Category: Ethics and Social Justice

An interesting book of divine violence

Ted Grimsrud—August 16, 2018
What follows is a review I have written responding to a recent book on the ways Christian theologians have responded to the issue of divine violence in the Old Testament. This book does little directly to help us know how to resolve the problem. But having an understanding of the history of Christian attempts to resolve it is important.
Christian Hofreiter. Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide: Christian Interpretations of Herem Passages. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
One of the most vexing moral issues that has challenged Christians over the years has been the question of what to do with the teachings in the Bible that portray God as one who commands and empowers horrendous acts of violence. Despite continual attempts to find resolution, this issue remains as unresolved today as ever.
In this book, Christian Hofreiter’s revised Oxford University dissertation, we are certainly not given a quick and easy answer to the dilemma of divine violence. However, what we are given is a most helpful sketch of how various Christian theologians have, over the centuries, struggled with the issues.
Hofreiter frames his account as an exercise in “reception history,” the discipline that “consists of selecting and collating shards of that infinite wealth of reception material in accordance with the particular interests of the historian concerned, and giving them a narrative flavor” (p. 10). He limits his focus, as a rule, to Christiantheologians.
Even so, Hofreiter casts the net pretty widely, choosing more for a sense of comprehensiveness over depth of analysis of any particular thinker. Still, he does spend a bit more time on the two thinkers who provide what seem to be the two main historical options: Origen and Augustine.
The dilemma: Holding together five points
He helpfully summarizes the dilemma in terms of five points. The question is how many of these points are affirmed. (1) God is good. (2) The Bible is true. (3) Genocide is atrocious. (4) According to the Bible, God commanded and commended genocide. (5) A good being, let alone the supremely good Being, would never command or comment an atrocity.
Each one of these points, taken in isolation, would seem likely to be true, at least for what Hofreiter calls “a pious Christian.” Things become difficult, though, when they are combined. Can they allbe true? And, if not, which one(s) should be denied? What problems arise when one of the points is denied?
The texts that are at the heart of this discussion are what Hofreiter calls “genocidal texts,” especially texts that commonly use the Hebrew word herem(defined by the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament as the call, “in war, [to] consecrate a city and its inhabitants to destruction; [to] carry out this destruction; [to] totally annihilate a population in war,” pp. 1-2). In other words, Hofreiter suggests, herem meansto commit genocide.
Interestingly, the first Christians, at least as represented by the New Testament, do not seem to have been troubled much by the problems those genocidal texts raise. Nor, going farther back, do the writers of the Old Testament. Likewise, with the early generations following New Testament times.
The two key Christian alternatives
The first known major figure who addressed this issue as a dilemma was Marcion in the second century CE. He attempted to resolve it by essentially eliminating the problematic stories from the Bible. That resolution was rejected by church leaders and Marcion labeled a heretic.
Not long after Marcion, a non-Christian critic named Celcus challenged the truthfulness of Christianity in terms of its illogical affirmation that God is good andthe Bible is true. He argued that if the Bible is true then God must have commanded and commended genocide. But that would mean that God is not good. And if God is not good, then Christianity cannot be true.
The great early Christian defender of the faith, Origen, responded to Celsus with what became, in various forms, a classic answer to the dilemma. Origen affirms that God is good and that the Bible is true. However, affirming the truthfulness of the Bible does not require Christians to accept that God did, in history, command and commend genocide. For Origen, those difficult Old Testament texts could be spiritualized and read allegorically in light of Jesus’s message. When read this way, those texts have to do with eradicating sin in our lives, not historical acts of extreme violence.
A second major response came a few generations later in the thought of Augustine. Augustine accepted each of the five points of the dilemma except the third one. BecauseGod is good, the Bible is true, God commands genocide, and a good being could never command an atrocity, therefore a God-commanded genocide must not be an atrocity.
Most of the theologians Hofreiter mentions down to the present offer versions of either Origen’s or Augustine’s approach. In his too-brief Summary and Conclusion chapter, he points out that in our contemporary world, most people (including “pious Christians”) have a strong gut feeling that “it is wrong to bludgeon babies.” This leaves them with the challenge to “simultaneously affirm the goodness of God, the truthfulness of scripture and the atrociousness of genocide” (p. 250).
Helpful but limited
This is a helpful book that gives a good account of the history of wrestling with these difficult questions—a history very relevant for our necessary continued wrestling. Hofreiter does not discuss the importance of such wrestling for those who are not “pious Christians.” However, given the continued significance of religiously sanctioned violence in our world, it’s not hard to see how widely relevant this discussion is.
Hence, it is a bit disappointing that we are left with the dilemma so unresolved: “There is therefore, in my view, no simple solution to the challenge these texts pose” (p. 251). That may be true, but hasn’t the perceptive analysis of proposed solutions from the past 2,000 years provided us with at least some guidance?

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism


Anabaptists, Abortions, and Ambivalence

Even before Brett Kavanaugh was officially nominated as the new Supreme Court justice nominee, the media buzzed with questions about what might happen to Roe v. Wade. Most legal experts and activists anticipate that the decision that legalized abortion nationwide will be overturned—and the legality of abortion will revert to a state-by-state decision—within a handful of years.
Abortion is an emotional issue, no matter what one believes. The word immediately puts us on the defensive. It’s easy to jump to go-to arguments about why the other side is wrong.
There are two questions Anabaptists need to ask: Who are we in the abortion debate? Who do we want to be in the abortion debate?
However, Anabaptists cannot ask the second question because they are afraid to ask the first question. For years, Anabaptist traditions have quietly avoided public conversation about abortion, sidestepping the pacifist stance that suggests a pro-life ethic and the low church polity and strong tradition of empowering impoverished neighbors that suggests a respect for pro-choice views.
There are a few small and vocal pro-life Anabaptist groups, but what speaks louder is the amount of silence on the subject. There is little data about Anabaptist views on abortion. The 2006 Road Signs for the Journey survey, a comprehensive survey of Mennonite Church USA, Church of the Brethren, and Brethren in Christ led by sociologist Conrad Kanagy, lists the percent of Mennonites who find behaviors like gambling, marijuana, adultery, homosexuality, and working as a police officer to be immoral—but says nothing on the question of abortion. (The previous 1972 and 1989 surveys did poll on abortion.)
In Kanagy’s 2016 of Conservative Mennonite Conference, 95% of respondents thought abortion was never morally justifiable. However, members of Mennonite Church USA tend to respond most similarly to mainline Protestant groups, and data from Protestants suggest Mennonites might support legalized of abortion—even if they believe it is immoral (different phrasings of the question can yield dramatically different survey results).
For Mennonite Church USA, the clearest articulation of views on abortion is the 15-year-old Statement on Abortion passed by the delegate body at the 2003 convention. It is a deeply ambivalent document, that includes sentences like “The fetus in its earliest stages… shares humanity with those who conceived it” and “There are times when deeply held values come in conflict with each other” and “We will act with compassion toward those who choose to have an abortion.”
It is an excellent working document. It is excellent because it makes everyone, on all sides, uncomfortable. It expresses honest ambivalence about a deeply personal, deeply contextual moral dilemma. It does not pretend that all abortions are the same, that a teenager raped by a relative is asking the same questions as a married woman experiencing menopause, or that a wealthy woman whose parents have the ability to become full-time caregivers is asking the same question as a single mother on disability with three children and no familial support.
Abortion is a moral dilemma. It is a hot button issue precisely because it is the collision of deeply held principles.
Historically, the Anabaptist approach to abortion was avoidant and inadequate. As the country faces a vicious and polarizing political debate that will likely reshape the law, it is time to create space for moral ambivalence, for insecurity, for lament, for trust, and for affirmation in our congregations.
As the church prepares for this debate, there is one part of the 2003 Statement on Abortion that can guide the church: “The faith community should be a place for discernment.”
Until now, Anabaptists have tried to use the faith community as a place of silence. It is time to take the task of discernment seriously: to have honest, ambivalent, inconclusive conversations in church, as a church.
This post first appeared in the Mennonite World Review.

Syndicated from gathering the stones

“Nature is My Sanctuary…” But Jesus Keeps Dragging Me Back to Church

There’s this mildly irritating phrase that I have encountered with some frequency over the course of the decade or so that I have been a pastor. I’m sure you’ve encountered something like it in your own circles, particularly in these post-Christian, post-church, post-everything times. Oh, I don’t mind church, but, you know, I encounter God best in creation. That’s where I worship. Nature is my sanctuary. Indeed. When I am on the receiving end of this phrase, I usually smile and nod in as gracious a fashion as I can muster. Inwardly, I am often thinking very un-Christian thoughts. Of course nature is your sanctuary. A rather convenient justification for avoiding this one, I would say.
Perhaps this doesn’t surprise you. You might expect someone in my position—someone whose livelihood depends upon the ongoing existence of the institutional church—to have an opinion or two about people off encountering God in the mountains and rivers and lakes and forests and rarely darkening the door of an actual church. You’d probably be right to wonder about my motives. Perhaps you’d even say something like, Well, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
As it happens, I have tried it. Rather recently, in fact. These last few months of sabbatical and this most recent week of holidays have provided me with the rare opportunity to skip church and encounter God on my own in the idyllic confines of nature. And you know what? It’s been glorious. Last Sunday, in particular, at around the time I would ordinarily be scrambling through the usual last minute sermon edits, I found myself paddling around a pristine lake on a glorious sun-kissed morning. There was hardly another soul out. The water was clean and clear—you could see almost right to the bottom of the lake. The birds were singing, the fish were darting here and there. The majestic Rocky Mountains impressively stood guard. It was a feast for the senses. A sense of calm and gratitude descended upon me, not to mention wonder at the beauty of all that God has made. As I paddled peacefully around the lake, I found myself thinking, You know, I think I get why people say that nature is their sanctuary. I can think of any number of worship services that were quite a bit less inspiring than this.
There’s a lot to be said for encountering God in creation. You can get a sense of the power and the grandeur of God, of God’s evident love of beautiful things, of God’s creativity and the intricacy of the natural world. It’s not hard to feel a sense of awe, even reverence, when you’re standing at the top of a mountain or strolling along a beach, or enjoying some other glorious scene. I have to confess, as I was paddling around the lake on the Lord’s Day, I wasn’t really itching to get myself to a church to ratify or validate all of my holy and inspiring thoughts. Nature was indeed my sanctuary, and a beautiful one it was.
Having said all this (you knew the turn was coming, right?), I’m not sure these moments, incredible as they are, offer enough to address the totality of human need. Of my need, at any rate. I was made for things like beauty and awe, certainly, but I was also made to be trained in the art of love. My soul was created for transcendent experiences and connection with nature, but it was also created for my fellow human beings. And, regrettably, I keep on blundering my way through life in selfish and stupid ways—ways that no mountain scene is up to the task of healing or forgiving or reorienting. I need to encounter God, yes, but God in the specificity with which God has made himself known, namely, in Jesus Christ. The God of creation can inspire me, but it cannot demand that I die to myself and become ever more alive and attentive to all the things that are ugly and easily ignored in the world—the parts and the people that don’t show up on carefully curated Instagram posts or status updates.
So, yes, I can and do encounter God in creation. Nature is a glorious sanctuary, and one that draws forth my glad and grateful praise. But Jesus keeps on stubbornly dragging me back to church. To confess my sins, to encounter him in my neighbour (including my enemy), to be shown who I really am and who I ought to be, to be forgiven and set free, to be to worship the God who is revealed as Creator, certainly, but also as Redeemer and Sustainer. Jesus keeps showing me his hands and his feet and his side, reminding me of the cost and the duty of love. Jesus keeps ever before me not a sunset or a mountain peak or waves gently lapping upon the beach, but a cross.
It’s not that Jesus doesn’t love beautiful things. I think he does. But Jesus prevents me from loving the things whose beauty naturally attracts me to the exclusion of the many other things that call forth my love. He teaches me to look for beauty in places where I might not be inclined to look, and where I wouldn’t expect to find it.

Syndicated from Rumblings

God and punitive judgment in Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—July 29, 2018
 The book of Revelation is generally understood to be a visionary account of God who judges and violently punishes human wrongdoers and idolaters. I have long disagreed with that “standard account” interpretation of Revelation. Early in my career I wrote a book that presented a much more peaceable interpretation of Revelation called Triumph of the Lamb. Now, thirty years later, I am in the process of completing a new book that interprets Revelation in a way that is even more radically peaceable—tentatively titled “Jesus, the Conqueror: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation” (a lot of the writing I have done in recent years on Revelation is available on my website).
A recent Facebook discussion in a group of which I am part, “Wrestling with the Disturbing Parts of the Bible,” engaged the issue of God and punitive judgment in Revelation. The discussion started with an examination of the famous incident at Revelation 6:9-11 where martyrs cry out for God’s judgment and vengeance against “the inhabitants of the earth.” The original post quoted Old Testament scholar John Goldingay to the effect that these verses tell us that hoping for God to exercise punitive judgment to wreak deadly violence on sinners is appropriate—and that God will act on those prayers in God’s time and punish such sinners.
Now, Facebook discussions can be exhilarating and educational, but they are also extraordinarily fast moving and rarely allow for an in-depth response. If one does not notice the discussion until it is well underway and much if not all of the early momentum has dissipated, then one usually can’t join the fray. In this case, I was not aware of the debate until someone tagged me and asked what I thought. At that point, I was en route with my family to New York City and not in position for even a belated contribution. But missing out on the original excitement does give me an opportunity to put a bit more care into a response—and to expand it into a lengthy blog post.
The context for interpreting Revelation 6:9-11
I believe that it is essential, in the effort to arrive at the best reading of any particular text, to read that text in the context of the entire book of which it is part. So, to interpret Revelation 6:9-11, we should not simply focus on these three verses in isolation from the rest of the book. With a particular passage such as this, we should give the big picture much more weight than zeroing in on particular words or short phrases (I am impressed as I read various long commentaries on Revelation [e.g. by David Aune, Grant Osborne, and Stephen Smalley, three I am working through right now] with how much the writers focus on individual words and how little on the book as a whole—the opposite of my approach [an exception is the fine long commentary by Craig Koester in the Anchor Bible series]).
First, we ask about the book of Revelation as a whole—what does it seem to be about? What is John’s agenda? Then we ask about how our particular passage serves the agenda of the book as a whole.
I think it is crucial, in analyzing any particular passage in Revelation to take seriously the first words of the book: “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” We notice that “revelation” is singular. Whatever distinct and numerous visions the book contains, they are part of onerevelation. I do think we should be careful to avoid trying to harmonize all the distinct images in the book and to avoid coming to too quick of a conclusion about what the one revelation is about and then resorting to reducing every distinct part to supporting that one revelation. But at the same time, with the affirmation of the revelation’s singularity, we should expect the book as a whole to have coherence and we should expect the various parts to (at least in a general sense) complement each other.
So we have one revelation. What is it about? The rest of our opening phrase gives us an answer: “Jesus Christ”. That designation could still be seen as a bit cryptic. What about Jesus Christ is in mind? Does “revelation of Jesus Christ” mean revelation fromJesus, telling us what he wants to say? Or, more, a revelation that tells aboutJesus Christ that is meant to help us understand him better? What are we to understand about Jesus from this book?
Briefly, I lean to the approach that the book of Revelation most of all tells us aboutJesus—and it means the Jesus of the gospel stories. The book is applying the story of Jesus to the challenge late first-century Christians faced in living faithfully to the way of Jesus in the midst of a culture shaped powerfully by the Roman Empire. As we read the book as a whole, we see that it is a powerful call to discipleship, to imitating the pattern of Jesus that is sketched right away in 1:5 and then alluded to throughout this book. This is the pattern to be embodied by believers who, we are told, are to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).
The pattern of Jesus consists of three elements, according to 1:5-6—(1) his life as a “faithful witness” that leads to execution by the Empire as a political revolutionary, (2) his vindication as the “firstborn of the dead”—the one whose resurrection defeats the Powers that killed him and provides the template that will be followed by the multitudes of the faithful who follow his path, and (3) his rulership of “the kings of the earth” (a statement that the power of the Lamb is the power that rules the world, ultimately).
The victory of Jesus, the Lamb, that allows him to reign is the victory of his faithfulness unto death (vindicated by resurrection) that frees those who follow him from the Powers of sin (1:5-6) and empowers them to be an “empire” (or kingdom) that is free from and outlasts Rome. And Jesus’s victory comes through his “blood” (a metaphor throughout Revelation for his persevering love that shaped a life of resistance to the ways of Rome [that is, the ways of the Dragon and Beast]), resistance even to the point of death that is vindicated when God raised the executed Jesus from the dead.
So, the book of Revelation as a whole tells us about Jesus and Jesus’s call to discipleship. Jesus calls his followers to nonviolent resistance to the domination system that Rome embodied. The book’s visions creatively speak to the heart of faithfulness empowered by the Lamb and also challenge and critique the tendencies of Christians to be accepting of the lure to conform to the ways of Empire and weaken or even reverse the resistance they are called to.
What we learn from the heavenly throne room
We read in chapters two and three about some of the key issues that faced seven different congregations in John’s world. Some issues relate to the direct costs of resistance as the Empire and its minions seek to hurt people of faith. Other issues relate to the approaches to life and faith that seek to avoid those costs by lessening the resistance and escape being hurt. Each of the seven is called to “conquer.” The call to “conquer” the Lamb’s way (through persevering love) is, throughout the book, contrasted with the way the Dragon’s servants “conquer” (through violence and punishment and seduction).
The final contextual point setting up our consideration of Revelation 6 is that one of the main interests of the book is to empower and encourage faithfulness to Jesus and his way. Perhaps the most important of the visions that make up the Revelation of Jesus Christ comes in chapters 4 and 5. The congregations are called to “conquer” in chapters 2 and 3. The readers are then immediately transported to God’s “throne room” for a worship service that will tell them how to conquer and why they can devote their lives to such conquering.
We are first shown “the One on the throne,” the Creator, worthy of the praise and devotion of the entire animate creation. This One has a scroll that must be opened for the ultimate redemptive purposes of the One to be fulfilled. At first, John bitterly reports no one has been found to open the scroll. But then he is reassured, “one has been found” (5:5). This one is identified with messianic hopes, the promised Deliverer from Israel’s tradition, a Lion, a conquering King.
Then, though, comes something shocking that profoundly illumines the subject of this book’s “revelation”: A Lamb, crucified, resurrected, powerful, worthy of worship. In fact, the Lamb is worshiped in the same way and to the same degree as the One on the throne (5:8-14). The Lamb, Jesus as faithful witness, turns out to be the (only) one who can open the scroll. We thus learn that God is best seen in terms of the persevering love of the Lamb—and that all creation recognizes this link.
The Lamb’s work: Reading Revelation 6
So, it is crucial to interpret chapter six in light of chapters four and five and what they say about God’s close identification with the Lamb and about the nature of God’s victory that is won through the persevering love of the Lamb.
As well, in reading chapter six in light of the entire book we must keep in mind crucial texts such as 11:18, where the reign of God is celebrated, in part because of God’s work to “destroy the destroyers of the earth” (i.e., the spiritual powers of evil); 12:11, where the means of the victory (which includes the destruction of the destroyers) is described as the blood of the Lamb and the word of the testimony of the Lamb’s followers; 19:11-21, where the “battle” we are set up to expect turns out to be merely a “clean-up operation” where the conquering rider (Jesus) turns out to have shed his blood beforethe confrontation with the Powers of evil and their minions and simply captures the leaders and throws them into the lake of fire; and 21:9–22:5, where the outcome of all that comes before is that the nations and the kings of the earth (synonymous with “inhabitants of the earth”) are healed and present in New Jerusalem.
The framework for interpreting Revelation 6 is healing love, not punitive judgment. We will learn through a careful reading of chapters 6–18 that God’s true enemies are the spiritual Powers of evil (especially the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet), not human beings (“the inhabitants of the earth,” “the nations,” and “the kings of the earth”). Certainly, many human beings align themselves with the Powers (which is a main reason for John’s urgency in this book—he seeks to prevent people in the congregations from embracing such alignments), but the overall message of Revelation tells us that in destroying the destroyers of the earth, God seeks to liberate human beings who have been deceived into aligning with the destroyers.
For all their drama, creative imagery, frightening scenes, and chaos, the series of visions linked with the plagues (seals, trumpets, and bowls) offers us simple metaphorical descriptions of human history. The plagues come from the evil Powers, not directly from God. But John wants us to recognize that those Powers will not defeat God and that, in fact, the very dynamics of the plagues will lead to the Powers’ destruction. The destruction will not come by direct intervention from God but by the outworking of the influence of the Lamb’s self-sacrifice and its embodiment by the countless multitudes of his people of chapter 7 (who wash their robes white with and conquer via the Lamb’s blood and their word of testimony, 12:11).
This reality of human history is given a duration several times in the book: 3½ years (or, alternately, 42 months or 1,260 days). John hopes to encourage his readers with a sense of the finite length of the struggle effectively to resist the Powers and with an account of the importance of their conquering work (which is to imitate the witness of Jesus—to share in his “blood” and his faithful proclamation of the gospel of God’s healing love).
The visions in chapters 6–18 teach that brokenness is indeed genuinely a part of human life during the 3½ years of our history on earth. “Conquering” involves suffering (that is, “faithful witness” with the connotation of martyrdom seen in the word for “witness,” martys). Our text 6:9-11 refers to this. The Powers want to dominate and to destroy all who resist that domination. But these destroyers will themselves be destroyed by the same work of God that raised Jesus from the dead after the Powers executed him—the power of love, not punitive judgment.
The terrible destruction of the plagues comes from the Powers, not God (see, for example, 9:1-3; 11:18; 12, esp. 12:17; 13). But we need to know that even amidst these dynamics of rebellion versus God, God’s healing work that will lead to the destruction of the destroyers is having its effect. The deeper picture of reality comes from the scenes of worship that surround the first plague series presented in chapter 6. Chapters 4–5 portray the Lamb’s victory and the worship of the One on the throne and the Lamb as one act of worship. Chapter 7 shows us who indeed is “able to stand” before the One on the throne and the Lamb (6:17). It is a countlessmultitude (7:9) of healed human beings who “come out of the great ordeal” (7:14)—that is, out of the great plagues. They embrace the Lamb and his way and discover that God is not being defeated by the destroyers of the earth.
It is meaningful to affirm that the Lamb does open one of the scrolls (6:1), an act that John portrays as loosing the plagues. This is not a metaphor symbolizing the Lamb as the direct author of punitive judgment against sinful human beings. To the contrary (as we keep the message of Revelation as a whole in mind, especially as seen in the fulcrum for the entire book, chapter 5), what we are to understand is that the Lamb initiates amidst the plagues the dynamics of healing that lead to the worship of the countless multitude of chapter 7.
And the multitude of Jesus’s followers has a crucial role to play—it conquersthe Powers of evil (12:11) through being transformed by the “blood of the Lamb” (7:14). This story is retold in 14:17-20 where we learn of an almost infinite amount of blood from this multitude linked with the Lamb’s blood, and in chapters 17 and 18 where we learn of “Babylon the great” being brought down by drinking “the blood of the saints and blood of the witnesses of Jesus” (17:6; see also 18:4-8).
What does Revelation 6:9-11 mean?
I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.
In light of what we learn later in Revelation, I believe we best interpret these verses as a call for those “souls” patiently to let their conquering work (see 12:11—the “work” of the “comrades” to conquer “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony”) have its effect. Ultimately, this “blood” is what takes down Babylon and helps lead to the coming down of New Jerusalem.
The message here fits with the general picture in Revelation that the onlyway that God works in the world to win victory is through the persevering love of the Lamb and his followers. That love is how the Powers of evil are defeated. So the point is that the transformative patience that God calls for will let God’sjudgment and vengeance determine the process and will remember that God’s promised outcome is healing, even for the inhabitants of the earth.
The literal meaning of “avenge” here is “do justice” as in “do justice in relation to our blood.” Note that later, we will be told that “those who had conquered the Beast” (“conquer” as in defeat with the blood of the Lamb and the word of testimony) praise God for God’s “just ways” that result in “all nations” (= “the inhabitants of the earth”) worshiping before God (15:3-4). And, then, even later, we read of New Jerusalem, populated by, among others, the healed and transformed kings of the earth who bring in the glory of the nations (21:22–22:5).
The message of 6:9-11, then, coheres with the overall story of Revelation where God conquers onlythrough the “blood” of the Lamb—that is, the Lamb’s faithful witness and God’s nonviolent vindication through resurrection from the dead. We will learn in chapter 7 that these white robes are a sign of the healing that Jesus offers, the Jesus (who we know from chapter 5) is worthy of the same worship that is offered to the One on the throne. And this same Jesus is the one the countless multitudes (= 144,000) follow wherever he goes (14:4)—which is precisely what the “souls” of 6:9-11 have done.
The idea, then, that 6:9-11 teaches an affirmation of punitive judgment versus God’s human enemies is a misreading. These three verses actually teach a repudiation of humanjustice (insofar as human justice means punitive judgment and violent revenge). They call instead for followers of Jesus to affirm and practice divinejustice that seeks to heal and not to punish—and that accepts that healing our broken world (i.e., “conquering”) requires vulnerable, patient, compassionate faithfulness. That is, according to these verses read in the context of the rest of Revelation, it is anthropomorphizing of divine justice to imagine it as punitive and retributive rather than restorative.
Considering a related text—Revelation 8:3-5
Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.
This vision is followed by the rest of Revelation 8–9, an account of the second series of plagues, the trumpets. Is this vision of the prayers and the altar also pointing toward God’s punitive judgment in the same way 6:9-11 is said to? Or, if I am correct in my reading of 6:9-11, is this vision also affirming God’s persevering love in face of the brokenness of history in the 3½ years of tribulation (that is, the history of which we are now part)?
I think that when we read 8:3-5 (and what follows) in light of chapters 5 and 7, it could not be clearer that God’s victory is won through persevering love, not violence and punitive judgment. The visions in those chapters, and many more to come in Revelation, help us to see that God’s victory emerges not through God intervening to cause the plagues nor through an escape from the plagues (there is no “Rapture” in Revelation!) but through the costly practice of persevering love in the midst of the plagues.
The allusion in 8:3-5 to the prayers of the saints on the altar points back to 6:9-11. The message there we saw to be a message (reinforced by chapter 7) where the meaning of “white robes” has to do with going through “great tribulation” and suffering and then being washed “white in the Lamb’s blood” (7:14).
Probably, the angel throwing the censer to the earth (8:5) conveys two things. First, that the work of the Lamb is indeed extraordinarily powerful and transformative, and, second, that followers of the Lamb will have to suffer insofar as they embody his powerful and transformative work. Then, in what follows in chapter 8, we get more plagues. In an exaggerated way we are reminded of the dynamics of life during the long period of human history John calls the “3½ years.” In a mythical way chapter 12 will portray this dynamic.
Again, I point out that the trumpet plagues in chapters 8 and 9, as well as the other plagues, are not the direct intervention of God either as redemptive works or as punitive judgment. They are the direct work of the Dragon. But God’s redemptive will still finds expression and works its transformation.
We learn more about this when we continue reading through chapter 11. At the end of the trumpet plagues, we are told that wrongdoers do not repent, even after all the trauma of the plagues (9:20). Many interpreters treat this refusal to repent as an indication that these human beings deserve to be punished by God. However, how often do punishment and the violence it visits upon people ever lead to repentance? What the story may actually tell us is that God’s response to the lack of repentance is notone of punitive judgment (as well as pointing to the crucial role that followers of the Lamb have in the redemptive work of God).
Chapter 10 begins by introducing to us yet another series of plagues to be associated with the “seven thunders” (10:3). However, John is stopped when he begins to write and told not to tell about the thunders. An angel who seems like kind of a Christ figure gives John a “little scroll” to eat (10:8-10). John eating this scroll evokes the prophetic calling of Ezekiel (Ez 2:8–3:3), as does his commissioning by the angel to “prophesy again” (10:11).
Chapter 11 tells a story that portrays the embodiment of this call to prophesy. We read of two witnesses (called lampstands, 11:4, linking back to the seven congregations of chapters 1–3) who follow the pattern of Jesus. They bear witness and are killed, but then are vindicated and raised to heaven. Right afterwards another earthquake strikes and many people are killed. But this time, nine tenths of the people do repent and give glory to God. This time, the faithful testimony of the two witnesses (symbolizing the community of Jesus’s followers) bears fruit. God is not the source of the plagues where they are created in order to get people to repent. Rather, God’s persevering love enters even in the midst of the Dragon-caused plagues to bring healing—not punishment.
There are plenty more plagues to come, of course, but now we know what God’s direct intervention actually involves. God intervenes by empowering those who have been healed by Jesus to embody the mercy of God, to provide places to worship God amidst the plagues and to counter the Dragon’s propaganda, and to bear witness against the Powers of evil and the human structures and ideologies they have poisoned.
Afterword: How would punitive judgment work in actual life?
Let’s think about the notion of God practicing punitive judgment by directing the plagues in Revelation. How might that actually work? Nothing in these plagues gives us the idea that God’s punishment is precise and limited only to wrongdoers. How do we know that these plagues will target the people who deserve to be punished—and only them? From all appearances, the violence of the plagues is indiscriminate with an extraordinary amount of collateral damage.
In the real world, almost always the people with power and wealth manage to evade the devastation of earthquakes and plagues and wars and the like at a much greater rate than poor and vulnerable people. The very people whose exploitation would be the cause of punitive judgment toward society’s leaders (who Revelation clearly teach are God’s main human enemies) are the one most damaged by the plagues.
A God who kills and destroys in order to punish killers and destroyers is bad enough, but how much worse is a God who kills and destroys countless seemingly innocent people with random violence in order quite inefficiently to punitively judge the guilty ones.
It makes more sense to affirm what Revelation actually seems to teach: The plagues’ violence and destructiveness are the work of the Powers of evil (the true “destroyers of the earth”). The way to deal with these Powers is not to imitate their retributive justice but to stand in their way with nonviolent resistance, to follow the way of the cross, and patiently to count on God’s indestructible love to bring resurrection out of the self-sacrificial shedding of blood.

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Interview: Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here

Austin Channing joins the podcast to be interviewed by Katelin Hansen about her new book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. Some of the topics covered include:

Background for the book (1:38)
Stories from Austin’s experiences in primarily white Christian spaces (4:25)
The intersection of Christianity and white supremacy (20:00)
The readership of the book being broader than anticipated and the pervasiveness of racism across different evolving systems over time (36:35)

(This interview was much more of a back and forth conversation naturally flowing from one idea to the next than most, so separating them into distinct topics was not nearly as easy) Apple Podcasts | Android | Email | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS

What If

Yall. I havent written a blog post in a really long time. Are you all still reading these things called blog posts? I hope so because I want to share a thought thats forming in my heart. The world sucks. (You've probably noticed this.) And it feels like every day is an emotional battle. How much do you invest in the daily news? How much do we need to escape for our own sanity? How much do I give? How often do I volunteer? Should I go to the border, to the airports, to DC, to the march shutting down the highway? How do I balance everything else that life requires- my friends, my work, my family, my hobbies. How do I fight despair, apathy, bitterness? So many questions. Sigh. But here's the thing Ive been wondering. What if we were made for this? I dont mean that we are made to suffer, or that "God intended this" stuff. I mean. What if instead of longing for ease, we were made for more- made to advocate, made to dig in, made to speak out, made to dive into nuance, made for complexity, made for this moment. We are not the first generation to face hard things. Slavery. Genocide. Internment. Mass Incarceration. Segregation. Exclusion. Discrimination of all kinds. But throughout history people decided to rise up. Sometimes they reaped the fruit of their efforts; sometimes they didnt. What if we believed the fight for justice was worth it, regardless of whether or not we get to enjoy the benefits? We still have lots of hard questions to ask. When to rise up and when to take a nap, for example. But what if we believed in the core of our being that we are strong, that we are creative, that we here to participate in making a difference?What if we believed so deeply in our own capacity to rise to this occasion that getting to work wasnt a tiring chore, but a life-giving opportunity to invest in something larger than ourselves?What if   
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Just Get It Together, Goshen College: In Support of Women’s Soccer Players Speaking Out

I was sexually assaulted within the first few weeks at Goshen College. I have always known I am not alone in that fact. That is the story for many college students, and many students at Goshen College. My trauma was exacerbated and compounded by the response of the administration. Since writing about how my Title IX complaint was taken on by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the OCR has finished its investigation. My claims of Title IX violations and retaliation were substantiated by the federal government, and Goshen College signed a Resolution Agreement. My healing was able to begin when Goshen College signed this agreement with the OCR that has nine requirements and deadlines. I was able to feel like I could rest from the three year struggle to feel valid and safe after this particular incident. This agreement was not just for my healing. My fight was not just for me. It was so that others would be safe, feel supported, and be heard. There is a battle going on between, on one hand, the former and current players of the Goshen College women’s soccer team, and on the other, the college’s administration. There has been financial, physical, verbal, racial, and […]
The post Just Get It Together, Goshen College: In Support of Women’s Soccer Players Speaking Out appeared first on Our Stories Untold.

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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?

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Have we really fallen this far?

Last week Fariborz Karami committed suicide. And I don’t think many Australians noticed. He was just 26 years old, and he had been held behind bars for 5 years without any hope of safe release. His mental health had been deteriorating for years. But I don’t think many Australians cared. Worse still, I don’t think … Continue reading Have we really fallen this far?
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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

On the Occasion of Your Seventeenth Birthday

Hi kids,
It’s your seventeenth birthday today, so I suspect you know what’s coming by now. That’s right, another long-ish and perhaps not altogether welcome letter from your dad. This is the third year in a row that I’ve subjected you to something like this (see here and here). I apologize. Kind of. Well, not really. I suppose next year these letters will have to stop, what with you officially reaching adulthood and all that. So I’d better take advantage of these last two birthdays to dump all of my wisdom (or at least nostalgia) on you before you launch out into the grown up world.
Speaking of grown ups and adulthood, I saw a young man—maybe twenty or so—walking around the other day with a t-shirt that proudly displayed a slogan that said something like, “I tried adulting today, but adulting is hard.” It’s a chuckle-inducing expression that you see a lot today. I suppose it’s meant to convey the idea that sometimes being an adult is complicated or isn’t all it’s cracked up to be or isn’t worth the effort or something like that. Or maybe it’s like a kind of social endorsement of laziness and apathy—a kind of shrug of the shoulders, an indifferent “meh” to the perceived demands of an oppressive world that inconveniently insists that we grow up.
Based a few decades spent “adulting” myself, I can tell you that the slogan on the t-shirt is both true and not true at all. It’s true in the sense that it’s not always easy to grow up, to take responsibility for yourself and your actions, to learn how to think through complicated issues in a world that seems to endlessly settle for (demand?) simplistic slogans and reactionary shouting in place of careful thinking and measured responses. It’s hard to find your place in a world that demands self-definition as a cultural imperative. It’s intimidating to think about finding meaningful work in unstable economic and political conditions. It’s complicated to start dealing with things like student loans and job applications and mortgages and (far off in the distant future!) parenting. So, yes, adulting can be hard. It can be very hard.
But on the other hand, adulting is not hard. At least not in the ways that matter most. Adulthood can, in many ways, simply be another word for “maturity.” Physical maturity, certainly, but far more importantly emotional, spiritual, moral, and relational maturity. Adults are those who treat all people as human beings, who are kind and concerned about the welfare of those many deem expendable or inconvenient. Adults don’t believe something just because it comes from the mouth of someone who is rich and powerful. Adults aren’t impressed by empty rhetoric that relies on bullying and threats. Adults are suspicious of the propaganda and marketing language that fuels and inflames our cultural discourse on so many levels. Adults have the capacity to be self-critical—to recognize that we all have our blind spots and self-serving ways of understanding and moving through the world. Adults recognize that being right isn’t always (or even often) as important as being loving. And if they are paying attention, adults are always growing in the knowledge that love is a much deeper (and more demanding) word than most of the ways in which it is thrown around out there in the world.
As I’m sure you’ve observed, there are many people out there who are technically “adults” according to the dates on their birth certificate, but who are miles away from this kind of maturity. They are petulant and lazy, they are sloppy thinkers and endlessly blame others for the things that go wrong in the world and in their lives. They are unkind and reactionary, abusing power to get their way and exalting themselves by pushing others down. They are impatient and hypocritical, merciless and arrogant. Some of these people occupy some of the most influential positions in our communities, nations, and world. But there is little worth admiring in such people. They remain childish (which is different than “childlike”—see below) in the ways that matter most. I hope you will continue to set your sights far higher than this, even if it sometimes requires setting them lower on many popular metrics of scorekeeping.
And I think you also realize that there are some people who are technically “children” but who are already leading the way when it comes to adulting in the best ways. Sometimes it is people your age and younger that put the rest of us to shame when it comes to calling out the things that should not be in our world—things so many of us have lazily accepted or given up caring about. I have seen this in both of you throughout your lives, in the ways that you have a soft spot for the outsider, the neglected, the ridiculed and ignored, in the way that you don’t chase after the herd, always panting after what is popular and socially acceptable. This makes me very proud. There are many times when I aspire to adult in the ways that you already are.
Jesus talked once about how adults needed to become like little children if they wanted to enter the kingdom of God. It’s a weird thing to say, on the face of it. Taken literally, it seems like Jesus saying he wants us to be childish or something. But I don’t think that’s true at all. I think he’s telling us some of the best ways of “adulting” in faith and in life involve the simple things that many children exhibit almost instinctively—things like trust, integrity, curiosity, openness, wonder, forgiveness, and joy. These are the kinds of adults the world needs. Those who “adult” well are often those who simply follow one of Jesus’ most basic commands: “Do to others as you would have them do unto you.” A pretty simple thing, when it all comes down to it. But also a pretty hard thing. Adulting is like that—it’s hard and not hard at the same time.
Anyway, I hope you both have the very happiest of birthdays today. And I hope you remember that you are loved dearly, by your mother and I, certainly, but more importantly by the God who made you, the God who loves you more truly and fully than even we can, no matter how well you manage to “adult” in the years ahead. I hope your lives will be spent living into, embracing, and emulating this deepest of all loves—a love that holds and heals, sustains and enlivens, forgives and redeems the world.
Thanks for beings such awesome kids who are already adulting in inspiring ways. I suppose your mother will have to take most of the credit for that.
Love, always.
For those who might be wondering about this “blogging sabbatical” that I keep trying (and failing) to observe, I can only apologize and promise to keep trying. One of the ways that “adulting” is hard for me is, evidently, resisting the urge to write sappy public letters to my kids on their birthday each year.  

Syndicated from Rumblings

Interview: Shelley Campagnola, Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support

Shelley Campagnola from Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support joins the podcast to talk about their work and the current state of refugee acceptance in Canada and the United States. For more on MCRS, visit
Topics include:

How MCRS supports refugee claimants and why these claimants are seeking help (1:15)
The Mennonite roots of MCRS (4:06)
Other help for refugees in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (5:30)
The Christian/biblical basis for helping refugees (7:45)
The general process for a refugee in Canada (10:12)
Main differences between Canada and the U.S. and how they welcome refugees (20:40)
The length of the refugee claim process (25:12)
The safe third country agreement and how that impacts refugees to Canada and the U.S. (27:31)
Increasing fear of the “other”, including refugees, in North America (31:26)
How to help MCRS in their work (44:26) Apple Podcasts | Android | Email | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS

How the Bible Sounds in Occupied Territory

One more reflection based on my time spent in Palestine and Israel over the past few weeks. After this, I shall endeavour to give this “blogging sabbatical” thing another, better, try.
It’s an interesting thing how geography and social location affects the way you read and hear Scripture. Most Sundays, I am reading and hearing Scripture as a relatively comfortable, white, middle-class Christian in a more or less peaceful country where religion often occupies a peripheral (at best) role in most people’s thinking and living. This affects how I read and hear the words of the Bible. My default, whether I want this or not, tends to be to listen in ways that will more or less endorse and validate myself and those who are like me. This is, as I said, most Sundays. Last Sunday, however, I worshiped in Palestine.
It was a tiny little Lutheran church where we gathered in Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem. It was a mixture of Palestinian Christians and foreigners who happened to be lingering around the town of Jesus’ birth. The liturgical forms in the service were familiar enough, even if the language wasn’t. But they had transliterated the readings and prayers and it was possible, with a bit of effort, to follow along. The Scripture readings were done in both Arabic and English. And given what we had seen and heard in the previous week about how the Israeli occupation was affecting our Palestinian sisters and brothers, the readings sounded, well, different.
Psalm 35:1-10
We began the service by responsively reading from this Psalm. I am used to reading psalms like this through the lens of either the ancient Israelites or the suffering church. But it was impossible, in this place, to not hear through the ears of those who presently find themselves on the wrong end of the score in the Holy Land—those who are harassed and harried by teenage soldiers wielding automatic weapons, those who endure endless checkpoints and discriminatory policies restricting where they can go and when and how, those who are increasingly sequestered into urban ghettos by legislation that seems cruelly crafted to drive them from their farms and their land.

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!
Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me!
[S]ay to my soul, “I am your salvation…”
For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it—to their ruin.
Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his deliverance. All my bones shall say, “O Lord, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them, the weak and needy from those who despoil them.”

I don’t really have anyone contending with me in Canada, no real need for a shield or buckler. But my sisters and brothers from Beit Sahour do. They long for a strong arm of deliverance from those too strong for them.
It is grimly ironic that those who see themselves as descended from the same David who penned this Psalm, those who were once the weak that needed rescue from those who despoiled them, are now the ones that Palestinian Christians are praying for deliverance from.
Luke 16:19-31
The rich man and Lazarus… One enjoyed the best things in life while the other experienced only suffering and deprivation. Both die. The rich man ends up in torment in Hades and cries out to Father Abraham, with Lazarus by his side, saying, “Please, just a drop of water for my agony!” Father Abraham says, “Well, you’ve had your good things, haven’t you? You’ve been on the right end of the score for quite some time, and now the tables are turned.”
Father Abraham.
It must be such a complicated thing for Palestinian Christians to reckon with the word “Israel” in their Scriptures. But here, Father Abraham, patriarch of the nation, speaks a word of hope to them, to those who endure water shortages and intermittent electricity in the blistering heat of summer, to those who look over the (large and imposing) fence and see their Israeli neighbours with unlimited access to water and gleaming shopping malls and newly paved freeways (that Palestinians can’t use)…
Father Abraham says, “Comfort is coming, even across this vast chasm.”
1 John 4:15-21
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
This land is often called “holy.” Everywhere you go, it seems, something holy happened once upon a time. This is the place where Abraham died or where David did this or that or where Rachel is buried or where Jesus was born or where Muhammad went on his night journey. This is where God has apparently done a great many special things for a great many special people in a great many holy books. But what makes a land “holy?” What makes it matter to God? How would we ever know?
According to 1 John, it would seem rather simple. A land is “holy” because of the presence of love and unholy where this love is absent. God abides in those who love. And, presumably, takes his leave of those who persist in enmity and strife and all manner of unlove. God has little interest in this or that chunk of dirt where this or that thing happened in this or that holy book—at least not when it isn’t accompanied by love.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us.  Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

Like I said, the bible sounds different in occupied territory.
I took the picture above at Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. The man in this picture is the father of the boy in the poster below the UN sign. It is his thirteen year old son who was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in that exact location. The father now spends most of his days volunteering at the UN center for his refugee camp.

Syndicated from Rumblings


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