Category: Peace Theology

Wondering about the American Civil War

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2018
I grew up in western Oregon. Until I was 17, the farthest east I had ever been was Wallowa Lake in the northeastern corner of the state. Then, the summer after my junior year in high school, my family took a road trip out to Virginia to meet my new niece. My dad, who was a history teacher with deep interest in the Civil War, was thrilled to get to visit battlefields, museums, and other key Civil War sites. It was pretty interesting, but we had to leave to return home way too soon and only scratched the surface.
Ever since Kathleen, Johan, and I moved to Harrisonburg, VA, in 1996, I have felt guilty that I have not given much thought to the Civil War. My dad (who died in 1984) would be furious if he knew how I had wasted my time here by not paying more attention to Civil War places and materials. My apathy might finally be ending.
Did slavery actually end?
In the past few years I have learned about the impressive work of Bryan Stevenson. In his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014), Stevenson details his work as an attorney who has devoted his energy to saving the lives of people treated unjustly by our criminal justice system. He established the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, as the headquarters for his work.
Living in Montgomery has exposed Stevenson to the long and deep history of American violence toward people of color. He led an effort to establish a museum that would recognize the terrible toll of lynching in our country. This museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and its accompanying Legacy Museum opened their doors in late April this year. With this opening, Stevenson has been asked to talk in various settings about the legacy of such terroristic violence. He is extraordinarily clear and straightforward in the story he tells. A few weeks ago, I listened to an extended interview he gave the Washington Post.
Stevenson made a comment that got my attention. He stated that slavery never actually ended in the United States. It only evolved. This statement came simply as an observation, not as a strong thesis that he laid out a detailed rationale for. But his discussion of the tradition of Jim Crow segregation and lynchings by the thousand in the generations following the legal ending of slavery following the Civil War and his allusions to the ongoing plague of mass incarceration that has especially targeted black Americans offer anecdotal support for his statement about slavery’s evolution (and correlate with Michelle Alexander’s arguments about the dynamics of mass incarceration, especially in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness).
So, then I wondered. Let’s assume that Stevenson’s comment about slavery has at least some truth to it. I recognize that such a broad and perhaps shocking statement—slavery didn’t end, it only evolved—requires quite a bit of scrutiny before being taken as a statement of fact. I assume Stevenson means “slavery” in a more metaphorical sense and not in a strictly legal sense. I think it is undeniable that the ending of slavery in the legal sense did not deliver very much that was positive in terms of the betterment of the lives of its victims. And it is becoming more apparent all the time that the vicious legacy of white supremacy in the United States remains all too present.
This, then, is my question: If it is true that in ways that genuinely matter, slavery did not end but only evolved, what does that say about the Civil War? And, more broadly, I will add another question that directly relates to my interests as a peace theologian (see my book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War II), what does the failure actually to end slavery say about the use of warfare as a tool for social justice? I should note that Stevenson does not speak directly to these questions—they are mine, not his.
What about the Civil War?
I want to investigate these questions. What I have pretty much always heard about the Civil War is that it was a terrible tragedy, the source of massive death and destruction, but in the end a necessary evil that delivered the much needed and otherwise unattainable ending of slavery in the United States. The promise of the ending of slavery and integrating its victims fully in American society has been slow in being fulfilled, but this first step still was essential. So we should be grateful for the terrible costs that were paid and the undeniable achievement that was gained. Probably the most famous articulation of this way of thinking about the Civil War is Ken Burns’s lengthy documentary, The Civil War.
What, though, if Stevenson’s assessment of the fate of slavery in this country is accurate? Should that change how we look at the Civil War? Was it actually in almost every area that matters in relation to genuine justice for those who were forcibly relocated to North America and so brutally enslaved a failure? If that is the case, then surely we should not be thinking that the Civil War was a necessary, albeit tragic, step toward the justice we all would agree has been so necessary. And, perhaps, as well, we should quit looking to war itself as ever serving as a tool for social justice.
Rethinking the abolitionist movement?
Another question that arises for me, then, is a question about the pre-Civil War movement to end slavery. The standard account of the abolitionist movement usually includes a kind of condescending conclusion in relation to the branch of that movement that opposed the use of violence to end slavery. Doesn’t the Civil War—and its success in finally ending slavery—prove that nonviolence simply doesn’t work in the end to overcome truly profound systemic injustice?
Well, if we follow Stevenson’s comment, we are left with some issues in relation to the standard account. If slavery actually did not end, then the central point about the Civil War’s effectiveness vis-à-vis nonviolence must be rethought. It would appear that the war actually was not effective, and perhaps in the long run made the condition of the enslaved people worse.
What should we make of the abolitionist movement? I have long admired those activists who fervently sought to end slavery. I have especially admired abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison who combined their commitment to ending slavery with a commitment to nonviolence. But if slavery actually didn’t end (in Stevenson’s sense), shouldn’t that cause us to reassess what the abolitionists did and didn’t do? Perhaps most urgently for me, I would like to understand how erstwhile abolitionists responded to the emergence of the Jim Crow regime in the South.
The moral legacy of the Civil War?
If we are going to consider the moral legacy of any war, a good place to start is to consider that immediate cost of that war. If we assume that war is morally problematic—which is what all actual moral reflections do when say the benefits must outweigh the costs, since there are significant costs—then we must consider what that war did cost so we can compare that cost with the benefits.
So, what did the Civil War cost at the time it happened? How many people were directly killed or died as consequence of the war? What about other human damage—serious wounds, the psychological costs, destruction to infrastructure, nature, farm animals, etc? I don’t know the answer to these questions but it seems important to be attentive to the immediate costs as one learns more about the war.
Then there are longer term and more intangible costs. One book I have read on the Civil War and morality is a fine book by historian Harry Stout—Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War. Stout’s book is very helpful, even eye-opening. He does a nice job of critical analysis asking important moral questions. However, he ends the story abruptly with the war’s end in 1865. I think we also need a “moral history” of the consequences of the war. Did it accomplish what was claimed for it to justify the financial expense and the lives of the soldiers?
A related set of questions have to do with what the war actually achieved. Did it succeed in accomplishing what it seems to have been started and pursued in order to achieve? What is it a success on its own terms? These questions do not have obvious answers. They need to be critically investigated. I will ask these questions on behalf of the war effort of the North. Obviously, the war was a major failure in terms of the war aims of the South.
The kind of lens I will choose to use in evaluating this story is the lens of the ostensible rationale for the war, the cause of ending slavery. However, I want to look more deeply than simply the legality of the formal ownership of slaves. It does seem clear that slavery in that sense did end. But what about the underlying issue of the respect for the humanity of formerly enslaved people? This is the kind of issue that seems to be in mind for Bryan Stevenson when he says slavery did not end but only evolved.
How did the war impact the dynamics of addressing the context for slavery? What did the seemingly successful ending of the Civil War actually mean for how American society thought about and acted toward former slaves? What about issues such as actual freedom for liberated slaves—economic development, access to education, safety, and similar dynamics. Maybe we could think ahead and apply Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “four freedoms” that helped provide a direction for the ideals behind the prosecution of World War II—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. How available did these freedoms become for former slaves? This seems like quite an important question in considering the moral legacy of the civil war, particularly if we think of it as a necessary and justifiable war required for the ending of slavery. What if slavery ended only in a formal sense and the actual freedom of slaves was not in reality a result of this terrible and horrendously costly war?
The long-term effects of the Civil War
Besides the impact in the decades afterwards of the Civil War on the lives of those the war was supposedly fought on behalf of, I also want to understand better other long-term effects of the war. What was the impact on the general attitude about warfare in the United States going forward? Did the “success” of the Civil War lead to a more optimistic view of the usefulness of war in general? What about the pre-war militaristic sensibility in the South—was that weakened or strengthened afterwards?
What is the connection between the Civil War and the smaller wars in the years to follow that subdued the resistance of Native Americans to the expansion of “civilization” to the West? It does seem notable that such major figures in the Civil War such as Union generals Sheridan and Sherman played huge roles in the “Indian wars.”
Then there is the tremendous expansion of the availability of firearms after the war when millions of soldiers returned to civilian life taking their weapons with them. How did this impact life in the years after the war? How about the impact of the Civil War on the frequency of domestic violence in the years after it ended?
Finally, what were the consequences of the short-lived exercise of trying to impose a new political order on the former Confederacy through the work of the occupying federal troops in the South? What did it mean for black southerners when their protectors were taken away? What have been the effects of “unreconstructed” white supremacists exercising mostly unchecked political power in the South in the years after the ending of Reconstruction only 12 years after the war ended?
The agenda of this project
My intent is not to focus on “what if” considerations. I won’t be emphasizing how things might have been different. My interests are more in trying to learn from what seems now to have been a failed effort bring about social justice through massive violence. It’s not so much: How could things have been different? More so, it’s: Can we learn from the mistakes of the past? How can we free ourselves from the pervasive myth of redemptive violence that has led us to valorize the Civil War for achieving something it actually did not achieve but likely made worse?
I also want to look more closely at the second big effort to try to effect social justice for black Americans—the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Clearly the Civil Rights movement took a diametrically different approach toward social change than the Civil War. What is to be learned from the differences? Is it possible successfully to argue on behalf of nonviolence as a much better approach to these issues than warfare?
But, also, what were the limitations of the Civil Rights movement? What is left to be achieved? And how?
Behind all this, I also want to think theologically. Themes such as human dignity, social change strategies, a vision for the “beloved community,” working for hope and energy in face of impervious oppression, and many others all have theological roots. Is it possible to imagine an overcoming of the problems of racism, white supremacy, domination, and the like without a deeper theological analysis than we have had?

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism


What does Romans 13 actually teach?

Ted Grimsrud—June 18, 2018
What does it mean for the United States to be a “Christian nation”? For many, it seems to mean that people should support the political status quo, and they will quote the 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans to support that support (“be subject to the governing authorities”). We find this most often when Christians want to offer “biblical support” for obeying the state’s call to go to war. But it comes up in many other circumstances as well.
Just lately, our evangelical Attorney General used Romans 13 as a basis to demand acceptance of Donald Trump’s policy of separating would-be immigrant children from their parents when they are arrested trying to cross the border into the US. Many commentators have noted that such a use of Romans 13 is not appropriate. I agree, but I also think that when this passage comes up in a public and controversial way, it is good to take the opportunity to offer some suggestions for how this oft-cited text might best be read.
The message of Jesus
The first step for thinking about the issues that Romans 13 are purported to address (our relationship to the state, our responsibilities as citizens, et al) is to start with Jesus—just as the New Testament itself does. Though Paul wrote Romans decades before the gospel writers wrote the gospels, the early church used these writings in a way that placed the gospels first. I think we can assume that the stories about Jesus that make up the core of the gospels circulated from the time of his death.
Paul himself insisted he simply reinforced Jesus’ message. If our basic question in looking at Romans 13 is a question of social ethics, we need to set the context for Paul’s own life and thought by taking note of what Jesus did and said that establish his own approach to social ethics.
The social ethic Jesus articulates has as its core two key elements: imitate God’s love even for God’s enemies (Luke 6:35-36) and practice a style of life utterly different from the “natural law” behavior of people in the world (6:32-34). That is, go beyond simply loving those who love you and doing good to those who do good to you—love even your enemies.
Jesus embodied an approach to politics where compassion, respect, inclusion of outsiders, non-retaliation, forgiveness all stood at the center. He taught his followers to subvert the standard political dynamic of Empire where the rulers lord it over their subjects. “Not so among you!” (Mark 10:43).
Those who make Romans 13 central to their political theology act as if Paul then came along and intentionally moved things in a different direction from Jesus. Does Paul make the necessary adjustment of Jesus’ radical ethic to something more realistic and responsible in the “real world”? Is Paul a teacher of accommodation that helps make Christian faith politically relevant? Or, is it rather the case that Paul actually reinforces the radicality of Jesus original message?
Before we look at Romans 13 itself, let’s note a couple of key elements in Paul’s thought more generally.
Paul’s social analysis
Paul introduces a way to speak of the structures of human life using the language of the “principalities and powers.” He refers to realities beyond simply our individual persons. He has in mind our institutions, traditions, social practices, belief systems, organizations, languages, and so on. This Powers language speaks metaphorically about the discrete “personalities” and even “wills” that these structures have.
(1) The Powers are part of the good creation.  They were brought into being by God as a “divine gift” that makes human social life possible.  When God created human beings, necessarily elements of human life such as language, traditions, and ways of ordering community life all came into existence alongside the individual human beings.  And like the original human beings, the Powers were also good.
(2) The Powers are fallen. They are so closely linked with humanity that when human beings turned from God—spoken of traditionally as “the fall”—so, too, did the Powers.  It is as if the Powers, as part of created reality, turn against human beings when humans are alienated from God.  The fallen Powers then seek to take God’s place as the center of human devotion, often becoming idols.
(3) The Powers remain necessary.  In spite of their fallenness, the Powers retain their original function. Human life still requires ordering; we still need elements of life such as language, traditions, and ways of organizing our communities. The Powers are still used by God in the sustenance of human social life. Consequently, the Powers are both a huge part of the problem human beings face in living in our fallen world and a necessary part of whatever solutions might be found.
(4) The Powers must be redeemed.  What is required for a potential resolution of the “Powers dilemma” is that the Powers be transformed (they cannot be abolished or ignored). The Powers must be “put in their place.”  We need them but they should be our servants (on behalf of life) not our masters (idols that make us become like them).  Such a putting the Powers in their place can only happen when we see them as what they are—creatures, not God substitutes.
(5) Jesus does redeem the Powers. Jesus lived free from the Powers’ control and as a consequence was crucified. In his death the Powers (representatives of religion and politics) collaborate. However, Jesus remained free from their allure, even in face of the deadly violence.  In doing so, he brings to light their true character. As Colossians 2:15 states, on the cross he “disarmed” the Powers, “making a public example of them and thereby triumphing over them. In Jesus’ resurrection, it becomes clear that his challenge to the Powers was endorsed and vindicated by God.  In Jesus, God has ventured into the Powers’ territory, remained true to God’s loving character, and defeated them.
Living in a broken world
Paul knew, all too well, that freedom in Jesus must be lived in a broken world.  So, he reflects on how Christian freedom may be lived most faithfully in an unfree world. Pauline writings concerning subordination in interpersonal relationships may deepen our analysis of how Paul reinforces and applies Jesus’s ethic.
Paul does not simply endorse status quo power arrangements that require those in the “lower” positions to give all their power to their “superiors.” Paul writes to people in the “lower” positions and treats them as responsible moral agents who have full (and equal) worth as human beings with those of higher social status.  These addressees, according to Paul, have indeed been liberated in Jesus and welcomed into full membership in Jesus’s assembly.  However, likely these addressees are not in positions to claim that liberation fully while at the same time remaining wholly committed to Jesus’s path of loving their neighbors.
Paul echoes Jesus in holding up two equally crucial convictions.  We are free in Jesus and we are called to love even our enemies.  In this love we refrain from smashing existing social arrangements.  Paul’s points on “subordination” are best seen as part of his thinking on the processes of negotiating this liberation/path of love tension.
The main term that Paul uses, hyptoassesthai, could best be translated something like “subordinate yourself to,” better than flatly “submit to.”  It is not connoting slavish obedience.  It is best defined in relation to Jesus.  According to Paul in Philippians two, Jesus, being free, subordinated himself for our sake and gave himself for us.  And, Paul emphasizes in Philippians 2:5, believers should “let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
In Romans, Paul cares about mutual subordination among the Christians in Rome.  He emphasizes, by the end of the book, the crucial importance to the Roman Christians of loving one another (13:8-10), refraining from judging each other (14:1-12), avoiding making one another stumble (14:13-23), pleasing others and not oneself (15:1-6), and recognizing that the gospel is for Jews and Gentiles together (15:7-13).
Paul advocates a genuine revolution against the Roman Empire’s hegemony; his readers are called to conform to Jesus’s way in resistance to the world’s (12:1-2).  However, the revolutionary means he advocates are consistent with the healing mercy of God extended to the entire world.  The certainty Paul has—and all followers of Jesus should have—in the world-transforming efficacy of God’s healing mercy undergirds lives of patient love, extended even (as with God Godself) toward enemies.
The broader biblical context for “Romans 13”
Romans 13 (specifically 13:1-7) often serves as a counter-testimony in the Christian tradition to the belief that Paul taught nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire—calling for submission, not resistance. I believe such readings of these verses fundamentally misunderstand Paul’s thought.
Our interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 should begin with consideration of the broader context of biblical politics.  From Egypt in Genesis and Exodus, then Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and down to Rome in the book of Revelation, the Bible tells us that empires rebel against God and hinder the healing vocation of God’s people.  The entire Bible calls people of faith to follow Torah in seeking to love God and neighbor. And it shows how to navigate the hostility, domination, idolatry, and violence toward this healing vocation that almost without exception characterize the world’s empires.
Romans 13:1-7 stands within this biblical framework of antipathy toward the empires.  Hence, we should turn to these Romans verses assuming that their concern is something like this: Given the fallenness of Rome, how might we live within this empire as people committed uncompromisingly to love of neighbor?  Paul has no illusions about Rome being in a positive sense a servant of God.  However, we know from biblical stories that God nonetheless can and does use the corrupt nations for God’s purposes.  Yet these nations also remain under God’s judgment.
Romans’s message
The message of Romans as a whole reinforces the broader biblical perspective—both on the problematic nature of human empires and on the relevance of the message of God’s healing love to the faithful response to the reality of empire.
Paul discusses two major strains of idolatry in chapters 1–3: (1) the Empire and its injustices that demand the highest loyalty and (religious) devotion and (2) a legalistic approach to Torah that leads to its own kind of violence (witness Paul’s own death-dealing zealotry before he met Jesus). However, Paul believes these widespread problems provide an opportunity for him to witness to the universality of God’s healing response.  Indeed, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Nonetheless, all may find salvation in Jesus.  The sovereignty of hostility to God ultimately bows to the sovereignty of God’s healing love.
In Romans 4–8 Paul further develops this message about God—reflected in Abraham’s pre-circumcision trust in God that serves as our model (chapter 4), in God’s transforming love even of God’s enemies (chapter 5), in Paul’s own liberation from his idolatrous “sacred violence” (chapter 7), and in the promise that creation itself will be healed as God’s children come to themselves (chapter 8).
Chapters 9–11 involve Paul’s deeper wrestling with his own earlier experience as a God-fearer who had failed to recognize God’s mercy revealed in Jesus.  However, Paul’s failure (and the failure of many of his fellows) did not stop the revelation of God’s mercy.  This mercy will have its healing conclusion even with the unfaithfulness of so many of the chosen people.
Finally, in chapters 14–16, in response to his certainty about God’s mercy, Paul sketches the practical outworking of living in light of this mercy—all for the sake of spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth (i.e., “Spain,” 15:28).
Romans 12 and 13 should be read as a single section (contrary to the common practice of isolating 13:1-7). And this section should be read in the context of this broader flow of thought in the book.  In this section, the first word is a call, motivated by God’s mercy, to refuse to conform to the power politics of the world (“Do not be conformed to this world,” 12:2). Such nonconformity takes the positive shape of mutuality within the faith community and suffering love in response to enemies. Then comes 13:1-7, followed by a reiteration of the call to love in 13:8-10.
Zeroing in on Romans 13
What, then, does Paul actually say in these seven so-often cited verses?
(1) Paul calls for a qualified subordination in relation to government.  These verses begin with a call to subordination, not literally to obedience.  The term here that is often translated “submit” actually is better translated “subordinate yourselves.” It reflects Paul’s notion of how God orders the Powers.  The subordination has to do with respect for God’s work through the social structures of the world—not with unconditional obedience.  For example, the person who refuses to follow directives from the state that are discerned to be immoral but accepts the consequences for doing so is being subordinate even though not obeying.
(2) Paul intends to reject any notion of violent revolution. Paul rejected a reaction to the tyranny of the Roman Empire that relied on violence, even in the face of Rome’s devastating anti-Judaism and overall tyranny.
(3) Paul also intends to relativize the affirmation of any particular government.  Though opposing violent revolution, these verses do nothing to imply active moral support for Rome (or any other particular government). Paul here echoes Revelation 13, a text often contrasted with Romans 13.  Both passages advocate subordination in relation to whatever governing Powers are in place—even along with the implication (more clear in Revelation) that this particular government is idolatrous and blasphemous.
(4) God orders the Powers—a different notion than ordaining the Powers.  God is not said to create or institute or ordain any particular governments, but only to order them. This sense of “ordering” implies that God’s participation in human life is more indirect than often understood.  All states are “ordered” by God and thus in some sense serve God’s purposes.  However, no states are directly blessed by God as God’s direct representatives—least of all the Roman Empire that executed Jesus.
(5) Nothing here speaks to Christians as participants in the state’s work. When Paul mentions several functions in 13:3-4, he does not have in mind tasks that Christians themselves would take on. He expects readers to give what is “due to the authority” (13:6-7), but none of this involves direct work for the state. Whatever it is that the state does, Paul does not endorse Christians themselves having a responsibility to perform tasks that violate the call to neighbor love.
(6) Paul calls for discrimination.  “Pay to all what is due them” echoes Jesus’ call for discernment. When Jesus stated, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” he meant: Be sure not to give Caesar the loyalty that belongs only to God.  Paul writes in 13:7, “render to all what is due them.”  In the very next verse, 13:8, unfortunately often not noticed when we quit reading at 13:7, Paul states “nothing is due to anyone except love.”  This is Paul’s concern—is what Caesar claims is due to him part of the obligation of love? Only that which is part of the call to love is part of the Christian’s duty.
Romans 13:1-7, when read in light of Paul’s overall theology, may be understood as a statement of how the qualified subordination of Christians contributes to Christ’s victory over the Powers.  Christians do so by holding together their rejection of Empire-idolatry with their commitment to active peacemaking.  Their most radical task (and most subversive) is to live visibly as communities where the enmity that had driven Paul himself to murderous violence is overcome—Jew and Gentile joined together in one fellowship, a witness to genuine peace in a violent world.
Paul’s punch line in Romans 13 comes at 13:9-10: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Only by not reading past 13:7 have interpreters been able to imagine that Paul here offers a rationale for participation in violence. However, the paragraph break between 13:7 and 13:8 is not present in the original text. When Paul wrote “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” (13:1 NRSV translation), he meant that truth to complement the call to love all neighbors.
Living without idolatry
Peaceable faith communities empower a freedom from the Powers idolatry.  These are some of the imperatives from Romans 12–13 for living out such freedom:
• Nonconformity to the world of violent nation-states is fueled by minds that are transformed, being shaped by God’s mercy shown in Jesus rather than by the culture’s “elemental spirits.”
• Active love for one another leads to a renunciation of vengeance and a quest to overcome evil with good rather than heightening the spiral of violence with violent responses.
• Respect God’s ordering work in human government that, fallen and rebellious as it may be, still serves God’s purposes.
• Commit to doing good (following Jesus’ model that implicitly recognizes that genuinely doing good as defined by the gospel could lead to a cross) and repudiate temptations to seek to overcome evil with evil through violent resistance.
• Work at discerning what belongs to God and what is allowable to be given to Caesar.
• Make an overarching commitment to authentic practice of Torah, summarized (following Jesus) as love of neighbor.
What truly matters
Romans 13 calls upon Christians to hold together two uncompromisable convictions: resistance to empire and commitment to Jesus’s way of peace.  Resistance without pacifism ends up only heightening the spiral of violence and serving the domination of the fallen Powers.  Pacifism without resistance validates the stereotypes of the cultured despisers of pacifism—parasitic, withdrawal focused on purity, irresponsible.
Jesus and Paul both challenge people not to let the Empire set our agenda or determine our means of resistance.  We must not, in seeking to overcome evil, add to the spiral of evil ourselves. The true problem with Empire is not that some empires are not benevolent enough in their domination. It is the practice of domination itself.  Resistance to Empire that serves God’s intentions for human social life must repudiate domination itself.  Resistance that leads to more domination ultimately is not nearly radical enough.

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—May 8, 2018
I have read with great appreciation many of the books John Dominic Crossan has written over the years and have heard him speak several times. A few years ago he published a book I found pretty helpful and relevant to my interests, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015). I don’t know for sure whether Crossan, who is Catholic, shares my pacifist convictions, but he clearly cares deeply about peace on earth.
The right agenda
I believe that Crossan has exactly the correct agenda for this book. He argues, “escalatory violence now directly threatens the future of our species and indirectly undermines solutions to other survival problems such as global warming, overpopulation, and resource management” (p. 244). He writes this book in order to address that problem, to show how the Bible can be used in ways that contribute to violence, and to suggest ways the Bible might be read that will actually help us move toward peace.
Crossan’s book may be read alongside Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). Boyd and Crossan happily share deep convictions about helping Christians deal with the violence in the Bible in way that will empower Christians to be peaceable today. They approach the issues quite differently, though. The differences are significant, for sure. I would recommend reading both works as a way of getting a sense of the breadth of possibilities for Bible-centered peace theologies.
One big difference between these two thinkers is how they think of biblical inspiration. Boyd affirms what he understands to be a very high view of inspiration, and as a consequence he undertakes to construct a quite detailed and elaborate argument for how he can see the Bible as truthful throughout and yet also argue that the Bible is consistently a book of peace. I have written a lengthy critique of Boyd’s argument. I see it as way too convoluted. But I find his work enormously instructive.
Crossan, on the other hand, has no trouble with asserting that parts of the Bible simply are untrue. This makes his argument much simpler and more straightforward than Boyd’s—though not without problems of its own. I am not fully happy with Crossan’s approach, either. I think he too quickly accepts the presence of major internal contradictions within the Bible and thus misses some insights that an attempt to read the Bible’s overall message as largely coherent might provide. However, in this blog post I want to focus my criticisms of Crossan elsewhere.
Crossan’s main argument
Very briefly, I would summarize his main argument in this way: The Bible’s teaching can be understood as combining (and not harmonizing) two distinct views of justice—retributive and distributive. These two views stand in deep tension with one another. The presence of them both leads to the Bible’s internal contradictions between a violent, punitively judgmental God and a merciful, healing God. The Bible itself does not resolve this tension—in fact, the final book of the Bible (Revelation) is perhaps the most retributive book in the entire canon. However, Christians today can and must resolve the tension in their own lives. We may do so, Crossan argues, by centering our reading strategy on the life and teaching of the historical Jesus.
Jesus as he truly was gives us clarity about the way God truly is—characterized by distributive justice and ultimately a healing and not punitive God. Now, this understanding of Jesus requires some careful discernment since the gospel writers at times may smuggle in some retributive thinking into how they tell the story. But for Crossan, the historical Jesus, the Jesus that we may discern behind the gospels, rejected the retributive view of God that is present in much of the Old Testament and certainly was characteristic of many of his contemporaries.
I find this argument helpful. I certainly agree that Jesus provides us with the clarity we need for unshakeable convictions about nonviolence—and the warrant we need to reject the pro-violence materials in the Bible as in any way normative for Christian ethics. However, there are a couple of problems I have with Crossan’s approach that I’d like to reflect on.
First, I think that “restorative” works better than “distributive” as the alternative to “retributive” justice. And, second, I think it is better to read the Bible as having a more coherent, pro-peace message than Crossan does. I am bothered by his dialectal reading, especially by how this reading requires an understanding of the book of Revelation that I believe is unhelpful and inaccurate.
The alternative to “retributive” justice?
I am pretty attracted to Crossan’s analysis about the two kinds of justice, especially his characterization and critique of “retributive justice.” I would tend to read some of the texts he cites with a little more nuance, but I agree that there are two different kinds of voices in the Bible and that we must reject any tendency to let the retributive voice override the peaceable voice.
However, I am uncomfortable with his use of “distributive” as his alternative notion of justice in the Bible. I do agree that the vision for life among the Hebrew people reflected in the teaching of Torah, had at its center a commitment to the appropriate distribution of the materials necessary for a good life to all the people in the community. But underlying this vision was a notion of justice as wholeness, as healthy relationships—what I would call the grounding for “restorative” justice.
So, we do have a sense of “distributive” justice in the biblical ideal. But what about when there is injustice and oppression, when the vulnerable are exploited and left out? Or, when there are other incidents of injustice and brokenness? Crossan suggests, “retributive justice is secondary and derivative” in relation to “distributive” justice and “comes in only when that idea is violated” (pp. 17-18). However, I think what actually happens is that when there is violation, the community faces choices about how to respond—one approach is more punitive and retributive, the other is more reconciliatory and restorative.
The roots to the latter approach, though, are found in the vision for the community. The deepest sense of community is not based on equality and fairness, but on a relational ideal. God’s agenda, according to the Bible, in creating this people is wholeness in relationships between people and other people, people and the natural world, and people and God. The hope when there is brokenness is that these relationships might be restored. Punishment as an end in itself (the motivation with retributive justice) does not lead to restored relationships. Hence, as Crossan rightly states, “there are no divine punishments” (p. 244).
In recent years, “restorative” justice has emerged as a strategy for dealing with brokenness that provides an alternative to retributive dynamics. To some degree, this movement has theological roots based on a reading of the Bible that highlights the notion of justice as being concerned with setting right damaged relationships. To think of the Bible’s core notion of justice as “restorative” rather than “distributive” can help link contemporary concerns with the concerns of the people of the Bible—and ground them in a relational context (as I have written about elsewhere).
Revelation as the culmination of the Bible’s peaceable story
Crossan uses an image of two distinct trains that symbolize the Bible’s two notions of justice. This image requires a dialectal reading of the Bible, where we have these two relatively equal impulses interacting with each other throughout—and never resolved. So in the Old Testament we do have the original vision of distributive justice, but it is joined by the strong sense of punitive, retributive justice that is attributed to God in many places. And both, according to Crossan, are present in the New Testament as well—Jesus embodying one, the book of Revelation the other.
Recognizing that we need some sense of resolution of this dialectic if we are to live lives committed to breaking the spiral of violence, Crossan advocates making central a reconstruction of the actual message of the historical Jesus who guides us on how to read the Bible in a way that helps us find a clarity that will empower peaceable living.
Along with the polarity between the two kinds of justice, Crossan also suggests we recognize a polarity between two kinds of power, what he calls “nonviolent power” and “violent power.” He sees what he calls the “Normalcy of Civilization” as being present when retributive justice and violent power are combined. It’s opposite is the “Radicality of God,” where distributive justice and nonviolent power are combined.
This analysis is helpful (especially if we substitute “restorative” for “distributive” justice. However, I don’t agree with Crossan’s reading of the Bible as leaving us with an unresolved dialectic among these options. I think the Bible actually does give us a more coherent picture on the side of the “Radicality of God” if we read it as a whole. We may do this in part because the New Testament does provide a lens with which we may read the Old Testament in line with nonviolent power and restorative justice. That is, I think Crossan fundamentally misreads Revelation and hence projects his dialectic too deeply into that part of the Bible.
I have argued in my lengthy writings about Revelation that it does present us with a sense of God’s power as nonviolent power and God’s justice as restorative justice. I will sketch very briefly some of my main reasons for saying this.
Revelation begins with a statement that what follows is “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1) and makes clear that this is the gospel’s Jesus Christ when it describes him in 1:5 as the “faithful witness” (who lived a life of resistance to the Powers that be that led to his martyrdom), the “first born of the dead” (who had this life vindicated through resurrection), and “ruler of the kings of the earth” (the ultimate “conqueror” whose politics of healing will rule the world).
The key moment in the book comes in chapter 5 when we are told of a great scroll that contains the message of the victory of God. However, initially, no one can be found to open this scroll. Then the one who can open the scroll is found—the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” who turns out to be a Lamb, slain and standing (5:6). This Lamb, the Jesus who Revelation reveals, has already won the victory and is worshiped as worthy. The only victory needed in Revelation is won not through the power of violence but through the power of persevering love, embodied in the faithful witness of Jesus.
The sufficiency of this victory is stated in 12:11 (the “comrades … have conquered [the Dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony”). Then the victory is envisioned in 19:11-21, where Jesus rides forth victorious, with his rob already “dipped in blood” (the blood of his faithful witness) before his encounter with the Powers of evil, who he simply captures and throws into the lake of fire—no “Battle of Armageddon” needed. The outcome of the conquering efforts of the Lamb is the destruction of the Powers of evil and the healing of the nations and their kings who had formerly aligned themselves with the Powers. And the means of the conquering was Jesus’s self-sacrificial love joined with the self-sacrificial love of his followers.
Though Revelation is often read as portraying God as directly intervening with punitive violence toward rebellious human beings, the actual text presents God as directly active only in the witness of the Lamb and his followers. And the message of the book challenges its readers to join this witness. Jesus’s followers are to be active in the conquering work. But this call to action is not a call to be warriors doing battle in inter-human warfare where they shed the blood of their enemies. Rather, the call to action is a call to follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4).
Contra Crossan
This message of Revelation, a message of the transforming power of Jesus’s faithful witness to the ways of persevering love, is about the opposite of how Crossan reads Revelation. Crossan reads the violent imagery in Revelation quite literally and seems to miss entirely the way Revelation’s symbolism works. He writes: “Revelation’s promise of a bloodthirsty God and a blood-drenched Christ represents for me the creation of a second ‘coming’ to negate the first and only ‘coming’ of Christ; the fabrication of violent apocalypse to deny nonviolent incarnation; and the invention of Christ on a warhorse to erase the historical Jesus on a peace donkey. Jesus’s nonviolent resistance to evil is replaced by Christ’s violent slaughter of evildoers” (How to Read the Bible, p. 181).
Crossan needs a retributive Revelation to sustain how he imposes his unresolved dialectic on the Bible. While his method of resolving the dialectic with the scholarly recovery of the historical Jesus as our contemporary ethical norm does indeed lead him to a strong affirmation of the path of nonviolence, I think he greatly weakens the Bible’s own peaceable message.
I think the dialectic between retributive and restorative justice is resolved within the Bible itself. And the way the Bible resolves it helps us to find a powerful peace witness in the final, canonical text read as a whole—not in an extra-biblical scholarly construct. Jesus himself brings together the message of Torah, the prophetic witness to that message, and his own embodied shalom that resisted empire (and the retributive dynamics that slipped into the biblical text) and incarnated in history transformative compassion and healing. And this embodied shalom actually is what is revealed in the book of Revelation—a wonderful coda to the Bible’s coherent message about God’s healing strategy.

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

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.
Now, as I will describe at the end of this post, I do read Rev 14:17-20 in a non-punitive way (here’s a sermon I preached on this). But I thought it would be interesting as a thought experiment to take seriously the possibility that this is a punitive text and try to follow the logic of such a reading. What if Revelation 14 is about punitive judgment? What would the implications of such an interpretation be?
If Revelation 14:17-20 teaches punitive judgment….
Let me suggest several implications of affirming that Rev 14:17-20 does portray God-enforced punitive judgment—and that this picture gives a true picture of God’s character and will (I recognize that some interpreters would conclude that the passage teaches punitive judgment but still believe that such a picture of God is not true).

The moral nature of the universe is retributive. The picture in 14:17-20 comes from living in a world where there must be retaliation against all evil doing. The world is governed by the norm of reciprocity. Perhaps this view includes a sense that simply being alive makes one subject to such retaliation, since to be human is to be complicit in human sinfulness.
God is all-powerful and uses His power to kill massive numbers of people in vicious ways that leads to extraordinary amounts of blood to be shed. We are not told explicitly that God is behind this unfathomable bloodshed (“blood flowed … as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles,” 14:20) or precisely how all this blood was taken. But we should assume that it is all due to God’s direct intervention—a God who kills in massive quantities and by causing the dead to bleed profusely.
God’s practice of retributive justice is inefficient since this judgment takes place in a world where we know that many sinners get away with being sinners. If this punitive judgment is at all understood to be a historical event, we have to imagine that—like in historical incidences of large-scale human warfare—many of the actual perpetrators of the evil deeds that lead to war do not themselves suffer the violence of the conflict.
The level of collateral damage is extremely high because this violence surely is indiscriminate in its expression, reaching not only idolatrous wrongdoers but also relatively innocent bystanders, including numerous children. Again, this point reflects the terrible history of actual warfare over most of recorded human history, especially modern warfare.
The likely response to this kind of massive violent judgment from God by the people who remain surely would be mostly terror. It is difficult to imagine people responding to such extraordinary punitive judgment with love for the one who creates the slaughter.
If God brings this kind of massive violence as a response to human wrongdoing, then Jesus was wrong when he portrayed God as loving and merciful; the writer of Exodus was wrong when he wrote about God’s love lasting forever (even as God’s judgment lasts only a couple of generations—Exod 20:5-6); and Paul was wrong when he wrote that God loves God’s enemies (Romans 5).
We are left with the question of what this massive punitive and indiscriminate violence would possibly achieve. What good is accomplished by killing enough people viciously enough to create this kind of scene with blood several feet high over an area of 200 miles?

What are our interpretive options?
Probably, for most of us, thinking seriously about the ramifications of the punitive judgment reading of Revelation 14:17-20 leaves us feeling a bit uneasy. What are the possible ways we might think about this text and this approach? I assume that many people kind of pass this passage over fairly quickly, accepting the likely punitive judgment interpretation but not thinking carefully about it. So, I am suggesting here that we stop for a while and think about the ramification I listed above. When we do so, we then are faced with a few options.
First, we may decide that indeed the punitive judgment interpretation does seem the most likely. And with this, we may be committed to affirming the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the entire Bible. So then, we will need to think about how to integrate this reading of Rev 14:17-20 with our overall reading of the Bible and our beliefs about God.
How do we hold together the punitive judgment here with what the Bible teaches elsewhere about God as being loving—most notably in the message of Jesus (but also in parts of the Old Testament and in the writings of Paul—not to mention elsewhere in Revelation itself)? How do we apply this portrayal of God with the likelihood that such beliefs about God and the moral universe seem to correlate closely with human practices that are violently punitive, even in ways that turn out to be deeply unjust?
Or, second, we may agree that the violently punitive interpretation of Rev 14:17-20 is the most likely reading of the text itself but insist that such views should not be seen as normative for Christians today. This would leave us with some more challenging questions. What are the implications of separating the Bible into truthful and untruthful parts? How much responsibility do we have to seek energetically to find ways to read the Bible as presenting an essentially coherent (even if not perfectly harmonious) message about how God relates to humanity? What kind of normative ethical and theological guidance is possible if we accept the Bible as largely fragmented, incoherent, and internally contradictory?
Or, third, we may reread this text more rigorously and look for an interpretation that fits with the rest of Revelation, with the rest of the New Testament, and the rest of the Bible and that is theologically and ethically coherent and life-giving. Is such a reading possible?
I believe that it is possible to interpret Rev 14:17-20 in a peaceable way. In fact, I believe that such an interpretation is not only possible but is in fact the best reading, the one that takes fullest account of the words in these verses and the teaching in the rest of Revelation.
I will briefly sketch such a reading here.
If Revelation 14:17-20 is not about punitive judgment
Chapter 14 concludes with two harvest visions, first of grain (14:14-16) and second of grapes (14:17-20). The reaper of the grain harvest is “one like the Son of Man,” almost certainly a way of identifying the reaper with Jesus (this same phrase is used of Jesus in 1:13). The meaning is not totally clear, the reaping is simply described. But since it is Jesus, most likely the idea is to portray salvation, the “judgment” of the followers of the Lamb to be found worthy to join him in paradise.
The grape harvest is more complicated, but there are good reasons to see the grape harvest as another way that John portrays the style of conquest characteristic of Jesus and his followers. Jesus achieves victory through faithful witness and persevering love even to the point of shedding his blood and dying. Crucially, in Jesus’s picture of “conquering,” the shed blood comes from Jesus and his followers, not their human enemies (most obviously, see 12:11: “[The followers of the Lamb] have conquered [the Dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death”).
The reaper in the second harvest vision is not Jesus but an angel (14:17). That the angel reaps suggests something similar to angels that participate in the plague visions described in chapters 6–10. Likely, the second harvest, like the plague visions, portrays the present time where followers of the Lamb conquer the evil Powers through their persevering love, even to the point of shedding blood. Evoking the martyrdoms of 6:9, we are told in 14:17 that the second angel “came out from the altar.”
The angel reaps the ripe grapes and throws them “into the great wine press of the wrath of God” (14:19). As we learn from the plague visions, the “wrath” may be understood as the outworking of the rebellion of humanity against God—not God’s direct intervention but an unfolding of negative consequences. We might also add, from chapter 13, the outworking of how humanity empowers the Beast to go conquering with their idolatrous trust in the Beast. These dynamics call for persevering love from the Lamb’s followers, not for retaliation (13:9-10).
We are told “the wine press was trodden outside the city” (14:19). This “outside the city” image was used in Hebrews 13:12-13 to refer to Jesus’s death. Certainly the model of Jesus’s faithful witness that lead to his blood being shed reinforces the sense that John has in mind here “blood” as a symbol for the entire process of “conquering” the Dragon “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of [the comrades’] testimony” (12:11).
The final image in the harvest scene is extraordinarily gruesome. “Blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles” (14:20). This is a picture of terrible excess. But what does it mean? It would be out of character in relation to the rest of Revelation to see this blood as the blood of God’s enemies. The other references to “blood” in the rest of the book always refer to the blood of Jesus or his followers.
So, the excess here should be seen as a powerful way of underscoring the importance and effectiveness of the way of life that Jesus embodied and called upon his followers to imitate. We could link the picture here with the vision in chapter 7. The picture there is also of excess, “a great multitude that no one could count … [that] have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:9, 14). It would take a lot of blood to wash that many robes!
Finally, according to Rev 17–18 the blood of Jesus and his followers in fact turns out to be the precise means that are used to bring Babylon down. Chapter 17 will picture Babylon as a Great Harlot that “was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (17:6). Then, in the next chapter we read how the nations “have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication” (18:3) after which Babylon fall when she drinks “a double draft [from] the cup she mixed” (18:6).
We must take the language in Revelation about “conquering” seriously. Jesus conquers through his faithful witness and his followers share in the conquest with their faithful witness. And this “faithful witness” is bloody—at least metaphorically in that it involves living lives of nonviolent resistance to the Empire’s hegemony. At points such resistance leads to suffering, even, perhaps, to death. The book promises from the very beginning, though, that such witness is vindicated and that Jesus indeed is “ruler of the kings of earth” (1:5)—and that the nations and their kings will find healing in the New Jerusalem (21:24; 22:2).
Revelation emphasizes strongly the link between Jesus’ self-sacrificial love and the self-sacrificial love of his followers. John’s main agenda in Revelation is to encourage his readers to follow Jesus’ path. This is the path Jesus spoke of in one of his great parables: the path of giving drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, friendship to the lonely, care for the sick, clothing to the naked, and companionship to the imprisoned—on all occasions, since all people in need are, in a genuine sense, Jesus himself.

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

An authentic witness: Remembering Norman Kraus

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2018
As I appreciatively joined in the memorial service yesterday (April 28) for my friend Norman Kraus, who died on April 6 at the age of 94, I reflected on my first encounter with his writing. Back in the Spring of 1976, if I had imagined that 42 years later I would be sitting in a Mennonite church in Virginia grieving the loss of the author of The Community of the Spirit as one who had been my good friend for over 20 years I would have been pretty shocked.
My final term attending the University of Oregon, Spring 1976, was when I decided not to pursue journalism as a career. I went ahead and graduated that term, but with no intent to stay with journalism. I had gotten intensely involved in a small evangelical congregation, gotten bitten by the theology bug, and read with great attention writings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul among others.
I took to browsing the shelves at Northwest Christian College, next door to the UO, looking for books to help me deepen my theological understanding. I happened upon a small volume written by a man named C. Norman Kraus who was identified as a Mennonite professor at a college in Indiana. Not only did the name Goshen College mean nothing to me, the term Mennonite also meant nothing to me.
However, when I started looking at the book, I quickly was hooked. Kraus spoke a language I understood—”discipleship,” “community,” “the gospel of peace.” I read the book thoroughly a couple of times and began to look for other Mennonite writings. That lead to Guy Hershberger, John Howard Yoder, and Millard Lind. It also led us to going to hear Myron Augsburger when my wife Kathleen and I visited her family in Arizona. One thing led to another, we visited the Mennonite congregation in Eugene, headed for Elkhart, Indiana, to attend the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, and by 1981 we joined the Mennonite church and embarked on a long surprisingly fraught journey.
The writings of Norman Kraus were the starting point for all this. For better or worse, he played a foundational role in my life as a Mennonite. I personally would say absolutely for the “better.” I am deeply grateful for the role Norman played in my theological development, and in more recent years in my remaining in good standing as a college professor and pastor in the Mennonite world. Some who do not appreciate his theological journey (or mine) might say for the “worse.”
A kind of prodigy
Norman grew up in the Tidewater area of Virginia, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, in a conservative, rural Mennonite community. He couldn’t wait to get away to go to college and beyond. He attended Eastern Mennonite College and immediately moved on to Goshen Biblical Seminary, impressing leaders enough there that he was hired at the age of 27 as a Bible and church history teacher at Goshen College.
 [This is Kraus in 1951 standing between his new Goshen colleagues J.C. Wenger and J. Lawrence Burkholder]
He remained at Goshen for the rest of his teaching career, though he took many opportunities to relocate for short term educational and ministry experiences. He studied at Princeton Theological Seminary and wrote a Th.M. thesis that was published by John Knox Press as Dispensationalism in America: It’s Rise and Development (1958). He started the project as an effort to understand the role of dispensationalism among Mennonites, but it was broadened to be what proved to be a pathbreaking effort at examining the role of this perspective on biblical prophecy among American Christians in general. This book played a major role in the thinking of historian Ernest Sandeen in his influential study, The Roots of Fundamentalism.
After a few years back at Goshen, Norman turned to completing his Ph.D. at Duke University, focusing more on theology. He spent the 1966-7 school year in India, teaching at Serampore Theological College. His next major book was The Community of the Spirit, that was published by Eerdmans in 1974, with a revised edition being published by Herald Press in 1993 and reprinted by Wipf and Stock in 2008.

Eerdmans also published a sequel, The Authentic Witness: Credibility and Authority in 1979 (reprinted by Wipf and Stock in 2010). Both of these books articulated an Anabaptist alternative to mainstream Protestant and evangelical understandings of salvation and Christian living. Norman argued forcefully for a unity between belief and action, with a strong emphasis on the role of what he called the Messianic community in the embodiment of faithful discipleship.
A turn toward a global theology
In 1980, Norman took a leave of absence from teaching at Goshen College and moved to Japan with his wife Ruth. They spent the next seven years working with the Japanese Mennonite churches. Norman taught at Eastern Hokkaido Bible School during most of this time, though also teaching for shorter periods in India and Australia.
In response to a probing question from one of his Japanese friends about why Jesus had to be crucified, Norman immersed himself in developing a constructive christology that would attempt to answer that question in a way a non-Westerner might understand. The Krauses returned to North America in 1987 when Norman’s opus, Jesus Christ Our Lord: Christology from a Disciple’s Perspective was published by Herald Press. The book was popular enough that a revised edition came out only three years later (and it was reprinted by Wipf and Stock in 2004).
Norman followed his christology volume with a one-volume systematic theology, God Our Savior: Theology in a Christological Mode in 1991, also published by Herald Press (and reprinted by Wipf and Stock in 2006). These two books established Norman as perhaps the pre-eminent Mennonite writing doctrinal theology while teaching at a Mennonite school.
Jesus Christ Our Lord, in particular, created a sensation among North American Mennonites that is impossible to imagine in our post-theology context today. It was a serious, academic book of theology (though at the same time clearly written and accessible) that drew a wide audience. It particularly offended a conservative contingent of church leaders who were tone-deaf to Norman’s attempt to write theology that would make sense to those outside of North American evangelical Christianity. Norman’s proposals were not actually all that radical in the context of broader Christian theology—and they were certainly faithful to the Mennonite peace position, but he did not express them in traditional terms.
The hostility was intense. Norman told me many years later that he still felt hurt by the personal nature of many of the attacks and the failure of denominational leaders to offer him support. One booklet captures the spirit of the reaction—it was titled Christ or Kraus? During this time of publication and reaction, Norman retired from Goshen College and moved back to Harrisonburg, Virginia, with Ruth. He also suffered a major heart attack.
Norman regained his health and settled into an active retirement full of church involvement and continued scholarly writing. He published An Intrusive Gospel? Christian Mission in a Postmodern World (InterVarsity Press, 1998); To Continue the Dialogue: Biblical Interpretation and Homosexuality (Pandora Press, 2001) [Norman edited this book, a collection of essays taking various positions—it’s notable as the first publication that included Mennonite writers arguing for an inclusive stance]; Using Scripture in a Global Age: Framing Biblical Issues (Cascadia Publishing House, 2006); The Jesus Factor in Justice and Peacebuilding (Cascadia Publishing House, 2011); and On Being Human: Sexual Orientation and the Image of God (Cascade Books, 2011).
An important theological friend
I first met Norman in 1989. I had recently read his Jesus Christ Our Lord and reviewed it  favorably for a Mennonite periodical. A friend of mine took me along to a planning conference in Chicago of the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section. I was a new pastor, recently minted Ph.D. in Christian ethics, and an utter stranger to all these leaders of Mennonite peace witness.
I met several heroes—longtime leaders, Robert Kreider and Winfield Fretz, who I had learned about in my dissertation research on World War II conscientious objectors, and Vietnam War-era peace warrior Earl Martin, whose book on his experience of staying in Vietnam after the war ended I had just read. And, Norman Kraus.
Norman was interested in meeting me, too. He said he had appreciated my review; it was one of the best he’d seen. And he had wondered who this Grimsrud fellow was, someone he had never heard of. I can’t remember if our paths crossed over the next seven years or not, they probably did once or twice. Then, when Kathleen and I moved to Harrisonburg in 1996, the first Sunday we attended Park View Mennonite Church, there was Norman in our Sunday School class. So we renewed our acquaintance and we met Ruth. Sadly, shortly after that she was discovered to have cancer and died a few months later.
As I mentioned (and I told Norman about this as soon as I could), his writings played a major role in my entering the Mennonite world. And, I would say, he has remained throughout these past 40+ years one of my most important influences. I think he rates alongside Gordon Kaufman and John Howard Yoder as the most important of North American theological thinkers. I studied with Yoder and became friends with Kaufman—and have written elsewhere about their importance. Though Norman did not have the wide, beyond the Mennonite world, influence of the other two, I think his self-conscious effort to write thoughtful but accessible theology made him perhaps the more authentically Anabaptist of the three.
I found it fascinating when I talked with Norman about Yoder. Norman of course knew Yoder personally quite well; they were students at Goshen Biblical Seminary together in the late 1940s and lived near each other in northern Indiana for many years. However, Norman said he didn’t know Yoder’s thought all that well, and that he hadn’t read many of Yoder’s writings. He rarely cited Yoder in his writings, and Yoder rarely cited Norman. I believe that their respective theological projects nonetheless overlap a great deal. To realize that they did not mutually influence each other indicates that each one was drawing on the same Anabaptist Mennonite tradition and applying the insights of that tradition to the contemporary world in impressively similar ways.
I used God Our Savior in my Introduction to Theology class for many years (and enjoyed having Norman regularly share with the class). The book was a bit of a stretch for most college undergrads, but I think it generally went over pretty well. Eventually, I wrote my own textbook (Theology as If Jesus Matters) that was greatly influenced by Norman’s approach, especially his profound strategy of addressing each theological theme through the lens of Jesus’s life and teaching.
I believe that Norman’s two big books (Jesus Christ Our Lord and God Our Savior) remain important resources for peace theology. I believe that Norman did not receive the respect he deserved as a major constructive theologian. He is rarely referred to by younger Mennonite scholars. I hope, though, that some day his work will receive more attention. The central challenge the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition faces today is to make its core convictions accessible and applicable in our post-denominational and post-rural Mennonite enclave world. Norman’s work is an important resource for that challenge.

An important ecclesial friend
For the first several years that Kathleen and I lived in Harrisonburg, we were part of the same church as Norman. I well remember sitting in on a fascinating Sunday School class that Norman taught for “skeptics” in the congregation. We left Park View when Kathleen began pastoring at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, but Norman and I still saw each other regularly. Interestingly, for the past few years we became part of the same congregation again when Norman and his second wife, Rhoda, began attending Shalom.
Norman played a crucial role in helping me navigate some of my stormy Mennonite waters. I came under fire from various sources due to many of my theological convictions. When I was being considered for tenure at EMU, some rather intense lobbying occurred in opposition to my being approved.
At one point, without my knowledge, EMU’s three top administrators called a meeting with one of my harshest adversaries and invited Norman to join them as an “expert” theological resource. Two of the administrators met with me to inform of this meeting afterwards. I was concerned (and angered a bit), but when they told me Norman was part of the meeting I breathed a sigh of relief. He did indeed offer a strong defense of my work, and after that, though the rest of the process including some intense conversations with the Board of Trustees, these administrators strongly supported my candidacy—which was approved. And from then until I retired in 2016, I felt solid support from EMU’s leaders.
At the same time as the tenure process was happening, I was also under fire within Virginia Mennonite Conference. Strong forces within the conference wanted to take away my pastoral ordination. This process included several meetings where I spoke with conference leaders. I was allowed to bring a companion with me to those meetings, and Norman graciously agreed to join me. I was gratified that he spoke in support of my ministry—and that as a consequence of those meetings shared many of my frustrations with the accusers. Eventually I was “exonerated,” thanks in part to Norman.
I was helped in both of these cases by Norman’s support. He was a highly respected person in the Mennonite community. In talking with him in the years since, I have gotten the impression that part of his willingness to invest himself in these ways came from his memory of his own struggles during the early years of his teaching career at Goshen College. He was considered theologically suspect by many in the Mennonite world and could empathize with the difficulties faced by theology professors who challenge received ideas.
An important dialogue partner
Over these past two decades, Norman and I conversed many times about theological themes. I genuinely felt we were kindred spirits. He continually inspired me with his agile mind, his undiminished curiosity, his remaining deeply engaged in the issues of the day, his insights and knowledge of Christian theology, and his positive spirit.
I did get him to talk at length one time about his own teaching career and some of the hurts he experienced due to insensitive administrators and unfair theological criticisms. As we neared the end of the conversation, he expressed a bit of embarrassment at being so candid. However, it was clear that the adversity had done little to embitter him or slow him down. He was driven by a passion to understand and to communicate. I think he looked back on his life as a reasonably successful effort at being true to that passion.
One of his most remarkable legacies, I think, is the collection of four books that he wrote over the final couple of decades of his life. He remained deeply engaged with the big questions and addressed them in profound ways into his seventies, eighties, and even nineties.
He wrote on evangelism in our postmodern, pluralistic age (An Intrusive Gospel?), arguing for a clear witness to Jesus as our definitive revelation of God combined with a deep respect for other religious traditions. He wrote on interpreting the Bible as a truthful source of guidance in our environment of relativism and the questioning of authority (Using Scripture in a Global Age). He wrote on how Jesus remains directly relevant for peacemaking, even as Mennonites and other Christian pacifists learn from more secular peacebuilding approaches (The Jesus Factor in Justice and Peacebuilding). And, he wrote on human sexuality and the debate about “homosexuality” in the churches (his essays in the book he edited, To Continue the Dialogue: Biblical Interpretation and Homosexuality and the book On Being Human: Sexuality and the Image of God).
Norman apparently left detailed instructions for his memorial service. It was well-planned and executed. And it was, fittingly, a kind of farewell lecture from a great mind and spirit. We heard moving remembrances from family and friends. And we heard from Norman—honest, insightful thoughts about death, dying, and resurrection. His iconoclastic impulses were represented, but even more his deep and abiding faith in the God of love he devoted his life to.

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

God’s Kind of Warfare

Over and over, and in a variety of different ways, we are told that, while “[s]ome trust in chariots and some in horses,” Israelites were to “trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Ps 20:7), for “[n]o king is saved by the size of his army” and “no warrior escapes by his great strength.” Yet, “the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him” and whose “hope is in his unfailing love” to “deliver them from death” (Ps 33:16-9). And while Yahweh frequently promised the Israelites they would be blessed if they placed their complete trust in him, he just as frequently warned them that there would be terrible consequences if they placed their trust in anything or anyone else (see Isa 31:1, Ezek 33:26; Hos 10:13).
Passages like these suggest that, had the Israelites been able and willing to trust Yahweh to “fight” their battles, they never would have needed to lift a sword. Unfortunately, while the Israelites had no problem trusting Yahweh to help them use their swords to conquer enemies, they had great trouble trusting Yahweh instead of their swords. As Vern Eller has pointed out, the one thing the ancient Israelites seemed incapable of understanding was that “MAN IS NOT THE ENEMY” (see Eph 6:12). While everybody in the ancient world trusted their god to help them fight, no one ever dreamed that their god didn’t want them to fight in the first place! And this included what most Israelites expected of Yahweh.
We catch a glimpse of the kind of warfare Yahweh would have liked his people to use in the remarkable story of Elisha’s victory over the Arameans in 2 Kings 6. Elisha’s prophetic gift had enabled him to help the Israelites avoid being ambushed by the Arameans several times. Frustrated by this, the king of Aram sent his army to capture Elisha (vv. 13-4). When Elisha and his servant saw that they were surrounded, the servant was understandably terrified. But Elisha prayed for his eyes to be opened, at which point the servant saw “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha,” referring, of course, to the army of heavenly warriors that were on their side (v.17).
At Elisha’s beckoning, the Lord temporally blinded the Aramean army, at which point Elisha volunteered to lead them “to the man you are looking for” (vv.18-9). When the Lord restored their sight, this army found themselves in the court of the Israelite king. The Israelite king suggested that they take advantage of this fortunate opportunity and slaughter the Arameans. But, to everyone’s surprise, Elisha instead instructed the king to throw them a banquet and send them back home (v. 22)!
Now that looks like the way Jesus would fight. It also looks completely unlike the way any other army (or any other in the history of warfare for that matter) ever fought. Elisha’s decision to “not repay evil with evil” but to instead “overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:17, 21) inspired Aram to bring their military campaign against Israel to a complete and permanent halt (2 Kg 6:23).
How might the Spirit of God be leading you to respond to evil with good today?
—Adapted from Cross Vision, pages 112-114
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What Do I Fear? A Teacher’s Response to School Shootings

A student asked me if I was afraid of a school shooting. While at the time my response was much simpler, here's my more honest response that I wrote later:What do I fear? I don't fear death.For death’s a joy ride mixed with flight,A trip to dance forgiven-wildWhere faith is transformed into sight.What do I fear? I fear insteadThat mine’s the child who holds the gun,Afraid the student whom I taughtLets anger loose on everyone.No, not my shy one near my desk!Don’t say my beauty in the front.Please not my kid who makes me laughIs always ready with a stunt.How does a child once awed by frogsHide massive pain in fatal fire?What takes away her joy in life?And finds that hatred’s his desire?What do I fear? I grieve kids mute,No trigger pulled, yet inward deadWho have no hope, no love, no joyIn this life or the one ahead.Pray for our kids.
Syndicated from .life is a metaphor.

Podcast: How Should Pacifists View Military Veterans?

Greg dons camouflage in this boots to the ground episode.   
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God for Guns: A Christian Response to Yet Another School Shooting

...many of those who cling more tightly to their weapons at times like this are Christians who would label themselves as conservatives. These people of course will defend their rights to “bear arms” as part of their heritage as Americans, as this seems promised under the Second Amendment. Of course, I have never actually met one who also claims to be part of a well-regulated state militia, which was the grounds for the Second Amendment in the first place. Beyond this however, I think we get a peek at the larger and deeper issue. What this reveals is an issue of trust, and what we trust is what we ultimately worship.

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Syndicated from the Pangea Blog

Jesus and the “Eye for an Eye” Command: A Response to Paul Copan (#10)

As I noted in my 9th response to Paul Copan’s critique of Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG), Copan argues that Jesus merely repudiated wrong applications of OT laws in his sermon on the mount, not any OT law itself. He thus thinks I’m mistaken when I argue that Jesus placed his own authority above that of the OT and when I argue that the revelation of God in the crucified Christ radically transforms the meaning that we should find in much of the OT.

Today I will respond to Copan’s treatment of Matthew 5:38-39 and 44-45 in which Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer….You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…
Copan argues that Jesus is not here revoking any OT laws, which he claims “were restricted to a law court.” Jesus is rather speaking about how disciples are to respond to personal enemies. Copan writes:
The OT makes a distinction between person (no retaliation; loving personal enemies) and public office (authority to use coercive force to punish criminals and protect the innocent. This is exactly what we see in the NT as well (Rom 12 [personal] and Rom 13 [official]).
Copan thus concludes that in this passage Jesus “chastises those attempting to justify personal vengeance by appealing to judicial texts in Scripture.” He is not repudiating the judicial texts themselves. I’ll say three things in response to this interpretation.

First, both Jesus and his Jewish audience were very familiar with the OT’s commands to take “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Ex 21:24; Lev 24:19-20; Deut 19:21). In this light, I find it hard to imagine how Jesus could refer to the “eye for an eye” sayings that his audience had “heard” and not think his audience would assume he’s referring to these OT commands. This would be a bit like me saying to an American audience, “You’ve heard it said, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’” while assuming this audience would naturally think I’m referring to something other than our Constitution!

Second, while the NT certainly distinguishes between the way God uses governments and the way believers are called to live (Rom 12 and 13), I see no warrant for appealing to this distinction as a means of avoiding the conclusion that Jesus was repudiating the OT’s “eye for an eye” commands. Indeed, each of these commands in the OT is given in contexts that address interpersonal conflicts.

Copan is thus correct when he contends that Jesus is addressing the way his followers should respond to personal offenders and enemies, but I see no way of avoiding the conclusion that the way Jesus instructs followers to respond to these personal offenders and enemies flatly repudiates the response that is prescribed in the OT.

And third, I think Copan is fundamentally mistaken when he contends that the distinction between the way God uses sword-wielding governments and the way believers are called to live is a distinction between what’s appropriate at a personal level and what’s appropriate for “a public office.” This reflects the classic Lutheran view that Christians are commanded to love and bless enemies on a personal level but are allowed to kill their enemies when serving in public office.

I submit that the distinction Paul makes in Romans 12 and 13 is not between behavior that’s appropriate for Christians at a personal level and behavior that’s appropriate for Christians when serving in “a public office.” The distinction is rather between the way followers of Jesus are to always respond to offenders and enemies, on the one hand, and the way God influences governments to respond to offenders and enemies, on the other.

In Romans 12 Paul tells disciples to (among other things) “bless those who persecute you”( vs. 14); “do not repay anyone evil for evil” (vs. 17); and especially “never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (vs. 19). Leaving vengeance to God, followers of Jesus are to instead feed our enemies when they are hungry and give them water when they are thirsty (vs. 20). Instead of being “overcome by evil,” we are to “overcome evil with good” (vs. 21).

Notice that Paul does not qualify any of these instructions. There is not the slightest hint that there may be some contexts in which it would be okay for followers of Jesus to not “bless those who persecute us” or not leave vengeance to God. As is true of Jesus’ teaching about loving enemies, Paul’s instructions indicate that Christians are to refrain from violence and to instead love and bless all enemies all the time and in all situations.

Paul then immediately goes on to specify that sword-wielding authorities are one of the instruments God uses to execute vengeance (13:4). This is the very same vengeance disciples were just forbidden to exercise (12:19, ekdikeo). Paul is thus not suggesting that Christians should exact vengeance on a personal level but may do so when serving in a “public office,” as Copan contends. He is rather teaching that Christians can’t ever exact vengeance, which implies that, while we can trust that God is at work to use sword-wielding governments to exact vengeance, we who are committed to following Jesus are not to participate in that sword-wielding activity.

The claim that Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching about loving enemies and refraining from violence only apply to Christians in their personal relationships but do not apply if the Christian is serving in a public office was a foundational feature of Christendom. It was this clever theological move that allowed professing Christians to engage in whatever bloodshed the empire deemed necessary. I hope I have said enough in the last few posts to demonstrate that this claim is without biblical merit. The kingdom can’t be a role we assume sometimes and not others. It is a reality we are called to live in at every moment and in every situation.
Photo by P. Marioné on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND
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Be the Light

Sometimes it feels like everything is just awful. Like things just can't get any worse.All around, we see division, anger, hatred. So much brokenness. So much injustice.Yet the Church has an opportunity in this moment. We have a chance to cast a vision of God's restored Kingdom. To embody a Holy dream. To lead.To often we focus on the brokenness, the violence, and the injustice. That's what get's the most attention, and riles people's emotions.It's good to point out what's missing in this world. It's good to identify the things that break God's heart. But too often we just stay there. The the world is good at pointing out what's wrong. God's people are called to shine on what is right.I am reminded of a recent MennoNerds conversation I had with Osheta Moore, author of Shalom Sistas: Living Wholeheartedly in a Brokenhearted World. She observes, "I am surrounded by people who are so eager to notice the brokenness in the world." Doing the work of shalom is not about "camping out in the broken," Osheta continues, "because we don't have to go too far to find the broken. The broken is as close as our Facebook feed. Our job is to say, yeah that's broken, but God's dream for it is this picture of wholeness. God's dream for it is this being restored."Osheta reminds us that a call for true shalom is a call into a vision of something whole, something just, something greater than what the world proposes.It's not that we should ignore the injustice and the brokenness. We know the issues are real, with devastating consequences for ourselves and for our neighbors. But what if, as God's people of hope, we framed the issues around what could be, and not just what isn't?The world already spends too much energy denigrating our communities, telling us what we don't have and what's wrong with us. And too often our churches are the first to contribute to the barrage of negativity and shame, pointing out everything that is wrong and how far we have fallen.We do it because we care. Because we know it's not what God would have for us. We do it to provoke change. But we end up missing the Imago Dei in the very people we are trying to champion.Instead, if we will allow God light of hope, of wholeness and shalom, to be our focus, we will inspire each other into truly living into our call as the hands and feet of Christ on this earth. The energy will shift, and we will realize that we are already equipped to achieve the change we are seeking. We will move out of our guilt and into redemption. We will no longer be paralyzed in heartbreak and despair, but will mobilize our communities into something better.The world looks around and sees darkness, despair, and disillusionment. But that's not who God is. "God says there is more. There is beauty, there is flourishing, there is hope. There is the Holy Spirit. There is good." God says "let there be light!"We believe in a world filled with equity and with justice. We believe that everyone deserves to live. We believe every culture is beautiful and worthy. We believe children can be fed and healthy. We believe that every vote should count, and that laws should be fair. We believe schools can be safe and healthcare can be affordable. We believe all neighborhoods can be prosperous and all people can be truly free.The world will tell us it cannot be done. But Jesus says, "yes it can."This is the work of the Church--the work of hope. Let us reclaim our place as prophetic witnesses to God's vision for the world. And then let us partner with God in bringing about that Kingdom "on earth as it is in Heaven"It's a new year. It's the season of Epiphany.Let's us be the Light, Church.Be the Light. 

Syndicated from By Their Strange Fruit

The Violent Vineyard Owner: A Response to Paul Copan (#8)

In my previous post I addressed two of the three parables that Paul Copan argues present God in violent ways. Today I will address the third, which is the parable of a vineyard owner with hostile tenants (Matthew 21:33-41; Luke 20:9-13). This parable differs from the previous two parables. Whereas the previous parables deal with personal responsibilities, this parable addresses the history of Israel’s resistance to God’s messengers, with the punchline being a prophetic warning of impending judgment.
The Point of This Parable. In this parable, a wealthy person planted a vineyard and hired farmers to take care of it when he moves away. When harvest time came, the vineyard owner sent three servants to collect the fruit, but the tenants beat one, killed another, and threw stones at the third. The owner dispatched a second larger company of servants, but the tenants abused them in a similar manner. Finally, “he sent his son to them,” but the tenants killed him, thinking they could in this way “take his inheritance.”
Thus far the parable has been descriptive of Israel’s treatment of God’s prophets and, in a proleptic mode, of their treatment of God’s Son. But the parable becomes oriented toward the future and turns prophetic as Jesus teaches that when the vineyard owner returns to his vineyard, he will “bring those wretches to a wretched end,” and, according to Luke, “kill them.” Most scholars consider this to be a reference to the impending destruction of the Jerusalem and the Temple that took place in 70AD, a judgment that Jesus refers to elsewhere (e.g. Lk 19: 41-44).
While the image of a vineyard owner dealing with tenants would be familiar to Jesus’ audience, the most surprising element of this atypical parable is that it depicts the tenants, whom Jesus’ audience would easily identify with, as acting absurdly cruel, while depicting the wealthy vineyard owner, whom Jesus’ audience would be inclined to think was “the bad guy,” as absurdly patient. And since the punchline of parables is most frequently found in their surprising elements, as I noted in the previous post, it seems apparent that this parable makes the behavior of the vineyard owner and the judgment of the rebellious tenants the punchline. This parable thus announces that God is going to bring a well-deserved judgment upon Israel for its history of rejecting and mistreating God’s messengers, which culminated in the crucifixion of God’s Son.
But does the fact that this parable announces a coming judgment of God also entail that Jesus intended this parable to teach anything about how God will bring about this judgment? As I said in my previous post, there is an “is” and “is not” quality to all parables, and the question I’m raising is this: Is this parable’s depiction of the vineyard owner killing the tenants part of this parables “is” or “is not” quality? There are three considerations that lead me to conclude that this depiction is part of this parable’s “is not” quality.
Three Considerations. First, consider the way God in fact brought about this judgment in 70AD. It was a brutally violent judgment, but none of the violence was brought about by God. This much is clear in Jesus prophesy when he says to the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
… the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God (Lk 19:43-44).
Note that the violence involved in this judgment was carried out by “your enemies,” referring to the Roman army. “They will crush you to the ground,” Jesus says, and “they will not leave within you one stone upon another.” Yes, this was a judgment of God, but as it turns out, God didn’t kill anyone!
A second reason for concluding that the violence of the vineyard owner in Jesus’ parable was part of its “is not” quality is that Luke notes that as Jesus gave this prophesy about the impending judgment on Jerusalem, he was weeping, or even wailing (klaiō) (Lk 19:41). Since Jesus is the exact representation of God’s very essence (Heb 1:3), we must consider Jesus’ wailing to reflect God’s heart whenever he sees he must turn people over to experience the consequences of their sin.
Yet, this is altogether absent in Jesus’ parable about the vineyard owner. Indeed, this parable arguably assumes that the vineyard owner returns to kill the tenants in anger and in order to retaliate for the death of his son and his servants. It’s of course perfectly understandable that Jesus would depict this vineyard owner violently punishing the tenants, since this is how powerful people typically punished rebels under their authority. The only thing that Jesus’ audience would have found surprising is that the vineyard owner put up with so much before deciding to finally carry out this judgment.
Not only is Jesus’ violent imagery understandable, but it’s not clear how Jesus could have incorporated into this parable the truth about God’s wailing heart in bringing about judgments, let alone God’s non-violent way of bringing about judgments. It runs counter to the imagery Jesus is using in this parable as well as counter to the central point Jesus is making with this parable. In any event, we clearly should not try to infer anything about the way God judges from the way this tenant punished his rebellious tenants.
Finally, and most importantly, on the cross Jesus stood in our place and bore God’s judgment of the sin of the world. This judgment certainly involved horrific violence, but as was true of the judgment of Jerusalem, God was not the agent who brought this violence about. The only action God took in bringing about this judgment was to “deliver Jesus over” to wicked humans operating under the influence of wicked powers (Rom 4:25; cf. 8:32), and it was they who violently afflicted Jesus.
Since all our knowledge of God should be anchored in the crucified Christ, “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3), this should be our paradigm for how God always brings about judgment. And as I demonstrate in CWG (805-890), there is a wealth of Scripture that confirms this truth. As Paul teaches in Romans 1, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness” when God gives people over to suffer the destructive consequences that are inherent in their sin (vv.18, 24, 26, 28).
Together with the previous two considerations, this teaching requires us to interpret the violence of the vineyard owner to be part of the “is not” quality of this parable. And as such, it constitutes no objection to my claim that the God revealed in the crucified Christ is altogether loving and free of violence.
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What About Jesus’ Violent Parables? A Response to Paul Copan (#7)

Copan’s Argument. In Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG) and Cross Vision (CV) I argue that the violent depictions of God in the OT are incompatible with the non-violent, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing God who is fully revealed in the crucified Christ. It’s my contention that we therefore need to interpret these violent divine portraits, as well as the rest of Scripture, through the lens of the cross. And it is only when we interpret these portraits in this way that we can discern how they bear witness to the crucified Christ, as all Scripture is ultimately supposed to do (Jn 5:39-47; Lk 24:44-47; I Cor 15:3).
Paul Copan doesn’t disclose an alternative way of understanding how the OT’s violent portraits of God bear witness to the cross, but he is nevertheless confident that my proposed way of disclosing this is misguided. Indeed, he is opposed to any suggestion that the violent portraits of God in the OT need to be reinterpreted at all. In his view, these portraits are not incompatible with what we learn about God from Jesus and the NT. To establish this point, Copan highlights passages in the NT that he believes depict God in violent ways or that otherwise condone violence, as we have seen over the last several posts.
Arguing along these lines, Copan notes that I understand Hosea’s depiction of Yahweh vowing to “cut [Israel] to pieces” to be a reflection of Hosea’s “fallen and culturally conditioned heart” and mind (CWG, 798-99). If this is correct, Copan suggests, then I must accept that Jesus also had a fallen and culturally conditioned heart and mind, for he argues that “Jesus uses identical language.” He writes that in Jesus’ teachings,
God is a “severe” master (Lk 19:21-22, 46), an angry landowner (21:33) who will “bring those wretches to a wretched end” (Lk 21:41; cf. “kill” in Lk 20:16), and will “cut them in pieces” (Mt 24:51//Lk 12:46).
These passages are found in three parables of Jesus: the parable of a master and a wicked servant (Mt 24:45-51; Lk 12:42-46), the parable of ten pounds that was given to three servants of a wealthy landowner when he went away on a long journey (Lk 19:11-27), and the parable of an owner of a vineyard who acquired hostile tenants (Matthew 21:33-41; Lk 20:9-16). I will respond to the first two of these parables in this post, and the last in the subsequent post.
A Preliminary Word. Before I address these parables, however, I think it worth pointing out that the depiction of Yahweh vowing “to cut [Israel] to pieces” was just a small part of what I said reflected Hosea’s “fallen and culturally conditioned heart and mind.” I was also referring to Hosea’s depiction of Yahweh as an enraged husband who was going to drag his wife [Israel] into the desert and have her die of thirst after ripping off her clothes so other men could see her “lewdness” (Hos 2:3, 9-10). I was referring as well to Hosea’s depiction of Yahweh as “a lion” who was going to “rip apart” Israel and “devour them” (Hos 13:7-8). And I was referring to Hosea’s depiction of Yahweh declaring he “no longer loved [Israel” but instead “hated them” (Hos 9:15) as well as his depiction of Yahweh vowing to “send fire on their cities” (8:14), “slay their cherished offspring” (9:16, c. v.12), and to have “their pregnant women ripped open” and “their little ones…dashed to the ground” (13:16, CWG 798-99).
If Copan is going to stand by his claim that Jesus has the same conception of God as Hosea, he must accept that Jesus could have said all these things. Indeed, since Jesus is God Incarnate, he must accept that Jesus himself did all these things. I, for one, have a hard time imagining Jesus ripping open the wombs of young pregnant women in a fit of rage and smashing their unborn children on the ground.
Searching for a Consistent Interpretation. Still, if Jesus meant to depict God cutting people to pieces in the passages Copan cites, then we must concede that Jesus’ revelation of God is not altogether loving and non-violent. But this concession would also create a tremendous problem for us, for now we would have to reconcile these violent depictions of God with the cross. Jesus chose to die out of love for his enemies and at the hand of his enemies rather than to use the power available to him to crush his enemies, and in CWG I spend 87 pages (141-228) demonstrating that the NT regards Jesus’ self-sacrificial death to be the fullest revelation of God’s eternal character. For example, on the basis of the cross, John concludes that “God is love” (I Jn 4:8) and he defines the kind of “love” God is, and the kind of love God’s people are to consistently demonstrate, by pointing us to the cross (I Jn 3:16, cf. Eph 5:1-2).
We would also have to reconcile Jesus’ alleged violent images of God with the teachings of Jesus that God is altogether loving and non-violent. For example, Jesus teaches us that we are to love indiscriminately – like the rain falls and like the sun shines — because this is how our heavenly Father loves. Consistent with this, Jesus teaches that our ability and willingness to love and bless our enemies is the central criteria for being considered “children of your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:44-45).
In this light, I submit that if there is a way of interpreting the passages Copan cites that is consistent with Jesus’ example and teachings that reveal a completely loving and non-violent God, it ought to be preferred over Copan’s violent interpretation of these passages. And as it turns out, this is not at all hard to do, for all the passages Copan cites are parables, and once we understand the nature of parables, we’ll see that these parables are not intended to teach that God ever cuts people to pieces. [1]
The Nature of Parables. There are three things we need to know about parables if we are to interpret them correctly. First, there is an “is” and “is not” quality to all parables, and the key to correctly discerning the point of any parable is to correctly apply this distinction.[2] For example, in Jesus’ parable about the persistent widow and the unjust judge (Lk 18:1-8), everything depends on our understanding that the point is to teach us to pray like a desperate and persistent widow, not to teach us that God is an unjust judge. So too, in the parable of the dishonest manager (Lk 16:19), everything depends on our understanding that the point is to teach us to make preparations so we will be “welcomed into eternal dwellings” (v. 9), not to teach us that God is like the “master” in this parable who “commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly” (v.8), and thus not to teach us that we should behave like this dishonest manager.
Second, parables typically set up the point they are intended to make by telling stories based on things the audience is familiar with, including, quite frequently, the brutal and often unjust behavior of wealthy and powerful people towards Jewish peasantry. Yet, by using brutal and unjust characters as props, Jesus was not thereby condoning this brutal and/or unjust behavior, let alone teaching that this is how God behaves. To the contrary, the peasant audiences who heard these parables deplored the political system that allowed wealthy and powerful people to rule and abuse them. Some scholars even discern a subtle critique of this unjust system in Jesus’ parables, claiming they function a bit like a “political cartoon.”[3]
The parable of a wicked servant. Third, while building on harsh realities that were familiar to his audience, Jesus’ parables often incorporated absurd elements intended to shock his audience.[4] For example, in Matthew’s parable of the master and his wicked servant (Matt 24:44-51; Lk 12:42-46), the servant abused his fellow servants and got drunk with drunkards while the master was away. So, Jesus says, when the master returns, he “will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites…” (vs.51). Not only is the master’s punishment shockingly disproportionate to the crime, but the image of this master assigning his servant a “place among the hypocrites” after he had already “cut him to pieces” is intentionally ludicrous.
While the familiar realities assumed in a parable are typically used to set up the point of the parable, its intended lessons are typically found in these shocking and absurd elements. Similar to the way the punch line of a joke functions, the surprise was intended to help impress the lesson of the parable on people’s imagination.
In the parable we’re discussing, the lesson is that people should not forget that there are consequences for their actions when the “master” is away, and the absurd way this point is expressed makes the lesson memorable. But the familiar image of a master who went away for a long time and who was ridiculously vindictive in his punishment once he returned is simply a prop used to set up this punchline. The point of the parable, in short, is about how we should act, not about how God acts when he judges us.
In this light, Copan is mistaken in claiming that Jesus taught that God will cut people into pieces, similar to the way Hosea (mis)represented God.
The Parable of the Ten Pounds. The same holds true of Luke’s parable of ten pounds. A wealthy landowner entrusted this amount (worth about three months wages) to each of his three servants, instructing them to make a profit while he went away to make himself king over some people in a distant country, despite the fact that these people hated him and didn’t want them to be their king (Lk 19:11-27). One servant made ten more pounds for his master, so he was put “in charge of ten cities,” while a second produced five more pounds for his master, so he was put “in charge of five cites.” But the third servant was afraid, for he knew his master was “a hard man, taking out what [he] did not put in, and reaping what [he] did not sow.” This servant therefore tucked the ten pounds “away in a piece of cloth.”
The master rebuked the servant for earning no interest for him and he gave the ten pounds this servant had been given to the most prosperous servant who had already been put in charge of ten cities, for “to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” This master then ordered some servants to go capture “those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them,” telling these servants to “bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”
The point of this parable is not (thankfully!) to teach us that God is like this ruthless, unjust, and power-hungry landlord. This man rather represents the kind of ruthless and greedy person “of noble birth” that his audience was all-too-familiar with, and he simply serves as a prop for the punchline of this parable. The punchline is that if we are faithful with the little that has been entrusted to us, more will be entrusted to us, but if we are fearful instead of faithful, we will lose even the little that was entrusted to us.
As is typical of Jesus’ parables, this point is expressed in shockingly absurd ways. While we can easily understand how more can be given “to everyone who has,” it is absurd to say that, “for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” You can’t take something from “one who has nothing”!
Similarly, the suggestion that a landowner would or could put a servant in charge of five or ten cities, let alone do so simply because a servant had earned him an extra five or ten pounds, would have struck Jesus’ original audience as comically ludicrous. But arguably the most absurd aspect of this parable is Jesus’ depiction of this newly enthroned king of a distant country having his new subjects brought to him en masse so he could watch them all be slaughtered “in front of [him].” This is both a “political cartoon” about the political realities Jewish peasants suffered at the hands of powerful tyrants and a very memorable lesson about the importance of being faithful. But, contra Copan, it is most definitely not a parable about what our heavenly father is like.
In my next post I will discuss the more difficult parable of the owner of a vineyard with hostile tenants that Copan believes reflects a God who kills.
Photo by Roman Hobler on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA
[1] For a more comprehensive treatment, see D. J. Neville, A Peaceable Hope: Contesting Violent Eschatology in New Testament Narratives (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).
[2] B. E. Reid, “Violent Endings in Matthew’s Parables and Christian Nonviolence,” CBQ 66 (2004) 237-66 (254)
[3] See e.g. Carter, “Construction of Violence”; Myers, Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation, 76-7; Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech.135-9.
[4] K.R. Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,2008), 28, 71.
The post What About Jesus’ Violent Parables? A Response to Paul Copan (#7) appeared first on Greg Boyd - ReKnew.

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