Friday, December 18, 2009

Friends and Apocalypse Revisited

I was very pleased with the responses to my previous post concerning the Book of Revelation. There are a few points that were made in the post that I feel should be reiterated, however, because I believe that some readers missed the point of the post. I expect that an individual reader will project their own meaning onto both, my post, and the apocalyptic text. That is precisely why I agree that the text should be read by a community of interpreters, as I believe I posted.
That being said, I believe that some of those who posted comments, and accordingly, some of those Quakers who felt compelled to give the post some thought privately, missed much of the point that I was trying to make. That point being, that many Friends, and I include myself in this group, are becoming the target of such texts. With our tendency, as one comment suggested, to either ignore the text, be embarrassed by it, or interpret in a manner that projects its meaning to be an attack on those who don’t meet fundamentalist purity standards, we have avoided the possibility that we are indeed the new Babylon.
First, I would like to approach the concern that Revelation presents imagery of a violent, if not vicious, god. While the fact that the ancients may have felt that some sort of justice would be leveled on their behalf by such a god, as pacifists, we should accept such understandings as, A) contributing to the ongoing discussion of our understanding of the identity of YHWH, no one should be excluded from the conversation if the Holy Spirit has the capacity to be self-correcting, and B) such understandings generally are the product of communities who are the victims of immense suffering, and have no recourse to the defense of justice other that to appeal to a god who will someday prove to be mightier than the oppressors who claim the status of deity themselves.
The reason that such views of a violent or vengeful god are so distasteful to us as modern Quakers (I say distasteful as opposed to misunderstood, and modern because early Quakers used exactly the same imagery) is that we have been comfortable enough in our leisure to limit our discussions of God or gods to beliefs that project our ability to go through life without the reality of enemies in our existence. I do not believe that the fact of enemies would mean that a violent god would be acceptable, only that it would provide context to such a belief. At any rate, it is hard for me, or others that attend my meeting, to consider ourselves as people who suffer at the hands of enemies. We are usually comfortable enough to seek an understanding of those who disagree with us at the personal, or corporate, or national level.
First-century and seventeenth-century believers had no such comfort or leisure. They were faced with the reality of the contradictions of existence and needed linguistic and literary tools to respond to and make sense of those contradictions. Texts like the Revelation to John provide possible answers to the inconsistencies of human life that often represent an unthinkable possibility to those who are “unenlightened” that their community’s god, or Judeo/Christianity’s YHWH, is not in charge of history. Revelation poses just such an answer, that being that history is in the hands of God, proof of which is in the victory of the Lamb of God over death.
I feel the need, however, to reiterate the most important point of my original post. Most important for modern American Quakers, is that apocalyptic takes to task the notion that the Realm of God can be dominated by the deified empires of past or present. Ancient and modern apocalyptic ideas answer the question of suffering and violence, and we should place an interpretive emphasis, not on the concept of a vicious and vengeful god, but on the endurance of YHWH’s people, whether it by ancient and modern Jews, ancient Palestinian and Asian Christ-centered communities, or those persons suffering form marginalization today. The truth of our own implication in this oppression is the fact of our consumption and its effect on developing nations. The reality of our implication is our dependence on a freedom and economy that is buoyed by militarism. To once again drive home the point that I perceive as truth, is that apocalyptic language is now pointed squarely at ourselves, and Quakers need to study texts such as the Revelation to John in order to understand those persons around the world who hate us as the Great Satan, or those communities who are relegated to believing that justice can only be achieved through the acts of a violent and vengeful god who will, in the afterlife, save them from the machinations of the empire.

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