This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the fifteenth of twenty-six short reflections.
John the Divine gives the impression of being a pretty judgemental guy, and that’s because he is. He has little patience or toleration for those he disagrees with – you may remember that in chapters 2 and 3 he calls a prophet in Thyatira “Jezebel”, and a synagogue “the synagogue of Satan”. He has Jesus saying that he hates the Nicolaitans. Then there is the sheer number of people who seem to die of plagues, natural disasters, the destruction of Babylon (i.e. Rome), including the ten kings, various beasts, and merchants and sailors. That whole business of the lake of fire and the exclusion of sinners from the New Jerusalem again seems pretty harsh. Meanwhile the angels and martyrs are singing the praises of Jesus in victory over all these bad people. Where is God’s mercy?
And how does this sit with these well known passages from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew:
7 1“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. – Matthew 7.1-5
6 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. – Matthew 6.12
538 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 538-48
First of all, I think we need to recognise that John is angry, and rightfully so. He has seen other Christians suffer physically and be killed. Recognising that vengeance belongs to God, he has a vision of that vengeance. Having never suffered the way that John has suffered, it is not up to me to judge whether another person’s anger is unrighteous. The anger we see expressed in Black Lives Matter, or in Indigenous Rights movements such as Idle No More, is powerful, and propels an activism that calls for justice. Rarely does it escalate into violence, but through various actions of civil disobedience it challenges the “white” liberal call for “healing and reconciliation” to be more radical and transformative, rather than incremental.
Second, sometimes we are in positions of responsibility where we are called to make judgements. I had to do this when I was the Executive Officer of the Diocese of British Columbia, and to respond when clergy or laity were acting in ways that required discipline. In these cases the judgements need to be made on principles informed by the duty to act fairly. The story about the speck and the beam is about ensuring that you are not a hypocrite, dealing in one type of justice for one set of people and another type for others, or disciplining others when one is guilty of far greater evils. Am I prepared to be judged by the standard by which I judged others? I answer with a yes, and pray that I am sufficiently self-aware that I am always taking that log out so that I might help others.
Third, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount addresses his followers about how one deals with oppression – and it is largely about breaking the cycle of violence. Chapter 5:38-42 is a central passage in civil disobedience, describing exactly what Martin Luther King and John Lewis acted on when challenging segregation in the American South in the 1960s. Listen to the preaching that went on at the time, and it is propelled less by hate of people than a higher righteousness grounded in Jesus that loves people even as they attack you.
Meeting violence with violence will sometimes work to stop the other side from oppression – that’s what war is, after all, and some wars are arguably just – but sometimes it fails to stop that cycle of violence. Wars have a bad habit of spinning out of control, World War One being the prime example (but see Vietnam, Afghanistan (for both the USSR and NATO), and Iraq). Europe has been mostly free of wars between nations since 1945 because the trauma of the Second World War has provided a real impetus to create a lasting peace, this being accomplished through the European Union and other international bodies. The Troubles in Northern Ireland, which seemed interminable, did not end because either side was winning, but because both sides recognised that violence was not getting either of them anywhere. Sure, sometimes sheer violent force accomplishes a goal – the Nazis were defeated in World War Two, the North Koreans were stopped in their tracks by the United Nations, and the Serbs stopped their genocidal war because of NATO bombing – but these victories came at great costs, with many unresolved issues. We should be wary of rolling the dice of violence, especially in this era of nuclear weapons. Civil disobedience, legal challenges, building political alliances, and negotiations are all preferable to the use of arms and violence. Patience is necessary; communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was not overcome by war, but by containment and the patient waiting for the totalitarian system to finally fail on its own contradictions.
How does one love one’s neighbour who may be an enemy? In my experience, it begins by praying for them. I continue by working to establish a relationship despite the differences. I try to find common ground,
Of course, in some situations the person is so damaged that they cannot negotiate. They may be a psychopath, spouting lies, using and abusing others, and refusing to acknowledge facts (see the current American president). They may not be able to help themselves. In some cases we cannot help them much. A disloyal employee probably needs to be terminated, but the termination must be done in a compassionate and just way, as the power difference between the employer and employee is usually significant. A murderer or someone convicted of sexual assault needs to be removed from society, not only so that they can no longer do harm to others, but so that they might have access to opportunities to try and understand the damage they have done.
But coming back to John the Divine and Revelation, his judgement and the tone of his language can be disturbing. However, sometimes it inspires others to radical justice of a kind that I find agreeable with the instructions Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount. More on that tomorrow.