Category Archives: Empire

Transforming Babylon

[This is the twelfth 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

Shalom Mennonite Congregation—January 20, 2013—Revelation 15:1–16:21

We seem to get mixed messages about love. Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment—it’s the call to love, he said. Probably if we were asked what was the most important emphasis for Martin Luther King, we’d say it was love. He called one of his most famous books, Strength to Love.

And yet it also seems that love is kind of looked down upon. It certainly doesn’t seem to come up much when we talk about social policy and social problems, gun violence, economic inequality, terrorism, climate change. When we talk about social issues we tend to use “realistic” language—power, coercion, justifiable violence, finding a seat at the table, self-interest, just desserts.

Marginalizing love

Love may seem sentimental, naïve, emotional, soft. Nice for life on a personal level (perhaps), but not very central to negotiating social life, not very central to the work of social justice and social order.

I’ve read a couple of books that bear this out. Michael Burleigh in his book on World War II, Moral Combat, and Jean Bethke Elshtein in her book on the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Just War Against Terror, both write about values and moral standards—but neither devote any space to talk about love. In the “real world,” love is irrelevant it would seem. But is it? Have the violent strategies with which the “realists” deal with conflict and wrongdoing actually worked to enhance human life?

I think this is a challenging question—given all the terrible things that go on in our world. I wonder if the book of Revelation gives us any insights about love and social life? What would you guess I think? Let me read a portion of Revelation—a passage that may not seem to say much about love—chapters 15 and 16, and then you can see what I will pull out of the hat. Continue reading

How Do We Fight the Beast?

 [This is the tenth 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

Shalom Mennonite Congregation—October 14, 2012—Revelation 13:1–14:5

In my sermon series on Revelation we are now to chapter 13. We will spend some time with one of the most famous of the characters in the book—the Beast that rises out of the sea. There is something important to remember as we think about this character—obviously highly symbolic. With whatever it is that is being symbolized, not everyone would see it as beastly. One person’s beast might be another person’s buddy.

Beast or Buddy?

I think of my tiny sweetheart of a dog, little Sophie. Talk about gentle, sweet, affectionate, and kind. But to our cats, Zorro, Silver, and Ani, Sophie is most certainly the Beast. Vicious, aggressive, loud, and obnoxious. Sweetheart? Bah!!

Likewise, in Revelation there would have been people in the book’s audience with a quite positive view of what John is calling the Beast. John’s agenda, in part, is to challenge his readers to recognize the Beast here as a beast.

And thus he challenges us. What is like the Beast of Revelation in our world? Does this vision speak to us at all? Continue reading

Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy

Ted Grimsrud

Two presidential election cycles ago (2004), I published an essay reflecting on how committed Christian pacifists in the Anabaptist tradition might function as citizens of the United States.

I understand my main argument to be that we have to work within three stories: (1) the Anabaptist story of costly commitment to witness to Jesus’ way, (2) the democracy story that reflects a commitment in our country to participation in the social order by all people in a society, and (3) the empire story that all too often has characterized the United States and our way in the world.

I suggest that those committed to story #1 who live in a society that at least to some extent retains a commitment to story #2, should exert all the energy they can to critique and try to counter story #3.

Given present day debates among peace advocates in the United States around our current presidential election, I thought I might take the chance to post this article on this website.

Ted Grimsrud. “Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 78.3 (July 2004), 341-62.

Here also is a post I put up on my Thinking Pacifism blog on September 30, 2012, that explains why I will vote (ambivalently) for Barack Obama this time.

Who can stand against it? The “good” war and the Beast of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—Published in The Mennonite (July 2012)

For Baby Boomers such as myself (born in 1954), World War II was in the background during our formative years. It was the most destructive event, by far, in all of human history. However, we still don’t  really understand that war and its  impact. We would do well to try to come to terms with what happened then, and its ongoing presence in our lives. As I  reflect on World War II as a Christian, I find myself struggling to find hope. This struggle, perhaps paradoxically, leads  me to the book of Revelation. Let me explain why.

I have several reasons for trying better to understand World War II.

I always encounter the long shadow of World War II in discussions with students. For many, the ideas of pacifism are new and foreign. Every semester I face the question, What about World War II? Doesn’t it prove that war at times is necessary—and that pacifism is unrealistic?

No wonder students raise these questions. They have grown up with images of the “Good War.” They hear our leaders, including President Obama, evoke the war against Hitler to show that the only way to pursue the right in extreme circumstances is by violent force.

My father fought in the Pacific war. He lost his best friend there, a man named Ted. My parents met when my father was stationed in Oregon. My mother also served in the military as a recruiter. They did not glorify the war. But they clearly valued their experience, proud of having done their part. I find myself constantly conversing with them in my mind as I study the war.

The more I learn of World War II and its moral legacy in the United States, the more discouraged I feel (actually, “discouraged” may be way too mild a term; horrified, outraged, depressed or despairing might be better terms). Continue reading

A Christian Pacifist Response to World War II

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #C.6

[Presented as Keeney Peace Lecture, Bluffton University, Bluffton, Ohio, October 25, 2011]

World War II was the biggest catastrophe ever to befall humanity. Think of it like this: say a meteorite crashes into my hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia, 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 75 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, our nation’s “good war,” and 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.

Moral values that justified World War II

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.

The key moral values were stated famously on two occasions during 1941 by president Franklin D. Roosevelt. These statements were circulated widely and provide us with stable moral criteria for our reflections on the moral legacy of World War II. Continue reading

Jesus’ Confrontation with Empire

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.7

[Published in Nathan E. Yoder and Carol A. Scheppard, eds., Exiles in the Empire: Believers Church Perspectives on Politics (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2006), 27-41.]

 At the core of the believers church ideal, as I understand it, lies an unequivocal commitment to follow Jesus Christ.  When we discuss “God, Democracy, and U.S. Power” in light of the believers church ideal, part of our task surely must be to ask, What might we learn from Jesus’ own confrontation with empire that might speak to ours?  James McClendon, in his discussion of the believers church ideal—what he called the (small-b) baptist vision – identifies a key element as the sense of close connection between the present-day believer and the biblical narrative.  We are part of the same story; what happened then is still going on now; “this is that.”[1]

I will reflect on the story of Jesus as part of the broader biblical story with the assumption that our story is part of the same story. What the Bible tells us about people of faith and the great powers has great relevance for our lives. Though I will, except for a few points at the end, focus on the biblical story, I want to be clear that I consider Jesus’ confrontation with empire as directly relevant for North American residents of our world’s one great empire.

This is a big issue for U.S. Christians. We have so much to appreciate in this country—religious freedom not least. However, many of our nation’s practices resemble all too closely the imperialism of the biblical empires. It is as if we have two Americas, America the pioneer democracy and America the dominant empire.[2]  I believe that attention to the Bible’s empires can help us as we discern how we respond to the latter America.

First, I will make the point, obvious once we notice it but rarely part of how we actually read the Bible, that the entire Bible, including most definitely the four gospels but actually ranging all the way from the Genesis creation story (written, at least according to some, to counter Babylonian influences during the sixth century BCE) to the final vision of God’s saving work in the Book of Revelation (written, most scholars agree, to counter Roman influences in the late first century CE), reflects the setting of God’s people amidst the various empires, or great powers, of the biblical world—from Egypt and Babylon down to Rome.

Jesus’ confrontation with the empire of his day must be seen in the much broader context of the biblical faith community’s confrontation with various empires. Some of the elements of our modern-day believers church ideal echo key elements of the biblical story: (1) a commitment to sustaining a faith community that seeks to maintain a free space over against the domination of empire; (2) a conviction that this faith community has the vocation of witnessing to the surrounding world of God’s healing love and against the violence and oppression of empires; and (3) a hope that this vocation of showing love actually will have a transforming impact on the entire world, including the great powers themselves. When Jesus bumps up against Rome—a “bump” that cost him his life—he continues in the prophetic tradition of his people, a tradition going back to Israel’s earliest days. Continue reading