What would Jesus say about the Russians?

Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2017

“What would Jesus say?” is a common questions Christians ask when they are in the midst of discerning what they themselves should say or do. For it to be a helpful question, I think we do better to think in terms of Jesus’s general moral outlook more than looking for specific verses to apply directly to our time.

I’m not sure I would say that people of good will (not only professing Christians) must ask this question—but I think it would almost always serve us well. And, clearly, if we draw from Jesus’s general moral outlook, we retain a large measure of responsibility to think and reason and act for ourselves. Jesus’s moral outlook gives us guidance but it does not give us a direct blueprint.

Currently, in the United States, we are badly in need of careful moral discernment. We are badly in deed of a moral outlook that gives us a stable set of moral convictions that will resist our tendency to look for guidance that justifies our own actions or simply allows us to condemn our enemies because they are our enemies. That is, we are in need of moral guidance that demands that whatever criteria for morality we use apply equally to ourselves as they do to our opponents.

It is risky right now to appeal to Jesus because so many people in power present themselves as “Christians” while acting and speaking in ways that are very much in tension with the actual life and teaching of Jesus. So, to evoke Jesus makes one vulnerable to be dismissed as simply another pious-sounding hypocrite. At the same time, appealing to Jesus’s actual moral outlook might provide a basis for challenging the approaches of self-professing Christians. That is what I hope to do with this blog post.

Continue reading “What would Jesus say about the Russians?”

A passionate Christian voice for abolishing the death penalty

Ted Grimsrud—October 20, 2016

A review of: Shane Claiborne. Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2016. 313 pp.

In Executing Grace, Shane Claiborne, a pastor, activist, and writer of popular theology, has written what we could call a “heart based” argument for abolition of the death penalty. He emphasizes at the beginning that this book is not so much about “capital punishment” as it is about “grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love” (p.3). Or, perhaps more precisely, the book is about “grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love” as applied to the death penalty.

The style is personal, even chatty. But the plentiful stories are powerful, and the theological logic is straightforward. One set of stories concern loved ones of murder victims who oppose the death penalty. Many of these numerous loved ones base their opposition on their beliefs about, Jesus, and the dynamics of forgiveness. Part of Claiborne’s critique concerns the American system that silences these voices in the name of “justice.”

Death penalty proponents have used the Bible to justify executing convicted murderers. As Claiborne points out, “over 85 percent of state executions in the last thirty-eight years occurred in the so-called Bible Belt” (p. 43). So, for an evangelical Christian such as Claiborne, the task is not to argue that the Bible should play no role in the practices of a secular nation such as the United States. Rather, he endeavors to reread the Bible and show that its message ultimately supports the abolition of capital punishment. Continue reading “A passionate Christian voice for abolishing the death penalty”

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 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 Jesus determine our view of God?

Ted Grimsrud—May 26, 2015

The question of how to understand the peaceable message of Jesus in relation to less than peaceable pictures of God in the Bible and in the Christian tradition has challenged ethically concerned people of faith almost since the very beginning.

The arch “heretic” Marcion in the second century after Jesus infamously jettisoned the Old Testament and much of the New Testament in his effort to sustain an authentically Christ-centered faith. Though Marcion’s proposed solution to the problem probably made things worse, his impulse to support a coherent view of God and Jesus together is understandable and perennial.

The spiritual descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists certain have a stake in this on-going conversation. By lifting up Jesus’s life and teaching as normative and by accepting high claims for the authority of the Bible, we really can’t avoid questions about how to harmonize what seem to be powerful tensions among the various sources of information about God.

In recent years, the broader Christian community has seen an uptick in interest in revisiting these themes. Prominent writers such as John Dominic Crossan (How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation) and J. Denny Weaver (The Nonviolent God) are very recent examples of dozens of books that have been written in the past two decades that struggle, often very helpfully, with the theological (as in doctrine of God) implications of interrelating the peaceable impulses of Christian sources with the more violent aspects of how the tradition has presented God.

A welcome contribution to an important conversation

For those, like me, who welcome this conversation and think we still have a ways to go to achieve a genuinely faithful resolution, Bradley Jersak’s new book, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (Pasadena, CA: CWRpress, 2015), will be seen as a singular contribution. Jersak does significant original thinking. Perhaps even more importantly, he writes accessibly in a book aimed at a broad audience. Jersak writes about deep issues in a clear and lively style reflecting the combination of his academic training (a PhD in theology and present vocation as a professor) and two decades work as a pastor and church planter. His own varied ecclesial journey (early life as a conservative Baptist, a stint as a Mennonite pastor, current connection with the Orthodox Church) is seen in his empathetic and inclusive sensibility. Continue reading “Should Jesus determine our view of God?”

An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (6)—Messiah

Ted Grimsrud—March 23, 2015 

 This is the sixth in a series of posts.

Christians in general do not necessarily think of Jesus as a political philosopher—or even political practitioner. However, for the past 2,000 years there have been a few who do try to take their political cues from Jesus. Of these, not many would have used the language of “anarchism” to describe “the politics of Jesus.” However, if we think of the key elements of an anarchistic sensibility, decentering the state and affirming the possibilities of self-organization, we can find a great deal of resonance linking Jesus’s message and anarchistic thinking and practice.

Our starting point, I suggest, should be to look at the gospels in the context of the story of Israel told in the Old Testament. The earlier posts in this series have attempted to highlight strands in that story that may be seen as having anarchistic sensibilities. Jesus certainly saw his message in general as being in continuity with the biblical story he had grown up with. We have no reason not to think that his political perspective reflects this continuity.

One key aspect of the politics of the biblical story that I have discussed earlier is the move from territoriality (where the sustenance of the promise is linked with a geographically bounded political entity—initially a tribal confederation followed by a kingdom with a powerful monarch) to diaspora. The story can be read as culminating with a vision of scattered faith communities living as creative minorities in nation-states that they don’t run or try to run. This may be seen as a particular political option.

Jesus spent his life within the historical boundaries of the Davidic kingdom of ancient Israel, but he can be understood as pursuing a political strategy meant to be lived in diaspora. He pointedly rejected the idea that his messianic leadership could culminate in re-establishing a territorial kingdom. Such a rejection, though, was not a denial of his messianic identity nor was it a rejection of the vocation of his followers to embody God’s kingdom on earth.

However, Jesus’s style of kingship and the kingdom he called his followers too were so different from conventional politics that his kingdom could be called an “unkingdom” (as discussed by Mark Van Stennwyk in his book, The Unkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance [InterVarsity Press, 2013]). His politics could be called a politics of servanthood, as opposed to power politics. In what follows I will mention only a few examples from the gospels that illustrate Jesus’s political sensibility—and support the suggestion that his was an anarchistic sensibility. Continue reading “An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (6)—Messiah”

Pacifism when “life happens”: Further thoughts

Ted Grimsrud—October 2, 2014

Christian pacifism seems to be an issue that people care about a lot, even if they aren’t always very sympathetic toward it. I’m still trying to figure out how to think about it and talk about it, and I’ve been working on that for a long time and with a lot of energy.

I appreciate the stimulus to thought that the exchanges concerning Christian pacifism this week have provided. Thanks to Rachel Held Evans for her initial brief but stimulating Facebook comments that pushed me to write the blog post I put up on Monday (“Is pacifism for when life happens? A response to Rachel Held Evans”). And thanks to her for putting up a link to that post on her Facebook page, to those who commented there, and especially to those who commented directly on my blog and my Facebook page.

As always, when this kind of thing happens, my mind races. I have a few thoughts that seem like new thoughts for me that I would like to add to the conversation.

The meaning of “Christian pacifism”

In my “Is pacifism…” post I tried to make two main points—that (1) Jesus does call Christians to pacifism, which is for all times and places according to his teaching, and that (2) since the United States military is not an agent for genuine justice, Christians should not look to it as a possible answer to the question of what to do about ISIS (which is what I understood to be the trigger for Rachel’s original Facebook comments last week).

This is what I mean by Christian pacifism: Basically, in my mind, thinking of myself as a Christian pacifist is the same thing as thinking of myself as a Christian. Not because I want to add a pacifist ideology onto basic Christian faith. Rather, I believe that “pacifism” is simply a shorthand way to say “Christianity as if Jesus matters.”

I explain this in the other day’s post where I use the story of the Good Samaritan as the central image for summarizing Jesus’s teaching (and his living). What matters the most? What is the ultimate “salvation issue” for Jesus? It’s the call to love God and neighbor. And who is the “neighbor”? Anyone in need and anyone who cares for someone in need—even if one or the other might be considered an enemy.

The term “pacifism” is useful because it reminds us that the kind of love Jesus calls us to is love that does not allow for exceptions. It is love that does not allow for killing, preparing to kill, or supporting those who kill others (that is, it does not allow for warfare). However, it appears that at times this term can be misunderstood. The point for Christian pacifism as I understand it not to insist on the necessity of the term “pacifism” but to remind Christians of the core message of our faith. Continue reading “Pacifism when “life happens”: Further thoughts”

Is pacifism for when “life happens”? A response to Rachel Held Evans

Ted Grimsrud—September 29, 2014

From time to time, I like to return to the core motivation that led me to start this blog. This blog is a place to think and converse about pacifism. I always wish I could find more time and energy to write, because I am thinking about pacifism all the time. But when I look back, I see that I have managed to squeeze out quite a few words over the past nearly four years—and have probably repeated myself numerous times.

To keep my thinking current, I like to write posts when I can where I articulate convictions off the top of my head without going back to what I have written before. This is how I think about pacifism now. The other day, blogger extraordinaire Rachel Held Evans (who I greatly admire) wrote a short comment on Facebook that asked some hard questions about pacifism. These provide a good stimulus for me to take a moment to talk again about Christian pacifism. Is it a serious option for today in the “real world”?

This is what Rachel wrote: Truth: So I’m a terrible pacifist. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not a true pacifist at all. When I hear people preach about nonviolence, and when I read the Sermon on the Mount and Shane Claiborne, I find myself nodding along – convicted and resolved that we can never overcome evil with evil (or killing with killing) but only overcome evil with good. I dream of a world where there is no more war, no more senseless bloodshed, no more child refugees, no more revenge. But then…life happens. And I have to admit I have a hard time saying that the British, when they were being bombed on a daily basis during WWII, had many other options. I have a hard time saying that the woman getting pummeled by her husband shouldn’t fight back in self-defense. And lately, I’ve been watching all this news about ISIS, and I gotta say, I’ve got mixed feelings about what the U.S. and other nations should do about it. It’s like, on the one hand, I believe non-violence is the posture Christians should cultivate and practice. But on the other, I have a hard time saying non-violence is the right response in every situation. Is this a lack of faith? A lack of understanding? Does anyone else struggle sometimes with ideals and practicality?”

I appreciate Rachel providing this concise statement that raises core issues and has stimulated me to produce a response. [September 30 update: Rachel has linked to this post and elicited a lively conversation in response to what I write here.]

Two complementary strands in Christian pacifism

I find it helpful to think of two types of reasoning in relation to Christian pacifism, two complementary strands that both need to be part of a rigorous account of Christian pacifism: “principled pacifism” and “pragmatic pacifism.” Continue reading “Is pacifism for when “life happens”? A response to Rachel Held Evans”

Does the Bible teach anarchism?

Ted Grimsrud—August 25, 2014

I first learned about anarchism back in the 1970s. My wife Kathleen and I got involved with an activist group opposed to Jimmy Carter’s decision to reinstate registration for the draft in order to “show resolve” to the Soviet Union (this is one of the darker aspects of Carter’s presidential legacy—a cynical but failed attempt to hold off the political threat from the right that remains thirty-some years later an important element in the socialization of young people into our national security state). We met a young couple, Karl and Linda, who had just moved to our hometown, Eugene, Oregon, to be part of the rising anarchist movement there.

I had typical superficial stereotypes of anarchists as mindless terrorists (it was an “anarchist,” after all, who had shot President McKinley). I was disabused of that superficial antipathy in conversations with Karl and Linda and also in seeing their lives. They were compassionate, committed to social justice, and (Linda, at least) thoroughly nonviolent. They were pretty negative about Christianity, but were interested to learn to know about our Anabaptist convictions.

About the same time, I took a class on the history of political theory at the University of Oregon—and the professor treated anarchism as a serious political philosophy that needed to be considered alongside the other more mainstream approaches. It might have been as part of that class the I read George Woodcock’s fascinating book, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements.

I have not traveled very far down the anarchist path in these past decades, but I have remained interested in and sympathetic toward this political orientation. Writers such as James C. Scott, Noam Chomsky, and Rebecca Solnit, whose anarchistically-inclined books I have read for reasons other than direct articulation of anarchism, have kept my interest alive. And then, when I learned about the Jesus Radicals website and movement, I started to realize that there was some genuine compatibility between the evolving political perspective I have been constructing and at some articulations of anarchism.

Anarchism and the Bible

One of the new ideas for me has been to think that perhaps we could say that anarchistic sensibilities (in our present day sense of what those involve) are embedded in the biblical story from start to finish. I want in this post to begin to sketch an argument to support this idea. Continue reading “Does the Bible teach anarchism?”