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.