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 twenty-fourth of twenty-six short reflections.
When we read Revelation we have a choice about how we read it.
One way to read it is from the perspective of people who are similar to those to whom it is addressed – people who are genuinely oppressed. This means that it calls into question the powers that generate and sustain that oppression. For John the Divine and his readers the Roman Empire, principally in the person of the the Emperor, was that power. In contrast to that power John holds up the Lamb of God, who died but has been raised from the dead, and in whom the victory has already been won.
Radical Christians such as Berrigan and Stringfellow read Revelation and see the American State as Babylon, because its military and economic power is like that of ancient Rome. The American Empire, controlled by what Eisenhower called “the military industrial complex,” creates tax policies that favour the already wealthy, and disadvantages the poor and marginalized in the United States and abroad. In what Chomsky calls the “manufacture of consent” we accept uncritically the propaganda that “This is for the common good”, whereas the stagnant income of the middle and lower classes since the early ‘seventies and the growing inequities suggest otherwise (I should say that I am rarely in agreement in Chomsky’s actual political views, but the mechanism for the manufacturing of consent sounds accurate to me). In reaction to this kind of unveiling populists seize on conspiracy theories and latent racism to come up with simple explanations to the problems of the masses, solutions that distract the voters from their actual self-interests, and allow the ruling elite to continue regressive policies. So today we see several “apocalypses” – 1) the economic disparity of wealth, leading us to greater discontent, 2) the emergence of a global pandemic that could have been controlled by decisive government action (as was done by New Zealand and Taiwan, and, initially, also here in Greece) but was not,leading to disastrous results, and 3) the looming environmental crisis of global warming, which as Pope Francis has pointed out, will affect the dramatically poor the most.
Alternatively, we can read it from our position, a position of privilege, only denying that we have any privilege. I may be a “white,” upper middle-class, well educated, male, but there are forces that oppose me, deny me free action, and so, in my mind, oppress me. And so, I might choose to map Revelation on current forces that question me, even if they emerge from the poor and disenfranchised. This is the position of American fundamentalist evangelicalism, as manifested in the support for the Trump presidency. In their reading the forces that threaten me include the immigrant, the person of a different colour, the secularized liberal who wishes to tax me and give the money to the undeserving, and those who would call into question my age old customs, such as prayer in school, the right of the state to regulate women’s bodies, and the maintenance of “equal but separate” statuses for men and women. The whore of Babylon, then, is the Democratic Party, or Republicans In Name Only (“RINOs”), and the Deep State that supports these causes.
This second approach, very popular in parts of the United States, puts American evangelicalism in the position of being the second beast, the one that persuades the world to worship the first beast. Instead of submitting to the true God who has compassion for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, supporters of this kind of demagoguery see compassion as an individual option, and worship power and wealth, success and fame, the promise of power in the judiciary, and the rights of an individual to use deadly force and bad legal arguments in the furtherance of its goals. It is an idolatry.
Of course, the new president, Joe Biden, will not establish the kingdom. He will probably not accomplish the hopes of radical Christians in the United States any more than Obama did. I will be surprised if the borders become dramatically more open, if the sick receive a just medical system in the form of universal healthcare, and I doubt that the military will be downsized significantly. Prisons will still be full of minorities, functioning as the new Jim Crow. The new president will need to be challenged to do more. That said, Biden, unlike Trump, is a Christian, a Catholic of the Vatican II era, and he may be more persuadable than the narrow-minded narcissist who has sat in the White House for the past four years.
I am just as critical of my own country, Canada. I am disappointed by Justin Trudeau. The hopes created by his election in 2015 have not been fulfilled. Many of us looked forward to real progress on Indigenous justice issues, but we are increasingly seeing more of the same. He broke his promise on creating anew electoral system. After five years he is only now beginning to act on a Green agenda. It is not clear if the recent net-zero pledge for 2050 is merely aspirational, or something that will become as entrenched in the political consensus as universal healthcare and the multiculturalism.
This is what unveiling the beast looks like in 2020 and 2021. We are not, as John was, mere subjects of the Empire – we are citizens of our countries, and we have the opportunity of using any number of tools to advocate on behalf of Jesus Christ. We are called not to stand aside but to challenge and question power, and not to stop just because a party we voted for became the government. God breaks into the present day, for the time being, through us.
It is not an accident that the strongest statement of responsibility for social justice was placed in the context of the coming of the Son of Man:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25.31-46
Read synoptically with Revelation, this parable about the Son of Man in judgement should strike fear into the hearts of those collaborating with the forces of oppression. We do not see “faith alone” held up as a criterion for salvation, but how one acts (just what did Martin Luther do with this passage, eh?). Faith without good works is dead, says the Letter of James, and so, if we see ourselves as faithful Christians, our actions must be directed towards the least of Christ’s family.
Tomorrow I will talk more personally about how I think I have acted in my own ministry around these things – not so much to boast, but to challenge my own complacency.