed a doctorate in religious studies. I continue to read Yoder’s works, particularly his later work on The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, which I like to read in conjunction and in contrast with Jewish authors like Alan F. Segal or Daniel Boyarin. Although I have a Mennonite heritage, I am not a member of any Mennonite church.
From this perspective, I have some comments concerning the discipline of Yoder by the Prairie Street Mennonite Church (Elkhart, Indiana) and by the Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church. I anticipate that some readers will not appreciate my conclusion that Yoder’s conduct was not criminal. Nor was it sexual assault. And it is anachronistic to call it sexual harassment. Others will not be happy with my conclusion that the church discipline process was itself unjust. I would ask these people to read the entire article, including the parts relating to my family history, as well as my positive comments on some ideas of feminist theologians. (more…)
As is obvious, I am not a blogger who comments regularly on happenings in the world. And I have been hesitant to break that pattern. The central reason is that a very occasional comment might give the wrong impression: as if I just care about the occasional isolated topic on which I focus. Anyone who really knew me would know otherwise. But I find myself simply too busy with the many tasks related to teaching a full load at Eastern Mennonite Seminary to comment often. But it is the case that my interests vary quite widely—even if I will comment only occasionally and thus on randomly selected topics.
I simply couldn’t pass this up. I am a regular listener to NPR (and when I am not sleeping well in the middle of the night, the BBC). I have been aware for some time that the bright and talented writers and commentators on NPR seem almost tone deaf to orthodox Christianity. Christianity is most often simply absent. When some comment is made about Christianity it is more often than not rooted in relative ignorance of the rich wealth of varied Christian traditions (or particular ones, for that matter). Or when they have a Christian on NPR, again more often than not, it is someone who is quite cynical or critical in regard to orthodox Christianity. (And I mean to refer to what I would call a generous orthodoxy. I mean nothing especially narrow by my reference.)
Anyway, it was on NPR that I heard yesterday (or the day before) about some anonymous individuals leaving large tips (sometimes $1000 or $5000 or more) for waiting staff at restaurants, anonymously. It was mentioned in the brief story that some of these tips come from an organization called “tips for Jesus.” The commentator felt compelled to add the editorial comment: “of course this is not about religion, it is simply about kindness.” (Or words to that effect. I didn’t write them down.)
On the other hand, of course, within the last week (and often) “religion” was to blame when NPR was discussing “sectarian” violence. And it was Christianity (and Western colonialism) that was being blamed for animating anti-gay laws in several African countries as I listened to an interview on the BBC last night. (Although, honesty compels me to add that the BBC interviewer kept pressing the gay Kenyan being interviewed to be honest about the fact that traditional African cultures had also opposed gay and lesbian sex, long before Pentecostals or Anglicans imported Christian views. Both seemed to miss the irony that the “universal” human rights language they were using was also, basically, a Western import.)
After I went to the trouble to read a couple of articles about “tips for Jesus,” I noticed that this anonymous donor added: “Doing the Lord’s work, one tip at a time.” Another anonymous donor said, “God sent me here to help you.” Why were these statements not quoted on NPR? Why does this not lead at least some commentator on NPR to discuss “sectarian” compassion or generosity? For after all, there is a good chance that some of these anonymous givers are members of particular churches, i.e. “sectarian” (distinct religious/Christian) groups.
George Steiner, influential literary and cultural critic said: “Even if we cannot believe that God is dead, it is clear that something has died. And that is the capacity of most of us for conducting our daily lives as if He were about, as if His existence and His interest in our affairs were fairly probable. This incapacity may have already had drastic consequences. It may be an honest explanation of the barbarism and confusion that attack our politics, and it may help to account for the turbulence in the private climate of the age.” (“God’s Acres,” The New Yorker, October 30, 1978, quoted in Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 3)
Perhaps many of us—including Christians—have trouble having a living faith in a living God because our “world” too often is defined—narrated—by those who are tone deaf to the Christian story. We need to reflect critically on what that means for how we live our lives. Perhaps we should live with the question: Who Gets to Narrate Our World?
Questioning Eberhard Bethge on Bonhoeffer & the Conspiracy
“I do not know of any reputable scholar or reader of Bonhoeffer who believes that he personally was involved in the attempts on Hitler’s life.” This is a statement I received by e-mail within the last year from a quite respected senior Bonhoeffer scholar. If he is right, I thought, then why do very many theologians, Scripture scholars and ethicists that I know think otherwise? (This would have included John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and my doctoral supervisor, James Wm. McClendon, Jr.)
I believe there are two central reasons. First, very many (mostly academic) books and essays on Bonhoeffer vaguely allude to Bonhoeffer’s “involvement” or “participation” in attempts on Hitler’s life, without specifying what this vague reference means. Second, and more significantly, I’ve come to believe that Eberhard Bethge is at the root of the myth that Bonhoeffer was both personally involved and changed his theological ethic from what was named in Discipleship, if not to justify his “involvement” at least to make it intelligible.
I am aware as I write this that it probably seems arrogant for me to question Eberhard Bethge’s interpretation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his relationship to the conspiracy. For Bethge is the authority on Bonhoeffer. After all, during Bonhoeffer’s short life Bethge was one of Bonhoeffer’s two best friends. He knew him; he was often with him; Bonhoeffer confided in him. Additionally, Bethge devoted much of his life to keeping alive the legacy of his good friend. All of us who study Bonhoeffer owe Bethge a huge debt. There is no question about that. However, having affirmed that he is clearly an irreplaceable authority on Bonhoeffer does not mean that Bethge’s interpretations of him are beyond critical examination. In fact, I imagine that critiques of Bethge’s reading of Bonhoeffer will multiply now that many more scholars have access to sixteen volumes of Bonhoeffer’s published and unpublished writings.
I first read Bethge’s massive biography of Bonhoeffer in 1980, outlining the whole book to use it in my Master’s thesis on Christians in Nazi Germany. Between then and now, I have taken two courses on Bonhoeffer. In essays published in 1991 and 1999, I explored Bonhoeffer’s pacifism. However, it was only much more recently, after doing substantial research on the attempts on Hitler’s life as they relate to Bonhoeffer’s biography, reading Sabine Dramm’s book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Resistance, and carefully reading through most of the volumes of the collected works that I have had a greater sense of clarity both regarding the consistency of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethic and his life reflecting these commitments.
As I have become clearer I have also grown in my sense that Bethge is likely the reason why so many believe that Bonhoeffer was personally involved in efforts to kill Hitler (and that his moral theology shifted accordingly). How is that the case? (more…)
I knew when I began writing Bonhoeffer the Assassin? that there would be many who would not want to accept our argument. Well, the first negative review has arrived; it’s by Roger Olson. Below is my response to his review, also placed on his blog.
Let me offer a response to Roger Olson. I will begin with a quote, a quote that seems to represent the heart of his critical reflections. “If we are to agree with Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel, that Bonhoeffer never advocated, condoned or participated in an actual plot to kill Hitler (or anyone else), we have to question Bethge’s testimony which is clear. And the authors do question it. They suggest his memory of Bonhoeffer’s own sayings to him and to others was faulty.”
Olson’s critique depends mostly on his response to our critique of what is remembered from informal, oral conversations (“Bonhoeffer’s own sayings to him and to others”). I will comment on this later. But first let me name what Olson has basically ignored.
We have argued that Bonhoeffer underwent a theological and spiritual transformation between 1929 and 1932 that changed his approach to Christian ethics. In February of 1929 we see Bonhoeffer saying in a lecture that love of his own people will sanctify war, will sanctify murder. He also says in this lecture that the Sermon on the Mount is not to instruct us in how to live in the present. By 1932 he is saying the opposite in lectures he presents. He is telling Christians they should live by the Sermon on the Mount and that this includes not killing in war. What happened in between? In 1930 he finished his habilitation thesis, Act and Being in which he argues for the centrality of Jesus Christ in understanding Christian ethics. In 1930-31 he studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While there he was deeply influenced by Jean Lasserre, a French Reformed pastor and pacifist, to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount and to embrace pacifism. Bonhoeffer was also deeply formed by his months of serious participation in the life of the African American congregation, Abyssinian Baptist Church. In a letter to his friend, Elizabeth Zinn, in January 1936, he says that sometime before 1933 he came to see “pacifism as self-evident,” which he had previously argued against passionately. (This sentence is left out from this quote, pp. 123-4, in the 2010 biography by Eric Metaxis of Bonhoeffer—indicating the lengths some will go to to establish that Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist.) The views that he here referred to as pacifism are expressed in numerous passionate lectures and given careful articulation in his 1937 book, Discipleship, based on lectures he taught to his students at the Finkenwalde seminary. Questions that beg to be asked are: did Bonhoeffer return to the convictions he held in 1929? Did he reverse his understanding of the centrality of Jesus for understanding ethics? Or somehow re-formulate this centrality so that it caused him to abandon his views on peace? The textual evidence suggests he did not. We have provided an argument in two chapters in the book (and I in a separate essay published this past summer in Perpectives in Religious Studies) that the most careful reading of Ethics sees it as consistent with what he had believed since 1932. Moreover, he specifically affirms the book, Discipleship, in prison in the summer of 1944.
And what do we see in Bonhoeffer’s life that is consistent with this affirmation of what he on occasion referred to as pacifism? (more…)
Mark Thiessen Nation, with Marva Dawn
[Note: I write the following after having written two previous blog posts, in the first of which, among other things, I affirmed the statement formulated by the faculty of AMBS. Thus the following reflections should be understood in light of my earlier posts. I should perhaps add that I have written two earlier biographical sketches of Yoder. Those sketches were mostly intended as an outline of his Mennonite background and academic life. What appears below is more about Yoder’s personal life, attempting to capture who he was as a person rather than focusing on his academic life—knowing that these cannot finally be separated. Marva Dawn has graciously agreed to be co-author of this essay. Marva, who is a prolific author, was both John Yoder’s doctoral student and his teaching assistant. Mostly this essay has been written by Mark; the personal pronouns are his. However, Marva has read the essay, corrected some grammar, added a couple of paragraphs and has affirmed that the essay is “descriptive of the John I knew.”]
My initial reading of the articles in The Elkhart Truth—especially the descriptions of Yoder’s behaviors that were harassing, abusive and terrorizing of these women—left me with a pain in the pit of my stomach. In fact I was reminded of the feeling I sometimes had when I was a child protective services social worker, when I would, for the first time, grasp the pain and suffering experienced by a child who had been abused by a parent. Or when, on other occasions, I would note that not only was a child the victim of an abusive father but so also was the wife a victim of abuse by the same man. I was a young man when I was a social worker, with only the first steps in experience of children of my own. But along with training, I had life experience. I could empathize with those who were abused because I had lived with an abusive stepfather for more than two years myself. I knew what domestic violence and terrorizing felt like.
I am sure it was partly because of my own experiences—and my close identification with my mother—that made it easier in my job to enter into these domestic situations and provide help for those who were abused and neglected. In the midst of this painful and complex work I learned much. Among many other things, I learned that abusive and neglectful parents (and spouses) vary tremendously. Some seem rather thoroughly horrible (apparently immune to change), some are repentant almost immediately when confronted by their behaviors and successfully make vital changes—and then there is a spectrum between these two extremes.
But however behaviors express who someone really is, if they are experienced as harassing, abusive, violent and terrorizing, then they must be stopped. Having accomplished that goal, the task lies ahead as to how to prevent the behaviors in the future, care for those injured to bring healing and wholeness, as well as work to understand the perpetrators to discern who they are and what caused them to engage in such behaviors.
As I reflect on the series of articles in The Elkhart Truth, I have several immediate responses. First, I am very saddened that Yoder was not stopped much more quickly from engaging in sexually immoral, abusive and harassing behaviors. Second, I am disheartened that the pain and suffering of the women involved was not given adequate attention at various stages in the process when authorities in the Mennonite Church and institutions became aware of what had been done to these women. Third, I am grateful that Yoder was finally convinced to submit to a discipline process in 1992 and that, so far as I know, he discontinued all of his extra-marital intimate relationships (including the abusive and harassing behaviors) from that point forward. Fourth, I understand why many believe we are not yet finished with what we have to learn from these years in which Yoder engaged in these behaviors without having been stopped by the Mennonite community or by its institutions. And fifth, I wondered how these behaviors fit with who Yoder was across his life in various contexts and varied relationships?
So, what I have just named is my own way of stating what is already apparent in many recent discussions regarding Yoder: namely, his failure in relation to destructive sexual behaviors. (And I have alluded to the failure of institutions in relation to his failures as well—though it should be said that there were valiant efforts on the part of some. As one who teaches historical courses, I need to add that we should not, anachronistically, expect the world of, say, 1973 to be the world of 2013.)
However, what has not usually been emphasized is that there is a second failure on Yoder’s part that should also be highlighted. Yoder failed by the light of his own theological commitments. In saying this I don’t mostly mean what is perhaps obvious: namely that his violating women flies in the face of his commitment to nonviolence. That is certainly true. And it’s important to discuss that. But, even if he was unable to see that, he taught many of us to recognize the need for accountability in the Christian community. And Yoder failed miserably in this regard. Yoder was told clearly and repeatedly—by colleagues and administrators at his seminary, Mennonite church members and church leaders, family members, friends, and colleagues in the academy—that he was profoundly wrong. And yet he did not listen. He ignored the counsel from trusted friends, including those who thought they had learned much of their theology from him. This was a major failure on Yoder’s part in relation to his own theological commitments.
In many previous writings I have offered my interpretations of and reflections on Yoder’s theology. In what follows I will attempt to contextualize Yoder’s sexual misconduct in a brief narrative of his life, attempting to live with the question: how do the harassing and abusive behaviors he engaged in between 1970 and 1992 fit with who he seemed to be across the span of his life, with special emphasis on his relationships with women? (more…)