How Revelation’s non-predictive prophecy speaks to our pandemic (Peaceable Revelation #7)

Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2021

I am sure that it is no coincidence that the emergence of mass crises in the 20th and 21st centuries (world wars, pandemics, famines, environmental devastations, et al) has corresponded with increased interest in the book of Revelation and other materials in the Bible that are said to have prophetic importance. Sadly, the assumption that “biblical prophecy” has mainly to do with predicting the future has blinded many Christians to the wisdom that prophecy understood in a non-predictive sense has to offer for our difficult times.

One way to get insights into the wisdom of Revelation is to try to apply it to our present pandemic—but not in the sense that Revelation directly predicted what is happening now nor even in the sense of thinking of our current events as in some sense related to the End Times. Instead, I will reflect a bit on how Revelation’s insights into the world of the first century might be helpful for us in the same ways that the stories of the gospels or the theological analyses of Paul’s letter might be helpful.

Revelation as non-predictive prophecy

I begin with an assumption that we should read Revelation in the same way as we read other books in the New Testament. We understand it to be written by a person of the first century addressing readers in the first century about issues that mattered in the first century. It is indeed prophetic writing—in the same sense that Paul’s writings were prophetic writing. These writings follow the Old Testament prophets in speaking on behalf of God to people of their own time, offering challenges and exhortations that their readers live faithfully in light of the message of Torah and (in Paul’s context) the message of Jesus.

So, I do not read Revelation to be offering predictions about the long-distant future. It is “non-predictive prophecy.” As a “revelation of Jesus Christ,” it is basing its critique and exhortation on the message of Jesus. Too often, interpreters of Revelation have (and still do) miss the ways that the book is oriented around Jesus—missing, that is, the relevance of its first verse that gives a self-identification as the revelation of Jesus Christ.

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Does Christianity prepare people to be misled by those in power? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #3]

Ted Grimsrud—January 23, 2021

Many Americans have been disturbed since the November election at how gullible so many in our nation seem to be about former President Trump’s claims that the election was stolen. A shocking number of people believe that Biden stole the election—including, it appears, quite a large number of professing Christians. That so many Christians believe such an outrageous thing seemingly simply because Trump has told them to has made me think. Is there a connection between Christian theologies and ways of thinking and being misled by people in power.

As I have thought about this question of a special Christian susceptibility to such gullibility, it occurred to me that this is not an issue only in relation to conservative Christians. Take the mostly unquestioned acceptance over the past 75 years of American warism and the nuclear weapons regime. There have occasionally been moments of opposition to these suicidal societal commitments (I’m thinking especially of the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late-1960s and early 1970s and the nuclear Freeze movement of the 1980s —both of which petered out in spite of little success), but the generally positive attitude about the politics of death has spanned the theological spectrum from right to left. And what is this positive attitude other than gullibility in relation to people in power?

The big question

Is there something inherent in Christianity that makes Christians especially susceptible to such manipulation? I’m not ready to claim that Christians are more easily misled than other people, but I do suspect that there might be dynamics within Christianity that do enhance the possibilities of this.

Part of my motivation is my own sense of disappointment. Back in the mid-1970s I became very interested in what we called “radical Christianity.” I became a pacifist and affirmed many other countercultural causes such as environmentalism, feminism, racial justice, and anti-capitalism. I believed that it was because of the Bible and Christian convictions that I took such stands. I believed that Christianity made that kind of difference. I still have most of the same convictions—both politically and theologically—but am much less sanguine about the significance of Christianity for making a big difference in the world. My suspicion now is that being a Christian in this country makes a person more likely to be pro-war, white supremacist, sexist, and pro-capitalism. Behind that likelihood, perhaps, is a willingness among Christians to accept uncritically what powerful people say.

This is the thesis I want to consider: Christianity can be epistemologically crippling because its theological system and the practices that follow have often stemmed from beliefs that are not based on evidence, at times not even based on rationality. I wonder if the willingness to ground Christianity on non-evidential, non-rational, even at times magical thinking and mystification, has also led Christians to accept claims from political leaders that are non-evidential, non-rational, and even magical thinking.

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Satan in the book of Revelation—and today [Peaceable Revelation #6]

Ted Grimsrud—January 20, 2021

As we struggle to comprehend the various large-scale social problems that we face today, we might do well to do some thinking about the book of Revelation. Although the word “evil” is not used in Revelation, the concept of evil is quite present. I find myself thinking that reflection on evil is part of what we need to do as we seek social healing.

Revelation features the spiritual forces of evil quite prominently. And it presents us with the character of the Dragon as the mastermind behind those forces—this Dragon “who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). Now, the character of Satan is a deeply problematic figure in our culture’s history. Without engaging the bigger issues about why Satan is so problematic, in this post I want to focus on the use of “Dragon,” “Satan,” and “the devil” in Revelation and how those images might actually be helpful for us today, though in somewhat complicated ways.

What do we learn about Satan in Revelation?

Though the Dragon character is not explicitly introduced in Revelation until chapter 12, it does cast a shadow back over the earlier part of the book and remains central for what follows in chapters 13 and following. I think that because the Dragon will be closely linked with the Beast, who in turn has a close connection with the Roman Empire, all the allusions from the beginning of the book to the Empire and to the kings of the earth and to the conflicts that John’s readers have with their wider world point to the importance of the Dragon. Revelation presents the environment its readers lived in (and, by implication, the environment that we live in) as plague filled: wars and rumors of wars, environmental devastation, economic injustices, and on and on. In my interpretation, the Dragon will prove to be the immediate force behind the plagues. So, the entire agenda of Revelation has to do with living faithfully in a Dragon-infused world.

At the same time, it is crucial that we recognize that Revelation does not have the agenda of presenting an open-ended war between near equally powerful protagonists. The Lamb is victorious over the Dragon from the very beginning of the book. The struggle lies in the embodiment of that victory. Satan in Revelation is actually quite similar to Satan in the gospels. There is a sense in both places that the battle is Jesus vs. Satan. The words from the letter to the Ephesians describe the situation: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic power of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Or, in the words in Revelation: the struggle is about “destroying the destroyers of the earth” (11:18). Let’s equate “Satan” with the “spiritual forces of evil” and the “destroyers of the earth.” The struggle against the “spiritual forces of evil” is what the “war of the Lamb” in Revelation is about.

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Why I am not (quite) an atheist [theological memoir #9]

Ted Grimsrud—January 17, 2021

I flirted with atheism for a while when I was a teenager. I realize now that that happened because I was very interested in God, not because I was rejecting God. Unlike most of my current friends, I did not grow up in the church or with a detailed embedded theology. I wasn’t exposed to theology or philosophy, but I liked to think. I didn’t think the God I had superficially heard about made a lot of sense, so I tried on the idea of rejecting God’s existence.

It wasn’t any kind of argument that got me to accept the existence of God, nor was it some sort of crisis or sense of need. Initially, it was simply an experience of presence at a friend’s funeral. But I also wanted to understand, to make sense of things. It happened that I turned to a trusted friend, a kind of mentor who was several years older. He guided me toward a personal conversion, educating me in what I in time came to recognize as a Christian fundamentalist orientation toward God and salvation.

My conversion when I was 17 was genuine, I believe. But I was driven more by a desire for intellectual coherence than a profound personal encounter with the personal God of American evangelicalism. I tried to believe in that God. The first couple of years I absorbed the doctrines of my faith community. These especially centered around belief that Jesus was returning at any moment and that the most important expression of Christian faith was the necessary conversion where a sinner turns to Christ as one’s personal savior.

When I was about 21, I began to get quite interested in theology and rather drastically to revise my belief system. The first steps were to reject both the future-prophetic theology of the End Times and the personal conversion centered understanding of faith. I experienced those moves as steps toward God even as they were decisive steps away from the God I had been presented with after my conversion. But the movement has never stopped, and it has left me with a notion of God that is incompatible with what I was first taught when I affirmed Christian faith.

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Living in a broken world: Power, love and the plagues in Revelation [Peaceable Revelation #5]

Ted Grimsrud—January 15, 2021

I believe that the book of Revelation offers people in the contemporary world some helpful guidance—though not in the ways popular Christianity would have us think. Revelation is not a source of insights for fortune telling helping us to know the future before it happens. Rather, Revelation is, I believe, a meditation on the centrality of love as we seek to navigate a world in crisis. So, the argument I offer here goes against both those who think predictive prophecy is how Revelation is relevant and those who think the Bible as a whole—and certainly the Bible’s last book—is simply an ancient work with little to say that is relevant in any way today.

Two big problems

Let’s start with two general problems. The first is the problem of living humanely in our contemporary world. Such humane living seems to require that we seek to overcome, say, the brokenness of ever-present warism with its weapons of mass destruction, the all too present trauma of our nation’s legacy of white supremacy, the overwhelming impact of predatory capitalism and always worsening economic inequality, our emerging climate catastrophe and other ecological crises, and the curse of mass incarceration and its companion police brutality. How do we move ahead in such a world?

The second problem is more esoteric, but I believe significant, nonetheless. This is the problem of the visions in Revelation that portray a world undergoing several series of escalating catastrophes (or plagues). These visions seem to tell us that God initiates these plagues, and the standard interpretations across the theological spectrum generally understand these God-initiated plagues as acts of God’s punitive judgment. This very problematic view of God leads some to dismiss God and the Bible altogether and others to affirm a morally corrupt view of God. To believe that God brings punitive judgment often leads Christians themselves to become agents of the forces of destruction that exacerbate the crises mentioned above.

Is it possible that if we biblically interested Christians could resolve the problem of the plague visions that we would be better able to respond to the brokenness problem? I believe we are challenged to hold together our affirmations that (1) God is love, (2) Revelation is truthful, and (3) brokenness in our world is real. However, if the “truth” of Revelation is that God is the author of the plagues then we will have trouble being agents of healing.

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Hope and the embrace of our imperfect present [Theological memoir #8]

Ted Grimsrud—January 9, 2021

At some point when I was a child, perhaps seven or eight years old, I learned about the difference between a person called an “optimist” and one called a “pessimist.” Whoever explained this to me—it was probably one of my older sisters—used my mother as an example of an optimist. I didn’t really understand what I was being told very well, but from that time on I looked at my mom a bit differently. I hoped I could be like her.

“Optimistic” theology

It may be that my entire theological project—emphasizing peace, arguing for restorative as opposed to retributive justice, understanding salvation in terms of God’s mercy—has followed from the sense that I wanted to be an optimist too. I don’t really have a theory for why some people are optimists and others are not. I probably was inclined to be optimistic about life even before I learned what the word meant, saw it exemplified by my mother, and decided I wanted to affirm that approach. Still, I’d like to believe it is at least partly something we can choose, and that it is more compatible with the gospel to choose to be optimistic about life than not to.

At some point, about the time I finished college, I began to believe strongly in the importance of seeking social change—to oppose war and injustice and to try to move things in a peaceable direction. This belief especially took the shape for me of working in Christian communities and of researching and writing what I came to call “peace theology.” I tend to think that such work probably needs to rest on an optimism about life—we can change things, we can live peaceably, at least somewhat.

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Our need for the book of Revelation’s peace message (Peaceable Revelation #4)

Ted Grimsrud—January 5, 2021

I’ve been interested in the book of Revelation for a long time. Of course, others have also found Revelation interesting over the years. But not that many have perceived Revelation to be a positive resource for peaceable living in our warring world. So, I hope to make the case for the value of a peaceable approach—and that this is actually the most accurate way to read Revelation.

What we need in 2021

As a way to begin, let me reflect for a bit on our current historical moment. Is it possible that we are in a time and place where a new reading of Revelation could actually be especially helpful and empowering? I suspect so.

One of our big problems in the US right now (as always) is the destructive influence of embedded biases, fears, and idolatries that we grow up absorbing—our institutions, ideologies, structures, and the like shape us toward violence, hostility, and stereotyping and othering people. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, nationalism, consumerism, classism. The list goes on.

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The Toxic Sludge in America’s Soul: The Tragedy of Systemic Racism (Civil War #8)

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2020

As I write this, Joe Biden nears the number of electoral votes needed to become President of the US.  Donald Trump is fighting all out to prevent that outcome, but at this point seems most likely to fall short. However, enough people did vote for Trump—millions more than in 2016—that the contest is close enough that the possibility of Trump’s success can’t be ignored. Something that troubles me deeply is the question of how the election could have been this close.

I suspect that to answer that question will require, among other things, a deepened awareness of American history. How is it that we have an electorate that would offer so much support for a vicious, incompetent, narcissistic individual whose most remarkable feature might be his utter lack of redeemable characteristics? There is literally nothing to like about Trump—no compassion, no empathy, no sense of humor, no insightfulness, no loyalty, no sincerity, no generosity, and nothing else that is attractive on a human level. Trump gained and sustained power by appealing to the worst aspects of this country’s character and ruthlessly exploiting the many weaknesses of its political system.

The Civil War, white supremacy, and their toxic legacy

As I have been studying the American Civil War and the “peculiar institution” (slavery) that triggered it—and the on-going legacy of both that war and its context of white supremacy—I have been impressed with a sense of this large chunk of the nation that has been resolutely opposed to recognizing the humanity of the people forcibly enslaved and exploited and their descendants. The persistence of that opposition is breathtaking once one notices it—and may in significant ways help explain our country’s current political brokenness.

I gained some insights from a book I recently read by Carol Anderson, a historian at Emory University, called White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Political Divide. I don’t particularly like the title, but there is very little else about the book that I am critical of. It’s a concise, highly readable, and actually quite level-toned summary of the persistent and largely successful ways that the United States as a society has refused to give more than a few inches to the efforts of many over the years to create a more just society. It tells the story of how the US has refused to implement the promise of a nation with liberty and justice for all.

As I read this book, I thought of our current situation where about 48% of voting Americans supported our current president, seemingly regardless of how cruel, destructive, and inept his leadership might be. The reading I have been doing lately related to 19th century America, especially focused on the lead-up to the Civil War, the war itself, and its aftermath, leaves me with a strong sense of a deep-seated intractability of white supremacy regardless of how cruel and destructive it might be. Anderson’s book provides a kind of bridge account, showing how the toxic sludge of 19th century Slave Power never went away.

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Interim reflections on the 2020 election [American politics #7]

Ted Grimsrud—November 5, 2020

As I write this late in the morning on Thursday, November 5, the outcome of Tuesday’s election is still in doubt. Biden does seem likely to win the initial round based on the vote. We’ll have to see about what happens with the Trump-resisting-that-outcome round. Right now, it’s hard to see what grounds there could be to overturn the outcome—but we have little reason to have a lot of confidence in the fairness of the final decision-makers. The Senate looks likely to be 50-48 for the Republicans with two Republican-leaning seats in Georgia set for a run-off.

So, wow! This is not what I expected. It actually seems fairly disastrous. Here are a few interim thoughts.

The effectiveness of the Republican strategy

Clearly, the Republican efforts to repress the vote played a huge role—given that the vote was close. Florida, Texas, and Georgia would all likely have gone for Biden if the voting process had been like, say, Oregon’s where the state actually wants everyone to vote. Even if somehow enough of the remaining undecided states tip to Biden it is far from certain that all of the Republicans’ legal shenanigans won’t overturn such an outcome.

The key here, though, is that the vote had to be close for the Republican strategy to hope to succeed. If the election had gone as the polls seemed to indicate, I suspect Biden’s margin of victory would have been large enough that the Republican tactics could not have turned things around. That leads to a big question—how could this election have been that close?

The hope I allowed myself to cultivate was that a Democrat in the White House and Democratic control of the Senate would have at least one potentially huge effect (pessimistic as I am about the corporate Dems in general). That is, that Congress would quickly pass and (following the Senate eliminating the filibuster) the President sign House Bill #1 from 2019 that would enact significant reforms in the US election processes and make it much more likely that Republican voter suppression would be curtailed and that we could hope for more honest elections. The idea was that Trump’s venal incompetence in face of COVID-19 would open the door for a genuine move toward democracy.

However, the Democrats failed to take advantage of the situation. The day after this election, the US topped 100,000 new COVID-19 infections for the first time. The Republican Party, led by its president, has utterly failed in its responsibility to the country in relation to this pandemic—and yet surpassed all expectations in electoral success. This is the biggest shocker of the election, I think. When satirist Andy Borowitz tweets: “If Trump cared as much about stopping COVID as he does about stopping voting, we’d still be able to spend Thanksgiving with our families,” I think of that truth as a condemnation of the Democrats. How could they allow Trump and his Party to get away with this?

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On wishing Donald Trump well [American politics #6]

Ted Grimsrud—October 7, 2020

It’s an interesting thought experiment for compassionate people to wonder how to feel about the COVID-19 sickness of Donald Trump. In a recent New York Times essay, “Wish a President Well Who Doesn’t Wish You Well,” Bret Stephens—perhaps the most reliably rightwing Times columnist but a self-described opponent of Trump—gives a list of reasons to wish Trump well.

The gist of Stephens’s argument is that while certainly Trump is a terrible president and a terrible person who has revealed himself to be thoroughly non-compassionate, he still deserves our well wishes. Stephens basically echoes Michelle Obama’s famous directive: “When they go low, we go high.” His last sentence: “We wish him well because it’s the right thing to do. It’s more than reason enough.”

Not wishing Trump well?

As someone who seeks to be compassionate myself, I find Stephens’s argument pretty persuasive. But I can imagine a counterargument. One could say, we wish Trump himself ill because we feel compassion toward all the people he will hurt the longer he remains in power. The sooner he is gone the better. Or, one could say we wish Trump ill because his demise as a consequence of his own recklessness and disregard for needed COVID-19 safety measures (a recklessness and disregard that has had disastrous consequences in our nation that only continue to accelerate) would only be his just desserts. Trump’s demise would reinforce for all of us the need to pursue strategies that enhance all of our safety and wellbeing.

Continue reading “On wishing Donald Trump well [American politics #6]”