Abraham’s gospel: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 5; 4:1-25) [Peaceable Romans #12]

Ted Grimsrud—April 4, 2022

One of the most beautiful road trips my wife Kathleen and I have ever taken had us driving through the mountains of western North Carolina. We were on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We spent the night in the village of Little Switzerland and greatly anticipated the next morning when we would drive by Mt. Mitchell, the highest spot east of the Rockies, and then see points west.

But when we got up, it was totally foggy. As thick a fog as we’ve ever seen. The forest certainly has its own eerie beauty when you can barely see the white lines on the highway. Still, we were uneasy when we drove twenty miles or so and never saw another car. But then came the moment. We turned a corner and without any warning the fog was gone. We had the most incredible vista, in the bright sunlight, snowy mountains, valleys, forests. It was amazing. Then, we were back in the fog for several more miles. It was just those few moments, but the picture is still vivid in my memory.

The whole Bible as a peace book

This experience comes to mind as I think about Romans four. A lot of Christians, maybe especially those attracted to peace theology, are suspicious of the Old Testament. And suspicious of the Apostle Paul. And, deeply suspicious of the book of Revelation. There is the great bright light of Jesus, his picture of a God of love and mercy—and much of the rest of the Bible is kind of foggy, wars and rumors of war, legalistic religion, abstract doctrine, with the finale of Revelation’s unspeakable bloody judgment.

This is the analogy: The Bible can seem like that foggy drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is but one spot of incredible beauty. Such a spot may redeem the whole thing—but the rest isn’t of much value. However, I want to say: No! The Bible is actually more like our return trip driving back home. Then the Parkway was clear and sunny all the way and we had one beautiful scene after another. Likewise, the whole Bible has great beauty.

Romans four is a text that helps us to see the Bible in this way. I don’t want to deny that the Bible has a few spots that are irreparably foggy scattered around. Basically, though, I believe that the overall message is about mercy all the way down from the very start. The Bible tells an empowering story throughout. We may embrace its message of peace, restorative justice, compassion, and healing. The key figure in Romans four is Abraham, the great patriarch, considered to be the spiritual ancestor for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Continue reading “Abraham’s gospel: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 5; 4:1-25) [Peaceable Romans #12]”

Mercy all the way down: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 4; 3:1-31) [Peaceable Romans #11]

Ted Grimsrud—March 21, 2022

There is a famous story that almost for sure didn’t actually happen. But it’s kind of funny and it provides a metaphor I want to adapt for this post. This big time philosopher (or maybe it’s a scientist) lectures about the infinite cosmos and is challenged by an elderly woman in the audience. “What you are telling us about the universe is rubbish. The earth rests on the back of a huge turtle.” “Oh yes,” the philosopher says, “and pray tell, what holds up the turtle?” “Why, another turtle, of course.” “And what holds up that turtle?” “Ah, I get where you’re going. But sir, it is turtles, all the way down!” Turtles all the way down, we don’t need anything more.

The moral universe and Jesus’s “sacrificial” death

I don’t want to make any claims about the infinity or not of the physical universe here. My concern is the Apostle Paul’s account of the gospel. However, I do want to use this metaphor of “turtles all the way down” to think of the moral universe. In many readings of Paul—and, hence, many understandings of the gospel—we have something like this: God can forgive only because God’s justice has been satisfied by Jesus’s sacrificial death. Or maybe it’s God’s holiness or God’s honor.

The point for that perspective is that God can’t simply forgive. The moral nature of the universe requires some kind of satisfaction, some kind of payment, to balance out the enormity of human sin. Reciprocity. Retribution. Tit for tat. It can’t be mercy all the way down. The moral universe rests on something else—retributive justice or justice as fairness. Mercy is possible only in ways that account for this kind of justice. Thus, salvation is not truly based on mercy. Rather, salvation is based on an adequate payment of the universe’s moral price tag placed on human sin.

Romans 3 has often been cited to support what has been called the “satisfaction view of the atonement.” This view sees the meaning of Jesus’s death as the sacrifice of a sinless victim that satisfies God’s need for a payment for human sin. This payment allows God to offer us forgiveness if we accept Jesus as our savior. I’m going to offer a different reading. I don’t like the traditional view. There are many problems with it. Maybe most basically, it denies that God is love, it seems to me. It denies that mercy is life’s fundamental truth. It may foster fearfulness and legalism. It may make us vulnerable to giving loyalty to human structures of power and coercion—i.e., empires and other nation-states, not to mention religious institutions.

Continue reading “Mercy all the way down: A peaceable reading of Romans (part 4; 3:1-31) [Peaceable Romans #11]”

Metaphysical Therapy [Jesus story #10]

Ted Grimsrud—May 6, 2021

I have titled this post “Metaphysical Therapy.” When I look up the word “metaphysics,” I read this: “the term is not easily defined.” So, I thought maybe I should find a new title. But I read on: “metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions—‘what is there?’ and ‘what is it like?’” I thought, well, that is what I want to write about.

We who believe compassion, nonviolence, and restorative justice should be central for social life face challenges. Our American culture doesn’t seem hospitable to these beliefs. Our culture tends more toward cruelty, violence, and retributive justice. A lot of the problems may stem from our metaphysics. That is, the problems may stem from what we believe reality to be like. Is the world ultimately a friendly place or unfriendly? Is life to be lived with a mentality of abundance or of scarcity? Is violence part of our nature or not? Is this “little round planet,” as Bruce Cockburn asks, “blessed” or “cursed”?

If the nature of the universe points toward scarcity, we can’t but be required to be stingy, to cling to what we have, and to view human relationships in conflictual terms. Our basic stance, with good reason, will need to be fearful. But, if the nature of the universe points toward abundance, then it makes more sense, and is more natural, to be generous, trusting, and vulnerable in our relationships. “Metaphysical therapy,” then, seeks to heal our understanding of reality—to move us from fearfulness to trust. I will suggest that such metaphysical therapy is a central part of Jesus’s ministry. His message always challenges our view of the nature of reality.

Continue reading “Metaphysical Therapy [Jesus story #10]”

God’s greatest power is mercy [Jesus story #5]

Ted Grimsrud—April 19, 2021

Back in 2001, I published a little book with the subtitle, “An Introduction to the Bible’s Main Themes.” I had a hard time for a while figuring out what the main title should be. How would I best catch up those “main themes” in a short phrase? The title I came up with was, “God’s healing strategy,” a phrase I had used in some sermons that were the early version of what went into the book. Several people I talked with about this thought that was a pretty weak title. It kind of makes God into a basketball coach—which isn’t too surprising, I suppose, since my dad was a basketball coach and certainly did talk about “strategy” a lot. But no one came up with a better idea, so “God’s healing strategy” it stayed.

If I could name the book now, I might try “A God Who Heals” or “Healing Mercy.” Or maybe, “Healing Stories” with a triple meaning—stories about God’s healing work, stories that help people find healing, but also an attempt to heal the way we read and apply at least some of the Bible’s stories.

Regardless, this is what I would want to get at with the title: The main focus of the Bible, as I understand it, centers on God and God’s intentions to bring healing to a world full of brokenness—and on how God brings such healing. These are the issues the Bible cares about, I would say: What needs healing—and how is the healing to be done? And, what does the story of Jesus have to say about these issues? Why do we pay attention to Jesus in relation to the Bible’s message of healing?

Continue reading “God’s greatest power is mercy [Jesus story #5]”

Turning against evangelicalism: A pastor’s story

Ted Grimsrud—January 2, 2019

I, for one, am intrigued with the stories of those who have turned away from an evangelical Christian past and yet remained active followers of Jesus. I like to compare notes, and I find these accounts helpful as I continue to try to make sense of this strand of religiosity that continues to have a great impact on American society.

A recent book, Chris Kratzer’s provocatively titled Leatherbound Terrorism: Crucified by Conservative Evangelicalism, Resurrected by Jesus (Grace Publishing, 2018), has the virtue of some brutal honesty, sharp criticism, and (most importantly) the articulation of a counter vision for how to understand and practice Christian faith. I will be able offer only a qualified endorsement of the book, for reasons I will explain, but I welcome this volume to the growing library of works that present alternatives to what has become a devastating embodiment of Christianity in the United States on the part of the Religious Right.

An insider’s perspective

Kratzer’s account is searingly personal. He writes of a traumatic childhood in an abusive family that segued into an ambivalent religiosity where he sought to deepen his sense of God’s acceptance of him. Amidst his childhood trauma he encountered Jesus in a personal way as a healing power—but then struggled to sustain a connection with that power. Interestingly, after college Kratzer attended a Lutheran seminary and began his career as a Lutheran minister. Fairly quickly, though, he changed directions and entered the ministry in an evangelical setting. He vowed to be a success, and followed a template of high-powered megachurch religiosity.

Kratzer does not give us many details about the specific version of evangelicalism that he embraced, but he does clearly detail how it shaped his psyche. He portrays himself as a man of strong convictions who understood his calling as one of top-down leadership and controlling power. It’s not clear from his account how outwardly successful his ministry actually was. We aren’t told how far he advanced in the magachurch constellation. What is clear is that he never felt successful.

The heart of the evangelicalism that Kratzer practiced was a quest for certainty, a quest for the satisfaction of being worthy of salvation, a quest for a sense of superiority in relation to those who don’t measure up—that is, a quest for the quieting of a life-long anxiety about failure and unworthiness. Continue reading “Turning against evangelicalism: A pastor’s story”

What if Revelation 14 is about punitive judgment after all?

Ted Grimsrud—May 4, 2018

For the past several months I have been putting most of my writing energy into a study of the book of Revelation, and have not met my goals for blog posting frequency. I finally realized that I need to combine thinking so much about Revelation with writing blog posts. So I expect to share several sets of reflections that draw heavily on Revelation in the next few weeks.

Punitive judgment in Revelation

One of my ongoing interests is the issue of punitive judgment—in the Bible and in life. I feel that I have developed a pretty strong argument that shows that the book of Revelation as a whole emphasizes mercy and healing much more than punitive judgment. However, some passages in Revelation have been rather persistently interpreted in punitive terms. Perhaps the most notorious comes at the end of chapter 14. This is what is written:

“Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle. ‘Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.’ So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.” (Revelation 14:17-20, NRSV)

After reading through several dozen commentaries and other book and articles on Revelation, I recognize that there is a pretty strong consensus that these verses are talking about God’s punitive judgment against humans who have turned against God. There is one important stream of interpretation, starting with the influential 1966 commentary by George B. Caird, that reads this paragraph in a non-punitive way. In general, though, even commentaries that read other difficult passages in non-punitive ways, tend to see John teaching violent retribution here. Continue reading “What if Revelation 14 is about punitive judgment after all?”

Are we in debt to God?

Ted Grimsrud—October 10, 2016

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the first in a series on salvation and human flourishing.]

My agenda here is to talk about Jubilee. I believe that Jubilee is a central theme throughout the entire Bible, even if the term itself isn’t used very often. A key text is Luke 4, which tells of when Jesus opens his public ministry with words that would have associated him with the Old Testament’s year of Jubilee—which is one of three levels of Sabbath regulations in the book of Leviticus.

Sabbath theology

There is the Sabbath day, the seventh day, a day of rest—which when first instituted was radical for the Hebrew people who had recently been liberated from slavery where there was no rest. Every seventh day should be a time to stop, to recuperate, and to remember how God, in God’s mercy, had given them freedom.

Then there is the Sabbath year, the seventh year. During the Sabbath year, the land was to be allowed to rest, to not be cultivated but to recuperate. The Sabbath year was also a time for the forgiveness of debts, including the release from service for indentured servants, temporary “slaves,” you could say, who worked for others to pay off their debts. Part of the idea here, too, was the reminder of God as a God of mercy and generosity; and part of the idea as well was to prevent a long term separation between various classes of people—no indefinite indebtedness, no separation of the wealthy from the poor, of debtors from debtees.

Then the third level was the year of Jubilee. Here, after 7 sets of 7 years, the 50th year, land was to be returned to those who had originally owned it. There was to be a redistribution—or, we could say, an end to the redistribution—of the land. Instead of being redistributed to the big landowners, it goes back to those who first owned it. It would be as if in the United States all the wealth that has been redistributed from the lower and middle classes to the 1% would be returned every 50 years.

The year of Jubilee was a profound statement about God’s intentions for the community and, more than that, even, a profound statement about the character of God. Prevent having a few push the many off the land; have a society that cares for the vulnerable. Continue reading “Are we in debt to God?”

An interview on justice, mercy, and God’s love

Ted Grimsrud—June 17, 2015

In February, 2015, I was privileged to be a guest on a radio show, Community Justice Talks, on KHEN-FM, Salida, Colorado. The show’s host, Molly Rowan Leach, interviewed me for about half an hour. We talked about an article I had written,“Violence as a Theological Problem” and my two books, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Justice, and The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy.

The recording of that interview is now available. Here’s a link to a page that allows visitors to listen to the interview directly or to download a podcast. Or it can be listened to here as well. I have also post an edited written transcript of the interview on my PeaceTheology website.

I appreciate Molly’s excellent interviewing skills that helped me articulate some of the main ideas I have been working on that relate to the connection between theology, our current dynamics of retribution, and the promise of restorative justice.