Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Friends and Apocalyptic

I once heard John Shelby Spong tell a crowd of admirers that the Book of Revelation should have never been included in the canon. My disagreement with the Bishop is not that he takes issue with the canon. Far from it, as I have a particular beef with Hebrews, the two Tims and Titus. The issue I take with Spong’s proposal is one of the integrity of the early Christ-centered witness. That witness being, that, Jesus of Nazareth is the rightful ruler of the world, and not Caesar, and that the cross is the standard of power, and not the legions of Rome.
I readily admit that the Apocalypse to John has been abused and misinterpreted by much, if not most, of Christendom over the past 1500 years. That is a problem of the mainstream church, and not the text. It is a very deeply embedded problem of the fundamentalist wing of Christendom, but not just on the conservative side of the spectrum. Apocalypse bashers from the left wing of all sorts of semi-faithful interpreters have a tendency to literalize the last book of the Greek testament as well. My suggestion to both ends of the doctrinal spectrum is: come on folks, it’s a metaphor fashioned in the example of a long line of Yahwist texts that bear both the literary burdens and hopes of a marginalized people. Apocalyptic texts of every religious stripe are intended to point toward a righteous god’s promise and power to overcome the enemies of that god’s people. According to my interpretation of Judeo-Christian texts, those enemies usually take on the shape of empire in one form or another. Another example of such writing is found in nursery rhymes that originated in England, amongst other places.
The Apocalypse to John is a succinct message to Christ-centered communities that the Lamb of God, who had been executed by the Roman Empire, would return and win a final victory over the anti-Christ who is representative of the emperor of Rome. Which emperor, I’m not sure, but many others are pretty sure that they know. I’ll gamble on Nero for arguments sake. At any rate, early messianic felt that they were an oppressed religious group that suffered at the hands of both Rome and Jerusalem. They needed a story of hope and vindication that could make them feel like the persecution that they may have suffered was worth the expected outcome, that being, the victorious reign of a God that they knew as just.
The great thing about Revelation is that it articulates what early Friends took up as “The Lambs War.” Whether we like war language or not, it is important to note that lambs are unalterably a symbol of weakness, and a failed messiah such as Jesus was not only a symbol of the weakness of the Yahwist faith in general, but the futility of any attempted rebellion within the borders of the empire. As for all the monsters and swords and the this and that of the Apocalypse, it is simply eschatological imagery, and meant not to indicate the end of the earth as we know it, but to articulate that the end of Caesar’s age has come, and a new age, that of the reign of the Lamb, was dawning. The age of pax romana was destined to become the age of the new reigning Prince of Peace.
I do think that most Friends, especially those FGC Quakers who are biblically literate, understand the nuances of this type of apocalyptic or eschatological text. My concern with Friends’ understanding of texts such as the Revelation to John is that we tend not to understand that such literature is still a valid representation of what many marginalized people in the world view as supreme truth. What the Religious Society of Friends, George Fox and James Naylor and so many others understood, was that God was on the side of the marginalized, and texts such as the Apocalypse pointed to the ultimate victory of peace and justice over the power of tyrants, whether that tyranny be the product of the king, the parish priests, the pope, or the justice of the “peace.”
Are Friends still hearing the message of the apocalypses of the Hebrew and Greek Testaments? Are we relating to those texts written by early Friends who toiled and ministered in the midst of a civil war that turned their world upside down? It may be time for our Society to return to the corporate reading and study of apocalyptic works in the biblical canon and extra-canonical works, so that we might gain a better understanding of the kind of message that Americans and other westerners need to hear. One thing we do not like to hear, is that we have become the Whore of Babylon, who practice peace under the auspices of militarism and minister to the marginalized under the auspices of an unjust social, judicial, and economic system.
These all sound like heady words that border on radical jargon, if not flat out class war. However, we liberal Quakers are mostly a privileged people, and only a radical response to the injustices of empire and its ethnocentric narratives of justice, free market individualism, and pax Americana will allow for the real work of justice and peace to be done. If you are reading this and thinking it’s all so much overboard rhetoric, you may be amongst the comfortable who need to be afflicted. Apocalyptic literature and action are the comfort of the afflicted.


[*]Monster said...

I agree that Revelation gets mishandled by almost everybody and that its message is, in part, if not essentially, anti-empire--and that the over-developed Christian west and north are the new Babylon. Non-Christian liberals tend to dismiss the book, Christian liberals tend to be embarassed by it, conservative Christians tend to literalize it and fail to understand both the obvious symbolic intent and its social critique. The book still has its problems, though.

I agree with Walter Wink that Revelation reinforces the myth of redemptive violence. You can say that all the bowls and scrolls and their destruction are just metaphor, but that metaphor is truly overwhelming, and a metaphor for what? At the least, for terrible judgment by an angry god. That god is terribly biblical--witness the flood, the Exodus, the utter destruction of the nation of Israel, the conquest and captivity of Judah by Babylon. Still, I have trouble matching the sins up with the punishment.

Also, the book is profoundly hostile to creation and a most serious threat to our efforts toward earthkeeping. Heaven is a city in Revelation and it has only one tree, the one denied us in Paradise. It floats in the air because down here, all will be destroyed. Revelation describes--prescribes, actually--that God will destroy the earth as one of God's last saving acts. Evil to the core, as it was in Noah's time.

Just metaphor? Again, metaphor for what? For an attitude that abandons the creation, the earth, the land we live on and the creatures we share it with and the simple value and truth of embodied life for deferred satisfaction (we've been waiting since Daniel was written in the second century BCE, if not longer, for that judgment) and an ultimate reward that has nothing to do with our present reality.

Finally, there is the consequence of the book's inevitable abuse itself. If it truly represents truth on behalf of a good and historically engaged god--a god who sees what we do, cares what we do, and will act in the world and its history accordingly and inevitably, as is the book's and the tradition's claim--then that God needs to take responsibility for the historical consequences of that truth. When the impending cascade of local, regional and global ecological collapse events finally come more forcefully to North America--more forcefully and obviously than hurricane Katrina, if that's even possible--some, or many, will hold this book up and say, See: we told you so. Already, policy makers like James Watt and a number of current Senators use apocalyptic theology to justify the destruction of the earth and this will only get worse as climate change and species extinction usher us out of the Cenozoic Age into what I call the Kenozoic age, the new geologic age characterized by the absence of any large mammals, most frogs and other amphibians, and who knows how many other creatures, who have been declaring God's handiwork for tens of millions of years. No metaphor of earth's catastrophic destruction is going to help us avert these catastrophic outcomes. Such metaphors will only aid those who lust for the false dramatic heroism of being on the Destroyer's side when the bowls are emptied. If it's not the Destroyer we worship, then who is it? Did the God we really worship deliver the Book of Revelation to us for some good outcome? If so, how is that going to work? Or is the book one of those teachings that Jesus warned about: Beware that no one leads you astray!

I love studying Revelation. It's fascinating. But it's a very dangerous weapon and should be beat in the forge of truth into a plowshare, or cast away.

Raye said...

I suppose, Monster, that if all spiritual writings are assumed to speak of the physical world (which seems to often be the approach of those called fudamentalists), then, yes, how terrible to have writings that include images of destruction and mayhem and violence.

And you appear to agree with Scot that apocalyptic writings have been used to justify violence and injustice.

What I would offer is that the Lamb's War is a spiritual reality, and that passing from darkness to light has an inwardly violent aspect to it.

Treasured sources of outward and inward security are attacked, when one begins to learn of G-d's ways, and priorities. It is, for many who are brave enough to pass through the process, a time of loss and grief and fear. It turns lives upside down. That is chronicled in many Friends' journals these last few hundred years.

It is useful to have scripture that describes this inward process. Jesus spoke of the importance of knowing what one is up against, when encountering the divine. I think it is no accident he used the metaphor of the leader of an army deciding whether he could go up against one with more might.

Certainly, to the mind unguided by the Spirit which gave the inspiration for the writings, the Revelation and several other scriptures can be used to justify all manner of heinous behavior.

That error reflects on the misguided or unguided mind, not the writings.

One suggestion I received years ago (I cannot remember from whom) was that the Revelation was meant to be listened to in one sitting, not read piecemeal.

I followed the advice, and came away with a much different understanding of the whole, and much light came through this way of receiving it.

Scot, Jenn, and the whole Hee Haw gang said...

Monster, you raise some very important points concerning not only the Revelation to John, but all apocalyptic work. It is my estimation, however, that the communites who benefited most in the ancient world from such a destructive form of literature, and the ideal of a vengeful and violent god, knew very little apart from teh equally destructive foreces of empire. But I submit that apocalyptic works were not designed to reveal the end of the world, but as REM said, the end of theworld as we know it. Eschatology and the attending literature helps make sense of earth shattering events such as the destruction of the temploe. If you think the metaphoric imagery of an angry and vengful god is dangerous, think about the destruciton of Jerusalem, which happened a few decades prior to the Revelation. Also, think of the collective yahwist memories of 4000 of the faithful crucified when attempting to stand up to the empire. To disagree with Monte Python, crucifiction is not dawdle. but eschatological events are those events such as an escape from Egytp, the fall of the limited periods of Judean independence and the following exile. The forces of Assyria and the second Babylonian empires were not Dawdle, nor was Roman rule benign. Violence of the worst sort was the only thing that the ancients knew. Yet, revaltion has the Lamb of God winning the battle for the "hearts and souls" of marginlized people through the vicotry of the cross. Your concern about a paradise where only one tree exists in the New Jerusalem, which by the way, does not float in heaven but descends to earth where YHWH will dwell with God's people, is to project anachronistic thinking about environmental issues onto a late first century text.You may as well take issue with the industrial revolution for aal of its failures to think ahead about environmentalism when they were building a new economy. I doubt, Monster, that you are a Luddite.
As for God being responsibel for the abuse of a text or storms such as Katrina, some people will always believe that their god has a purpose for such acts of surd evil, as there is no other way for some people to make sense of the angry nature of, well, nature. God's creation is often a violent one, and it is just th emanner of some people to believe that this natural violence has a purpose in teh order of things. While I may not share such a view completely, I do believe that, even though it is often violent, there is purpose and beauty to the creation, just as ther is purpose and beauty to humanity despite our violence. Apocalyptic texts help marginalized, often lesser educated communiteis make sense of the terror that happens around them. As you know, flood stories and acts of total destruction are not limited to the Judeo-Christian scriptures, but are found throughout ancient texts. Teh Bible would not be relevant in its contexts if it did not include such interpretations of the natural world. narratives exist to interpret science or the unexplained, and are no less true when taken metaphorically then science or rationality when it is used to justify firebombing of Dresden, the Holocaust, or Hiroshima. World War Two, if nothing else, was an eschatological event that is often decribed in narrative if not apocalyptic term. I could go on, bu tI feel this is long enough for now. Feel free, Monster, to continue this converssation.

Lyle H. said...

William Stringfellow in "An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land" explored the relationship between Revelation's "principalities and powers" and an imperial United States. Please see Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer's "Jesus against Christianity: Reclaiming the Missing Jesus" for his argument that the loving and forgiving God of Jesus is inconsistent with the end time punishments set forth in Revelations. He further argues that pacifists and non-violent peace activists are mis-guided if they rely on a violent God to punish their enemies at the end time. Are you really peaceful and loving if you are hoping for retribution on your enemies by a vengeful God/Jesus?

Scot, Jenn, and the whole Hee Haw gang said...

Lyle, First, I do not believe in a loving and vengeful God. As for the first century church, i can not say that they were loving, only that, for theri context, they were peaceful. the literature comes from and is written for a community that practiced love for neighbor and enemy. If you are looking for first century Christ-centered ommunities to reflect the values of twenty-first century liberals, you are one of those that is making the text out to be something is not intended to be. Reading the anti=empire stance of Revelation doen not translate into believing in an angry and vengeful god. I am proof of that. Our view of God has changed over the past 200 years. Do you hold the same grudge agasint early Friends fromm using the exact same language and imagery as the text in question? Were early Quakers not loving enough for twenty first century Friends. Let's not be afraid of our peculiar past, but learn from it, just as we can learn from the Revelation to John about Christ-centered responses to empire.

forrest said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
forrest said...

First, I've found it worthwhile to study this thing with a group, orally with friends here, and blogally on (although doing this unaccountably drove off several members of both groups.) It helped a couple of us get over a fear we'd acquired via reading the nasty book in childhood. The archives are still available, & I could repost anything some serious commenteur would like to take up.

"John" does not seem to have been either nice or liberal. His notion of "justice" seems far harsher than that of Jesus. This no doubt colored the way he reported his vision; but the multitude of meanings people have found in it suggests that (as with many other stories, dreams and parables) there is far more of value available than the author may have noticed.

So, how does one translate that ancient Jewish belief: that historical 'acts of God' are in fact purposeful? Does it imply that God intentionally does violence to us? I think, instead, that what looks like God's murderous abuse of His children (from a strictly physical viewpoint) does no lasting harm to the actual Life in us (which is, in truth, the very life of God himself.)

If Revelation were in fact a book of predictions (which I doubt) there are still a couple aspects of "Apocalyptic" events to keep in mind. 1) They really are intended to convey a better understanding to those who undergo them and 2) The actual suffering and damage entailed by the present state of the world appears close to surpassing even the pain I'd expect from its sudden collapse. (And could such collapse take the form of a sudden awakening, a victory of the spiritual forces of love, courage, and trust over the spiritual forces of fear, anger, and greed, no actual cruelty to human beings in the performance of this drama?)

Scot, Jenn, and the whole Hee Haw gang said...

Dear Lyle and Other readers,
I must apologize for the tone, the misphrases, and misspellings on my reply to Lyle's comment. I was not rushing to post out of anger or frustration with Lyle's post. I was rushing because I was between therapy clients and was rushing to comment because I am enjoying the comments on my blog so much, Lyle's included. I have learned a valuable blogging lesson from that terrible response to Lyle's comment. Do not be pulled into the frenzy of the blogosphere when your focus should rightly be on other, real persons and the relationships we build in person. I apologize for any of my readers for the thoughtless way in which my earlier comment was written.