As regular readers know, I've been posting from time to time about my experiences leading a bible study in a local prison. One recurring theme in these posts is how different the bible sounds on the inside of a prison as compared to the outside.
I'm currently leading the class in a study of the book Revelation and I've again been struck by the change in the sound of this book.
We all know that Revelation is a very violent and blood-soaked book. Consequently, when we studied this book at my church last fall a lot of people expressed dismay. The violence of the book didn't sit well with our empathic, liberal sensitivities. Revelation in one of those embarrassments found within the pages of the bible.
What to do with all that blood and violence in the book?
Non-violent readings of Revelation look to Chapters 4-5 in the fusion of the Throne and the Lamb. Chapter 4 is dominated by the image of the Throne, a symbol of the Rule of God. The imagery is all about power. However, in Chapter 5 this is all thrown for a loop when we encounter the One who is standing on the Throne:
Revelation 5.1-6The Lamb Who Was Slain--the Agnus Dei--is how God rules, how God expresses and exerts God's power. God's power is sacrificial and self-giving love. The Lamb Who Was Slain expresses the Rule of God in our world and the next.
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne...
If you want to see the power of God in the world you point to Jesus on the cross.
With this understanding we read the blood and violence of Revelation through the cross. The War of the Lamb isn't violent. The War of the Lamb is fought by fighting, resisting and witnessing non-violently. This non-violent, martyrological note is sounded throughout Revelation. For example, the "sword" of the Lamb is truth, witness and testimony. The sword of the Lamb comes from his mouth:
Revelation 1.16; 2.12, 16; 19.15, 21It's not surprising, given this imagery, that when Pilate and Jesus have a conversation about power (Does Pilate have the power to kill Jesus?) they end up talking about truth.
In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance....“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword....Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth....Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty....The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.
Following the Lamb into battle the faithful wage war with the non-violent methods of the Lamb:
Revelation 12,7-12The faithful triumph over evil "by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony." Testimony is the weapon. And like Jesus, the faithful remain non-violent to the point of death.
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.”
These are some of the hermeneutical keys for those wanting to read Revelation non-violently. Like with most things in the bible, the key move is Christological--reading everything through the sacrificial and self-giving love of Jesus on the cross. So when you think of God's power and rule remember the conflation of Throne and Lamb in Revelation 4-5.
Still, the imagery of Revelation is pretty over the top. Which brings me to reading the book in prison.
The great pastoral objective of Revelation might be best captured in Chapter 18 in the call for the People of the Lamb to come out from Babylon:
Revelation 18.1-4a"Come out of her, my people." That's the heart of Revelation. That's why the book was written, to communicate that message. The book is about two rival cities, Babylon and the New Jerusalem. And the encouragement to the churches is to "come out" from Babylon to live under the Rule of the Lamb as citizens of the New Jerusalem. Despite appearances Babylon stands under God's judgment and those who are non-violently faithful to the Lamb will be vindicated in the end.
After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted:
“‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’
She has become a dwelling for demons
and a haunt for every impure spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.
For all the nations have drunk
the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”
Then I heard another voice from heaven say:
“‘Come out of her, my people.’
so that you will not share in her sins...
As I see it, the main trouble with reading Revelation as people of wealth, status and privilege is that we don't have much of a problem with Babylon. We're doing quite well in Babylon, thank you very much. Consequently, the prophetic indictment and cry to "come out" leaves us cold. We wonder, why is the author of Revelation so desperately angry?
Well, he's angry because he's screaming at a bunch of spiritual zombies. People who have become blind to the webs of oppression, immorality and violence that have entangled them and support their way of life.
Do you know who weeps first over Babylon in Chapter 18? Kings and merchants. Military power and marketplaces.
Revelation 18.9-13The trouble is, as Americans, we benefit so much from American power--military and economic--that we can't see the sins of Babylon. So the prophetic indignation of Revelation just sails right over our heads. "That book is crazy," we say.
“When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry:
“‘Woe! Woe to you, great city,
you mighty city of Babylon!
In one hour your doom has come!’
“The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore—cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.
And Babylon rolls on...
But inside a prison it all sounds very different. Inside a prison the violence of Babylon is raw and exposed. The violence and economies of prison life are a microcosm of the larger world, Babylon distilled. Consequently, the men in my bible study are constantly tempted to give in to that violence and economy. The choices are stark and clear. Babylon or New Jerusalem? Lamb or Beast?
In prison they feel the Beast. They know very well what Revelation is talking about.
Inside the prison the call of Revelation rings loud and clear. The call to "come out" is felt within the gut. The life and death choice is acute. Prison inmates get the book of Revelation because they get Babylon. They fight against it every second of every day.
Us? Not so much.
And Babylon rolls on...