Reading Revelation from the Margins and from a Position of Power

Reading Revelation from the Margins and from a Position of Power July 20, 2018

I was really struck by futurist David Brin’s comments about Abraham Lincoln’s words. He wrote:

Lincoln does speak of “humane and Christian virtues —” as do today’s Red Letter Christians, who emphasize the caring, generous words of Jesus, and not the bilious hate-drenched Book of Revelation, or BoR. Notice that Lincoln gets almost science fictional, in speaking of “farthest posterity” — an implicit utter-rejection of the gleeful apocalypse yearning expressed by today’s End Times junkies, like president-in-waiting Mike Pence.

I think that the Book of Revelation sounds far less “bilious” and “hate-drenched” when one reads it not as though it speaks from the perspective of someone like Mike Pence, but as though it speaks from the perspective of the refugees that Donald Trump will not allow into the country; the LGBT couples who can scarcely acknowledge who they are and their important relationship, never mind find someone to bake a cake for their wedding in their local rural context; and/or the historic minorities who have been attacked verbally or perhaps even physically as a result of the enabling of racism provided by the current President of the United States.

There is a great deal in the New Testament that sounds very different when you read it from the perspective of its original audience, a tiny minority group that found itself beleaguered and the object of hostility, vs. when you read it from the perspective of the End Times white American Christians who have a persecution complex while actively enjoying great freedom and influence, and simultaneously seeking to diminish the freedoms and influence of others. Hoping for God to bring judgment on one’s oppressors when one is part of a persecuted minority in a non-democratic context is very different than hoping for God to bring judgment on those that one actively seeks to marginalize and oppress from one’s stance of power and influence.

For more on this topic, see the excerpt that Rachel Held Evans shared on her blog from her latest book, Inspired. Here’s a sample:

Americans, particularly white Americans, have a hard time catching apocalyptic visions when they benefit too much from the status quo to want a peek behind the curtain. When you belong to the privileged class of the most powerful global military superpower in the world, it can be hard to relate to the oppressed minorities who wrote so much of the Bible. (And no, their oppression did not consist of getting wished “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” at Target. That’s not actual persecution, folks.)

The fact is, the shadow under which most of the world trembles today belongs to America, and its beasts could be named any number of things— White Supremacy, Colonialism, the Prison Industrial Complex, the War Machine, Civil Religion, Materialism, Greed…

…America’s no ancient Babylon or Rome, I know that. But America’s no kingdom of God either.

Greg Carey wrote in a recent article for the Christian Century:

Revelation stands out as the most overtly political book in the New Testament. The Apocalypse cartoons Rome as a warlike monster (chapter 13) and an intoxicated prostitute (17–18), drunk on the blood of Jesus’ followers. Along the way it condemns Rome for its violence, exploitation, and idolatry. And despite cosmic scope of its vision, Revelation sets forth a role for the beleaguered churches: they must persist (13:10), for through their faithful testimony they will conquer the fearsome monster (12:11).

A lot has been written on this topic. I looked for books such as Leonard Thompson’s The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire, so as to provide links to them, and found that a search only for the subtitle leads one to something very different:

Below are some useful books for further reading on the actual subject of this blog post. See as well the blog post on Jesus Creed about whether Bonhoeffer was an apocalyptic theologian.

 

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  • John MacDonald

    You really get the sense in the New Testament of the point of view of the minority and the marginalized, such as the idea that the first will be last and the last will be first (Mark 10:31). The whole narrative structure seems to be a play on a rags to riches story: A fallible (Mark 6:5) itinerant preacher from the backwater town of Nazareth and his band of peasants make a triumphant entrance into Jerusalem and, after exciting struggles, reconcile man to God through atonement.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    This may be a chicken or egg scenario, but I wonder how sociologically speaking this may tie into the (relatively) recent popularity of seeing Revelation as describing events that happen in the distant future rather than a description of first century travails and hopes for the future. The beast is Some Other Great Evil that will arise in the future against which Christians should be on their guard. It keeps them from looking at their own countries and asking, “Are we the beast?”

    • John MacDonald

      One of my favorite movies is “The Devil’s Advocate” with Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves. One of the best lines, regarding the devil’s plant to take over, is:

      Devil’s son: “Haven’t you read the book? We lose, dad.”
      Devil: “Look at the source, son!”

      lol

    • Rudy Schellekens

      Actually, the “distant future” view is centuries old… But then, relatively is a relative term….

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        Yeah, I used “relatively” because I meant “relative to the historical world stage.” The Scofield Bible was, what, right at the turn of the century 1900? So, that’s what I was thinking.

        Granted, premillennialism is as old as the early church, and some forms of that did project out to 7000 AD, but it was for very different reasons and didn’t really look much at all like the futurist dispensationalism popular today.

        • Rudy Schellekens

          Scofield was early 20th, yes…

    • The Mouse Avenger

      This may be a chicken or egg scenario, but I wonder how sociologically speaking this may tie into the (relatively) recent popularity of seeing Revelation as describing events that happen in the distant future rather than a description of first century travails and hopes for the future.

      Porque no los dos? 🙂

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        That’s a good question. I guess my counter-question would be, why would we assume it’s -also- in the distant future if all the symbols made perfectly good sense to the original audience and fit circumstances they’d be familiar with?

        I do think the millennium represents an indefinite period of time and, in that sense, the brief narrative that ends Revelation could be pushed into the distant future without stretching how the original audience would have heard it.

  • Rudy Schellekens

    Not quite sure how one would go about bringing the LBGT etc. and refugees into the context of Revelation. Unless these are suddenly proclaimed to be the People of God, persecuted for their belief. Or, for that matter, any other downtrodden group…
    It’s not a story meant for any and all that go through a time of difficulty…

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      I can’t speak for James, but I read him to be saying that if we view the Apocalypse from the standpoint of a beleaguered, marginalized group of people, then the imagery comes into a perspective that it less about hatred of a group and more about liberation of oppression. I took him to mean that those groups are examples of the perspective necessary to see Revelation, not that Revelation is actually about LGBTQ+ or immigrants.

      • Thanks, Phil, for reading what I wrote, understanding it, and helping to explain it to someone who hadn’t, before I managed to find the time to!

  • Otto T. Goat

    Lincoln chose to wage a war that caused more than 620,000 deaths.

    • John MacDonald

      But apparently he was a fantastic wrestler. If he was alive today, he would be running the country and competing in the UFC!