Ted Grimsrud—December 10, 2016
Perhaps in our tumultuous times following Donald Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States, the book of Revelation may come into its own. If it does as a resource for faithfulness to the way of Jesus, it will be because we read it as a prophetic book in the line of Amos and Jeremiah, not as a book of predictions about the future.
I find Revelation to be a comfort and an inspiration in these troubling days. It comforts with its reminder that the terrible plagues of human history do not negate the reality of God’s love as the most powerful force in the universe. And it inspires with its reminder that the pattern of Jesus (faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth; Rev 1:5) still provides a blueprint for authentic resistance and healing presence for us today.
So, it will be worth taking some time to try to understand the message of Revelation and to reflect on how that message remains relevant (here’s more on my views of Revelation). We are not living in the 1st-century Roman Empire. But perhaps by living in the 21st-century American Empire we still have a point of connection with Revelation’s visions.
Christians seem to be taking several approaches to the election of Trump and the likely upheaval that the US will experience. I want to suggest that Revelation’s teaching might lead us to suspect that each one of these approaches might be problematic.
(1) “We can count on a happy ending”
“We can take comfort that no matter how bad things might be in the present, everything will work out well in the end.” This idea gets support, for some, from the promises in Revelation of the coming of New Jerusalem, the defeat of the Dragon and his people, and the victory of God’s people over God’s enemies. In this view, Revelation is seen as predicting a happy and certain outcome to human history.
In response, I do think that taking Revelation seriously might offer us comfort during our times of distress. However, it is a difficult comfort, not linked with certain happy endings. I understand Revelation to be teaching about how a happy ending might be achieved—by staying true to core convictions such as the centrality of love, even in face of seemingly overwhelming centralized state (and in our time corporate) domination. However, it cannot provide a guarantee that “things will work out.” That’s up to us—not that we wrest control of history from God and exercise our own domination, but that we must follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Only as we do so can we hope in New Jerusalem.
So, Revelation’s comfort comes not from certainty about ends; it comes from certainty about means. Revelation is not a call to arms in the sense of our making sure things turn out right by forcefully defeating the Dragon. Nor is Revelation a call to confident passivity in the sense of counting on God to fix things up no matter what humanity does. Rather, Revelation reiterates the message of the gospels—the key to history is costly, persevering love, lived in active resistance to empire. It offers us a certainty about that key that might empower our resistance, come what may—not because we are certain we will “win” but because we can be certain what the only means for “winning” are. And, as the numerous visions of worship in Revelation suggest, living according to those means has the intrinsic rewards of joy and solidarity.
(2) “Submit to God-ordained political authority”
“Donald Trump may have been voted into power by the American people, but ultimately he has been put there by God—and because of this, we should respect him and his position as part of how God directs human affairs. Our new president deserves our prayers and our support.” This idea, actually, does not get much support from Revelation. It more relies on a certain interpretation of Romans 13.
Part of why the witness of Revelation is so important (and why its neglect has been so harmful) is that it presents with great clarity the dynamics of imperial domination—and calls upon followers of Jesus to resist, not to submit. This resistance, in Revelation, has especially to do with loyalty. John, the author of Revelation, presents a stark choice: give your loyalty to the Lamb or give your loyalty to the human kingdom wherein you reside. In the past two millennia, Christians have all too often either ignored Revelation or reduced it to predictive prophecy about a future far in the distance from John’s time. By doing so, they have weakened their ability to understand their need to resist the various kingdoms that have demanded their loyalty.
When we read the rest of the Bible in the light of Revelation’s explicit critique of centralized state power, we will find it easier to notice the general anti-imperial tenor of the rest of the biblical story—from hostility toward Egypt, hostility toward centralized power in the ancient Hebrew kingdom under the kings, and down to hostility toward Rome’s violence and domination. Outside of (a misreading of) Romans 13, there actually is little biblical support for acquiescence to state power in the name of submission to “God’s authority” exercised in the person at the top.
So, it would be fully consistent with the message of Revelation (and the rest of the Bible) for present-day followers of Jesus actively to resist the Trump administration. Actually, it is a sign of Christian acquiescence to empire that there has not been more resistance to the Obama administration’s warism (the vast majority of the hostility that American Christians have expressed toward Obama’s policies has been from the Right and based to a large extent on distortions of his record—and a bizarre accusation that he has not been warist enough!).
(3) “Christian fellowship transcends political differences”
“Our common Christian faith is more important than political squabbles, so we should welcome opportunities to worship with those we have different political views from; that way we can show how profound the spiritual unity among Christians is.” Perhaps one element of the message of Revelation may be seen as supporting this assertion—the various worship scenes that speak of worshipers of the One on the throne and the Lamb who come from “every tribe, nation, and people” from around the world.
However, such an affirmation of Christian unity in Revelation should not be misunderstood. John sees the unity being based only on the reality that these worshipers follow the Lamb wherever he goes; the unity he seeks does not include those he sees as too compromised in relation to the Empire. See, for example, how the countless multitude of chapter 7 (the same group as the 144,000 earlier in chapter 7), though a huge multitude, is made up only of those who have “gone through the “great ordeal and made their robes white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). This refers to those who share in Jesus’s costly path of persevering love. This group of “144,000” is mentioned again in chapter 14 and characterized as those who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).
John’s sense of unity does not include those Christians he sees as compromising with the Beast and thereby departing from the path the Lamb sets out. In fact, John’s agenda in Revelation is to foment discord in the seven churches he writes to in chapters 2 and 3. John emphasizes a polarity between those in the churches who stay faithful to the way of Jesus and those who give in to the temptation to go along with the way of the Beast.
Now, this is a dangerous message for us to try to embody. John’s words have been used to demonize many people in the past 2,000 years—almost always leading to violence and self-righteousness. So we need to take care. However, the challenge remains: Revelation calls us to follow the Lamb wherever he goes. This requires, among other things, a critical sensibility in relation toward both the Empire and toward those Christians who too easily accept the Empire’s notion of reality.
The call to follow the Lamb certainly also includes a call to treat all people with love, respect, and compassion. One cannot follow the Lamb while at the same time being vicious toward others, even if they are Christians who undermine the message of Jesus. So, we are left with finding the fine line that involves both this love, respect, and compassion and prophetic resistance to Christian comfort with Empire.
In our current setting, it is crucial to note as well what the problem with likely policies of the Trump administration will be. Those problems are not about what we tend to call “politics” that can be transcended by the bonds of Christian fellowship. Rather, these policies will directly contradict the core Christian convictions I have mentioned in earlier posts reflecting on the election:
(1) The call to peace (“shalom” in the Hebrew), to wholeness, to nonviolence, to love of all neighbors (including enemies), to overcoming evil with good; (2) the centrality of restorative justice in the social order, where violations are met with efforts to find healing for victims, to respect the humanity of offenders, to find ways to resolve conflicts that actually end the spiral of violence and vengeance; (3) the care for the non-human world, environmental wholeness, sustainability, nurturing of life in all its forms; and (4) the commitment to care for the most vulnerable people in the community, genuine economic opportunity for all, resistance to the profound social stratification and maldistribution of wealth that leads to poverty.
Revelation seems to teach that clarity regarding such convictions is central to faithfulness to the gospel of the Lamb—more so than emphasizing some kind of “unity” that transcends “political squabbles” that are rooted in commitment to these core convictions.
My next post will reflect more generally on how learning from Revelation might inform efforts to faithfully respond to our coming challenging times.
[This is the third of a series of six posts reflecting on the election and its aftermath. The first post was “What happened?” The second post was “What to expect and what to hope for.” The fourth is “The book of Revelation on living in Empire.” The fifth (“On being informed”—focusing on news and commentary websites) and sixth posts (“Ten books for a radical Christian sensibility”) will provide lists of resources for proceeding onward.]