Revelation, God’s Wrath, Healing Justice, and Mennonite Church USA

Ted Grimsrud—July 6, 2015

I hope to have quite a bit more to say about the Book of Revelation and about Mennonite Church USA in the days to come, but since I don’t know when those opportunities will arise, I wanted to share a brief reflection from this morning’s work on Revelation.

“Wrath” in Revelation

A major theme in Revelation is “wrath.” The term is used throughout the book (far more than anywhere else in the New Testament). Often, our English translations perhaps misleadingly add the word “God” as in “God’s wrath” rather than simply “wrath.”

This addition is not unwarranted; generally it is clear from the context that there is a close association between God and “wrath.” But I think it is important to recognize that the absence of the direct connection also likely indicates something significant—perhaps that we should recognize that “wrath” is not the same thing as a direct act by an angry God (I also have in mind to write a blog post soon that reflects in much more detail on the notion of God as an “angry God).

In many of it uses in Revelation, “wrath” seems to indicate more a sense of the outworking in history of negative consequences of human actions and beliefs—kind of an indirect expression of God’s negative response to human injustice. “The wrath” reflects not so much God’s direct intervention as a sense that God’s creation carries within it the dynamics of cause and effect where at some point injustice does lead to brokenness; you live by the sword, you likely will die by the sword.

An added dimension

What I was struck with today, as I was looking closely at the third series of terrible plagues in Revelation, described in chapters 15 and 16, is the thought that maybe a significant element of the experience of “wrath” depends upon the perspective on the agents on the human side of the God/human relationship. That is, an element of the meaning of “wrath” is that we perceive something as “wrathful” or not depending on our way of seeing the world.

Maybe—and at this point this is just a question, I haven’t really looked more closely at the text in light of this thought—what some people experience as God’s love in Revelation is experienced by others as God’s wrath. What is attractive about this thought to me is that then we don’t have to struggle with the deeply problematic idea that God acts sometimes in loving ways and sometimes in punitive ways, that God is divided within Godself between love and punitive justice, that God’s intention for humanity is partly salvific and partly punitive.

I believe that what’s mostly going on Revelation is the on-going self-revelation of God in the life, death, resurrection, and on-going presence of Jesus (the book is self-title, “the revelation of Jesus Christ,” 1:1). This self-revelation is purely loving and redemptive. But it is received as “wrath” by those whose hearts are so damaged by their embrace of the values of domination, fear, and exploitation (in Revelation, channeled in large part though the Roman Empire [Babylon]), that they experience God’s love as frightening, judgmental, and punitive.

This dynamic seems clearly to have been present in the ministry of Jesus. While he certainly could be confrontive and he overtly resisted the ideology of empire, his actions and teachings are all about love. He showed love directly toward the vulnerable, and when he was controntive it was for the sake of the vulnerable. And in his confrontations, he never acted violently or in ways that denied the human agency of his opponents.

This picture of Jesus is present throughout Revelation. The only blood that is shed in Revelation is the blood of Jesus and his followers. They “conquer” through persevering love, not through hurting their enemies.

And yet, both in the gospel stories and in Revelation, the powers-that-be respond to Jesus as if he profoundly threatened their very existence (which, in a sense, he did—and their responses only made thing worse for themselves). The powers-that-be did experience Jesus as being “violent” and “judgmental” even when he always acted in loving ways.

So, we could say that “wrath” is indeed “God’s wrath” in Revelation, but in a way that involves a redefining of “wrath.” It’s not that God loves and God punishes as two separate movements. It’s rather than God reveals God’s love always and consistently—but for those that are damaged to such an extent that they center their lives on exploitation and peace-built-on-injustice, God’s love itself is experienced as wrathful.

This idea also helps make sense of the notion that God’s work in the world is a work of healing love—and that such a work cannot be violently coercive, dominating, and punitive and still be love. Indeed, love is not violently coercive, dominating, and punitive. But it acts to resist injustice. And it effectively challenges injustice in ways that take time, that are not always immediately effective, and do not protect the loving resisters from suffering and even death. The promise, though, is that all loving resistance does add to the dynamics of life that do ultimately rule the universe.

How this analysis applies to Mennonite Church USA

I have written before about how I perceive the current distressing dynamics in my denomination, Mennonite Church USA. I believe that the “issue” is not “homosexuality” or “same sex marriage” or “dissent from church teaching.” I believe the “issue” is the systematic and decades-long effort by those committed to exclusionary dynamics in the churches to impose their will even as increasing numbers of people (both courageous LGBTQ Mennonites themselves and others who favor welcome) have advocated for change.

I suspect that this history and current dynamics (including the intense, just-conclude MC USA General Assembly) may be understood in light of the “wrath” analysis above. We may see in the Mennonite dynamics the two sides of God’s active love being manifested in the world. We may see an impressive work of God’s Spirit in the witness of groups such as the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests (BMC) and Pink Menno, as well as other likeminded groups and countless individuals. Certainly, this witness has been the witness of fallible human beings, but to a remarkable extent it has been characterized by gentleness, respect, and a conciliatory spirit. I believe this witness is a fruit of God’s active love in the world.

But we may see the other side, too. This witness has all too often been met with hostility (I discuss some of that history here). There has been both overt hostility expressed in way too many hurtful direct actions and covert hostility expressed in institutional actions such as the Saskatoon and Purdue Statements and the 2001 Membership Guidelines (and now in the doubling down on those Guidelines as approved by MC USA delegates last week).

Perhaps one way to perceive this hostility is that is the response to God’s revelation of love by those too damaged by fearfulness and prejudice to perceive that love for what it is. Is there some sense that the current disarray that seems to define MC USA’s current state is an expression of the kind of “wrath” I describe above? Food for thought.

Healing justice

Another important word in Revelation is “justice.” This word, too, is often misinterpreted, I think. Too often, readers of Revelation assume that “justice,” too, has a punitive dimension (even, maybe, that it is mostly punitive). I think that the uses of “justice” are a bit unclear at times, but the key point is that the result of God’s justice being operationalized in Revelation is the healing of humanity and of creation, not the punishment of rebellious human beings.

Crucially, Revelation promises that even God’s paradigmatic human enemies—the “kings of the earth”— will be healed and find their home in the New Jerusalem. How does this happen? It is through the faithful witness of Jesus and his followers, who “conquer [the Dragon (i.e., Satan)] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (12:11).

One of the main virtues in Revelation that is held up for followers of the Lamb is what the NRSV translates as “patient endurance” (e.g., 2:2). A more accurate translation would probably be “nonviolent resistance.” John holds up Jesus’s “faithful witness” as the model of nonviolent resistance for all who would “conquer” the Dragon. John is hopeful that kind of faithful witness through nonviolent resistance can be fruitful. He affirms that Jesus already is worshiped by all of creation (Rev 5) due to his faithful witness as vindicated by God. The world is a place where such witness is fruitful.

I actually don’t read Revelation as promising a certain happy outcome to human history. And I don’t have a lot of confidence in a happy outcome for MC USA. What I think Revelation does, though, is emphasize the method, the only method, that might make a happy outcome possible—faithful witness, nonviolent resistance, persevering love.

8 thoughts on “Revelation, God’s Wrath, Healing Justice, and Mennonite Church USA

  1. Thanks Ted. I agree with the concept of ‘wrath’ you outline in your fourth paragraph.I came to a similar view myself some time ago. Like you, I think you see this sort of angst in failing institutions, churches among them, that have candidly become irrelevant in a changed culture. We began to approach this in discussion in the small Baptist cause, membership 9, where I am the minister, but not with acrimony. My role is described by the leader of our ministry team (Baptist Union of Great Britain) as a ‘community chaplain’. As a chaplain, it’s easy to gather people, we run a food bank, a drama workshop for teens and support various ‘practical’ things which try to be of benefit in a deprived community but do they want to come to services? Rhetorical question. I look forward to your unfolding thoughts.

  2. Thanks again Ted for your wonderful wisdom shared with us! I am convinced you are onto something that needs our deepest attention and exploration. Wrath and justice are not easy to grapple with but we must do so. You offer a serious perspective from the Revelation of Jesus Christ — perhaps the most challenging and probably the most abused or ignored book of the Bible to do that. Revelation, like the Church, must be reframed and reclaimed for God’s sake and the sake of the world!

  3. Yes, Ted. You constantly amaze me in finding relevance in Revelation. After a Mennonite World Review article on MCUSA Kansas city, I posted the following. I believe it is in many ways congruent with what you say here about “love” and “wrath”:

    I did not attend Kansas City MSUSA, but this and other accounts I have read suggest to me that it was a cauldron of fear on all sides, And a reminder that the “perfect love that drives out fear” does not come easily, especially when it involves expectation of some kind of punishment. I am struck by the relevance o 1 John 4:18 NIV: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”

  4. In biblical theological terms the essence/meaning of life is love in relationship with God/Christ/self/neighbor/enemy/creation — which encounters and counters fear. Two words at the heart of the Gospels of Jesus Christ in particular and the Bible as a whole are “love” and “fear” with the clear and consistent command to embody the former and eschew that later. It is impossible to love or lead from fear.

  5. I did not attend the convention. What I’m hearing is that many candid, authentic and respectful conversations occurred in the table groups. That is where the Spirit did her work, as I hear it. The open debates had less of that Spirit and that is to be expected, in my view.

    Ted, your reading of the text is on the mark, but your application points too quickly at the conclusion you’ve been voicing for some time now. As carefully as you hedge your rhetoric, it’s pretty plain you are convinced the turmoil MC USA is experiencing now is the wrath of God.

    In part you are probably right, but in part it also is the painful and healing work of renewal. It’s both. And along with others who think wisdom in this case will be found by those in the middle rather than by those at either end, I can’t readily and quickly identify who are the wise and who are the foolish.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s