The book of Revelation on living in Empire
The book of Revelation does not have a positive reputation these days. For many Christians it is seen as hopelessly complicated and obscure. In my opinion, it is indeed the case that understanding Revelation is difficult. I have been studying it pretty intensively, off and on, for about 40 years now. I believe I have to a large degree figured Revelation out, and I am trying to find clear and accessible ways to explain what I have figured out. But it is not a quick and easy task (one place I presented my ideas was in my congregation, where I preached a series of sermons on Revelation — I summarized the main points in some blog posts; it took 18 to cover all the points I had to make, and I felt as if I only scratched the surface). Revelation does not fit on a bumper sticker!
Perhaps, though, part of what makes Revelation potentially very useful for peacemakers today is precisely its complexity. But even with that complexity, I think some of the useful insights we can gain from Revelation are not obscure or inaccessible. If we are to learn from Revelation about how better to live faithfully in our troubled times what might be some of the key lessons? I’m at work on a book-length commentary on Revelation that will focus on this question. Here are some summary points:
(1) Keeping the way of Jesus central
Revelation offers the Bible’s most extended and profound critique of the dynamics of empires and their effects on people of faith. This critique remains important. However, we should also remember that the central concerns for the book are the health and faithfulness of the communities of Jesus’ followers. John critiques Rome in order to help his Christian readers to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).
This ordering of priorities remains important. I don’t think the lesson is so much that we should focus only internally on the life of the institutional church while remaining indifferent toward our broader social situation. More so, I think the point for us is the reminder that in all areas of our lives, the way of Jesus remains our guide. We always run the risk of marginalizing that approach to life — sometimes with a preoccupation on the machinations of those “inside the beltway.” However, whatever healing is to come for our world and whatever the role of the “great nations” in that healing might be, the ultimate bases for healing remains always the message of Jesus — love God and love neighbor. And this way of healing has to be embodied in actual face-to-face relationships even as we also do what we can to further humane public policy on the macro level. This embodiment is why the congregations are so important to John.
(2) The false “peace” of Empire
The time when John wrote this set of visions actually, in terms of the general political environment, superficially belied the violence and chaos of the picture of reality Revelation gives. The so-called Pax Romana (“peace of Rome”) provided a sense of peace and order. This would have been one of the main reasons the empire religion was so popular. Many people were grateful.
In John’s analysis, however, that “peace” rested on a foundation of violence and oppression. He categorizes this dynamic as a case of the domination of the Dragon, or of Satan. It’s a “peace” that actually was based on violence — oppression of many for the sake of the wellbeing of the powerful elite. The commerce of the empire may ultimately be boiled down to marketing in “human lives” (18:13).
Most of those who might read this blog post are also beneficiaries of a “peace” that is founded on exploitation and oppression, a profoundly violent “peace.” John helps us see the spiritual dimension of such a world. We are socialized from birth in the United States to believe that our nation’s “peace” is actually about human wellbeing. It was fascinating how during the just-concluded presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton over and over defended the “greatness” of the U.S. in response to Donald Trump’s voicing the concerns of many who have increasingly felt excluded from the “American dream.” Tragically, the kind of “greatness” Trump peddles will surely only exacerbate the dynamics of “violent peace.”
Revelation helps us to recognize that a “peace” based on oppression is demonic, not reflective of God’s blessing. The book calls its readers to critical awareness of the claims of the power elite. In John’s view, these elites are aligned with the Dragon. John’s analysis might help us recognize the “bipartisan” nature of America’s “violent peace.” The Obama years were a time of humane imagery at the top, but with precious little genuine justice for those left behind in the Rust Belt with the destruction of the economic viability of that region’s way of life, or for the still growing number of African-Americans and Latinos caught up in the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration, or for the victims of the rapacious deeds of Wall Street that destroyed so much accumulated middle class wealth with the economic crises of 2008-2009 — not to mention the people of nations the U.S. brutalized such as Libya, Honduras and Afghanistan. Now, with Trump, the humane veneer will be gone. Hopefully, that will help more of us recognize the relevance of Revelation’s spiritual critique for our day.
(3) A critique of systems of domination
At the same time, Revelation’s picture of the dynamics of empire also helps us see that the true enemies of human wellbeing in the imperial world are the structures and systems of oppression — not so much individual human beings. One of the amazing parts of the story John tells is what happens to the human allies of the Dragon and Beast. The human members of the oppressive power elite — named as “the kings of the earth” — actually end up being healed. They join the celebration of the New Jerusalem after the powers of evil are destroyed (21:24).
John’s picture is more about the enslavement that even the power elite experience at the hands of the “deceptions” of the Dragon. We may understand those deceptions as humanity’s self-destructive loyalties to ideologies, nation-states and corporations that underwrite wars, oppression and the exploitation of the natural world. John helps us see just how powerful those deceptions are—and to hope for healing of all people who live under their domination.
(4) The path to victory is love
In Revelation, the term “conquer” connotes breaking free from the domination of the Powers and finding healing. The way God, the Lamb and people of faith “conquer” is through persevering love. That is, the way to counter the Domination System is through an unwavering commitment to the path of love.
Revelation makes the claim that this path of love is the only way for humanity and the rest of the creation to “win” (i.e., to become whole). This is not a claim about “going to heaven” or individual salvation. It is a political claim, a claim about the entirety of the world, a claim about historical life on this earth. The path of love is the only path toward resolution of whatever seemingly intractable social or ecological or economic or conflictual problem we may find on all levels of life.
One of the roles that the plague visions play is to present a symbolic, impressionistic picture of human life in the here and now. That is, the problems are real, deep, seemingly overwhelming. But in the midst of the plagues we find visions of worship and celebration, participated in by people from every tribe and nation. And then the plagues end, with the ending of the Powers that operate the Domination System. These Powers are conquered by the Lamb’s persevering love — and by the imitation of the Lamb by his followers (12:11).
(5) The call to remain steadfast
Both because of the true nature of the Dragon (as the enemy of life) and the true nature of the Lamb’s way of love (the path to genuine victory), John insists that his readers must remain steadfast and not compromise with the Dragon and his minions. This is a challenging exhortation for today’s readers of Revelation who live within the Empire in the United States and other allied nations. It is not always clear to us what compromise might entail.
So, we might look at the list of core convictions I have named above (pacifism, restorative justice, creation care and solidarity with vulnerable ones) for guidance. John’s is not a call for purity, self-righteousness, judgmental othering or legalistic rigidity. The way of the Lamb is the way of being willing to “get our hands dirty,” to practice humility, compassion and flexibility in ways that serve our core convictions. Those convictions guide us in discerning the line that separates compassionate engagement from compromise that reinforces the Dragon’s agenda.
Revelation points to an ideal of committed peacemakers who live within the Empire, who engage the Empire, but who “come out” from the Empire in the sense of sustaining their loyalty to the Lamb. The Lamb himself provides the model for committed engagement. The fruit of such engagement, according to the final vision of Revelation, will be the healing of the nations, including the kings of the earth.
(6) Fear not
And, ultimately, Revelation calls its readers to courage. The Dragon and the Beast can be dangerous and ruthless, but they cannot separate people of faith from the love of God as embodied in the Lamb. At the heart of the book, we find a challenging vision. First we read of the Beast, rampant, dominant, seemingly without limits. “Who can stand against it?” (13:4).The picture seems to be that resistance truly is futile. But the conclusion of that vision is this: Indeed someone has been found to stand (the same one who is “found” in 5:1-5 to open the scroll). The Lamb stands (14:1) along with the 144,000 (which is a symbol for the Lamb’s countless followers from all tribes and nations — see chapter 7).
Chapter 14 goes on to present a gruesome image of an inestimable amount of blood flowing as high as a horse’s bridle (14:17-20). This blood, in the context of the book as a whole, may be understood as an image conveying a positive promise. As persevering love meets with hostility, even deadly violence, from the Dragon and his minions, it actually contributes to the healing of the nations. The blood of the Lamb and the saints is the means of conquering the Dragon (12:10-12) and the means of the downfall of the Beast (17:4-6; 18:6-8). So be of good courage, John asserts, the Dragon’s hostility only hastens his own downfall. And as you follow the Lamb, you will be unified with the healing power of the universe.
Revelation actually proves itself not to be the esoteric ravings of a catastrophe desiring religious fanatic, nor some magic set of predictions about a pre-determined future. Rather, it is a guide for humane living in the midst of a world where we cannot be assured that “all will be well.”
Revelation critiques oppressive power and centralized political authoritarianism. It exhorts genuine peace-seeking people to discern how their loyalties matter. It is a call to offer our strongest loyalty to the Lamb, our guide to a way of life that will contribute to healing rather than brokenness. And Revelation makes a promise — not that such a way of life will certainly prevail, but that such a way of life is the only way for humanity to move toward healing. Seems like pretty relevant stuff.
Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. He blogs at Thinking Pacifism, where this post first appeared.
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