Monthly Archives: October 2011

Thinking Morally (and Theologically) About World War II

Ted Grimsrud—Bluffton University lecture—10/25/11

World War II was the biggest catastrophe ever to befall humanity. Think of it like this: say a meteorite crashes into Findley and kills everyone, around 40,000 people. This would be incredible news. America’s worst ever natural disaster. But then, imagine that something like this happens every single day for five years. You can’t imagine that? Well, that’s what World War II was—40,000 people killed every single day for five years.

But World War II wasn’t a natural catastrophe—it was something human beings did to each other. These 80 million people didn’t just die due to impersonal nature run amok. They were killed by other people. World War II was an intensely moral event. Human choices. Human values. Human actions.

And World War II has cast a long shadow. We’re still in its shadow. As William Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Just one example. In Barak Obama’s acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, he alluded to the necessity for America to fight in Afghanistan—and cited the war against Hitler as one key rationale. That war was obviously a necessary war in the public mind, our nation’s “good war,” and thus it helps us see our current war as necessary as well.

Because World War II was—and is—so big and devastating and epoch shaping, it is a theological issue. But we aren’t getting a lot of theological reflection on it. I am just completing the first phase of a long-term project on responding theologically to this war.

I have not yet actually begun to address one big type of question—what does World War II tell us about God? Where do we see God in this oh-so-big event—and what about the ways in which we don’t see God?

I have begun with another type of question—stated a bit facetiously: What does God tell us about World War II? But I haven’t really gotten to the “God” part. That will be step two, to reflect on this war and its long shadow in light of my explicitly Christian and explicitly pacifist convictions.

Step one, though, is to ask the question more in terms of general and, we could say, public, convictions. What do key stated moral values in the United Stated say about World War II? Let’s start with this more general moral theology, which, I believe, gives us enough substance to begin a critical evaluation that could speak to many Americans. Continue reading

Commentary on Revelation One

Ted Grimsrud—October 2011

Introductory thoughts

Most scholars place the writing of Revelation in the final decade of the first century, during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian. Despite ancient traditions that have linked the “John” of Revelation with John the Apostle, the recent consensus has concluded that Revelation’s John is almost surely an otherwise unknown preacher/prophet. Since this John thus has little authorial authority, our estimation of his skill and insight must be based totally on the contents of the book itself.

Not only our estimation of John’s authority, but also our sense of the broader context of the book pretty much completely rests on references within the book itself. So we will need to be attentive to those references as we go along.

The other standard issue of introduction has more to do with hermeneutics. How are we to read Revelation? What do we expect to find herein? Should we mine Revelation for predictions concerning future events? Should, instead, we mainly look at Revelation as an important historical source for first-century apocalypticism? Or, as a third option, should we engage Revelation as “churchly” literatures, writings born out of faith and speaking with continuing relevance to people of similar convictions concerning Jesus’ lordship and Christians’ call to follow his way in a traumatic world?

Again, how we answer these expectations questions will be determined as we move along and consider the contents of the book.

1:1-8—Introduction and Salutation

The first few words of the book already puts the cards on the table in relation to our reading strategy of Revelation. We can think of three distinct options that highlight different terms and motifs at the beginning—and that as a consequence of their distinctive emphases go on to read the book as a whole in significantly divergent ways.

One stand picks up on the first word, “Revelation.” The Greek is Apocalypsie, the source for our word “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic.” This emphasis places the priority on Revelation as apocalyptic writing, part of a distinctive genre of literature that flourished in the ancient near east in the generations prior to and following after Jesus’ time. In this approach, Revelation is read first of all in relation to other apocalyptic literature, with an emphasis placed on its distinctiveness among the biblical writings.

A second strand emphasizes the phrase, “to show his servants what must soon take place.” For those with this emphasis, Revelation is read first of all as predictive literature, providing insights into future events.

A third approach, characteristic of this study, places the emphasis on the second and third words of the book, “Jesus Christ.” Revelation may (I would say, should) be read in the context of the New Testament and broader biblical story of salvation that culminates in the life and teaching of Jesus.

When we place the priority of the “Jesus Christ” emphasis, and decide to read this reference to Jesus Christ as a signal that this book is self-consciously placing itself within the Gospel story of Jesus’ disclosure of God among human beings, we will assume Revelation is best read in continuity with Jesus’ message. Continue reading

A Revelation About Jesus

[This is the second in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly for about two years.]

Ted Grimsrud

Revelation 1:1-20—Shalom Mennonite Congregation—October 16, 2011

I had kind of a disorienting thought the other day. When I graduated from high school my dad was 55 years old. To me he was a rock, wise, competent, sure-footed. And old. A newspaper article from this time called him a “grizzled veteran coach.”

Here’s the disorienting thought. I am now two years older than my dad was then….I don’t feel grizzled, and I feel like I barely know what to do. My dad seemed to know exactly what to do; I never saw him struggle with any choices or uncertainties. Usually, it seems like I just guess and hope for the best when it comes to important decisions—you know, major home repair issues or whether to try to go to Africa to see the grandkids or important medical decisions. So often, I don’t know what to do.

So, that makes me think that maybe even my dad was not as certain and invulnerable as he seemed to me. Sometimes maybe he was just guessing and hoping for the best too.

And then that thought underscores to me that maybe in general our wisdom is pretty limited. Our choices are fallible and imperfect. We do the best we can, but there is so much we don’t know, so much we don’t understand, so little we can be certain of. We rarely know for sure the right thing to do. I think back 16 years ago—would we stay in South Dakota where we had had two great years? Or would we move to Bluffton, Ohio, or to Harrisonburg, where I could become a college teacher? We did just guess!

So maybe it’s a good idea to cultivate our humility and tentativeness and forbearance toward others. We all do try, but we are all limited—and I am just as capable of making an idiotic choice as my neighbor.

It strikes me that theology and Christian beliefs and ethical stances are all like this in relation to choices too—choices mostly made at least somewhat in the dark, choices mostly that are really just our best guesses. The idea of religious certainty and being dogmatic about certain “absolutes” to the point of violence seems highly problematic.

But still, the Yogi Berra imperative remains: When you come to a fork in the road, take it. We must still move ahead, we must make choices (imperfect as they surely will be). Ever since I became an addict of the early video game Tetris about twenty years ago I have thought of life as being like a constant Tetris game. Our choices are like Tetris pieces falling down on us; we do have to act, to choose, or else we will get completely snowed under.

So, when we pick up the Bible, we must start making choices right away. What to read. How to read it. How to apply it. And certainly this is the case should we make our way to the end of the Bible and read the book of Revelation.

Is Revelation mainly predictions about the future or exhortation for first century believers? Is it better read in relation to other, non-biblical writings in the so-called apocalyptic genre or read in relation to the New Testament? Are the plagues in Revelation from God or from the Beast? Continue reading

Pacifist Reflections on the Just War Tradition

Ted Grimsrud—October 5, 2011

Often discussion about the morality of warfare sets in opposition just war philosophy with pacifism. My intent in this paper is to challenge just war adherents to work within their tradition to overcome the scourge of war. I believe that the just war tradition, if vitalized, could become a powerful resource for overcoming the scourge of war. Though I am a pacifist myself, I believe that it is likely only through a vitalized just war approach that the power of militarism in United States society can be reduced.

The “Blank Check”

In practice, in the West throughout the past couple of thousand years two views concerning participation in warfare have been prominent—pacifism (characteristic of a tiny minority) and what I will call the “blank check.” The “blank check” says it is the citizen’s duty to do what the state asks. If the state says go to war, the citizen’s job is to obey, essentially without question. The just war philosophy has existed in the gray area between these two other views. Just war has mainly been about the ivory tower-type discussions of moral philosophers, usually about particular wars after the fact.

Augustine himself, considered the father of the just war doctrine, actually also taught a version of the blank check. Only the nation’s leaders had the role of determining a particular war’s justness; for the citizen, the task was simply to obey and assume that the leaders will suffer the consequences if they are fighting unjust wars. Continue reading