The book of Revelation on living in Empire: Christian faith in the Trump era, part 4

Ted Grimsrud—December 11, 2016

The book of Revelation does not have a positive reputation these days. For many Christians it is seen as hopelessly complicated and obscure. In my opinion, it is indeed the case that understanding Revelation is difficult. I have been studying it pretty intensively, off and on, for about 40 years now. I believe I have to a large degree figured Revelation out, and I am trying to find clear and accessible ways to explain what I have figured out. But it is not a quick and easy task (one place I presented my ideas was in my congregation, where I preached a series of sermons on Revelation—I summarized the main points in some blog posts; it took 18 to cover all the points I had to make, and I felt as if I only scratched the surface). Revelation does not fit on a bumper sticker!

Perhaps, though, part of what makes Revelation potentially very useful for peacemakers today is precisely its complexity. But even with that complexity, I think some of the useful insights we can gain from Revelation are not obscure or inaccessible. If we are to learn from Revelation about how better to live faithfully in our troubled times what might be some of the key lessons? I’m at work on a book-length commentary on Revelation that will focus on this question. Here are some summary points:

(1) Keeping the way of Jesus central

Revelation offers the Bible’s most extended and profound critique of the dynamics of empires and their effects on people of faith. This critique remains important. However, we should also remember that the central concerns for the book are the health and faithfulness of the communities of Jesus’s followers. John critiques Rome in order to help his Christian readers to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).

This ordering of priorities remains important. I don’t think the lesson is so much that we should focus only internally on the life of the institutional church while remaining indifferent toward our broader social situation. More so, I think the point for us is the reminder that in all areas of our lives, the way of Jesus remains our guide. We always run the risk of marginalizing that approach to life—sometimes with a preoccupation on the machinations of those “inside the beltway.” However, whatever healing is to come for our world and whatever the role of the “great nations” in that healing might be, the ultimate bases for healing remains always the message of Jesus—love God and love neighbor. And this way of healing has to be embodied in actual face-to-face relationships even as we also do what we can to further humane public policy on the macro level. This embodiment is why the congregations are so important to John. Continue reading “The book of Revelation on living in Empire: Christian faith in the Trump era, part 4”

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The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?

Ted Grimsrud—November 29, 2016

To “break bad” can mean to “go wild,” to “defy authority” and break the law, to be verbally “combative, belligerent, or threatening” or, followed by the preposition “on,” to “completely dominate or humiliate.” [from Wikipedia]

It is difficult to write about the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. It seems certain that the US is entering uncharted waters. It also seems certain, to me at least, that what is coming will be worse than what most of us can imagine. The American Empire is entering a new phase, likely with little pretense of self-restraint or of serving the general human welfare or the wellbeing of the natural world. We are about openly to become the rogue nation—”breaking bad” indeed.

The impending storm

A memory comes to mind. Many years ago, Kathleen and I were on a road trip. As evening neared, we approached Clovis, New Mexico from the west. To the east we saw a huge dark, dark purple horizon. As we got closer, the darkness grew. We clearly were heading into a storm. It turned out to be a big one. Hail, heavy rain. We inched into town and the streets were awash with several inches of water. We had a similar experience more recently, driving home from the northeast. Here the dark, dark purple horizon was near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia come together along the Potomac River.

In both cases, there was this strong uneasy, fearful, feeling as we approached the storm. We felt some wind but basically things were calm. But we knew we were heading into trouble and there was no place to go to avoid it. And, in both cases, the storm turned out to be worse than we even imagined.

This is how I feel right now. We’ve got these few weeks before the fury of the new Republican unified power on the federal level will hit us. I see no reason not to expect that the impact of that power won’t be even worse than the most fearful imaginings we might have right now.

Still, this is a time to try to think seriously and deeply—and I believe it is also a time to think theologically for those so inclined. The United States, the world’s one superpower, is in deep trouble. It is nearly impossible to imagine that the next four years won’t be a disaster in almost every sense of the word. And even should the nightmare end at that point, something that right now seems less than likely, the damage that will be done will be difficult to repair.

The importance of core convictions

I believe that one of things we should  be doing now—and this will remain important for as long as I can foresee—is think deeply about core convictions, about the meaning and purpose of life, about our orientation toward life. We are going to face severe stresses, and conflicts, and fears, and deep discouragement. What will guide us as we struggle to move ahead? Continue reading “The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?”

The Book of Revelation’s Revelation to Eastern Mennonite University

Ted Grimsrud—October 15, 2016

[This is a transcript of a talk presented to the Annual Haverim Breakfast during Eastern Mennonite University’s Homecoming Weekend, October 15, 2016. Haverim is a support group of friends of EMU’s Bible and Religion Department.]

I am glad to be here today to share with you. I well remember 20 years ago when I attended my first Haverim breakfast; it seems like yesterday. It’s hard to believe that now as I share this talk, it’s so many years later and I stand up here as a retiree.

My life with the book of Revelation

In a sense I am going full circle right now. My first book, published before I started teaching at EMU, was on the book of Revelation. Now, the first book I hope to publish after I have finished teaching at EMU will also be on Revelation. When I am done with it, maybe someone could read both books and tell my how my thinking has changed.

When I was asked to speak this morning, I faced a problem. What to talk about. Well, it’s like the joke. If you have a hammer in your hand, any problem looks like a nail. My version, if you have the book of Revelation on your mind, any problem of what to give a talk about looks like something related to Revelation.

Well, I chave found Revelation to be remarkably relevant for thinking about faith in our contemporary world—over and over again. I believe that much more strongly now than I even did when I was writing a book about it thirty some years ago.

I suppose I owe my career at least somewhat to Revelation. When I became a Christian as a teenager, I was taught what we might now call “Left Behind” theology—a strong emphasis on the End Times, on Jesus’s soon return, on the Rapture that will come before the Great Tribulation and allow we Christians to escape the carnage—and all proof-texted from Revelation. So, my initial impression was that Revelation was about the future and that the future predicted in Revelation is at hand. It was a book of war and judgment, death and destruction—with a joyful ending only for those whose personal savior is Jesus.

When my theology changed and I became a pacifist and learned that most Christians in fact did not believe in the Left Behind theology, I began to ignore Revelation. It ceased to be part of my usable Bible. But I was taught by some of my new pacifist mentors that all of the Bible, properly interpreted, is usable and can support pacifist convictions. I learned of Millard Lind’s work on the Old Testament and had my anxiety about that part of the Bible undermining pacifism alleviated. But no one said anything explicitly about Revelation supporting pacifism. Continue reading “The Book of Revelation’s Revelation to Eastern Mennonite University”

A simple way to world peace? Recognize America as “Beast”

Ted Grimsrud—September 19, 2016

I offer what follows as a thought experiment, an attempt to flesh out a recent late night rumination. I finished reading a fine book, Douglas Fry, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. Fry, who is an anthropologist, seeks to refute the notion of “man as warrior” that assumes that human beings are innately hardwired to fight wars. Fry focuses on hunter-gatherer societies; he argues that some of these societies, presumably more revelatory of human nature, are not warriors.

I like Fry’s argument, though since I don’t know much about hunter-gatherer societies, I mostly have to take his word for it on the evidence he cites. But what he suggests fits well with other things I have read over the years. At the very end of the book he tries briefly to draw broader implications. Here he speaks of the need for a stronger, UN-type organization to help nations avoid warfare.

That suggestion made me think. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with that kind of approach—I’d like to see the peacemaking work of the UN be strengthened and more effective, as well as a stronger and more effective international law regime. But then I thought, surely the most powerful force that resists that kind of movement is the United States. If the US were committed to UN peacemaking work and international law, then we’d have a much more peaceable world. Continue reading “A simple way to world peace? Recognize America as “Beast””

A non-apocalyptic reading of the Apocalypse of Jesus

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Ted Grimsrud—May 30, 2016

My transition to “retirement” (that is, to full-time writing) has gone a bit slower than I would have hoped due to some unforeseen (relatively minor) health issues. I take it as a sign of a renewing vigor that last night in those often intellectually fecund moments between lights out and sleep I came up with a new title for my next writing project: Healing Politics: A Non-Apocalyptic Reading of the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.

Problems with “apocalyptic”

For some time, I have been working on a thoroughly pacifist interpretation of Revelation. I put it on hold during this past school year and expect very soon to get back to it, in hopes of completing a publishable manuscript before too long. As I have studied, taught, preached on, and written about Revelation over the years, I have become increasingly convinced that the category “apocalyptic” has misled those interpreting Revelation a great deal.

What I hope to show in my book is that Revelation is not “apocalyptic” in the sense that it fits into a genre of literature that is characterized by a futuristic focus or a sense of impending cosmic catastrophe or a sense of hostility toward the historical world. Nor is Revelation “apocalyptic” in the sense of portraying an almighty, judgmental God who will rain down destructive wrath on God’s enemies (or the enemies of the writer of the book).

It is crucial to read this work in terms of the title it gives itself: “the apocalypse of Jesus Christ” (that is, always to link “apocalypse” or “revelation” with “Jesus Christ”). This book sees itself as being a message from and about Jesus. I choose to start with the assumption that the Jesus of this revelation is the same Jesus of the rest of the New Testament. And so I read Revelation expecting that it helps us understand Jesus better and that it wants us to follow the path that Jesus set for his followers as described in the gospels.

And, interestingly (and excitingly, for me), the book actually turns out to lend itself to this kind of reading. It has become clear to me that the Jesus of Revelation is the same as the Jesus of the gospels. This is apparent once the reader’s imagination is cleared of the futuristic, cosmically catastrophic, judgmental, and pro-violence assumptions that putting it into the box of “apocalyptic literature” impose on us.

Of course, there is another entire type of reading that ironically shares quite a few of the scholarly assumptions of the “Revelation as apocalyptic literature” approach. This is the future-prophetic approach popularized in the writings of Hal Lindsey and in the Left Behind books. This approach also reads Revelation looking for futuristic insights and in expectation of cosmic catastrophes—even as it is looked upon with scorn by the scholars. Continue reading “A non-apocalyptic reading of the Apocalypse of Jesus”

Is the Book of Revelation on Falwell’s side?

Ted Grimsrud—December 9, 2015

Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, recently made the news with his provocative statement—proclaimed before thousands of cheering students at his college—that Christians should arm themselves to assure their ability to defend themselves against “Muslim attacks.” Responses, which have been many, range from strong support to a kind of ridicule that dismisses Falwell and Christianity as a piece. In my circles, most of the responses have been horror at what many see to be a terrible misrepresentation of the message of Jesus.

Happily, one of Liberty’s faculty members—biology professor Daniel Howell—has written a biblically-oriented response to some of Falwell’s critics with the clever title, “Falwell’s gun remarks on target.” There are many points that Howell raises that I am tempted to argue with. His Jesus is way too positive about violence, I’d say.

I want to focus on just a small part of his argument though. That’s his use of the Book of Revelation. I am sure that if Howell and I had a discussion about Revelation we would discover many differences. However, for the point I want to make here, I am willing to grant a lot to what I expect to be his assumptions about Revelation (most of all, that it is a book that gives concrete prophesies about the future—about what will be). Let’s accept that Revelation might be doing this. Even so, does his use of Revelation to support his affirmation of Christians preparing for and using violence in “self-defense”? This is what Howell writes:

“Unbelievers and others lacking knowledge about the true character of God sometimes refer to Christ’s moniker as the Prince of Peace to conclude Christianity must be a wimpy, defenseless teaching. Of course, this is one of many titles for Jesus, another being the Lion of Judah. While Jesus was exceptionally mild and meek at his first coming, we are assured by Scripture that he will not be so at his second coming. He is described in Revelation 19 as the King of kings who leads the armies of heaven on a white horse and utterly destroys his enemies with the word of his mouth (visualized there as a sword). In a world littered with violence, the Prince of Peace knows that real tranquility is only obtained through strength.”

Revelation and violent self-defense

Let me note several things about his points that relate to Revelation. My thoughts here would work equally well within a future-prophetic view of Revelation or a historical-symbolic view. My concern is what the text actually seems to be saying. Continue reading “Is the Book of Revelation on Falwell’s side?”

Should “love” define a Christian university?

Ted Grimsrud

[The following was shared as an opening meditation at a Eastern Mennonite University faculty assembly, November 16, 2015.]

Critiquing North American higher eduction

I listened to Henry Giroux, a political philosopher at Canada’s McMaster University, on the radio a couple of weeks ago. He detailed crises in higher education in North America—and focused, among other things, on how higher education’s work of fostering genuine democracy is increasingly subordinated to the ever more all-encompassing corporate agenda. We have seen these issues dramatically illustrated in the recent student uprising at the University of Missouri.

I am quite sympathetic with Giroux’s critique and think it is relevant for how we think of our work here at EMU. Whatever it all is that “Christian” higher education might be about, it seems like it must include many of the things Giroux talks about—confronting our “cold commodity culture” for the sake of social wholeness, justice, care for the vulnerable, a stronger and more vital democratic public sphere.

But I also felt something was missing in his presentation. That I have a hard time naming what I missed might reflect my own failure of theological imagination. The best I can do is say that there is not much talk about love in his vision. There’s not a lot of talk about compassion, servanthood, turning the other cheek, a Martin Luther King-style sense of “self-suffering” for the sake of social justice.

As I think about what it might mean to be a genuinely Christian college, shaped most of all by the core convictions that the Bible articulates for us, I think of a call to combine social critique with love; to combine saying no to empire, no to corporatism, with saying yes to compassion, to care, to kindness, to valuing each person. Continue reading “Should “love” define a Christian university?”

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. Continue reading “Revelation, God’s Wrath, Healing Justice, and Mennonite Church USA”

Revelation is a peace book!

Ted Grimsrud—June 23, 2015

I have been interested in the book of Revelation for years. It has now been 28 years since I published my first book, a popular-level commentary on Revelation called Triumph of the Lamb. I have times when I pursue this interest more, and then it lies dormant for awhile. I am currently in an upswing in my interest and hope to complete a new book on Revelation by the end of 2015. I’m tentatively calling it, “Healing Empire: A Radical Reading of Revelation.”

Revelation as radically peaceable (or not)

One way that my reading of Revelation is “radical” is that I am presenting Revelation as a peace book, from start to finish. Though Revelation has often been seen as vengeful and supportive of violence both by those who approve of the violence and those who find it repulsive, there is a long tradition of peaceable readings of Revelation going back at least to G. B. Caird’s influential commentary, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, first published fifty years ago.

The new Anchor Bible commentary on Revelation by Craig Koester is very much in the Caird tradition, I am happy to say. In fact, it’s an extraordinarily helpful commentary, packed with great detail but quite well written and theologically engaged. Unfortunately, it’s also quite expensive.

One can’t read scholarly writing on Revelation without encountering a perspective that is contrary to my peaceable reading, however. The book that has triggered this blog post is Greg Carey, Elusive Apocalypse: Reading Authority in the Revelation to John (Mercer University Press, 1999). I also recently read theologian Catherine Keller’s engagement with Revelation, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World (Beacon Press, 1996). And I have on my pile of books to read a.s.a.p. John Dominic Crossan’s How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015) which has a short but very pointed discussion of Revelatio. Of these three, Crossan takes the most negative view of Revelation: “Revelation is filled, repeatedly, relentlessly, and ruthlessly, with metaphors for actual, factual, and historical violence to come” (p. 180). Carey and Keller are pretty negative, too, though they do find some attractive elements to the book.

What follows was elicited by my reading Carey’s book. It’s a good book that I would recommend. What I offer is not so much a critique of Carey, but some thoughts in defense of my reading of Revelation as a peace book that arose for me as I read Carey. What are some pieces of evidence to support my reading? Continue reading “Revelation is a peace book!”

There’s Power in the Blood: Revelation’s Patience and Creation’s Transformation

Ted Grimsrud—September 21, 2014

For me, the book of Revelation has turned out to be the gift that keeps giving. Going back to when I, as a 20-something set out to disprove my pastor’s claim that Revelation’s violence means we shouldn’t be pacifists—I have lived pretty closely with Revelation. It’s like, when I face a challenging issue—say, war and peace, the character of God—I turn to Revelation. The book has not let me down yet. So, in thinking about how Christian faith and our environmental crises interrelate, I expect Revelation to have something helpful to say.

In this paper I ask, is there a message in Revelation that might encourage Christians to “care for God’s creation, for the land and all that lives in it”? To remove the element of suspense, I answer this question with a vociferous yes! Maybe the suspense that remains is to wonder how I could possibly support such a conclusion.

Revelation and the destruction of the world

Many different approaches to Revelation all seem to see it as our prime biblical example of “apocalyptic” writing—writing characterized by an expectation of a sudden and violent end to the world we live in. To think apocalyptically, it is said, is to think of visions of fire from the sky that judge and destroy. The “apocalypse” is a time of catastrophe, of dramatic change, the end of what is and the birth of something drastically new and different. Apocalyptic power is the power of vengeance and judgment. As a consequence of God’s exercise of such power, every knee is forced to bow before God—either in joyful submission or in defeated submission.

There are those we could call the “cultured despisers” of Revelation—including some who avoid Revelation because it is too violent and judgmental and some in the scholarly guide who see Revelation as a prime example of how the early Christians expected an immediate apocalypse in their lifetimes. And, on the opposite extreme there are those in the future-prophetic school who understand Revelation, to be predictive of actual events in human history. Future judgment, destruction and re-creation, vengeance and reward. The earth will be consumed—praise God. All three approaches agree; Revelation teaches a pessimistic theology in relation to the world we live in. We would have to go elsewhere for a constructive environmental ethic.

However, there is a fourth approach—what we could call the peaceable Revelation approach. Revelation is not about the destruction of creation. Revelation scholars such as Barbara Rossing and Mark Bredin, whose book is called The Ecology of the New Testament, have made the case that Revelation actually articulates a pro-creation perspective. Continue reading “There’s Power in the Blood: Revelation’s Patience and Creation’s Transformation”