Violence & Nonviolence in Revelation, pt. 2
But wait, don’t the Christian martyrs in Revelation ask God for vengeance? Yes, in 6:10, they cry out, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” Such feelings are natural even among those committed to nonviolence. But the martyrs are not answered in a way that would encourage continuing their vengeful fantasies (or those of John’s readers who may take up the martyrs’ cry). They are “each given a white robe [symbolizing innocence] and told to rest a little longer.” They are not given “garments rolled in blood” as warriors. Further, when the Rider on the White Horse (Christ) goes into battle with the “kings of the earth,” he slays them with the “sword of his mouth” which is specifically called the Word of God. (Rev. 19) That is, the only sword with which the risen Christ is armed is the prophetic word of the Good News and he “conquers” by means of evangelism!
(U.S. Christians also fail to notice that the “kings of the earth,” the political Powers and Authorities, are arrayed against Christ. There is no description of an exception, a “Christian nation.”)
In this John of Patmos affirms that Jesus stands in continuity with the Torah and the Prophets, understood not in Zealot/Revolutionary fashion, but interpreted nonviolently as Jesus (following Isaiah) did. The two witnesses of Rev. 11:5 are the prophets Moses and Elijah. The Hebrew Scriptures describe Moses beginning his liberating career as a murderer of an abusive Egyptian guard, but, although Israel encounters armies and responds with violence during Moses’ career, his role in God’s exodus liberation is portrayed as prophetic–as testifying to the power of God and not human arms. Likewise, the prophet Elijah had not learned nonviolence, but had the priests of Baal put to the sword. But in Revelation these two witnesses to God, standing for the Torah and the Prophets, slay with fire that comes from their mouths, that is, with prophetic word, not physical violence.
The theme of the prophetic word as fire or sword is woven throughout Revelation (1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21) and builds on similar themes in Isaiah 11:4, Jeremiah 5:14, and the non-canonical Jewish writing 4 Ezra 13:25-39. 4 Ezra was an apocalyptic book in circulation during John’s day with which his readers were probably very familiar. Lest anyone miss the point, thinking that the fire/sword is inflammatory speech that could lead to physical violence, chapter 21 shows the same “kings of the earth” (previously slain by the sword of the mouth of the Rider on the White Horse, called Faithful and True, and specifically named as the Word of God) “bringing their glory” with them into the heavenly City. That is, evangelism backed up by Christian faithfulness may convert all cultures. The best of all cultures, now redeemed and transformed into respective “glory,” will become part of the eschatological joy.
The destructive Lake of Fire is reserved for “the Dragon and his angels,” not for humans, not even the “kings of the earth.”As Caird says again, “The Old Testament leads John to expect a Messiah who will be a lion of Judah [i.e., a Davidic military ruler, MLW-W], but the facts of the gospel present him with a lamb bearing the marks of slaughter (5:5-6). The Old Testament predicts the smashing of the nations with an iron bar, but the only weapon the Lamb wields is his own cross and the martyrdom of his followers (2:27; 12:5; 19:15)” (Caird, p. 293, cf., pp. 243-245). I would add to Caird’s insights that this conquering by Word and martyrdom is also attested in the Hebrew Scriptures. John of Patmos, like Jesus before him, does not reject the Hebrew Scriptures, but reads them selectively, with a different interpretive grid than that of Essenes, the Pharisees, the social bandits of popular messianic movements, or the revolutionary Zealots whose actions led to the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and of Israel as a political entity in 144 C.E.
It seems to me as if Christian proponents of gospel nonviolence must cautiously re-embrace Revelation and the language of apocalyptic, instead of simply leaving them to the war-mongering fanatics. Nonviolent ministers must do the hard work of preaching from Revelation, because only by teaching our people to read this book as a handbook of nonviolent patience for persecuted churches can we inoculate them against the virulent war-mad interpretations so popular in many U.S. Christian circles. Why do so many resist reading Revelation in a nonviolent perspective? I have come to suspect that many of us Christians are embarrassed by the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels. So, we invent theologies in which the “real” Christ who is Coming is a Warrior-King and invent atonement theories which both make God violent and justify Jesus’ nonviolence as a necessary detour—not as the Way in which God is to be followed. (It is very possible to affirm the atoning work of Christ in a way which supports nonviolence, but that is a topic for another time.) But Revelation insists that the Christ who Comes in Glory will be the same Lamb of God we met in Jesus of Nazareth. There is no other Savior, no other Way.
Some would say that the way out of religiously-motivated holy wars and violence is to excise all military and violent images from our language, even our religious language and our hymns. I respect their motives, but I dissent. Following the example of Jesus, Paul, and even John of Patmos, I encourage rather the reinterpretation of military imagery for nonviolent purposes, subverting the standard uses of violent imagery and war language. This was also the pattern of the first generation of the Friends/Quaker movement, who did not hesitate to say that their “Publishers of Truth” were fighting “the Lamb’s War” by nonviolent means.
In a separate post, I will list good commentaries on Revelation that could help preachers and adult Sunday School classes see the book differently than the “Left Behind” militarism of popular culture.
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