Category: Ethics and Social Justice

Are we living in “the Great Tribulation”? (Peaceable Revelation #3)

Ted Grimsrud—August 13, 2019
I first became interested in theology when I was in high school and began attending our small town’s Baptist church. My early education in theology included at its center the conviction that we were living in the End Times, the period shortly before Christ’s return. Virtually every sermon I heard and every Bible study I participated in touched on Jesus’s second coming. Someday I’d like to figure out why this was such a popular topic in that context.
One of the big ideas in this future-prophetic take on Christianity is the expectation of a catastrophic time just before Jesus’s return filled with massive violence and destruction. This event has often been called “the Great Tribulation.” I was taught that, happily, genuine Christians would be raptured out of their present life in order to be with God and to miss this terrible ordeal. In this view, the Tribulation would be a just act of God’s judgment against sinful and corrupt humanity—regardless of the carnage that would ensue.
I was taught to be attentive to the downward spiral of human history, looking for signs that the Great Tribulation was at hand. This was all pretty heavy stuff, and it does not surprise me that I, a young man about to head out into the big, scary world, would have taken all the teaching quite seriously. I read Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth over and over again, along with numerous other similarly themed books.
Rethinking the End Times
Then I went away to college. It was easy enough to live a kind of compartmentalized life —my fundamentalist theology in one compartment, my non-religious academic studies in another. However, that separation actually left me quite passionless about both compartments. When I was a junior in college, I found a congregation that started me on the path of bringing things together.
One of the key moments was a conversation with a mentor about our shared future-prophetic theology. With my minimal exposure to Christianity, I had assumed that what I was taught about the End Times was simply what all Christians believed. My friend said no, actually, the majority of Christians don’t believe the same thing I do. I was kind of stunned. That realization opened up everything. Almost immediately I encountered other views and soon dropped the future-prophetic schema. And during my senior year, I did find a strong passion for integrating my theology and my academic studies.
As my views about the End Times changed, I still held on to some sense that the biblical message was still linear—with a future consummation when Jesus returns. A few years after I finished college I decided to try better to understand the book of Revelation. That effort culminated in my first book, Triumph of the Lamb: A Self-Study Guide to the Book of Revelation. I wrote there about the New Jerusalem as our promised outcome that is certain to come in the future. I didn’t look for specific fulfillments of predictions given in Revelation, but I nonetheless did take the general promise of future paradise fairly literally.
Maybe we wouldn’t have a “Great Tribulation” like I had been taught, but we could still count on some kind of culmination, and it could be that things will get worse before that promised final healing.
A present-focused interpretation
I have continued to enjoy interacting with Revelation and have evolved in how I interpret it. What hasn’t changed since the late 1970s is my conviction that Revelation underwrites Christian pacifism (I have written extensively about this conviction on my website). What has changed is my gradually coming to dismiss the idea that there is anything at all in Revelation about the future—including a promise for a certain happy ending to the story.
I now think that the images in Revelation commonly interpreted as being about the future (especially those of New Jerusalem in chapters 21 and 22—but also earlier visions that seem to promise a sure downfall for the Powers of evil) are better understood as hopeful statements of what can be in the present should we live and believe rightly. The point of those statements is to inspire readers to follow the way of the Lamb in face of demands for loyalty from the nations of the world. If we are to have a happy ending, Revelation speaks of the only way that might happen—following the Lamb wherever he goes.
So, in this framework, the “great tribulation” (or, as translated in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the “great ordeal”) is not at all about a predicted (and hoped for) future nadir of human life that will precede our destined final outcome of paradise. Rather, it’s simply a kind of hyperbolic way of talking about present historical living on earth. The “great tribulation” is another image along with the terrible plagues that are presented in three series of awful events in chapters 6 through 16. Numerous times in Revelation, we are told of the duration of these plagues—3½ years or 42 months or 1,260 days. It becomes clear as we read the book as a whole that these numbers symbolize historical time. Revelation does not speculate about how long in actual history this 3½ years will last; there is no interest in when precisely the end will come. What matters is living faithfully during this time however long it lasts.
The book hopes to empower its readers for living in the long haul. To sustain faithfulness, John suggests, requires a healthy community (such as the congregations in Philadelphia and Smyrna) and clarity about what following the Lamb wherever he goes entails (such as consistently choosing loyalty to the path of persevering love over the path of giving loyalty to the various iterations of Babylon).
Our “tribulation”
One way to characterize the “tribulation,” then is to see it as describing the on-going struggle to live with courage and creativity in the face of the clash of worldviews between the Beast and the Lamb. In our time, this courage and creativity leads to resisting those elements in our culture that make for brokenness and alienation, be it outright war and violence or the more subtle allure of living with the comforts of wealth and security while too many in our society and broader world struggle to get by.
The Beast (in cahoots with the Dragon and False Prophet) persistently seeks to gain people’s loyalty, to turn people away from the Lamb, to gather ever more allegiance to the dynamics of domination. The Lamb stands against this “worship” of the Beast (cf. 14:1-5), though at great cost. To follow the Lamb is to say no to all the various ’isms of these 3½ years. And saying “no” can indeed lead to tribulations.
Sustaining the witness
What is our best strategy (as followers of Jesus, as people of faith, as people of good will, as peacemakers) for living in our time of tribulation? A crucial point is to recognize that “tribulation” time is the same as historical time. There is no escape, no end to this time—as long as we live on earth. So, Revelation means to empower its readers to sustain their witness, not to hope for a “rapture” out of historical time. The numerous visions of worship scattered throughout the book help capture that dynamic (see 4:1–5:14; 7:9-17; 11:15-19; 12:10-12; 14:1-5; 15:1-4; 19:1-10). The worship happens in history, amidst the tribulations.
So Revelation means to emphasize the need for clarity of sight. There are two competing calls for loyalty in Revelation that the seven messages in chapters 2 and 3 make clear are vying for allegiance within the congregations. To navigate the time of tribulation (that is, the time of living in history), people need to keep the ways and commitments of the Lamb at the center and discern how the ways and commitments of the social and political status quo contradict the Lamb.
Revelation helps us to recognize the difference between religious convictions and practices that empower us to put into practice genuine justice and those that encourage us to live in harmony with empire as a way of life. Chapter 18 illustrates one key element of these two paths when it envisions judgment against the empire for how treats the fruits of creation, including human beings, as commodities to be exploited for the sake of profit. Linking back to chapters 2 and 3, we may note that the teachings of the false prophets in those chapters (e.g., such as “Balaam” and the “Nicolaitans”) surely involved affirming active participation in the economic world of the Roman Empire—unjust and exploitative as it may have been. Challenging such accommodation remains a central part of the Lamb’s message.
Revelation helps us to recognize the difference between two ways of “conquering”—the witness of the Lamb who conquers with persevering love as opposed to Babylon’s approach of “conquering” by treating human beings as commodities and relying on death-dealing firepower. The continuing attempt by those who claim to follow the Lamb also to affirm preparing for and participating in the state’s wars and other aggressions surely echoes John’s sharp condemnation of how his readers tended to join with the “inhabitants of the earth” in offering fealty to the Beast (i.e., the warring state; see 13:4-8).
Revelation does end with a powerful and inspiring vision of “New Jerusalem.” I’d suggest, though, that we should not take this as a guarantee that an all-powerful God will make sure everything ends up okay in the end. Rather, I think that the purpose of this vision is to hold before us a sense of what can be when we see reality in light of the witness of the Lamb. That is, New Jerusalem is only possible when we embody the Lamb’s way during this time of “tribulation.” And it is meant for our present, not off in the distant future.
[The “Peaceable Revelation” series of blog posts]


It’s This, But It’s Also That

Last weekend, I read a remarkable piece of journalism. It was about an issue that I knew little about and it described a reality with which I have no personal experience. It was about a city I have never visited in a country not my own whose social conditions are difficult for me to personally imagine. It discussed a material reality has very little bearing on my everyday life in a small city on the Canadian prairies. And yet, the article modeled a way of approaching a difficult issue that I think we can (must) all learn from if we are going to inhabit our cultural moment in honest and hopeful ways.
The article was by CNN journalist John Blake and was called “What both the left and the right get wrong about my neighborhood in Baltimore.” The article was a response to Donald Trump’s outrageous comments about the city, describing it as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess where no human being would want to live.” One sometimes wonders about the wisdom of even responding to a figure like Trump—a man so obviously bereft of moral principles, human decency or good sense—but I suppose his position demands it. And as far as responses go, John Blake’s, himself a Baltimore native, is worth paying attention to.
I won’t attempt to summarize the whole piece because, a) it would take too long; and, b) you should read it yourself. Suffice to say, that Blake does his best to tell the truth about the city of Baltimore. He doesn’t pretend that it’s a utopia but acknowledges that it really is a city in crisis. He names the ugly truth that his own black community is disproportionately affected by the violence, poverty, injustice and social unrest in the city. He blames political decisions that hastened the exit of decent jobs that were once “the backbone of the black community.” He points to the “white flight” to the suburbs that happened after the desegregation of schools in the 1960s with the diminishment to the tax base (and social services) that this represented. He condemns political decisions and racial biases that have increasingly left inner-city Baltimore isolated and impoverished. He does not shy away from explicitly identifying the socio-political failures and naked racism that have contributed to Baltimore’s present reality.
But he doesn’t stop there. Blake also wades into the treacherous waters of personal responsibility:

I have known so many young men in my family and my neighborhood who seem like they’ve given up. They’re strung out on drugs, out of school and drifting day to day. They don’t seem to have any enduring relationships, romantic or otherwise. They blame all their problems on others—never on themselves.

Blake asks the difficult question: Why does he see a bitterness and defeatism in this generation that he didn’t see in his father, who was quite frequently the victim of quite explicit racism and physical abuse.  Of his father, Blake says:

Yet he was the most optimistic man I ever knew. He never complained about racism or blamed others for his difficulties. I see none of his strength in many of the young men I now know in West Baltimore. I wonder if any of it is even in me.

This is pretty honest stuff. Blake ends by reflecting on what his father’s generation had that he sees as absent in Baltimore (and beyond) today. Two things: community and a sense that things were improving, however slowly. Both are largely absent today. And, as we are increasingly recognizing, the former is in many ways the cause of the latter. Social isolation and lack of connection breed despair, addiction, desperation, and hopelessness.
By the end of the article, Blake has managed something quite unusual. He has both unsettled and partially legitimated the narratives of both his conservative and liberal readers. He has refused easy either/or explanations for a complex social reality. He has not steered the narrative to either of the noisy bookends of the ideological spectrum to inflame, galvanize, and drive traffic. He has, instead, tried to tell the truth.
This isn’t how we are accustomed to stories being “reacted” to (it’s a fascinating and depressing indictment of the times that “reaction” to the news is increasingly becoming its own category of “news”). We know the drill by now. Someone like Donald Trump says something appallingly stupid and the left and the right dutifully adhere to the script. The right defends (somehow) the president’s comments (Baltimore really is a very bad place full of very bad people because of very bad liberal politicians) and the left attacks those same comments (Baltimore is actually a great place full of hopeful stories, albeit populated by victims of social conditions and structures implemented and maintained by very bad conservative politicians). You line up obediently, you sharpen your knives, you ready yourself for war, and you defend your tribe at all costs. This is how the game is played and we are very well-trained players.
And yet, refreshingly, John Blake departs from the script. He says “It’s this but it’s also that.” The problems of Baltimore are real. They have ideological and social causes, but there are also personal and moral factors that shouldn’t be ignored. This isn’t to say that the truth is always to be found precisely in some golden middle between the socio-political and the personal. This is obviously not true. And, of course, our personal responsibility always takes place within socio-political parameters not of our creation. But Blake’s approach is a skill that we are in desperate need of cultivating or recovering, in my view—the ability to say, “It’s this, but it’s also that.”
We could apply this to almost any hot-button issue that tends to raise our collective temperature. To glance only at the news of last weekend, mass shootings in America are certainly the product of white nationalism and racist ideologies, not to mention an inexplicable and indefensible lack of political will to restrict gun access and the vile, reckless rhetoric modeled and emboldened by the current president. But they are also the product of social breakdown more broadly, an increasing paucity of stable families, the cesspool of violence and hatred made possible (and profitable) by the Internet, the idolatrous replacement of God with the subjective self as the center of all, and the isolation and despair that are being bred by a culture unmoored from narratives of meaning and communities of hope. There are political, social, and ideological causes and there are spiritual, moral, and existential causes. It’s this, but it’s also that.
Both sets of explanations can be true, to varying degrees, without us somehow feeling like our understanding of the world, our preferred set of categories and causes, our team is being threatened. This shouldn’t be a very remarkable thing to state. But in this cultural moment, it feels like it is.

Unveiled and Unfettered

  I am seminary trained and have spent my entire adult life working with the biblical text in my preaching. And yet, life has also taught me that God’s image and God’s Word is bigger than the Bible (or any of our other ancient scriptures from other faith traditions) alone. Many of our ancient narratives …
Continue reading Unveiled and Unfettered

Interview: Michelle Morrow, LGBTQ Inclusion

Michelle Morrow joins the podcast to talk to Ryan about her own story coming to Anabaptism and her work now with supporting LGBTQ inclusion in the Church. Some questions covered include:

Michelle’s religious background growing up (0:36)
Finding her way to Anabaptism at Fresno Pacific University (1:27)
Transitioning from seeing her future in biblical studies to being in student services and working for LGBTQ inclusion (5:38)
What working for LGBTQ inclusion looks like for her (16:15)
How Anabaptism helps inform what Michelle is doing (21:45)
Whether a church can be loving toward LGBTQ people without being fully affirming (33:30)
Church Clarity and the push for being clear about what a church practices, whether affirming or not (43:19)
Practical tips for those wanting to better include LGBTQ people (52:44)


Michelle’s website:
Anabaptist Collective Facebook group:
Church Clarity: Apple Podcasts | Android | Email | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS

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

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

BGWG 14: Farewell

Ebony and Steve return for one more episode of Black Gal, White Guy to say farewell to the show as they move on to focus on other things. Some of the topics include:

Steve’s recommendation: the podcast VS. (1:38)
Ebony’s recommendation: Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown (3:55)
Ebony and the Kinky Curly Theological Collective (8:20)
Steve and Village of Hope leaving Portland (14:45)
Ebony’s concerns (23:55)
Steve giving space for other voices (27:50)
Ebony’s parting words for listeners (31:25)
Steve’s parting words for listeners (35:15)

Note: they did actually record this a while ago and I (Ryan, the editor and distributor) did not realize it until recently – I had stopped regularly checking after they told me they were wrapping up, so I didn’t realize they had recorded one more episode a few weeks later. Oops. Apple Podcasts | Android | Email | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS

BGWG 13: Kinky Curly Theological Collective

Ebony and Steve return for an episode of Black Gal, White Guy where they talk about Ebony’s recent work with the Kinky Curly Theological Collective. Topics today include:

Ebony’s recommendations: Black Panther (2018) and A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer (0:54)
Steve’s recommendations: I Am Not Your Negro (2016) and A Time for Burning (1967) (3:21)
An update from Steve on the Village of Hope (6:27)
Introducing the Kinky Curly Theological Collective and why it is necessary (9:19)
Creating a context where women and people of color can safely speak up (18:51)
What about unity when only some voices are speaking in KCTC? (27:08)
The technology behind KCTC: face-to-face meetings in Minnesota (34:34) Apple Podcasts | Android | Email | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS

Interview: Rachel Halder, Sacred, Sexy, and Whole

Rachel Halder joins the podcast to discuss healthy sexuality in general and her book Sacred, Sexy, and Whole in particular. Some topics include:

Introducing Rachel and her history studying sexuality (0:54)
What purity culture means and some of its implications (6:30)
The extent to which purity culture comes out of a long history vs being a new construction (10:42)
Consequences of purity culture (13:45)
Advice for people who are dealing with the harm of purity culture, including the value of masturbation as a way to learn about yourself (18:10)
Resources to help people exploring these questions (22:01)
What’s in the book (25:07)
General responses to the book (28:53)
Trauma that results from purity culture and generational passing down of purity culture (31:42)
Rachel’s relationship with her Mennonite history (35:54)
Neuroscience and sexuality (39:22)
What’s next for Rachel and her work (41:45)
Vision for the Church (43:48) Apple Podcasts | Android | Email | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS

BGWG 10: Jesus and Social Justice

Ebony and Steve discuss the importance of social justice within Christianity, particularly focusing on Steve’s story.

Steve’s recommendation of the week (1:37)
Ebony’s recommendation of the week (3:57)
Steve’s conversion experience(s) and how he came to see social justice as central to faith (9:09)
Steve doesn’t recommend that everybody tries to do what he does, but every church/every Christian much actively care about the poor and other outcasts (32:19)
Jesus was political (38:23)

Questions for Ebony and Steve? Email Apple Podcasts | Android | Email | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS

BGWG 8: Me Too

Ebony and Steve discuss the recent viral #MeToo campaign and the rampant sexual assault and harassment being exposed across multiple industries. Some topics include:

Steve’s recommendation: the podcast Code Switch by NPR (2:06)
Ebony’s recommendation: Evicted by Matthew Desmond (3:55)
The #MeToo campaign going viral and the pervasiveness of sexual assault (8:22)
Defining sexual assault and sexual harassment (16:59)
Sexuality as a partnership, not a right (26:26)
Masturbation: a necessary release or a lack of self-control? (28:09)
Honest conversations about sex in the Church (40:21)
Stop demonizing women  (42:38)
Teach men and boys they don’t have the right to women (44:04)
Talk about rape myths from the pulpit, making it clear they are myths, such as the myth that most reported sexual assaults are false (46:44)
Hear people’s stories, women’s stories when they are ready and also men repenting (48:34)
Hear women’s perspectives on Scripture (50:25)

Ebony later blogged some more thoughts on the masturbation conversation here: Apple Podcasts | Android | Email | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS

BGWG 7: Climate Change

Ebony and Steve return for another episode of Black Gal, White Guy to discuss climate change. Topics include:

Ebony’s recommendation: Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell (1:55)
Steve’s recommendation: When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (5:11)
Global weirding, denial of climate change, and why we need to care (9:03)
How climate change affects some more harshly than others (21:54)
Media representation of disasters and how they vary based on who is affected (27:30)
Prioritizing how to respond with so many disasters (31:37)

To contact BGWG, email (not as Steve accidentally says at the end). Apple Podcasts | Android | Email | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS

Interview: Osheta Moore, Shalom Sistas

MennoNerd author Osheta Moore joins Katelin on the podcast to discuss her new book Shalom Sistas: Living Wholeheartedly in a Brokenhearted World – which she describes as her love letter to every woman who wants to see peace in her everyday life but feels like she’s not good enough or has no idea where to begin – as well as shalom in general. Osheta is an Anabaptist, podcaster, blogger, and mom to three kids ages 15, 12, 11.  Her husband (also a MennoNerds author) is a pastor of a church and they are in the thick of moving their family from L.A. to Saint Paul. Osheta believes everything is better after a nap, brunch with girlfriends is a necessity, and nothing beats a good Netflix binge. At the top of her bucket list is dance in a flash mob—all the better if it’s to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or Pharrell’s “Happy.” You can connect with Osheta at
Topics covered on this podcast include:

Some of Osheta’s journey to bring her to this point, including her first encounters with the word “shalom” (1:31)
How Osheta’s understanding of shalom has changed over time. (6:11)
Practically, what does it look like to seek shalom? (9:01)
The tension of seeing the really big peacemaking gestures and wondering how we can live that in our simpler lives (13:26)
The three aspects of shalom: with God, with ourselves, with the world (23:16)
What it means to be wholehearted in a brokenhearted world (27:56)
What is the difference between a peacemaker and a peacekeeper? (36:52)
What are shalom steps? (43:38)
How shalom interacts with other fruits of the spirit (50:22) Apple Podcasts | Android | Email | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS


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