I’ve been reading the Book of Revelation a lot lately. The Apocalypse of John has never done much for me, truthfully. But these days, I’m wondering if we’re in need of an apocalypse of our own.
You may have to forget a lot of what you “know” about Revelation to appreciate what I’m suggesting here, to read it again with fresh eyes. The word, “apocalypse,” means an unveiling — revealing something currently clouded from our vision. What is previously hidden, when revealed, helps make sense of what is happening before your very eyes.
Some scholars now believe that Revelation wasn’t written to Christians during a time of intense, widespread persecution as many have long thought. Rather, Revelation was most likely written to Christian gatherings around Asia Minor that were increasingly being seduced into obedience to and agreement with the ways of the Roman Empire.
In their book on Revelation, Howard-Brook and Gwyther, say,
John did not criticize this or that ruler, this or that imperial dynasty, or even this or that empire. John did not advocate a change of leadership or call for political or economic reform. Rather, John saw from the heavenly perspective granted to him that empire in itself stood in contradiction to the ways of God.
Put it in those terms and the language of apocalypse seems more and more like a necessary word in our current political context, as it has been in many contexts since John penned his revelation.
On Monday, I gathered with about 500 interfaith clergy, religious leaders and laity from across Massachusetts at a “Moral Monday” demonstration at the state house in Boston. This same scene played itself out in at least 25 states across the United States the same day. We were there to deliver a “moral declaration” to our state’s political leaders. Those gathered spoke to the moral importance of immigration concerns, countering Islamophobia, shrinking the growing gap between rich and poor, increasing affordable housing and healthcare for all, fighting for LGBTQIA rights, addressing environmental justice and climate change, and a host of other concerns.
And while I believe in the importance of all of these things and in delivering a public witness to our political leaders about where so many clergy and laity stand in relation to these moral concerns, I can’t help by wonder in this contentious election cycle if “a change of leadership or call for political or economic reform” is enough, or if, as John’s Apocalypse suggests in its mythopoetic language, the empire in itself stands in contradiction to the ways of God.
In a neo-colonial milieu such as ours, the “empire” we face is not solely the government of a nation-state like the United States, but is manifest in multinational corporate interests that exert power on a larger scale than any true empire ever has. The neo-colonial empire is seen in realities like:
- The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement being pushed by the Obama administration and supported en masse by multi-national corporations,
- Massive oil and gas pipelines built to stretch across the country to serve corporate interests despite opposition by citizens and even local and state governments,
- The U.S. private prison industry profiting from the imprisonment of citizens in a country with 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,
- Or the $1 trillion to be spent on nuclear weapons upgrades over the next several years, modernizing a massive worldwide suicide mechanism that we’ve come to embrace as a security blanket.
If recent scholarship is correct that Revelation wasn’t written to Christians in the midst of intense persecution but to Christians who were being seduced by the empire, then the Apocalypse of John is not a word to simply comfort the afflicted, but a message to afflict the comfortable within the churches.
Today, far too many of us on our comfortable pew cushions have been seduced by the ways of empire, falling head-over-heels for the rule of predatory capitalism, the reign multinational corporate interests, and the welcomed tyranny of militaristic empire-building, all the while professing in our singing and sermons and prayers to follow a Sovereign we name the Prince of Peace.
I suspect that one reason Revelation is so difficult to understand and so off-putting to read is that John, like us, could barely muster the conceptual facility and linguistic capacity to address the intricate mechanisms of empire in clear and straightforward terms — using the rational empire invented to counter the rational of empire. So he did so with the language of beasts and dragons and whores. We, too, have a difficult time unveiling the workings of neo-colonial empire in our day when the rules are set somewhere beyond our awareness to a game we cannot possibly win.
We need an unveiling of something we know but have nearly forgotten, divine truths clouded from our vision by the seductive wiles of empire. What language can we use, what images can we muster (hopefully less misogynistic than John’s), and what stories can we tell to reveal what is now hidden so that, when revealed, it helps us make sense of what is happening right before our eyes, shaking us from the trance of empire’s seductive charm and into action as resisters of empire’s reign? Our faithfulness as Christian churches in the 21st century may depend upon our development of an apocalypse of our own.