Living in Babylon: Reading Revelation in Prison

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 5.1-6
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...
The 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.

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, 21
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.
It'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.

Following the Lamb into battle the faithful wage war with the non-violent methods of the Lamb:
Revelation 12,7-12
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.”
The 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.

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
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...
"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.

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 18.9-13
“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.
The 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.

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...

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18 thoughts on “Living in Babylon: Reading Revelation in Prison”

  1. Richard,

    Prisoners understand the Beast and wish to come out into the Free World.  We live in the Free World and too often choose to imprison ourselves by idolizing the Beast.  Thanks be to God for the proclamation of John.


  2. Blasphemy... Speaking negatively about our "beloved" country is cause for throwing you in prison!

    No, but seriously, this was a great post, Richard. I guess I'm really young, because this entire post reminded me of The Hunger Games trilogy. Those in the Capitol cannot see their folly, but those imprisoned by her understand and are constantly fighting to escape her grasp.

  3. One of the ways I fight against violence is the way Christ fought against violence:

    1 Peter 2:

    22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

    My faith is in God who says: "Vengeance is mine I will repay. Rather if your enemy is hungry feed him." All sin was either punished at the cross or it will be punished in hell. What this means is that I have no right to harbor bitterness towards anyone. The judicial predicament has been broken. When my faith is in God my heart opens up to love others as I am free to forgive as I have been forgiven. This is faith working itself out through love. 

  4. I can't thank you enough for writing this. Revelation is by far my favorite book in the Bible, and it pains me when it is unfaithfully read, particularly because the context of "Babylon" and "New Jerusalem" is grossly misunderstood (or even ignored!). May we live lives today that are characteristic of the faithful first Christians, who did "not love their lives so much as to shrink from death."

  5. Hearing about the prison Bible fellowship always makes me feel happy.
    However...  I've got to confess:  The Book of Revelation -- not so much.

    I've largely avoided that book of the Bible for the past 20 years.  My "roots" (Baptist/Fundamentalist) were planted in an era (1970's) when 'The Late Great Planet Earth' and rapturetribulationjudgmenthell were the obsession of the church and private school into which I was brought as a sensitive 10yo who was paying full attention.  As much as I'm cognitively aware now of the twisted view that I was taught, going "there" still makes me a little crazy (PTSD-ish).

    Did the men in the fellowship request Revelation, Dr. Beck?  I'm not sure what I would do if my nursing home ladies requested Revelation.  I'd probably be honest about my own hang-ups and unfamiliarity with it, and then do my best to honor their needs.  I'm more willing to "do" for other people what I won't necessarily do just for my own good!

    "The violence and economies of prison life are a microcosm of the larger world..."  -- Yes.  When I think of the prisons and all those locked up and away from "civilized" society, I can't help feeling that this is *our* collective shame:  The evidence of our failures as a society.  Thank you for your commitment to care for these men in prison, Dr. Beck.  This gives me hope for humanity...and for the Church.  ~Peace~

  6. My inability to help people in Churches of Christ see empire was exasperating and heartbreaking.  I left, in part, because I thought that the System was irremediable and that the message of Jesus already had a fertile audience elsewhere.

    That is why Jesus spoke to commoners.  Maybe they favored a violent reaction against Caesar, but at least they saw him and his system for what they were.  Rich Jews, not so much.

    In my new church, everyone sees empire.  Revelation 18 was the topic of Sunday School on Palm Sunday, and your reading was readily embraced by all the students.  But we all find it very difficult to help other Christians see from our vantage point.

  7. One thing that struck me while reading the bit about Satan being cast out is Jesus' statement about his impending death; "Now is the prince (archon, or principle) of this world cast out."  That also reinforces the idea that the victory of God is brought about through the crucifixion. James Alison says it best:

    Now is the judgement of this world. Now shall the ruler of this world be cast out. John 12:31
    "(Jesus is) attempting to explain that what he's going to undo is a
    principle, a governing principle. The Greek word for prince and
    principle is the same word, archon (άρχωn).The governing principle of
    this world is about to be undone. You're going to look for something
    spectacular. It's not going to be spectacular,
    because, in fact, all that's going to happen is that I'm going to
    inhabit the space of the victim. I'm going to be lifted up, given the
    reputation of a criminal, of a blasphemer. I'm going to occupy that
    space. And by occupying it, and allowing my Father to give me the
    reputation that comes from him, (in other words, that this is my son,
    this is the innocent one, this is the Holy One of God) I'm going to undo
    the whole principle by which the world builds its togetherness, which
    is security over against someone who needs to be thrown out. We will be
    secure if we gang together, find ourselves someone whose fault it all
    is, and give it to them in the neck. The only way in which that, the
    bricks and mortar of social order, can be undone is by somebody
    occupying the place of the victim as if death were not. "- James Alison

  8. Oh, it'd be a great tongue-in-cheek title for a book on this subject:  "Roll On, Babylon!"

  9. Check out Sandi Villarreal's 4/11 post at God's Politics Blog:  'Q Conference: Restoring the Justice System.'

    The five closing sentences -- powerful, powerful truth.

  10. I agree that we should get over the fear and anger. I think we should have correctional institutions to help rehabilitate criminals and protect society. This is what I believe God's final justice will be. It won't be to rehabilitate but to protect His children from harm. I don't see hell as a torture chamber. Everyone recieves a different degree of punishment just as everyone recieves different rewards in heaven. I don't think our justice systems should be there to execute God's wrath on the evil doers. At the cross Christ absorbed God's wrath and removed it off of God's children so that they could experience Divine Beauty. God's wrath on the reprobate is future at the Great White Throne Judgment. I think our justice systems should be there to protect and rehabilitate. Just my opinion.

  11. Having just come through a 6-month series on Revelation in our church, I resonate with your summary, especially the nonviolent readings (I'm a mennonite!). Your comments reminded me how Eugene Peterson describes the wars of Revelation as "aggression against wickedness without using any of the weapons of wickedness."

    I was surprised how often the theme of allegiance you outline (beast/lamb, babylon/new jerusalem) comes up in the book. Over and over, like reading the minor prophets, our sermons outlined allegiance and called for repentance. My trepidation as a preacher went from an initial concern over my ability to explain the difficult symbols of Revelation to my courage to proclaim the prophetic message of Revelation. I've concluded that Revelation is greatly relevant for the church in N.A.

  12. Just started Elaine Pagels' "Revelations:  Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of  Revelation."  Her interpretation may be different, but fascinating none the less.  We hope to make it a book study at our church.

  13. Roll on, Dr. Beck! This is the most succinct and pungent interpretation of the book I have read in ages! No wonder victims of the powers get it so well. As you do so often, you have hit the nail on the perverbial head.

  14. "We simply cannot continue to cut our Department of Defense budget if we are going to remain the hope of the Earth,"

    Mitt Romney, Jan. 16, 2012

    Ladies and gentlemen... the next President of the United States of America.

  15.  I think you can make a strong argument that there is a difference between what a county needs to do, and what people need to do.  Not agreeing or disagreeing with the idea of military spending, just raising a point.

  16.  I would submit that one reason it is hard to have people see empire is that it requires one to admit they are part of a problem, and hence need to change.  In my experience, people tend to go to church to be comforted, spiritually and socially, much more than to be challenged in those areas.  But keep the faith, as I recall, Jesus didn't have much success getting the religious folks to see empire and change either.....

  17. [I wrote this reply elsewhere first, which explains why I am addressing the author through the third-person pronoun "he," rather than in the second person.]
    I appreciated this, and his reading of Revelation seems about right --except for the fact that God is anything but "non-violent" in Revelations, and in fact pours his wrath down quite a few times; this is why I read Revelation as a kind of by-product of Judaism's hanging-on (the God of justice and vengeance, etc.). But there is also the Christian half of Revelation, namely, that it is the sword of the tongue, of the mouth, of testimony and the decisive word that will ultimately separate the righteous from the unrighteous and divide the nations. So you can't fault him for being unclear where the text itself is cut in half by that hyphen, "Judeo-Christian".... I'd also only comment on the usage of the "we." He speaks of "us" outside of the prison walls, who enjoy the advantages of American military power and economic might. He says, "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." I'm not sure if he takes the second step anywhere and admit that, insofar as we have no problem this, "we" can no longer call ourselves Christians, but only "Americans" or "Babylonians." Our American, worldly "Christianity" wears the sign of the beast, there is no doubt in my mind about that. I don't know how involved this author is in that or not (I'm of the mind that any involvement with that brand of herd-Christianity brings heaps of guilt on to the soul). But the idea that "we," as a group, would ever "come out" of this wealth and power seems unlikely and, Christianly, it is impossible. The "world" does not and cannot exist for Christianity, and especially not a Christian world. It's a terrible recognition, no doubt, for a faux-Christian to realize in earnest that Babylon is the most provided for in terms of earthly wealth and power, and then that our "Christian" America outdoes the Babylon of Revelation ten-fold. And then that honesty requires one have nothing to do with any of this military and economic power, with any of this spiritual coddling and reassuring pandered by the "Church," and certainly nothing to do with the priest/politician who, more than any collective "we," wears 666 on his forehead in ignorance yet without shame!I do not doubt that it will take any longer than an hour for all this to fall, when it falls, just as Revelation says. So it seems smart to start asking: where will we put our chips?

  18. I think you can be very aware of Babylon and yet in all the shit as wealthy American white privilege. I think you can get revelation like a prisoner and see the beast all day long too ....and yet look like you don't in your high apying white collar job. I think you can have good reasons for carrying on in the shit of the beast...wise as serpents and innocent as doves reasons....Perhaps even feeling or harboring your own feeling of powerlessness to address systemic root causes of problems because your all locked up and subservient too.

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