Ted Grimsrud—April 12, 2011
The book of Revelation was written in the early generations of Christianity. At the time of Revelation, Christianity still was in most important ways a sub-community within the broader Jewish world. There were tensions between Christians and non-Christian Jews over how best to understand the Jewish heritage and what role commitment to Jesus should play in the life of faith.
We have good reasons to think, though, that Revelation was meant to be thoroughly Jewish and an authentic expression of biblical faith centered on Torah. Jesus would have been seen not as a replacement for Torah-centered faith but as providing one way to embody Torah-centered faith. The vision of Revelation should be seen in the context of other, mostly complementary, Jewish visions of faith.
Of course, once Christianity and Judaism parted ways, the approach to faith in Revelation would be interpreted as a distinctively Christian approach. We make a big mistake, though, if we today interpret Revelation as underwriting Christian exclusivism.
One way to avoid such exclusivist readings is to approach Revelation first of all as a political vision meant to be in continuity with Abraham’s promise to bless all the families of the earth. Revelation speaks to a particular strategy of furthering this promise that has more to do with embodied ethics than with religious rituals and doctrines.
Early Christians sought to follow Jesus’ path of creating space for human flourishing that paid special attention to the flourishing of vulnerable and exploited people. Living in the “Pax Romana” that was actually characterized by profound systemic violence challenged people of good will to go against the current and created pro-human space where they could.
John’s vision in Revelation (my use of the singular for “vision” here is intentional; the many sub-visions of Revelation all serve the one overarching vision of God’s healing work among human beings) focuses not on making promises about the future but on providing a method in the present for people of good will to serve pro-human healing work.
To understand this vision, we must read Revelation as a kind of coda to the rest of the Bible—that is, to read Revelation’s vision as a furthering of the vision of Torah and the vision of the gospels (two parts of one overarching vision). Throughout, in its allusions to “the Lamb” and his followers, Revelation uses a kind of shorthand for the way of Torah and the gospels (e.g., the “song of Moses and the Lamb,” Rev. 15). Revelation’s distinctive contribution was its creative juxtaposition of this way contrasting with the way of empire that dehumanizes.
In the end, Revelation provides a powerful tool for people of good will to empower them in the task of working for human flourishing amidst the crushing of humanity done by all empires—from Egypt through Rome and down to the Pax Americana.
We tragically render this tool impotent when we read Revelation as an apology for a particular religion—i.e., Christianity. The tragedy of this reading is compounded when we realize how complicit this particular religion has been and remains in the workings of empire, not least the current American empire.
Whatever apologetic purposes John may have had in writing his vision down and spreading it among the churches in Asia Minor (and it makes sense that John would quite legitimately have wanted to strengthen his readers’ and listeners’ sense of identity as Christians in the face of the temptations they faced to take other religious paths), we miss the profundity of his vision if we think his main agenda was Christian apologetics more than pursuing human well being more generally.
And regardless of John’s original intention, the entire message of Revelation in relation to the Christian religion was turned upside down when, by the fourth century, Christianity became aligned with the very empire John witnessed against. When Christianity accommodated itself with empire, the authentic message of Revelation became a critique of Christianity, not an apology for it.
For a reading of Revelation in our day to be true to the actual message John was trying to convey, it will need to work very self-consciousnessly at a kind of “de-Christianizing” of Revelation’s imagery and arguments. For example, the “churches” in Revelation are not the same thing as our present-day institutional church (i.e., denominations, “members-only” congregations, et al) but are better seen simply as communities of resistance (certainly, today’s Christian congregations can be [should be] similar communities of resistance—but it’s not because they have the label “church” that they would be in continuity with the ekklesia of Revelation but only because they actually are places of resistance; there are many non-Christian and even non-religious present day “communities of resistance” that are more closely in continuity with the followers of the Lamb in Revelation than formal Christian churches).
Another example is the common and crucial image in Revelation of followers of the Lamb in worship. This worship in Revelation is not the same thing as what most Christians do together on Sunday morning. The prophet Amos gives us insight on this point. The Israelites he writes to gathered together to do the same kind of thing their forebears had done in their worship places. But the very meaning of that activity had been utterly transformed due to the social transformation of Israel into a profoundly unjust society. Due to this injustice, the “worship” gatherings had become occasions for terrible blasphemy. Likewise with “worship” in Christian communities that have accommodated with empire.
The worship in Revelation is most of all about resistance to empire, not most of all about certain rituals or acts that take place inside the worship service. Those very same acts mean utterly different things depending upon the stance of the community toward empire. Any regular gathering of people who seek to resist empire is faithful “worship”—and regular gatherings of Christians who are not seeking to resist empire, not matter how beautiful the music, how highly attended the sacrament, or how articulate the preaching, will not be “worship” in Revelation’s sense.
Because of its betrayal of Torah, of the gospels, and of the vision of Revelation due to accommodating empire, the Christian church has lost whatever claim it might have had to make a direct link between the message of Revelation (and the rest of the Bible) and its domain.
For people who seek to follow the way of the Lamb, the priority should be on forming and sustaining communities of genuine resistance to empire, communities that work for human flourishing. Certainly such communities can be explicitly Christian. But they need not be. The Christian religion has wasted its birthright. The Spirit of wholeness will (and is!) doing its work wherever people of good will join together to seek life.
Christians who welcome the actual vision of Revelation will find themselves celebrating each community of resistance and each expression of life-enhancing service. They may want to devote themselves to moving their own faith tradition closer to its originating vision, but they also may want simply to join with others of good will to do the needed work. They will not see the need to further just one particular religion, especially one that has for so long moved so far from the core message of its founding prophets.