This is the message I brought to Deep River Friends Church on April 11, 2016.
A Revelation about Revelation
I wanted to speak to you this morning from the book of Revelation, but as with anytime I talk on this subject, I want to give you a little disclaimer.
A few years back I was spending time in discernment about what next to preach on and I was inspired by something I heard the Quaker author Parker Palmer say once during a retreat I was on with him. He said that
“he never writes books about things he knows, he only writes on things that baffle him.”
What fun is it to write about things that you know well enough that you could do in your sleep? Where is the life in doing something that is so easy that it requires no risk, no chance?
So as I thought about what to preach I thought “What is the thing I’d like to preach least about?”
And before I could even finish asking the question, I already had the answer and wished I’d never asked that darn question: Revelation.
The book of Revelation is a book that has been so misused and abused that I felt that there was no way I could approach it in a positive light and even if I could, there is no way I could help others see it outside of its mass media reputation of Left Behind books, b-rate movies about the end of the world, and fears and suspicions around things like getting chips planted in our foreheads.
In fact, and this is going to move us in the direction of the very topic for today, it seemed that the book of Revelation has been one of the most often used biblical texts as a means of creating us and them categories, villianizing some, while protecting a certain select few. In this particular reading of the book of Revelation, God is a violent God, one who is not to be crossed, and for some even crosses the line into torture against “his” enemies.
This framing of revelation is about some winning and some losing, and somehow we always find a way to tell the story so that whoever is telling it is always on the winning team, and whoever is the “enemy du jour,” will certainly be on the punishing side of God’s wrath.
No wonder then that philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche considered Revelation to be “the most rabid outburst of vindictiveness in all recorded history.” And others have called it a “script for a horror movie.”
So you can see why I felt like the book of revelation baffled me so much.
But does the book of revelation really paint God as a violent punishing God who demands retribution against his enemies? Or is there another way to read this that has been lost in all of our attempts to use this text to rally against one another?
After realizing I had to preach on Revelation due to my own bafflement and spending time reflecting on the key themes of the text I am convinced that Revelation has something to teach us today.
I do not believe Revelation has anything to do with predicting the end times and has everything to do with how small, minority communities of faith survive the onslaught of empire. It gives them tools for how to survive in a world where everything around them is completely off center.
John is writing to seven small communities of people struggling to survive in the time of “the religion of empire,” who had no political clout and were made up of men and women, old and young, rich and poor, clean and unclean, Jewish and Gentile and other people marginalized by the Roman empire.
Revelation shows us that this battle is waged between the violent god of Roman imperial religion, which is pictured as a beast in the book of Revelation, and who was responsible for crushing Christians and other religious groups of the time, and the nonviolent religion of Jesus, pictured here as the lamb of God that was slain; who was himself the target of the empire’s violence. This image of the lamb that was slain appears 28 times throughout the book of Revelation and is the central interpretative image of the whole book.
Interestingly, the book of Revelation outlines this clash between these two religions: the religion of empire and the religion of the lamb that was slain as we will call them.
The religion of empire is rooted in power and violence, fear and suspicion of the other, and destruction of its enemies at all costs.
You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to know that the religion of the lamb that was slain is rooted in something quite the opposite: love of neighbor and enemy, courage, patient resistance, sacrificial love, nonviolence and, as Quaker Bayard Rustin would say, “angelic troublmaking.”
Revealing the Scapegoat Mechanism
I want you to shout out if you know why this particular image of a lamb is significant?
Lamb of God.
The Good Shepherd.
In the times of the Old Testament, during the Jewish Day of Atonement, there was a goat offered for the people’s sins. But it is important to note that the goat was never killed.
NT Scholar Marcus Borg writes “The sins of the people were symbolically placed upon the goat, which was then driven into the wilderness (Lev. 16:20-22). The goat was a “sin-bearer” — but it was not killed, not sacrificed. Indeed, to have offered [sacrificed] a scapegoat laden with sin as a gift to God would have been sacrilege.” (103)
And to bring this into our day scapegoating happens when a person or a group is:
”singled out as the cause of the trouble and is expelled or killed by the group…Social order is restored as people are contented that they have solved the cause of their problems by removing the scapegoated individual, and the cycle begins again…scapegoating serves as a psychological relief for a group of people. (Wiki)
So think about this for a minute.
We have a lamb that was slain, functioning as a scapegoat, who was used to calm the angry mobs we are familiar with at the end of the Gospels, and it is this scapegoat that is the central image John gives his readers to shape their religious and political imaginations.
Isn’t that very interesting?
Here is what I think is going on: Revelation is revealing how this “scapegoat mechanism” is a pattern in the world. The religion of empire needs, in order for it to function properly, a scapegoat. Empire needs victims to create its identity and to maintain social order.
Even more powerfully, as the Gospels and the book of Revelation both reveal, the scapegoat is in fact innocent. So while there may be some “psychological relief” for expelling the scapegoat, the underlying conflict has yet to be resolved.
Does this begin to shed any light on today’s issues?
Scapegoats are used to deflect the deeper issues upon which we do not want to face. And don’t we use plenty of scapegoats in our world today as “psychological relief?”
Don’t we have scapegoats in our own families? Our parents, our spouses, our children can all function in this role.
What about at work with our bosses and co-workers?
It is easy to cast “the poor” or the “uneducated” or the “other political party” as the real problem.
I wonder what the relationship is between the lamb of God who was slain and refugees who are expelled from their own country?
What does the lamb of God who was slain have to say about immigrants that continue to be put in the crossfire of American political discourse?
What does the scapegoating of the lamb of God have to do with the scapegoating of LGBTQ persons in North Carolina and Mississippi and across this land in families, and churches, and yearly meetings and in our political discourse?
What does scapegoating have to do with racism in this country? James Cone, in his book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” argues that lynching was itself the scapegoat mechanism at its most horrific in this country and reveals the very clear, but often overlooked, relationship between the African American experience in this country and the lamb of God who was himself lynched.
This need to expel for psychological relief is all around us.
Just like in the 1988 film, “They Live,” where the main character played by Roddy Piper, puts on a special pair of glasses he finds and is able to see reality for what it is, Revelation is a unveiling of the destructive mechanisms that are at work underneath the surface.
It tells us that there are two systems at work: one that relies on antagonisms and the expulsion of a scapegoat in order to keep the social order in balance. It is rooted in scarcity, fear and suspicion and whenever desired violence as a means of expelling in order to maintain the system.
But there is another way, a way of life that begins by situating this image of the lamb of God who was slain at the center of who we are and what we do.
This way of life is rooted in sacrificial and unconditional love. It turns strangers into neighbors and needs no victims, no scapegoats, and no enemies to exist. One that begins and ends in nonviolence because it understands that all of creation is the handiwork of God.
Can you imagine what this looks like?
- John in chapter 7 of Revelation calls it the Multitude.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. called it the Beloved Community.
- George Fox and Early Quakers called it Gospel Order.
- Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.
It is a community without antagonism because Jesus, the one who was slain, who rose, and is present among us today, draws us into this life where we truly can embody the beloved community here, where no enemy is needed in order to live as one.