Category: Peace Theology

The Path Not Taken: More Thoughts on “Despairing for MC USA”

Ted Grimsrud—February 26, 2019
As I have reflected on dynamics in my church denomination (Mennonite Church USA) and my own involvements in this community, I have a few further thoughts beyond what I wrote in my February 23, 2019 blog post, “Despairing for Mennonite Church USA.” My focus in that essay was on “conversation”—its difficulties and how it has been repressed.
Imagining a path not taken
I asked myself: What could I imagine might have been done (or would be done)? How might conversation work? And what would be the role of “theology” be in such a conversation? Another kind of question is whether you could easily get caught in a loop of endless conversation, where you are just talking things to death with no resolution.
One response to this last question is to suggest that we are simply too hasty in early 21stcentury North America. We are too outcome oriented, too focused on quick resolutions, on getting over our differences and getting things done. That is, we are too unwilling to invest time and energy at genuine mutual give and take that can be messy and inefficient, but it a necessary part of fruitful human relating.
However, one can’t impose one’s patience and curiosity onto people who don’t share those tendencies. If we all shared a deep-seated sense of patience and curiosity, we likely would not have many of the problems we have. But we don’t…. Still, the starting point of any kind of discernment for how best to work within our denomination, or our conferences, or our congregations, has to be some kind of interest in the wellbeing of that community. And with that comes some kind of willingness to try together to figure out how to move ahead.
There are two other possibilities, of course. One possibility is that people simply are not up for any conversation. Some of these may simply wantto split, and they cannot be stopped. Others may want to stay together and simply avoid the differences. A second possibility is that people would be invested with a strong desire to win an argument against their opponents. Many of us are tempted with this desire and it is impossible to imagine a serious conversation about these issues without that desire surfacing—these are important issues to people. However, such a desire needs to be repressed if there is to be sustained conversations and fruitful outcomes.
Two kinds of good conversation
So, let’s assume at least a degree of desire to make things work as a prerequisite for some kind of communal conversation process. What might that then look like? I imagine it is important to have some end point in mind even as we start—though ideally we would be willing as well to adapt as new things emerge in the process of conversing. [Let me note here, that everything that follows is simply a thought experiment as I try to imagine a useful approach.] I can think, broadly, of two different kinds of goals that would lead to two different kinds of conversation strategy.
(1) We could have a sense that it would be desirable that everyone in our group (again, be it denomination, conference, congregation, or other kind of faith community) share the same general conviction or convictions (in the context of this thought experiment, the general agreement would be about issues related to how the community approaches inclusion of gender and sexual minorities [GSM]). The idea would be that all of us would more or less be on the same page.
(2) We could have as our goal that we live together with our differences. Our priority would be on accepting diversity and hoping for as broad a range of views as is workable. We think it is important to voice and understand the diverse views that we have (again, in this thought experiment, about GSM inclusion). We don’t want to avoid the differences, but we want to work at living openly with them.
I am not suggesting here that either #1 or #2 are better or worse. Rather, I want to sketch two somewhat different kinds of approaches depending on which of these is our desired outcome. It’s important to know where we hope to go as that will shape how we converse. I believe that either one of these strategies could have been appropriate in MC USA contexts over the past 35 years—and would have been far preferable to what actually happened in most cases.
What if we place the priority on general agreement?
If we are searching for a sense of general agreement, the conversation will focus on identifying the differences among us. This would be a descriptive task where participants simply name what they think the differences among them might be. Part of the work at this stage is trying to get that naming to be accurate, where each person accepts that they are being characterized accurately. The point is never to debate the differences or refute the various views, simply accurately to get them on the table.
The next step then would be to work at discerning whether the differences might be reconciled. How important are they? Might the views be reframed to make them less different? If people are patient and truly trying to understand one another, some new insights might be possible that indicate that the differences are not as deep as they may initially have seemed. Sometimes, what seems like a difference proves not to be when greater understanding about the perspective is achieved. I have a close friend with whom I have spent many hours discussing big ideas. Often we have found that what starts as a difference ends up being an agreement—sometimes because one of us changes our mind but often simply because the more we talk the more we discover we actually do agree. We just needed to reframe things a bit.
It is, of course, possible that the conclusion of this kind of conversation would be a mutual awareness that the differences are real and significant. This could lead to a shared sense that continued coexistence in one faith community is not desirable. I would imagine this awareness becoming apparent fairly quickly in many cases; it would not require extensive parsing and struggling to find common ground. However, I also imagine that if the awareness is the result of careful and respectful naming of core convictions and descriptive analysis of the differences, the parting of ways could be mutually respectful. I have another close friend with whom I have had hours of conversation with the result of recognizing some fundamental differences that would make it difficult for us to be in the same congregation. But we are able to remain friends and because of the work we have done on our differences, we continue to have fruitful conversations.
What if we place the priority on staying together?
If we are searching for a way to remain together even with our differences, we may have a different kind of conversation. In this conversation, we would start by focusing on the convictions that we share. Even if we sense that we have a lot of big differences, when we start with the shared convictions we will be more likely to set a constructive tone. Our hope will be that these differences might prove to be deep and significant enough that we will see that continued fellowship is desirable, even with the differences.
We would want to follow the conversation about the similarities with one where we do identify the differences. As in all of these conversations, we will focus on description, trying to identify the differences and do it in a way so we all agree with how they are characterized. In my experience, such an approach helps the conversation to be less tense and more constructive.
Of course, at some point as the conversation continues we will need to weigh the importance of the differences in relation to the similarities. It is altogether possible that we will decide the differences are too weighty. However, it is possible to imagine that in the context of this kind of discussion that decision will be a shared decision by all parties, that it will result from an authentic understanding of the respective views, and will result in a separation that is amicable and leaves the door open for further conversations.
Is “theology” central?
What is the role of theology in this kind of process? Well, that depends, for one thing, on what we mean by “theology.” Often, in relation to discussion about sexuality-related topics we tend to think of “theology” as debate about Bible verses and other related themes. I suggest we might instead think about theology a bit differently. I’d say theology has to do with the hierarchy of convictions about what matters most in life that we all have (see my book, Theology as if Jesus Matters, for a detailed but popular-level discussion of this point).
If we understand theology in this way, then our conversations will involve each of us articulating what those convictions are for us. What matters the most in shaping our approach to an issue such as inclusion of GSM people? The point, again, is more descriptive than argumentative. However, I believe it is crucial that we do not imagine that we would set “theology” aside when we take these issues up because it is too contentious—or, in practical reality, we think it is not helpful.
The point in talking about theology in descriptive ways is not that we are taking a relativistic approach to theological truth. It is rather that our goal in our conversation is not to win a debate but to process our differences in ways that the community might move forward. Whatever stance any of us in our faith communities take should be articulatable in terms of the convictions and values that matter most for us—even if we don’t think of those in overt or traditional theological ways. What doesmatter the most in our discernment? That’s what we should be able to talk about.
[Thanks to Brian Gumm and Rick Yoder for responses shared on Facebook that helped stimulate my thoughts here.]

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

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Despairing for Mennonite Church, USA

Ted Grimsrud—February 23, 2019
When Mennonite Church USA was formed in 2000 by the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church (minus the Canadian halves of those two denominations who joined to form a separate denomination, MC Canada), its total membership was well over 100,000. Now, eighteen years later, that number has dropped to about half of what it was. I have no analysis as to why exactly this has happened, but I do think just about everyone involved would agree that these are difficult times for this young denomination.
I also think that many of us feel a bit despairing about this trajectory and the possibilities for the near future. In this blog post, I will reflect on just one element of the situation that has fostered my discouragement—the difficulties we have had for many years in engaging one another in serious conversations about the issues that matter the most to us, often issues that involve tension and conflict.
A rocky beginning
I had a difficult beginning to my pastoral career. In my first permanent pastorate that began in 1987, I immediately faced the challenge of how to process a request for membership from two gay men in a committed relationship. I strongly supported them but was not sure how to process the request in our small congregation. We were quite liberal for a Mennonite congregation at that time, but this was a new question for most of the people.
Not long before I started at the church, it had spent some time discussing biblical and theological issues and people quickly realized they could not hope to find agreement. So, to my disappointment, they weren’t interested in me leading them in an examination of the issues on an academic level (even though when I joined them, I was in the midst of writing a dissertation in Christian ethics and was chomping at the bit to utilize my expertise).
Our leadership team decided the best approach would be to interview members and active participants individually to get a sense of the overall attitude, and then to have a congregational meeting to discern together how to move forward. We insisted that the two prospective members be fully involved and always be informed of what was happening. The interviews indicated that while most people were in favor of affirming the membership request, there was also some significant opposition.
A broken relationship
Our congregational meeting was, as one would imagine, pretty tense. We went around the circle and each person briefly and calmly shared their thoughts. I was sensing that we didn’t have a strong enough group agreement to proceed with membership—the main objections had to do with concern about getting in trouble with the wider conference. But then came a disruption. A long time member of the congregation burst out angrily that the process was a sham, that he was shocked we were even considering welcoming these men into our fellowship, and that he had had enough. He walked out, leaving the meeting and the congregation. I actually never saw him again over the next seven years I served that congregation—that relationship was permanently severed.
I was stunned. I thought we were engaged in a helpful discernment process that actually was trending toward what I would have assumed he would have considered a victory—to say no to the membership request. As it turned out, after he left we regained a sense of equilibrium and completed our reporting, I suggested that it did seem that we weren’t agreed enough to move forward. I proposed that we not move forward with membership, but that we find ways to welcome the two men as “active participants.”
As events played out, this seems to have been a good course to follow. The congregation avoided conflict with the wider conference and the two men continued to be involved with us until they moved to Europe about a year later. I think that because they had been present for the decision-making, they understood the situation and respected where we ended up. Most of the people seemed pretty happy with how things worked out.
However, the man who left our meeting remained alienated. I talked with him once on the phone, but that was all. His wife, who had stayed for the rest of meeting, also never came back. I was deeply troubled by that incident. It violated my sense of how a church community should work. We need to talk together and should be very reluctant to end the conversation. In this case, the objections of this person were very important in our group discernment. Even though two-thirds of the people wanted to say yes on membership, we heard the dissenters and agreed not to move ahead with a “yes.” But for someone to simply walk out seems to reject the dynamics of communal discernment.
Foreshadowing a difficult history
In some ways, that membership process back then foreshadowed a lot of what I would experience among Mennonites over the next three decades. In that situation, we did have the ideal of communal discernment. Imperfectly, we did come close to meeting that ideal and ended up with a compromise that at the time worked out pretty well. But we also experienced a painful refusal to stay engaged on the part of some important people in the community.
Over the years that followed, I have seen quite a bit of this refusal to engage. I became involved with others who sought to influence the Mennonite Church to be more welcoming of sexual minorities. We faced a lot of opposition in even getting conversations going. My argument was always that those on the welcoming side were a significant part of the denomination, albeit surely at the time a minority. It seemed that the minority voice should not simply be ignored and silenced. [Here is an essay I wrote at the time about this.] But it was difficult, and at times costly, to speak out.
During my seven years at that first permanent pastorate, I did not speak out very loudly. But when I was asked during my ordination interview, I cautiously expressed doubts about the Mennonite Church’s rejection of the possibility of church-blessed same sex relationships. That expression of doubt was enough to trigger resistance to my ordination that lasted two years and only ended with the departure from the conference of three congregations. After two years of quiet in the Midwest, my family moved to Virginia and I began teaching at Eastern Mennonite University.
The struggle to speak at EMU
Early in my time at EMU, I was briefly quoted in the school newspaper saying, in response to a direct question, that the Bible didn’t say much about “homosexuality.” A few days later, I was visited by a senior fundraiser and told to keep my opinions to myself. I found this frightening. I spoke to the academic dean who assured me that this man was out of line to approach me like this, and I learned later that he had been reprimanded. But I also learned that he agitated behind the scenes to get me fired.
A few years later, I added my name to a full-page ad in The Mennonite Weekly Review that called upon the Mennonite Church to be more welcoming. It turned out that I was the only ordained minister in Virginia Mennonite Conference to do that, and soon an effort was made to take away my ordination. The president of my college met with me and demanded that I voluntarily give up my ordination. He said that if the conference took it away I would lose my job. Fortunately, some conference leaders agreed that I was okay and I remained credentialed.
Around this time, the EMU Board of Trustees issued a statement forbidding any faculty or staff from speaking out on the issues of sexuality. As well, Virginia Conference formally forbade ordained people from expressing “contrary advocacy” on these issues. This was all kind of intimidating, but I tried to continue to find ways to express my views. I published a short article on academic freedom where I argued that Mennonite theologians have a responsibility to the churches to express their views as part of the discerning work of the church.
Conversation becomes more possible
Then things started to change a bit at EMU. A new president was greeted with a challenge when some students unfurled a large rainbow flag in the middle of campus and made the TV news. He promised that we would have some conversations and formed a committee to work at such conversations. They spent their first months at internal conversation, most of the conservative members then left of the committee, and its work essentially petered out. But first, it did move ahead in one way. A member of the committee, seminary professor Mark Thiessen Nation, while himself a “traditionalist,” agreed that conversation was needed. He proposed to recruit me as a dialogue partner for some public conversations.
I allowed Mark to persuade me. I didn’t feel totally safe about stating my views in public, but decided I should take the opportunity with assurance that as long as I spoke the context of a back and forth with someone with the traditionalist view I would be okay. We spoke in several venues, including a chapel service in front of six hundred or so people. I would guess that I was the first EMU faculty person in an approved event to state explicitly that I supported same-sex marriage. And I didn’t get in trouble for it.
Mark and I put together a book, Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexualty, published in 2008 by the Mennonite Church’s publishing house, Herald Press. It (and still is) one of the very few books of its kind—an extended point/counterpoint debate on biblical and theological materials between people with opposing views. It was a difficult book to put together because we truly did disagree. Some of the tensions we felt with each other are present in the final product, and the book ends without resolution (though we do conclude with a chapter of our shared convictions). The book did not gain traction in the way we hoped. It certainly did not usher in a movement for serious and open theological engagement in Mennonite settings.
Things continued to evolve at EMU, as a few years later a process was begun to decide whether EMU should be openly willing to hire people who were in same-sex partnerships. However, the process did not involve “serious and open theological engagement” on the issues. In fact, it intentionally did not. Neither Mark nor I were asked to share our expertise. Faculty and staff did have the opportunity to share our views briefly in group settings, but the actual decision making was pretty hidden. I was pleased that EMU affirmed an explicit policy of non-discrimination, but I did not feel happy about the lack of theological reflection.
MC USA struggles
The broader Mennonite Church USA has continued to be an environment of tension and uncertainty (here’s an account of events in the 1980s and 1990s). While it has not changed its restrictive formal policies, various congregations and conferences have been allowed to remain in good standing while welcoming LGBTQ members, hosting weddings, and even calling LGBTQ pastors. At the same time, a large swathe of congregations and even conferences have removed themselves from the denomination.
I don’t know how things could have worked out differently. It seems, perhaps, that the irresolvable conflicts were inevitable and could not have been prevented. However, I deeply regret that in these past thirty years, the denomination did not work harder at finding ways for open and inclusive theological conversations. I can think of a few moments where that began to happen and was squelched. In the 1983 Mennonite general assembly, a fledgling group supportive of LGBTQ Mennonites now known as the Mennonite-Brethren Council for Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, and Bisexual Interests was given display space in hopes of conversing with delegates. Midway through the convention, an edict came down from denomination leaders that the permission to be there had been revoked. The display booth was dismantled and potential for conversation aborted. Over the next several decades, requests for a similar presence were always denied by convention leaders.
Shortly afterwards, a denominational task force was created to produce a study book on a broad range of sexuality issues. The task force met over several years, doing a thorough study and producing a careful, nuanced book. The book encouraged Mennonites to pursue conversations and provided guidance that would consider various points of view. However, the book did not find widespread usage and the recommendation for conversation never found affirmation from the church leadership that had commissioned the work.
Finally, another task force was created by denominational leaders in 1990, a Listening Committee for Homosexuality Concerns, that convened at several Mennonite general assemblies to talk with all interested persons about these issues. The committee had an active presence for a few years and as it concluded its work created a summary document that also recommended further conversations. Denominational leaders decided not to release the summary statement or to pursue any of the recommendations to encourage conversations.
It does appear in recent years that the numbers of Mennonites who support same-sex marriage and the calling of LGBTQ congregational leaders has gotten large enough that these views are acceptable in MC USA. However, there have been no denominationally sponsored efforts to address these dynamics theologically. Such conversations would obviously be difficult and would not likely yield clear and immediate benefits. However, as with EMU’s decision consciously to avoid theological input in processing what to do with its hiring policies, such avoidance sends a message that biblical and theological discernment is of marginal value—and that our differences truly are irresolvable.
Is turnabout fair play?
A recent development reveals another layer of complexity—and furthers my sense of despair. A conservative Mennonite pastor, Harold Miller, has for years engaged in conversations with progressive Mennonites on sexuality themes. (I have interacted with Harold in various on-line contexts for about 20 years myself—our most recent and most detailed exchanged happened in 2017.) In a recent post on his personal blog, Harold attempted to summarize the arguments for and against accepting same-sex marriage (s-s-m). Mennonite World Review, with Harold’s permission, reblogged Harold’s post and then posted a link to the blog on its Facebook page.
I have had several of my posts reblogged like this. MWR, as I understand it, subscribes to numerous blogs by Mennonites and occasionally finds a post deemed worthy of greater circulation. These posts are not commissioned by MWR and do not reflect the views of MWR staff (one of their former staff people who vociferously disagreed with me on numerous issues was the one who asked my permission to reblog several posts). My sense is that MWR sees value in various points of view expressed by people in their constituency getting more attention—a means, I could say, of furthering the conversation.
In this case, Harold’s post elicited many negative responses on Facebook. A few of the responses criticized his treatment of arguments about s-s-m. However, most focused on an analogy Harold used that was seen to be racist. I do think Harold was clumsy in how he wrote at this point. He later acknowledged that and apologized and tried to rewrite the offending sentence. It was interesting to me, though, that most people seemed to miss the point Harold made. He was trying to summarize the pro-s-s-m view and how it used the analogy of civil rights for black people to argue for civil rights for LGBTQ people. That is, it is the pro-s-s-m people who are the ones who made the analogy between blacks and LGBTQ people that Harold alludes to.
Where Harold got clumsy was when he tried to give the counter argument to the civil rights analogy. He says, in effect, that while black people can’t choose the color of their skin, gays and lesbians can choose whether or not to be sexually intimate. This appeared to be implying that there is something wrong with being black, that if they could they should want to change their skin color. I believe that this is not what Harold thinks or wanted to imply.
I think part of the problem is that the analogy Harold refers to is an analogy about being discriminated against because of one’s unchosen identity—the civil rights issue is about this kind of discrimination. It’s not about behavior. The idea would be, for supporters of nondiscrimination against LGBTQ people, that just as we now reject discrimination against people of color due to their racial identity, so we should reject discrimination against LGBTQ people due to their sexual identity.
However, the terrain of the discussion has changed. Harold himself would not, I think, now want to claim that there is something wrong with the sexual identity of one who is same-sex attracted. He’s not advocating a change in sexual identity but focuses on opposing s-s-m (i.e., a certain behavior he believes is immoral). So he’s wanting to say that one would counter the civil rights analogy now by saying that while there is nothing wrong with the gay or lesbian person’s sexual identity (as there is nothing wrong with a black person’s skin color), it is wrong when the gay or lesbian person acts immorally (i.e., engages in sexual intimacy outside of a heterosexual marriage). But he mixes up identity and behavior and ends up making a clumsy statement.
Because of Harold’s confusion, he is read as making a racist statement. The criticisms of are sharp. I suspect, though, that some of the heat was due to people’s antipathy toward Harold’s opposition to s-s-m—and that he is known to many of the responders for his earlier writings and public statements to that effect. What is most notable and troubling to me, though, is what Harold’s critics say along with disagreeing with him. They expressed anger with MWRfor reblogging Harold’s post and many stated Harold should never be allowed to be published again.
Those comments felt like a call to censorship to me. It felt like a new version of the ways those opposed to welcome tried to shut down conversation a generation ago. It felt like the dynamics of polarization are being ratcheted up even more.
To be clear, I disagree with Harold about most of these issues—our long debates show that. And I also think he did not do a good job of making his argument. I’m all for vigorously challenging his ideas. But I think those who criticized what he wrote should have tried harder to understand what he actually said (though I will confess to having difficulty doing that myself at times; I have always tried to be accurate in my representations of his thoughts, even when I failed). I think in this case, Harold’s critics jumped to the worst possible interpretation of what he wrote. I also think they may have been a little disingenuous in sharply critiquing him for racism when likely their main beef with him is his views of sexuality.
I think the responses to Harold—and especially the calls to silence him—are not positive contributions to conversation. As I have tried to show in this post, I believe that the failures in MC USA to work together at discernment are mainly the responsibility of those on the traditionalist side of the spectrum. And, I should add, the disintegration of MC USA seems to me to be happening mainly because of that refusal to respect dissenting points of view. However, it only adds fuel to my despair about MC USA to see this recent reaction to Harold’s blog post.
A philosophical conclusion to lessen despair
I also realize, though, that my entry into the Mennonite world as a young adult forty years ago had everything to do with my idealism. I thought the Mennonites would be partners in changing the world for the sake of the radical gospel of Jesus. My idealism was never in sync with the perspective of most Mennonites, who weren’t thinking in terms of changing the world and weren’t interested in being radical.
It is possible that my “despair” reflects a remaining residue of my unrealistic idealism about Mennonite radicalism. I had hoped for better. Perhaps a better sense of our current situation would come from a more historically sensitive, down to earth sensibility. I should recognize that the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition has had a long life. It has persevered through many threats and still managed to continue on. Mennonites have not changed the world, really, but they have managed to do a little good here and there—and surely will continue to do so whether the formal denomination, Mennonite Church USA is sustainable as an institution or not.

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

Socialism and capitalism: Two exhausted labels (Looking West #4)

Ted Grimsrud—February 19, 2016
When I was trying to find some glimmers of hope after the 2016 election, I wrote in a blog post that one of my thoughts was that hopefully we would see the renewed interest in progressive politics stirred by the Bernie Sanders campaign expanded. It does seem that that has happened. We certainly are getting more conversations about “socialism,” a word earlier in my lifetime generally only heard on the public airwaves as a cussword.
A lack of clear meaning
I welcome these conversations. Just yesterday, Kathleen and I listened to a couple of podcasts with interviewees talking about socialism in a positive way—one the renowned Harvard historian Jill Lepore and the other Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Breunig. But I was actually troubled by something. I never truly got a sense of what the word “socialism” means these days—or, for that matter, what “capitalism” means. Lepore even said that “socialism” doesn’t really mean anything, but then proceeded to use the term as if it did mean something.
I believe that something real is being advocated by politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. But I’m not sure it should be called “socialism”—though I get why they might want to use that term to indicate that they are seeking something different than the standard corporate liberalism of mainstream Democrats. Still, the term does not seem to me to be helpful. When Bernie and AOC advocate for “socialism” and Trump uses his State of the Union address to insist that “we will never have socialism” in the US, it seems all we are getting is fuel for our polarizations.
And maybe it is even worse when someone such as Lepore uses the word “capitalism” seemingly as an accurate term for our current economic system that is characterized mainly by unrestrained corporate oligopolies and monopolies. Such use ignores differences between our current system and the actual practice of competitive, free market oriented economics.
Perhaps it was an expression of capitalism when Bill Pruett moved to Elkton, Oregon, when I was in high school and opened an Arco gas station just west of town. He triggered a gas war where Joe Bishop’s Chevron and Walt Esslinger’s Texaco stations had to lower their prices to compete. But that was quite a different dynamic than our current situation where gas prices at the pump are set by a small handful of big corporations leaving the local station owners no slack for competing with their neighboring rivals.
These two words, “socialism” and “capitalism,” do not seem to be capable any more of doing the work useful words do. They seem more like exhausted labels that mainly serve as cudgels for unhelpful and polarizing posturing. They do not help us communicate and find common understandings and possible common ground for important conversations about the direction of our society.
Market-oriented economics not necessarily bad
Back in the late 1970s, I read insightful writers such as E. F. Schumacher and Barry Commoner who helped me see that a market-oriented economy is not a bad thing when it spurs innovation and meets the actual needs of people. And to see that monopolistic, corporatist, state-dominated, and other anti-democratic practices are what’s bad—whether the Soviet version or the American version (later, James C. Scott reinforced these points in his book, Seeing Like a State, arguing that the problem is centralization).
Which approach is capitalist? That depends on how we define the term. If we center on free markets and the enhancement of fair competition, then capitalism is something that can enhance democracy. But if we center on the ruthless quest for ever-increasing profits that invariably leads to centralization and reducing free competition, then capitalism undermines democracy. I tend to think that we should never refer to the latter focus simply as “capitalism” but should call it “corporatism” or “monopoly capitalism”—and make clear that it is antithetical to democracy.
“Socialism” or simply “democracy”?
And what about socialism? Certainly our current “socialist” leaders are the polar opposite in their views from what was usually called “socialism” back in the 1970s—i.e., the Soviet Union and Eastern and Central Europe. Of course, we have also long had the model of the Scandinavian-style of social organization that has often been called “socialism” as in social democracy. These are two very different models. But because they are both called “socialist,” I wonder whether the term is essentially irredeemable. I think we could accurately use “social democracy” for a political philosophy that places human wellbeing above corporate greed and affirms investing in public good over being consistently deferential to the wishes of the rich and powerful.
I actually am most attracted to advocating a strengthening of the stand alone term “democracy”—meaning something similar to what others have recently called “deep democracy” [Cornell West] or “radical democracy” [Romand Coles; Sheldon Wolin]. The heart of the notion to me actually has an anarchistic kind of tinge in that it emphasizes self-determination and a suspicion of all tendencies toward centralized, top down power (be it state-centered or corporation-centered).
A more vital democracy would mean, among other dynamics, an even playing field (or better) for locally-owned small businesses vis-à-vis the big boxes; access for voting for everyone; a guaranteed living wage; an end to big money dominating politics; universal healthcare; rebuilt infrastructure with union jobs; revitalized labor movement in general; renewable energy; support for family farms; et al. None of this is socialistic per se, none is contrary to market-oriented (non-monopolistic and corporatist) capitalism.
For a future post, I will reflect on how this notion of democracy is actually pretty biblical. I was interested that Jill Lepore, in her interview mentioned Eugene Debs, America’s great socialist, as actually a kind of social gospeler. I also hope soon to read Gary Dorrien’s recent books on the black social gospel. He’s trying to recover a vital American tradition that has a lot to offer us today.
[This is the next in a series of blog posts under the rubric of “Looking West” that will include reflections on numerous issues of our current day—politics, theology, memoirs, spirituality, and what not. An index for the series may be found at “Looking West.”]

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

Looking West – Introducing a Blog Series

Ted Grimsrud—February 15, 2019
I was born in Eugene, Oregon, back in the mid-1950s and lived my first eighteen years in the tiny town of Elkton, Oregon, about an hour’s drive southwest of Eugene. After a couple of years going to college in Monmouth, Oregon, I ended up back in Eugene at the University of Oregon and except for a couple of excursions for graduate school spent the next twenty years there.
It’s now been almost twenty-five years since our family moved away from the West Coast, the last twenty-two being in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Part of my soul remains in Oregon, though. When I raise my eyes from my computer right now, I look west. I do that a lot, often for minutes at a time. Sometimes, I’m just taking a break. But often my mind moves to the years gone by and to the sensibilities of the world in which I grew up. I’m still that person in so many ways.
The lure of writing
For as long as I remember, I wanted to be a writer. I decided in middle school to major in journalism, thinking at the time of being a sportswriter. I got the degree but decided against the career path. My writing energies turned in a more, I guess I could call it, ecclesial and academic direction. As a pastor and college professor, I did write a lot, some of which was published. I imagined when I retired from teaching a couple of years ago that the writing would come easier and my productivity would ratchet up. So much for the best laid plans. It’s been kind of interesting for me in that the ideas have continued to bubble up as much as ever, but the actual effort to turn the ideas into something concrete has not been as easy to generate as I had hoped.
I have moved forward on several projects, but not at anything close to the rate I had hoped to and with as yet no publishable fruit. I still have hopes. I may be a couple of years older, but other than some arthritic discomfort that ironically first emerged about a week after I turned in my final set of grades, I feel that I have as much potential for productivity as ever.
For a variety of reasons, some clear, some inchoate, I have decided that some self-conscious blogging might help move me forward. Part of what I hope to address in the days to come is some more reflections on the process of (and difficulty in) writing in our present context, with least some autobiographical reflection. At this moment, though, I simply want to note what I hope to do more than why. I imagine most days sitting down and typing for an hour, and then calling that blog post done. I imagine cranking out about a thousand words or so each time. One of the main emphases will be current affairs. But I expect to do some deeper theological reflection, to report on some of my bigger writing projects, to think about timeless kinds of issues, and who knows what else.
One of the reasons I have always wanted to write is simply because I have had things I want to think about and writing seems to help. It’s a way to think through something big—such as the process of writing books about how to interpret the book of Revelation, about how to think of salvation, and about how to respond to World War II. But it’s also a way to think about more immediate issues and concerns—articles, sermons, lectures, and magazine columns.
I’ve enjoyed writing blog posts over recent years. Occasionally, these have gained a bit of an audience—though only for brief times—and have stimulated some engaging conversations. But even when they didn’t seem to get any attention, I always felt good about writing them. So, I guess one way to frame what I hope to do with this “Looking West” series is that I hope to get into a habit of regular posting in order to give myself pleasure.
I know that blogging has seemingly lost a bit of its cache by now. I’m not trying to catch any waves of trendiness by investing energy into what now may be a passé medium. But I know that I will feel better each time I post something. And I also hope that having the regular discipline of setting fingers to the keyboard and letting my thoughts find their way on to the computer screen might grease the skids a bit to make it easier for some more large scale writing to happen.
“Looking West”
By “Looking West” I guess I have in mind looking out my window through the trees to the mountains and imagining what’s beyond as a mode of reflection, even imagination. There are some thoughts out there just beyond the horizon waiting to be found and wrestled with and articulated. And it is also true that something of my sense of self and of having something to say links with the world of my first forty years of life out West.
Last night, before I went to sleep I decided to try this form of writing. Then I started thinking of possible themes and made a list. I don’t expect to address each of these and I, of course, expect many new ideas to bubble up if I do get some momentum going. But these are the kinds of random (and presently often cryptic) possibilities of what might be coming: squirrels, anti-semitism, Trump, Mennonitism, Tom Waits, cooking, losing weight, John Howard Yoder, grandchildren, road food, the Civil War, abortion, Ralph Northam, pacifism, New York City, freeways, electricity, big box stores, fatherhood, feminism, retribution, death, white supremacy, and rivers.
One of my more satisfying writing experiences came a number of years ago when I was asked to write a monthly column for a denominational magazine devoted, I guess, to spirituality (broadly defined). I was asked to write some reflections on peace each month related to the general theme for that issue of the magazine. I never got much feedback, but I thought it went pretty well. It was a creativity-enhancing experience to be told in a quite general way what I should write about but then having freedom about how to do that. So I thought about peace in relation to a number of things I wouldn’t have otherwise.
I envision this blog series to be a bit like that. Almost everything I can imagine writing about will be oriented toward my peace convictions. But I don’t know what all of those topics might be nor do I know exactly how they will relate to my core convictions. It should be fun to find out.
 

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (III—An Alternative)

Ted Grimsrud—November 8, 2018
Greg Boyd’s book on reading the Bible nonviolently, Cross Vision (CV), sets before us a challenge. Is it possible to accept the Bible’s truthfulness while also affirming a consistently pacifist worldview? I conclude, after reading both CV and its more scholarly companion, Crucifixion of the Warrior God, that indeed the best, most respectful, reading of the Bible does support a pacifist commitment. However, I think the case for this might be made more persuasively following a somewhat different approach than Boyd’s. In this post I will sketch an alternative approach to Boyd’s for a biblical theology that also places God’s nonviolent love at the center.
Starting with God’s nonviolence
Like Boyd, I begin with God’s nonviolence (see my blog post, “Why we should think of God as pacifist”). I believe that the fundamental reality in our world is love. And God is love. So my interest in writing this piece is not to try to persuade people who might think otherwise that God is nonviolent. Rather, I want to explain why I think the Bible supports that conviction. What in the Bible leads to confessing God’s nonviolence? And what should we think about the parts of the Bible traditionally cited as the bases for denying that God is nonviolent?
Let me first, though, say just a bit about what saying “God is nonviolent” means for me. In a nutshell, to make such an affirmation is to confess that the Bible teaches that God created what is out love and for the sake of love. It also teaches that God participates in the world most directly in how God brings healing in the face of brokenness, binding wounds, reconciling alienated relationships, and empowering creativity and compassion.
And also like Boyd, I believe that the Bible’s definitive portrayal of God is found in the story of Jesus. That is, God is most clearly and reliably known to humanity in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. My affirmation of God’s nonviolence finds its strongest grounding in my affirmation of Jesus’s nonviolence. Just as it is unthinkable to me that Jesus would punish, hate, exploit, or violently coerce, so is it unthinkable that God would.
Jesus’s nonviolence?
After these agreements with Boyd, my differences begin to emerge in the discussion of how we best understand Jesus’s nonviolence. Boyd centers his emphasis on the crucifixion of Jesus, following Protestant theology by understanding the cross as a sacrificial act necessary for the effecting of salvation—though he does differ from most other Protestants in drawing pacifist conclusions from this affirmation. He does not deny that the meaning of the cross extends to understanding Jesus’s life as exemplary. However, in his rhetoric, the cross is almost always mentioned all by itself and not spoken of in relation to Jesus’s life and teaching or in relation to the cross being the Empire’s method of executing political offenders.
I focus more on Jesus’s life than his death. I see the meaning of Jesus’s death having most to do with the hostile reaction of the powers-that-be of empire and temple to his subversive way of living. When God vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead, God vindicates Jesus’s entire way of life and declares it as the model for all people of good will. So, I would say that we know that God is nonviolent because we confess that Jesus shows us what God is like and Jesus’s life and teaching were thoroughly and consistently nonviolent. The cross is the consequence of that life, not itself actually a core revelatory moment. In itself, the cross is simply an act of terrible violence where the powers-that-be once more simply crush dissenters. The cross only becomes meaningful when God raised Jesus from the dead, defeating his killers, and vindicating his life. Such an act by God shows that Jesus reveals the true God. The self-important leaders of empire and institutional religion do not serve God but usually are in rebellion against God. They should not be given loyalty due to God.
So, for me it is not the cross as the central truth about Jesus and God. The meaning of the cross is mainly that it demonstrates what happens when political and religious institutions seek to silent the message of God’s rejection of domination and violence. They try desperately and ruthlessly to silence that message. The resurrection shows that they fail in their efforts. Jesus’s life and teaching are vindicated and proven to witness to God’s healing and reconciling love that cannot be defeated by the powers-that-be.
I believe a key element of the NT’s portrayal of God as revealed in Jesus is that Jesus’s witness, in his life and teaching, is in full continuity with the witness of the Old Testament (properly interpreted). Boyd tends to portray the OT as deficient and in many ways in tension with Jesus’s message of God’s nonviolence. I disagree. The revelation of God we see in Jesus is not a new revelation that relativizes Torah and the prophets. As Jesus himself said, he confirms the law and prophets.
Jesus’s message may be summarized by his central affirmation—that what matters most is to love God and neighbor with all one’s heart. He insists these words summarize the message of Torah and the prophets. When we recognize this connection, we will see that Jesus provides a lens for reading the OT on its own terms. Read in light of Jesus’s core command, the OT is not mainly a source of predictions or foreshadowings of a future messianic figure whose death would move things in a different direction—where the death is the central revelation.
I believe Jesus helps us see that the main message of the OT is the same as his message—the call to love God and neighbor with our whole hearts. As Jesus does, so does the OT place love and compassion at the center both of the human vocation and of the self-revelation of God. As well, Jesus and the OT both teach us that the flip side of the coin that tells us to love is the call to critique and resist domination and oppression. Jesus’s message clarifies and continues the OT message that affirms God’s mercy and rejects domination and violence. Jesus himself does not so much offer a new or distinct message centered on his identity as God Incarnate revealed in his death, but more a message that God’s kingdom is distinctively present in his life and teaching.
The Big Story
I believe that affirming the Bible’s truthfulness and inspiration is important for Christian theology. However, I understand the meaning of that affirmation quite a bit differently than Boyd seems to. Boyd cites 2 Timothy 3:16 without discussion as his proof text for insisting that the Bible is inspired (or, “God-breathed”, CV, pp. 4, 7). He implies that “God-breathed” means each verse, maybe even each word, is from God. This view leads him to pit texts against texts and to understand differences between specific texts to be a problem. He constructs an ingenious argument to resolve those problems—his “something else must be going on” approach. As I discussed in the second post of this series, I have some problems with that approach.
Ironically, the main evidence Boyd cites to justify his approach—2 Tim 3:16 and the idea that Jesus affirmed the truthfulness of the Bible—need not necessarily lead to this kind of “verbal plenary” (that is, individual word-based) sense of inspiration (here Boyd seems simply to echo standard evangelical theology). Both 2 Tim 3:16 and Jesus actually take a more practice-centered view of the Bible. The 2 Tim text emphasizes the practical significance of inspiration—that the Bible seems inspired because it is useful for guiding us to live faithfully—not some kind of more formal definition of inspiration. Likewise, Jesus emphasizes in his use of the Bible that it is useful for helping people of faith to embody his message of shalom.
I believe, consistently with 2 Tim and Jesus, that the best way to appropriate the Bible as useful for faithful living is to read it in terms of its overall message when read as a whole—what I call its “Big Story” of “God’s healing strategy” (articulated in my book with that name). God is a God of healing and wholeness whose character as such is the central theme of the Bible. The way the Bible’s inspiration works is on the level of the truthfulness of the Big Story—not on the level of each particular text being equally authoritative or truthful nor on the level of the historical facticity or the accuracy of each text. Rather, the inspiration is to be seen in how the story as a whole provides life-shaping guidance into key themes such as God’s character, the human predicament, the path we are offered for faithful living, and the critical insights the Bible provides for understanding the world we live in.
The key move for understanding the Bible, then, is to orient each part of the Bible toward the Big Story. We read the parts in light of the whole, and recognize that some times we will encounter tensions in that reading where some specific parts do not seem to be in harmony with the Big Story. Those tensions are important and deserve careful attention. However, they do not lesson the truthfulness of the Big Story when we consider all the pieces together.
The centrality of peace
I will acknowledge that it’s not totally accurate to say that the Bible obviously has a single Big Story. Or, at least, not everyone will agree precisely about the content of the Big Story. Identifying this story is a bit of a subjective exercise. And I agree that we shouldn’t want to insist on a single interpretation of the Bible’s storyline. Part of what it means to be part of the community that respects the message of the Bible is that we engage in conversations with different versions of what that message actually is. We are not given an objectively provable interpretation of the Bible. What we should do is engage the Bible as an exercise in discernment for how it speaks to our lives in our world, expecting that it will offer guidance and encouragement.
At the same time, though, I think that most serious readers of the Bible over the ages do share a general sense of what the Big Story is about—a story of creation, fall, peoplehood, and ultimate healing. My version of the Big Story emphasizes what I call “God’s healing strategy” (see Ted Grimsrud, God’s Healing Strategy, 2nd edition). God creates the world out of love; humans exercise their freedom in ways that disrupt their relationships with God, each other, and the natural world; God initiates a long process to bring healing to all those relationships centered on communities of faith that culminates in the ministry of Jesus; and story ends with hope of completed healing in New Jerusalem.
To say that this Big Story is where the inspiration of the Bible finds its central expression is to say that the reader of the Bible should consider each discrete part of the Bible in light of this Big Story. The Big Story is about God’s commitment to peace, to wholeness, to healing. Along the way it tells of many human acts, beliefs, and commitments that violate peace and lead to brokenness. The ways of healing only ever find partial expression—often characterized by mixed motives on the part of the human players in the story. But there is a direction, a trajectory, a hope that understands the plot in terms of growing knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of God’s healing strategy.
So, the Bible as a whole is a book of peace. The God of the Bible is a God of peace. The clearest manifestation of God’s will to peace comes in the life, death, and resurrection of the one called “the Prince of Peace.” A reading strategy for the Bible that places the Big Story at the center will not see the presence of violent portraits of God as contradicting or threatening the message of peace and of God as the nonviolent author of peace. The discordant bits are to be expected in an ancient human document. They provide context, creative tension, and a counter-narrative that must be overcome for the story to be resolved. It is altogether possible that at times specific biblical authors intend to present a violent God, a God who approves of human violence. However, the intention that matters more, the intention of the Big Story, is to illumine how God is a God of peace. The various bits, including the discordant ones, do together give a peaceable portrait of God.
So, when we read the violent portraits we ask how they serve the Big Story, not how to understand them as autonomous accounts that contradict the centrality of the overall message of peace. We privilege the parts that reinforce the message of peace and subordinate the parts that challenge that part—recognizing, though, that the violent parts are necessary parts of the peaceable whole and should not be simply ignored and discarded.
We recognize that the Story finds its culmination in Jesus. With Jesus as the outcome, we read the OT with special attention to its elements that Jesus makes clear are the center of the Story. We don’t pit Jesus over against the OT (something Boyd at times comes precariously close to doing), but we look for how Jesus catches up the core aspects of the Big Story, especially the aspects that portray God as merciful, healing, just, and peaceable. Jesus’s message confirms that from the start the Bible presents a vision of peace—which includes a sense of perspective about the non-peaceable elements. These non-peaceable elements are a genuine part of the Story, but are subordinate to and interpreted by God’s healing work.
Israel and the land
Perhaps the most difficult text in the OT for the reading strategy I advocate is the Conquest story in the book of Joshua. This well-known account of the entry of the Hebrews into Canaan, the takeover the Promised Land, celebrates extreme violence both by God and by God’s people. Taken as a straightforward account of how Israel gained the land, the Conquest creates many difficulties, not only for pacifists but for any believer who does not believe that their God is the author of genocide.
A Big Story reading strategy does not provide a magic resolution for the difficulties. But it does allow for a more peaceable interpretation. A key point is that we should read the Conquest story in the context of the rest of the Big Story, asking how this particular story contributes to the peaceable message of the overall story. When so read, we may recognize that the takeover of the land actually was the first move in what proved to be a failed strategy for sustaining the community of the Promise. This community was established in Genesis 12 with the calling of Abraham to found a people that would ultimately bless all the families of the earth. With the takeover of the land, the community entered into an era of territoriality.
The community in the land required boundaries that required violent protection, fostered a sense of possessiveness, and ultimately led to efforts to expand the territory. Before long, the community desired to be like the other nations and its elders requested and received a human king—who, among other things, gathered weapons of war. The story that follows is largely a story of the failure of this kingdom to embody the main directives of Torah. Prophets rose to challenge Israel’s leadership for its injustices. Before long, the prophetic warnings of the ending of the territorial kingdom were fulfilled.
Dramatically, the story tells how shortly before the destruction of the Hebrew kingdom of Judah, servants of King Josiah found an old law book that triggered a reform movement that sought to reinstate observance of Torah. The reforms did not prevent the destruction of the kingdom, but they did provide the key element that allowed the community to sustain its identity—which from then on was to be a people centered around Torah that would be scattered widely, not a people in a particular territorial kingdom.
So, the meaning of the Conquest became not a story of the permanent founding of a territorial kingdom requiring profound violence at the start and on-going violence to sustain its existence. Rather, the Conquest is the beginning of the story of a path that proved to be a dead end. The promise remained in effect, but its sustenance became non-territorial, centered around the practice of Torah in communities where the people of faith were often a relatively powerless minority in relation to the wider society. So the peaceable meaning of the Conquest story is that territorial conquest and a territorial kingdom are not ever again going to be part of God’s healing strategy.
Jesus seems to have embraced this change of focus when he proclaimed as his central message the presence of God’s kingdom as a decidedly non-territorial kingdom—that would be constituted of scattered communities of faith that did not require violence for their sustenance. A kingdom of peace. Jesus, the new “Joshua,” rejected violent conquest when tempted by Satan at the beginning of his ministry. Instead, he offered a vision echoing the call that Jeremiah made to the people of the promise to seek the peace of the city where they lived (Jer 29:7)—to embody nonviolence. Jesus was not apolitical and only concerned about getting people to heaven. But his politics were the flexible, resilient politics of witness to God’s will for humanity through local communities of faith in nations that they did not govern.
The Bible and peace
What I have all too briefly sketched above is a reading strategy that takes as its starting point the conviction that the Bible as a whole presents God as a loving and healing God whose justice seeks to restore wholeness in human relationships with God, each other, and the natural world. The coherence of this understanding of God and the Bible does not depend upon a perfect harmony where each part of the Bible directly supports the whole. We may accept the presence of counter-images and seek to learn from those “problematic” texts.
However, the plot is clear, and from the very beginning we find testimony to God’s peaceable character and intentions for humanity. The Bible presents the life of faith as being a process of choosing among various options for understanding what’s most important in life—some options contribute to the healing project of God and some do not. The process of choosing appropriately requires wisdom, collaboration with other people of faith, and the willingness to turn away from paths that lead to brokenness—even when turning is difficult.
The choices also involve discernment into the teachings and stories of the Bible. How might we use the Bible as a resource for peace and not for brokenness? That God’s people have made wrong choices about how to read the Bible is shown within the Big Story itself—and certainly is visible in the past 2,000 years. Simply saying that we believe in the authority of Bible is not enough to assure that we choose the healing path over the path of brokenness. I believe, though, that when we read the Bible in light of the message of Jesus and with confidence that the Bible indeed does guide us toward wholeness when we let it, we will perceive the Bible’s Big Story and be empowered to move toward peace.
———–
The first two parts to this three part series responding to Boyd’s Cross Vision:
Part One: Boyd’s Argument
Part Two: An Assessment
 
 

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

The centrality of God’s love: A response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision (Part 2: An assessment)

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2018
 Greg Boyd’s book, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Fortress Press, 2017), deserves praise simply for being a book of serious theological scholarship with an original and creative argument about a crucially important issue that is written for a wide audience. I don’t find Boyd’s effort totally successful, but even as I raise some sharp criticisms I want to emphasize how grateful I am for Boyd’s book. This post is the second of three. The first summarizes Boyd’s argument and the third sketches an alternative view on the issues Boyd addresses.
For many years, I have been deeply troubled about the role Christianity plays in the acceptance of state-sponsored violence in the United States—to the point where self-professing Christians are quite a bit more likely to support wars and capital punishment than those who make no such profession. I’ve concluded that a key problem that contributes to this undermining of the message of Jesus Christ is theological—convictions Christians have that actually make acceptance of violence more likely.
Boyd may not fully share my critique, but he certainly is aware of the problem. And he is willing to write some gutsy and accessible books that take the problem on head on. Cross Vision (CV) is a much shorter and less academically rigorous adaptation of his two-volume work, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). I recommend starting with the shorter book, which does a nice job summarizing Boyd’s argument—but the longer book is also pretty accessible and contains a wealth of analysis that those who are attracted to Boyd’s argument will want to explore (I have written a long series of blog posts that summarize and critique CWG).
What Boyd gets right
The main contribution CV makes is actually an assumption Boyd starts with more than a proposition he demonstrates. He asserts that Jesus Christ is the central truth for Christianity, that Jesus shows us the character of God more definitively than anything else, and that because Jesus was (and is) resolutely nonviolent we should recognize that God also is nonviolent—and always has been. Making such an affirmation about God a starting point means that Boyd does not equivocate when he comes face to face with difficult biblical materials. He focuses on how those materials might be understood in relation to the core convictions about God as nonviolent. This clarity is bracing and empowering. What the world needs now, I believe, are people who are committed to embodying healing love, not people who struggle over whether or not to kill others or whether or not to support the killing of others. It’s that simple, and Boyd gives us an important resource for following such a path.
Now, certainly the violent portraits of God that are all too common in the Old Testament raise problems for someone with Boyd’s convictions. Surely, part of his motivation for this work is simply to help him strengthen the coherence of his own theology. How does one who believes in nonviolence andin the truthfulness of the Bible understand the Bible’s (occasional) affirmations of violence? However, Boyd is also motivated by a more pragmatic concern that is all too often given short shrift by those who are not troubled by OT violence: What can we do as Christians to counter the pervasive and devastating violence in our culture that embraces the myth that this violence is redemptive?
Those who are sanguine about the Bible’s violence tend to be sanguine about violence in our world and, as a consequence, contribute to an enormous problem. Part of this problem is the way that accepting violence undermines the witness of Christianity and leads even Christians themselves to misunderstand and contradict the testimony of Jesus that our world so needs in order to find healing. So, this is not mainly an intellectual project for Boyd. Much more so, it is—we could say—a kind of evangelistic project. It has to do with the practical expression of the good news (the “evangel”) of God’s healing love. To embrace and embody that healing love, we have to be clear about its reality, clarity that affirming the ugly images of God that are contained at times in the Bible renders unavailable.
The centrality of the cross
Boyd powerfully affirms the centrality of what he calls the “cruciform motif” for understanding Jesus, God, the Bible, and life in the world. The heart of everything is the love that led Jesus to a life of compassionate service and resolute nonviolent resistance. Such a life inevitably put Jesus in conflict with the powers that be, human and demonic, and led to his terrible death on the cross. God, though, did not desert Jesus but instead raised him from the dead, turning terrible defeat into victory. The love of God that conquers sin and death found its defining expression in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Everything about God and God’s revelation in the Bible must be understood in light of the cross (by which Boyd means all the events leading up to and following Jesus’s crucifixion). God is not and has never has been different than the God revealed in the cross. We may take that as a certainty. Sure, we may struggle with understanding how best to understand this notion of God in relation to what other parts of the Bible teach. But the issue is never, for Boyd, whether or not God is always the cruciform God of the cross. It is always only an issue of understanding how to affirm God’s love and nonviolence in relation to various portraits.
Now, as I will discuss when I get to my critique of Boyd, I want to apply the centrality of Jesus for understanding God and the Bible differently than Boyd does. However, my differences with him on these issues arise within a much more profound agreement—that God has always been nonviolent and that we understand God’s character, always, in light of the revelation of God in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.
Implications of cruciform theology
A key part of Boyd’s application of his cruciform theology is his affirmation that God relates to human beings through loving influence rather than through coercion. He reads the texts that seem to imply otherwise as God’s accommodation to human weakness. The people who wrote those texts indeed were writing inspired scripture, Boyd says, but God allowed them to record their distorted views of the story shaped by cultural values that were contrary to God’s values. I do not find this approach particularly persuasive in the end (as will discuss below), but I do affirm Boyd’s sense of God’s non-coercive approach to relating to humanity. And I also affirm that the biblical texts that conflict with God’s nonviolence are not to be understood as accurate historical accounts—and, in fact, are to be rejected as truthful portrayals of what God truly is like.
Boyd discusses God’s judgment at length. I find his acceptance of the motif of “punishment” to be troubling (again, to be discussed below). However, his sense of God’s judgment as Aikido-like seems pretty attractive to me as is his distinction between “judicial” and “organic” punishment. These insights follow from the notion of God as non-coercive, a notion that leads to a careful (and attractive) description of God’s “wrath” not a active, interventionist anger but as God’s willingness to let human beings experience natural consequences for their moral failures.
Boyd suggests that God’s willingness, out of non-coercive love, to allow Jesus to suffer the consequences of human sin at the cross serves as a paradigm for God’s general approach. I’m not totally convinced by this comparison, but I do like that the way the story of Jesus portrays God as non-coercive shapes how Boyd reads everything else. To reject the common notion of God as an angry and punitive judge seems essential for an authentic peace theology.
Boyd helpfully discusses a number of examples in the OT of where the judgment that is described is of an organic and not judicial variety. And he points out, in fact, that scholars argue that the OT actually does not even have a word that directly means “punishment.” The entire Bible supports the idea that God’s judgment tends to be non-interventionist. So, though Boyd is willing to apply his “something else is going on” to the texts where the intervention seems to be direct, he also makes the case that as a rule the texts themselves do support his approach once one is sensitized to look for this.
The cosmic powers
I found Boyd’s discussion of the presence of evil cosmic powers in OT stories such as the Flood and the Exodus to be helpful. Even if I don’t want to take this insight as far as he does, it does make sense to me that we should recognize the reality of other forces at work in the world than only human beings and God. I don’t think of Satan and the Powers as malevolent personal beings so much as personifications of the more impersonal social and cultural dynamics at work in our world where human choices for evil take on a social dimension.
However, that the world can be an unfriendly place, that idols do seek to separate human beings from God, and that when we do not trust in the healing love of God we suffer consequences all seem true. Boyd’s point, as I understand it, that much of the organic judgment described in the OT can be seen in terms of malevolent forces taking advantage of human vulnerability when people separate themselves from God seems true. The destructive consequences are not the result of direct punitive actions by God but rather the result of the malevolence exploiting human vulnerability when people have separated themselves from God.
Peace and God
Boyd’s conclusion, while stated a bit more frankly than one might expect in book such as CV, seems accurate to me. “The depth of your passion for God and of your transformation into his likeness will never outrun the beauty of your mental representation of God…. To the extent that you entertain lingering suspicions that OT authors might be right when they ascribe atrocious behavior and attitudes to God, it can’t help but compromise your passion for God and, therefore, the beauty of the person you’re becoming” (p. 248).
And yet…
Perhaps it is because of my appreciation for Boyd’s effort to apply his unapologetic commitment to nonviolence to his way of interpreting the Bible that I nonetheless finish with strong ambivalence about CV. In the end, I do not think he actually does read the Bible with as much of a consistently nonviolent hermeneutic as he could (and should). And because of this lack of consistency, I wonder about how well CVwill actually effect the nonviolent transformation Boyd seeks.
Biblical inspiration
I think Boyd offers his readers a worthy challenge when he sets up the problem as the tension between both affirming the inspiration and authority of the Bible as a whole and believing that God is definitively revealed in the thoroughly nonviolent Jesus. However, in working at that challenge, I think he gets us off track with his understanding of “inspiration” in terms of “infallibility” (that is, the sense that each detail in the Bible is in some sense approved by God and to be understood as truthful).
At the same time, Boyd seems throughout CVto treat the violent portraits as if they are not actually truthful, at least when read in the most direct and straightforward ways. To deal with this confusing dynamic, he develops what he calls the “divine accommodation” approach where the most straightforward readings of the OT violent text show us that God accommodates to human sinfulness by allowing the writers to tell us things that are untrue (e.g., that God commanded the Hebrews to massacre every man, woman, and child in the story of Joshua). I fear that this approach is a kind of mystification—where in order to hold on to what he calls a high view of biblical inspiration he makes incoherent moves. I doubt that very many readers with a typically evangelical view of biblical authority would agree that Boyd does in fact demonstrate a “high view” of the Bible (I have seen a few responses that support this point).
I will admit that the issues Boyd addresses are indeed challenging and do not lend themselves to easy resolution (I will outline my alternative approach to affirming both an inspired Bible and confessing of God as nonviolent in the third part of this series of posts). But the idea that God “steps back” and allows untruths to be present in inspired scripture (untruths that Boyd himself acknowledges have had quite a destructive impact on Christian behavior these past 2,000 years in wars, crusades, and the like) seems unacceptable.
That “something else is going on” in such texts at times is a helpful thought (Boyd does provide some persuasive readings where he points to details in the texts we have often missed—e.g., the likelihood of the presence of a demonic “sea monster” in Exodus’s Red Sea). But often it seems that the claim that the text doesn’t mean what it clearly states is simply special pleading. I think part of the problem is Boyd’s claim to affirm an evangelical understanding of biblical inspiration rather than admit his approach does allow for seeing that the Bible is not inspired in the details of the text. It seems okay (I’d say, necessary) to admit that the Bible is fundamentally a human book (with many inaccurate portrayals), and that “divine inspiration,” however it works, does not mean that the Bible transcends its humanness.
How do we think of the Old Testament?
Another element of Boyd’s approach to the Old Testament that I see as problematic is his characterizing it as only a “shadow” revelation in relation to the New Testament. He denigrates the Law as presented in the OT. In general, though he hints at some positive elements in that part of the Bible, he presents the Old Testament as mainly a problem. He tends to treat the violent parts as self-contained stories rather than as part of a bigger story.
This leads to him giving the sense that in his understanding, Christ and the cross and Christian revelation replace the teaching of the OT. Such an emphasis on discontinuities between the OT and NT actually makes the OT violence seem worse and more definitive of the message of the OT than it actually is. And, ironically given Boyd’s own pacifism, it unhelpfully narrows the meaning of Jesus’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection to being more religious and doctrinal (in line with later Christendom) rather than more social and political (in line with the OT story).
The reader of CV gets little sense of the peace vision of the OT and its powerful critique of empires, injustice, and militarism. For Boyd, the problem of the violence in the OT can only be resolved, we could say, Christologically—that is, by reference to the cross of Christ understood as a uniquely salvific event. I will suggest in my next post that a much better approach to the violent texts is to read them in the context of the bigger OT presentation of God’s shalom (peace, justice, and loving kindness). Seeing much more continuity between Jesus and the OT also, I will explain, leads to a quite different understanding of the cross than we get in CV.
The “cross”?
For Boyd, the cross is at the center of everything else he addresses in CV. The cross reveals what Jesus (and therefore God) is about more than anything else. All of his main arguments go back to this revelation. While I strongly affirm making Jesus the center of how we read the Bible (and of our theology; see my book, Theology as if Jesus Matters), I am uncomfortable with how Boyd seems to reduce Jesus to the cross—and to construe the cross in an overly narrow sense.
Boyd certainly intends to include Jesus life, teaching, and resurrection in his sense of what the cross means, but in practice throughout CV (and also throughout the much longer Crucifixion of the Warrior God) he abbreviates things to “the cross.” And I don’t think this is simply for convenience sake. The actual crucifixion of Jesus is where it all comes together for Boyd. Something happens in the cross itself that matters more than anything else before or after.
That Boyd makes the cross so central, though, makes it unfortunate that he does not discuss more clearly how exactly the cross works for his theology. He rejects the penal substitutionary atonement theology so prominent in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. He does not believe that Jesus died as a necessary sacrifice to take the punishment God owes to us onto himself as a means of gaining us salvation otherwise not available. But he still seems to see Jesus’s death as uniquely salvific. Due to his reticence on spelling out the mechanics of the cross, Boyd leaves me with a sense that God is not necessarily free simply to forgive and heal.
How is the cross a revelation of a thoroughly nonviolent and loving God if it is a required element of God’s offer of salvation to humankind? What is the “curse of sin” that the cross is necessary to release humankind from? How is there not an angry and punitive God behind the necessary crucifixion? I am not sure how Boyd would answer these questions.
Boyd does seem to have a pretty negative view of humanity. We are characteristically imbued with “twisted minds and hearts that suppress God’s Spirit” and dominated by an all-powerful Satan who is earth’s ruler in the present. This kind of theological anthropology typically is linked with the idea that for human beings to find salvation we need some intervention from the outside—usually seen as Jesus’s necessary sacrifice on the cross. And the negative anthropology is often linked with a notion of God as punitive. I do not believe that God can be both punitive and nonviolent at the same time since punishment seems by definition to be violent.
God and punishment
Boyd gives us some mixed signals about God and punishment. As mentioned above, I appreciate his discussion of God’s “wrath” not as angry, punitive judgment but more as allowing human beings to experience the natural consequences of their wrongdoing. And he helpfully points out that the OT itself seems to place little emphasis on punishment.
At the same time, Boyd still commonly uses the term “punishment” as if he still wants to see God as in some sense a punitive God. One way this comes up is the common reference to God’s strategy of withdrawing protection when God wants to exercise judgment against human wrongdoing. It’s as if what matters in making a case for a nonviolent God is that God does not directly intervene effecting violent judgment by God’s own hand. But it does not seem consistent with being nonviolent for God to choose to step back and allow violence to fall upon wrongdoers that God could otherwise have prevented—and that in doing so God actually does want this violence to be punitive.
Boyd’s move on this topic seems a bit like casuistry. God’s hands remain clean when God only intentionally allows the judgment bearing violence to occur rather than directly causing it. This distinction seems problematic. Boyd’s God still seems governed by the logic of retribution where wrongdoing must be met by retributive, punitive violence. I believe that in arguing that God does punish by withdrawing protection, Boyd draws the line in the wrong place. Rather than presenting the line of violence/nonviolence being between direct and indirect punishment, I believe that a Jesus-shaped reading of the Bible would help us to see that we should draw the line between punishment of all kinds and restorative justice.
The issue with so much of the violence in the world—and at times in the Bible—is that it reflects the myth of redemptive violence and the logic of retribution that tell us that punishment is the necessary response to wrongdoing. The Bible, including parts of the OT, tells us that efforts to restore the relationships violated by wrongdoing do not require punishment. A consistently nonviolent God may been seen in stories such as Esau’s response to Jacob, Joseph’s response to his brothers, and the father’s response to the prodigal son. Boyd’s retention of necessary punishment undermines his hope for a nonviolent understanding of God.
Back to the Bible
In the end, my take on CV is that Boyd has made a useful start in the right direction. His assertion that the best way to read the Bible is to understand it to be presenting us with a thoroughly nonviolent God is precisely what Christians need in our present day—especially Christians in the United States. And, as Boyd insists, the way we get to the nonviolent character of the biblical God is through the story of Jesus. And when we read the Bible in light of Jesus, and hence with a nonviolent God, we will be able properly to understand the violent portraits not as an unresolvable contradiction but as only one non-authoritative part of a bigger picture.
However, I also think the residue of Boyd’s doctrinal evangelicalism has prevented him trusting the Bible enough to resolve his conundrum without his special pleading. His notion of biblical inspiration appears to be a theological construct imposed on the Bible more than an inductive approach that reads the Bible as it comes to us. His notion of the cross also owes more to doctrinal theology than to a straightforward reading of the story told in the gospels that presents Jesus’s crucifixion as the culmination of his life of radical obedience (and disobedience to the ways of empire and establishment religion). When Jesus called on his followers to “take up the cross” he wasn’t talking about a one-off cosmic transaction that deals with the “curse of sin.” Rather he is talking about the social strategy that was to be imitated, in line with the prophets and the embodied Torah.
Indeed, we need a “cross vision” that envisions the way of Jesus and his nonviolent God as the way his followers share in fulfilling the calling for all the children of Abraham to bless all the families of the earth. I think Boyd gets us started on that journey. I’ll share in my next post more about how I would suggest reading the Bible as guidance for pursuing the journey further.
[Post one of this series summarizes Boyd’s argument. Post three sketches an alternative approach to the issues of violence in the Bible.]

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

Why Abortion Opponents Should Oppose Brett Kavanaugh…and all Other Republicans

Ted Grimsrud—9/29/18
I am acquainted with several people (and know of many, many more) who were troubled by Donald Trump’s lousy character and shady business dealings yet still voted for him. The basic rationale seems to have been: “Sure, Trump is awful. Clinton’s awful too. The difference is that Trump will appoint Supreme Court justices who appose abortion.” The vote in the 2016 election was close enough to imagine that these people may have tipped the balance.
And now Trump is rewarding such choices. First, he got the rigid right-winger Neil Gorsuch on the Court to replace rigid right-winger Antonin Scalia (some analysts have suggested that Gorsuch is even more extreme than Scalia in his embrace of a corporatist agenda, hard as that may be to imagine). Now, we are likely just days away from Brett Kavanaugh (a long time Republican Party operative) joining four other rigid right-wingers to form what will likely be a long-term Supreme Court majority.
It’s hard to say precisely howthis new unequivocally “anti-abortion” majority will act to undermine abortion rights. They may simply overturn Row vs. Wade and allow whatever states choose to to make abortion in all situations illegal. However, I have read commentators who suggest that, realizing such a direct move would energize the pro-choice forces, the Court may move in a more piecemeal direction. They may make decisions that continue to chip away at abortion rights until, while technically legal, abortions become virtually impossible to obtain in most of the country.
A counter-productive strategy
Ironically, though, I believe that this strategy will backfire on those who, out of genuinely humanitarian motivations, desire a sharp reduction (if not complete elimination) of abortion in this country. Basically, in helping to elect Trump and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, “pro-lifers” have actually put into power forces that are profoundly anti-life (militarist, anti-environment, ruthlessly pro-corporate, pro-mass incarceration, etc.). The “success” of getting an iron-clad “pro-life” majority in the Supreme Court will not only lead to heightened misery for non-wealthy Americans, but ironically likely will do little, if anything, to eliminate abortion.
I believe that the abortion debate is incredibly complex with strong feelings and important truths being expressed across the spectrum. It won’t be resolved in my lifetime.
So, let’s say that Kavanaugh will be confirmed (or, if not, we may expect that some other equally “anti-abortion” person will be). What follows will be more and more legal barriers against abortion, with the Supreme Court as the final arbiter with its “anti-abortion” majority in place perhaps for decades.
Will legal changes actually end abortion?
Yet, giving the opponents of abortion all they want in making abortion illegal certainly will notend abortion in this country. It may not even reduce the abortion rate (though it will certainly increase the rate of illegal abortions and the attendant rate of deaths due to unsafe abortions). Many countries that outlaw abortion completely have some of the highest abortion rates in the world (e.g., El Salvador’s rate of abortion is around 30 per 1,000 women aged 15-44)—and countries with the lowest abortion rates have legalized abortion (e.g., Switzerland, where abortion is available with no restrictions as to the reason for abortion, has the lowest abortion rate in the world, around 5 per 1,000). Obviously, there are other issues that drive the abortion rate more than legality.
So, people who truly want to reduce (and even ultimately end) abortion shouldbe asking how Kavanaugh’s likely positions on a wide range of issues would impact the one issue that matters the most in relation to abortion. That one issue is the prevalence of unwantedpregnancies. It seems like a simple point—the reason anyone has an abortion is that they don’t want to be pregnant. If someone doesn’t want to be pregnant bad enough, making abortion illegal will not stop them. And if someone doesn’t get pregnant when they don’t want to, they will not get an abortion.
So, are the policies that Republicans such as Kavanaugh support likely to decrease the cases of unwanted pregnancies? In a word, no. They are almost sure to increase the number of unwanted pregnancies (e.g., reducing funding for Planned Parenthood and in other ways limiting access to birth control; limiting access to sex education; reducing the safety net including programs that provide prenatal care, food stamps, and other social services; heightening the shame associated with unmarried pregnancies).
In general, the Republicans (and remember that Kavanaugh has been a loyal Republican operative for a long time) are pushing a political agenda that moves the U.S. more toward El Salvador (with an ever greater divide between rich and poor and a hollowed out middle class; fewer limits to corporate and police power; stricter legal barriers to access to abortion; an ever-shrinking safety net—not to mention ever-growing militarization and democratic practices growing ever-weaker) and away from Switzerland (with its robust safety net and vital democracy).

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

A response to Old Testament violence

Ted Grimsrud—September 17, 2018
The issue of the violence in the Old Testament has troubled and fascinated me for years. How do we reconcile the violent portraits of God with an affirmation that Jesus is our definitive revelation of God and calls us to a pacifist commitment? I have felt pretty resolved for some time that this issue is not a deal breaker for Christian pacifism. But I have yet to sit down and write out a full explanation of how I think we best think about how the OT and pacifism go together. I’m not yet ready to do that, but I think I recently moved a bit closer to doing it.
The two general historic approaches to OT genocide
I recently read and briefly reviewed a new book, Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide: Christian Interpretations of Herem Passages by Christian Hofreiter (Oxford University Press, 2018). Hofreiter surveys various ways Christian writers have “made sense of OT genocide” over the past 2,000 years. He suggests they break down into two broad categories.
One we might associate with Origen (arising in the 3rd century CE, a time when church leaders were essentially pacifist) and simplify by describing it as a view that ultimately suggests that the OT text does not accurately describe historical reality. There are two different versions of this approach—the first, echoing Origen’s own views, reads “beneath” the surface level on an allegorical or theological level, suggesting that a surface, more historical reading gives us an unacceptable view of God as a terrible killer and enabler of killers. The second version of the non-historical approach, much more modern, is to divide the OT between revealed portions (such as the stories that show God in ways consistent with the message of Jesus) and non-revealed (and non-historical) portions such as the genocide texts.
The second general approach we associate with Augustine (and arose after the 4thcentury “Constantinian shift” when church leaders affirmed the moral validity of Roman wars) and simplify as a view that suggests God has the prerogative to command (or intervene with) violent actions to serve God’s own purposes. This approach reflects the views of most Christians over most of history since Augustine’s time in their willingness to fight in and support wars.
However, many pacifists have also affirmed a version of this approach with the notion that God indeed has the prerogative to intervene with violence even while God also chooses to command Christians themselves not to use violence. This approach has the advantage of straightforwardness, in being able to accept the truthfulness of the OT stories as historical events.
Holding together (or not) five key propositions
Hofreiter helpfully provides a set of five propositions that gives us a framework for thinking about these issues (p. 9). An interpretation of the OT genocide texts must in some way come to terms with each of these propositions and with the set of five as a whole.

God is good.
The Bible is true.
Genocide is atrocious.
According to the Bible, God commanded and commended genocide.
A good being, let alone the supremely good Being, would never command or commend an atrocity.

There surely have been Christians who would try to hold that all five of these propositions are true, and that it should be possible to explain how that can be the case. However, as Hofreiter tells the story, the Christian thinkers who have carefully engaged these issues tend to equivocate on one or more of the propositions.
Just taking Augustine and Origen, we see several such equivocations. Origen would have strongly affirmed #1, #3, and #5. His understandings of #2 and #4 were a bit complicated. The Bible is indeed true, but in a spiritual or theological sense, not always in a historical sense. The truthfulness of #5 challenges us to think carefully about #4. God is said, when the Bible is read in a literal sense, to have commanded and commended genocide—but that is not the case if we read the Bible in the best way (according to Origen), which is to say that when the Bible seems to say God commanded and commended genocide, something else actually is going on that we see only when we read the Bible with the eyes of faith.
For Augustine, we could see some equivocation with regard to #1, #3, and especially #5. Augustine certainly would say “God is good,” but this “goodness” could involve God acting in ways that would not be seen as “good” in normal human behavior. Augustine’s God is beyond human understanding and, it would appear, beyond human concepts of moral goodness. So, genocide may not be atrocious when it is commanded or enacted by God. Augustine does not hesitate to use the violence of the OT as a basis for accepting violence in the present if the violence is “just”. Because the Bible is true, in Augustine’s perspective, it must not be the case that God would never command an atrocity.
A different approach
I find Hofreiter’s five propositions to be a helpful way to think about the issues of violence and the Bible. I even think I would, in a sense, affirm all five—but only after defining them in my own way. I’ve never thought before that I agreed with Origen’s approach to the Bible, but if I had to choose between Augustine and Origen, I would certainly side with the latter. Let me sketch my way of thinking about those propositions and then reflect a little on whether this is an Origenist approach.
(1) God is good. I strongly affirm this proposition and strongly agree that it is a foundational affirmation for biblical faith. However, it does not seem totally obvious what “good” means. There are Christians who would say that “good” in relation to God means whatever God wants it to—and that could be something mysterious and beyond our ability as finite creatures to understand. That is, for some, God might do stuff that violates our sense of what is good but it is nonetheless “good” because it is God who did it.
I’m more attracted to the view that “good” is a pretty stable concept and that there are things that could be attributed to God that are not good (as we see in some of the other propositions). I would link “good” closely to “loving.” So, I would rather say “God is loving” than simply “God is good.” And I would add that I understand “loving” in terms of the life and teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. So, Jesus shows us what is good and what God is like.
I would also say that any notion that God is not always loving and acts in ways that contradict love are false understandings. The point, thus, would not be that God could be good in ways that seem to us to be evil because God is above our understanding. It would instead be that thinking that God could act in ways that seem to us to be evil is a false humanidea about God. So, in some sense, our understanding of “good” provides us with a criterion for discerning whether our notion of what God is like is valid or not.
(2) The Bible is true. I tend to agree with this proposition. But what’s a bit complicated about it is what we mean by “true” in relation to the Bible. I want to say that the Bible is “true” in the context of the type of literature it is. It is no more or no less historically accurate than other ancient writings. It is an important artifact offering stories that ancient people told and retold and fashioned into sacred writings that carried weight in the communities that used them. The Bible does not seem to have any special qualities that show that it somehow transcends its own time and place. To say, as one New Testament writer wrote, that the Bible is “inspired” is not to say that it is more accurate historically or less likely to contain mistaken information than other writings. Rather, it is to say, as the author of 2 Timothy 3:16 wrote, that it is useful for instruction and guidance.
It is as being useful for instruction that the Bible should be affirmed as “true.” Christians affirm that the Bible is indeed extraordinarily useful for instruction (i.e., “true”)—about how to live, about what God is like, and about things that are wrong and need to be opposed in life. We approach the OT’s violent portraits of God in the spirit of discerning how they are useful.
The Bible gives us clear understandings of what is “useful” or “true” or “morally faithful” that we may use as we discern the meaning and application of its stories and commands. Most centrally, of course, we get guidance from the life and teaching of Jesus. As Jesus himself insists that his message follows from the law and prophets, we ourselves may find core guidance from the OT. I think the best way to think of the way the Bible is truthful is to think of it as telling a big story with a plot that culminates in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. With many subplots and tangents along the way, the Bible nonetheless may be read as coherent and truthful (even if some of the pieces are best seen as less than truthful).
(3) Genocide is atrocious. This proposition seems self-evident when it stands alone. Of course, genocide is atrocious. But it becomes a bit more complicated when linked with the Bible’s violent stories. We could say that what happens in the stories is not actually that bad when we read them carefully. Or we could say that it’s not truly a “genocide” or maybe it’s not really “atrocious” when God commands or commends it or enacts it.
I prefer, though, to say that whenever some people (or a divine being) massacres large groups of other people that that is atrocious. This is a kind of behavior that is objectively genocidal and objectively atrocious—or, to use other language, evil, wrong, sinful, morally corrupt. And it does not matter who does it or what the rationale is.
(4) According to the Bible, God commanded and commended genocide. This proposition also seems self-evident. There are some interpreters who try to downplay the starkness of the stories, especially in Joshua. However, I think such attempts miss the point of the stories. The Bible intends to present the stories in a stark manner—the God of the story does clearly command and commend the kind of comprehensive slaughter of people that we in the modern world label as genocide.
Our interpretive challenges involve deciding how these stories should be understood historically and discerning why they were told. I believe that if we think of the Bible’s truthfulness in the way I described above (i.e., it’s ability to offer us guidance on how to live) and recognize that it is ancient literature that had the same relationship to history as other ancient literature, we will recognize that these stories should be read as legends and not literal history. When they portray God as commanding and commending genocide, we should not assume that they tell us about what actually happened.
So, our big issue is whywere these stories that portray God in such a problematic way told. We are limited in our ability to answer this question. I believe that one reason why they were retold in the form they were was actually to witness against the idea of God’s people possessing a territorial “homeland” as a means of furthering God’s work in the world. The story of the Conquest is the first step of a story that ultimately shows how inherently violent the territorial arrangement of peoplehood was (and is).
The stories told in Joshua were part of the setting up of Israel as a territorial nation. As the story continues, this territoriality becomes a terrible problem. God and the prophets end up rejecting territoriality as the basis for peoplehood. We learn of this rejection when the corruption of the Judean state ends in destruction—and it is confirmed in Jesus’s non-territorial embodiment of God’s kingdom.
So, we may say, the “God” of the story commanded and commended genocide for reasons that we are not able precisely to determine. But, due to our convictions about God’s goodness (and our convictions about the nature of the Bible), we have no problem with saying that that “God” is not the true God. We may still affirm the violent portraits as truthful in the sense that they help us better understand the peaceable dynamics of the overall biblical story that conclude in the NT with a strong affirmation of the non-territorial kingdom of God as the channel for God’s healing work in history.
(5) A good being, let alone the supremely good Being, would never command or commend an atrocity. Again, we have a proposition that seems self-evident on the surface. And I do strongly agree with it—given the definition I gave to the proposition “God is good” above. If “God is good” means that whatever God does is good because it’s God that does it, then this proposition would not be true.
I believe that our challenge is how to fit this proposition with the propositions about the Bible being true and about God commanding and commending genocide in the Bible. I think we have to accept that the Bible is not always historically accurate but instead contains meaningful stories that find their ultimate meaning in the context of the rest of the stories (that is, in the context of the big story). So, we should separate (1) what we believe about God based on the big story the Bible tells that culminates with Jesus from (2) what some of the specific (non-historically accurate) stories tell us about God. Those specific stories contribute to the big story without being accurate as historical accounts—so they can be said to be truthful and worthy of respectful attention while not being revelatory of the true God in isolation from the rest of the Bible.
Affirming all five propositions (kind of)
As I think of these five propositions as a whole, I think they are set up to be self-contradictory. Of course, we may be expected to say, either the Bible is telling the truth when it portrays God commanding and commending genocide orGod is good, genocide is atrocious, and a good God would never command or commend an atrocity.
As I have suggested, though, I can think of ways in which each of the five propositions are correct. However, I can do that only by careful definitions that almost certainly are different from the more obvious definitions assumed by the formulating of the five propositions. Probably the most significant divergence is in defining how the Bible is “true.” In saying the Bible is true mainly in the broad sense of its big story, I am not troubled by the proposition that “according to the Bible God commanded and commended genocide.” The Bible can be true as a whole and still have specific stories that are not historically accurate and whose truthfulness lies only in how they contribute to the big story.
So, I would say, we may affirm all five propositions, but not as a unified, harmonious whole. They are helpful together as an exercise in clarifying our definitions—and, I think, especially is helping us to reject a literalistic sense of what it means to say “the Bible is true.”
Is my approach “Origenist”? Yes, in that of the two general approaches that Hofreiter discusses in Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide, I do—like Origen—take an approach that accepts that the Old Testament violent portraits of God are not historically accurate. I reject the approach Hofreiter links with Augustine that affirms that God has the prerogative to command violence when that suits God’s purposes.
However, I differ with Origen in where I see the truths in the Old Testament. I do not look for deep allegorical, spiritual, or theological truth that in some sense lies behind the text (I think Greg Boyd in his books The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and Cross Vision is much closer to Origen than I am). Rather, I seek to read the text in a straightforward way and find truth there that is accessible to ordinary readers.
I think the Bible should be read in the same way we read other ancient literature—we take into account the historical settings; we recognize the role of legends, myths, oral traditions; and we think about the purposes the communities had for using these stories and keeping them alive. I would add that as a Christian, I expect the Bible as a whole to make the most sense when we read it as a big story with its resolution in the story of Jesus.

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

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

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 PeaceTheology.net 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.
 

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

Wondering about the American Civil War

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

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

What does Romans 13 actually teach?

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

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

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

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

Syndicated from Thinking Pacifism

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