This edition of the book is updated with new material, a poem by Quaker poet Rashaun Sourles (@rashaunps), a foreward by Wes Howard-Brook, whose work I heavily draw on in my own book, and the afterword by Rev. Darryl Aaron, pastor of Providence Baptist Church, a historic African American Church here in Greensboro, NC.
The book is about the book of Revelation in the New Testament, the one so often used to predict terror, the end of the world, and wild conspiracy theories. It offers a different way into understanding what Revelation is about. If you’re someone who has avoided this book, had it used against you, or are interested in liberation theology reading of Revelation, I think you’ll be interested in Resisting Empire.
It would make for great book and small group studies and if you’re interested in having me speak about the topic in your meeting, church, or podcast hit the contact button above and I’d love to see what we can arrange.
Here is an Email I wrote today to the support team at hey.com.
I sent this and post it here because I have been a very outspoke supporter of this company, paid for their books and products, have their stickers on my computers, moved teams on to their platforms, etc. It feels only right to be honest about this part of it and how I feel about what has happened.
I am writing to notify Basecamp and Hey that I am in the midst of planning to leave Hey as a customer due to the policychanges recently announced by David and Jason.
I have supported Basecamp for a long time (as a customer and a fan), and Hey from day one because I believed in what I understood the company to be about and the way the application was built to work differently from other companies.
Yes, I like the products but it was more that Basecamp presented itself as an alternative company to the standard capitalist logic that runs tech companies anywhere that inspired me. I believed that this was a company truly trying to offer a different path in the world. The recent policy changes point to either a) that this was never the case and there were underlying beliefs that I do not want to be aligned with or b) that the company is now headed in a new direction that undercuts what I find most compelling about it.
I hesitated to leave or come to conclusions when I first heard the news because I know I didn’t have all the context and I hoped that more clarity would come. I also didn’t want to jump ship and have staff suffer for the loss of customer base. But the further posts on the web from the leaders of the company only seem to be a further digging in, rather than a willingness to truly be in dialogue, empathetic, and even consider that they may be wrong. Things I assumed they stood for. All of it seems really messed up and a great disappointment. I am sad for the turn of events but far more upset for the staff of the company who have been put through what I am sure has been an extremely toxic time in an already extremely volatile moment in the world.
I felt it was important to write instead of just leaving quickly and quietly. You need to know that this is a choice based on this policy decision, I use and enjoy these apps and have brought many others to your doors for business.
I do not expect or need a response. I plan to migrate out in the coming weeks unless there is a clear change in what is happening at BC (but as I see even staff are leaving, that tells me this is very unlikely). I hope that staff know that there are many of us out here ready to be in solidarity with you if it is called for.
When George Fox was initially on his spiritual quest to understand the true nature of faith and Christianity, he was living in the midst of full-on Christendom, that is state-sponsored Christianity or Christianity twisted to become comfortable acting as “the religion of empire.”
Fox, and then Margaret Fell, among the other early Quaker founders, were disillusioned with the way that the Christian tradition, which found its life-root in a poor Jewish prophet and teacher named Jesus, had been maligned into an oppressive religious system that upheld elites and created a type of caste system where the poor and working-class people of that time could only have access to God *if* they were on the good side of the church (and state). This was not all that different from Jesus’ time when he pressed against the then religious and imperial elites for disobeying God’s commands and it cost him his life.
For our part, one of the key insights that Fox had is well-known in the Quaker lexicon today: “Jesus is come to teach the people himself,” stands as a centerpiece to Friends theology and practice. In a couple short moments, God revealed to Fox at least two things: the state/church apparatus was (and is) bogus and all people already have access to God. These two revelations together create a powerful perspective on what it means to be the church. In Quaker theology, there is a partnership with God — we are Friends of Jesus — and co-laborers in God’s unfolding work of liberation in the world. God’s hands and feet in the world as the prayer goes.
At its very core, the Quaker tradition can be understood as a participatory theology (and practice). That means that to be a Quaker is reject consumer models of faith – we are not here to consume, to “be fed,” to passively receive, we are here to enter into the unfolding story of God’s work in the world. Upon joining a Quaker community, we have raised our hands and said, I want to be a part of this work of God. I want to be given a role in that liberation even when and where it means I will be the one undergoing the change. A participatory theology is not the kind that will build a megachurch or a celebrity Christian culture because it rejects the entertainment model of being community. Participatory theology means all hands are on deck. We are in this together. There is no one else out there who will do what God has required of us if we do not do it. Thus, Friends believe God will speak through any and all of us. Jesus has and will continue to lead the most unexpected of people to be agents of love in the world. We each, by the very nature of being in this body, have ways to build up and contribute to the well-being of this community.
In 3 John the author exhorts the readers to support each other,
“so that we may become co-workers with the truth.”
We know empire is not interested in true community rooted in abundance and sharing but the church, as a contrast and participatory society, is called to embody a different way of existence. The Quaker tradition at its very heart is built around the conviction as the people of God we all can participate fully in the unfolding of God’s work in the world. No matter how inexperienced or unqualified we think we may be (1 Cor 12:14ff).
In the coming days, as we enter a time of transition, we attenders and members of the body of Christ known as the Religious Society of Friends will be called up to support this body in many different ways, let us all trust that in each of us God is writing a story where we have a part to play. I look forward to being knit together as a community in new ways in the coming weeks and months ahead. I trust that we already have all we need to do what it is that Jesus is leading us to be and do and that part of “all we need” includes you and I.
Query: What does it mean for me to embody this participatory core today in the wake of transition in the life of my Quaker meeting?
The Subversive Seed This week, we saw the shooting of 8 individuals, 6 were Asian-Americans reminding us again of the ongoing and increased racism Asian-Americans and other communities of color have faced in the last year. Maybe unsurprisingly at this point: it was done by a man who was not only a Christian but was by accounts of his pastor “one of the most committed members.” (A thought that I find chilling).
This stream of what David Dark calls “White Supremacist Terror” (see also David Dark’s “Dumpster Fire“) continued in January when we saw Christian Nationalists violently storm the US Capitol. And of course, this year also saw other terrors from the previous president tear gas peaceful protestors for a photo op holding a bible in front of a church, to the horrific killings of George Floyd, Ahmad Arbery, Brianna Taylor, and others. If that wasn’t enough we have faced massive amounts of deaths due to mismanagement of the COVID pandemic and systems in place not meant to protect our most vulnerable. I suspect by the end of the weekend we will reach 540,000 deaths. The pandemic within the pandemic has been devastating poverty, rampant unemployment, and many people fighting for basic survival (but especially among the poor and dispossessed).
[Let’s take a moment of silence in light of all of this]
This year has revealed a lot about us and our society. About whose lives matter and to what extent we will go to spread misinformation in order to protect some at the expense of others.
This year has taught us a lot about death. Those who with their lips profess life live lives that promote death.
It would be fair to call this past year apocalyptic. What the Biblical authors refer to as an unmasking of the powers. In this way, it has been an unveiling. Have you seen it? Have you been watching? In each of these instances, people proudly claiming the name Christian, waving Bibles and crosses in the air, proudly declaring themselves to be pro-life participated in systems of death. Systems of death are made up of policies, practices that allow for and even create death, and false narratives that say — sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly — that it is okay (and sometimes even good) for some to die while others live.
These systems of death permeate every sphere of our current culture.
The Distorted moral narrative of Christian Nationalism
I call these systems of death because the theology underneath each of these says that not only does some life matter less (or not at all) but that these systems actively determine who gets to live and who will die.
In the face of this, Dorothee Soelle, a feminist biblical scholar, raises a question about what it means to see and respond to these systems as a collective (in her book Mysticism and Resistance). She says:
What I can do in the context of the rich world is minute and without risk in comparison with the great traditions of resistance. The issue is not to venerate heroes but together to offer resistance, actively and deliberately and in very diverse situations, against becoming habituated to death, something that is one of the spiritual foundations of the culture of the First World.
To stand within the great traditions of resistance, which I take the Quaker tradition to be a part of, is to stand actively and deliberately against becoming habituated to death – which is the spiritual foundation of the religion of empire.
That means that we will – no matter the cost – stand in opposition to the 5 interlocking evils I named above.
Like all systems of oppression, it impacts all, the great and the small, the rich and the poor, those with their backs against the wall, and those whose backs are no longer or have never been pressed.
To refuse to become habituated, desensitized, to these systems is our act of resistance. For many, to live each day in the face of these systems is itself a great act of resistance of all.
This is because the work of the religion of empire is to lull us to sleep so that we accept these systems and we not only become habituated to them but participate in them. I think it could be easy, after all the death we have seen to want to just move on — to care a little less, to listen less, to throw empathy out, and become numb to the cry of our neighbors.
To watch the replay over and over again of people dying in hospital beds from lack of healthcare and people gunned down in their homes and on the streets, while bible-carrying terrorists believe they are the righteous and holy ones sanctioned to enact violence on their god’s enemies will either shock us awake or numb us to sleep. And then we turn to this little story from Jesus about a grain of wheat, a little seed; I wonder what it is that you hear in light of all of this.
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
At first glance, it might be easy to read even this in the context of being habituated to death.
But I want us to pull back a little and see the what Jesus is talking about here is also said in the face of systems of death in his own time.
As a brown-skinned, Palestinian-born poor Jewish person he was born with a target on his back like the rest of his community and he died the way many whose backs are against the wall have died before and since then: state-approved violence.
Therefore, Jesus’ little grain of wheat is not a justification of those systems of death nor it is a giving up in the face of them, it is instead a subversive seed standing in resistance to all systems that place death as the final word.
Jesus tells shows us the possibility of an alternative imagination that is not marked by death.
The imagination that shapes the church is to be fundamentally different from the religion of empire.
For empire, death is all there is. So you accept it and you play by its rules. And if you’re really lucky maybe you will find a way to win at the game.
But for the people of God – those shaped by this alternative imagination of Jesus: death holds no sway.
This is how we make sense of the lives of the ancestors of the traditions of resistance from Jesus to Mary Dyer to John Brown to Levi Coffin to Oscar Romero, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ruby Sales, and John Lewis and so many more. This letting go of imaginations marked by death frees us up to see how resistance and resurrection work:
At a cellular level (as old cells die and new ones are born)
In the natural world whether it is this grain of wheat or a nurse log found laying the forest, or fireweed growing on the side of a volcanic mountain repairing and preparing the soil for new life
On the collective level (when there is death there is the birth of collective action and resistance).
The subversive seed invites us to let go of the fear of death: whether that is in the form of loss of power and wealth, loss of “normalcy” or face, or the death of structures we are used to or benefit us in some way.
It invites us into an entirely new way of seeing the world, ourselves, and one another. That subversive seed says that until we allow our hearts and our imaginations to be redeemed by the power of Christ which is resistance and resurrection in the face of death, we will be unable to bear new life.
The subversive seed invites us to see through death. To quote Catholic theologian James Alison,
“Jesus is saying something like this: “I am going to my death to make possible for you a model of creative practice which is not governed by death. From now on this is the only commandment that counts: that you should live your lives as a creative overcoming of death, and you are doing this to make possible a similar living out for your friends. The measure in which they *are* your friends is the degree in which, thanks to the perception which they have of *your* creative acting out of a life beyond the rule of death, they come to have their imaginations expanded in the same way, and they too become capable of entering into this creative living out of a life that is not ruled by death.” (Raising Abel, 71).
If we do not allow the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to subvert the powerful myths of death and power we are inducted into as people of empire if we do not allow the subversive seed to undercut these systems of death in our hearts and in our own communities then we will not be able to imagine, let alone live into that new world we wish to create.
What is on the other side of the death of these systems of death?
What would happen if we let this little grain of wheat, this little subversive seed bomb enter deep into our souls and allow it to plant and spread and bear new fruit of life within?
What fears would we need to get rid of?
What commitments would need to change?
What new solidarities would we join?
How would our understanding of death, and power, and wealth, shift and be subverted?
Queries for reflection: Where have we become habituated to death? What needs to die so that new life can be born?
After reading resisting empire – or more accurately, while reading it – I found myself delving into the text of Revelation, the literature of apocalypse, and the sociology of its varied interpretation alone, I think Daniels achieved his mission.
[After all that has happened in the recent months with the killing of George Floyd and others] we confronted yet against the humanity-stripping effects of our current cultural and economic structures. At that moment, it was a blessing to have reading Resisting Empire’s reading strategies, conclusions, and rallying cries in my mind.
Before Covid19, and certainly even more now, the systems that were meant to take care of us, protect our most vulnerable, and be focused on the best interest of the people rather than for those in power have all failed and can no longer be trusted or relied upon. We are at the precipice of a great unknown, from our economy down to all the every day details that allow society to function, to the inner workings of our homes and personal lives. The result of this will be great and necessary transformation. May we not easily let go of our learnings from this time.
Following this, there are many who are now leading or will be thrust into leadership roles who are not prepared. Some are ready and willing, some will take this as their opportunity to help, and some will be out for themselves. We need people who are ready and willing to learn how to help build more justice structures, communities, policies.
Without clarity around our models of change and leadership it is easy to fall into processes that are chaotic, imposing, and lack the necessary kindness. To lead in chaos one need not to everything in advance, but should be able to approach it with humility and depth of skill uncommon today.
I want to make a simple recommendation:
Let us make Love the model of leadership we use. Love not for self, not for profits or self-interest (which is not love at all but greed), Love not even for an all out survival at all costs, but rather love for the community and the common good. Love for faithfulness to the task at hand. Love as a tool to see deeper into the beauty of the communities and people we lead.
I am reminded of a poem by Chuang Tzu called the Woodcarver. I learned about this poem from the book, “The Active Life,” by Parker Palmer. I want to share the whole thing with you here. When you have time, I invite you to read and meditate on it. What do you notice about the Woodcarver? What does it have to teach us about the role of leadership today? About how to approach change?
THE WOODCARVER Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand Of precious wood. When it was finished, All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be The work of spirits. The Prince of Lu said to the master carver: “What is your secret?”
Khing replied: “I am only a workman: I have no secret. There is only this: When I began to think about the work you commanded I guarded my spirit, did not expend it On trifles, that were not to the point. I fasted in order to set My heart at rest. After three days fasting, I had forgotten gain and success. After five days I had forgotten praise or criticism. After seven days I had forgotten my body With all its limbs.
“By this time all thought of your Highness And of the court had faded away. All that might distract me from the work Had vanished. I was collected in the single thought Of the bell stand.
“Then I went to the forest To see the trees in their own natural state. When the right tree appeared before my eyes, The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt. All I had to do was to put forth my hand and begin.
“If I had not met this particular tree There would have been No bell stand at all.
“What happened? My own collected thought Encountered the hidden potential in the wood; From this live encounter came the work Which you ascribe to the spirits.”
– Chuang Tzu from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton
Once you’ve had a chance to reflect, go ahead and read on for a few thoughts that come to mind for me after reflecting on this.
First – Do not enact change (at least not at first). Instead, get yourself grounded in that place, that community.
A teacher once said to me that the first year of leading in an organization is a time to listen. Take the time to soak it all in. Get to know the people, the place, and the Spirit’s work in that place. The first year is for falling in love. This is something that you will need to rise and repeat overtime. But the first act is to do nothing. It is to do the internal work of learning how to not enact change.
For the Woodcarver, his first act is to do the internal work of letting go. Letting go of what he wants. Letting go of what others want of him. Letting go of the fear of criticism and the desire for praise. He fasts, a particularly difficult (at least for me) spiritual discipline to undergo. How many leaders do you know who reach for these kind of spiritual practices ever, let alone regularly?
Even though his work is a command from the Prince of Lu and his courts, the Woodcarver is able to differentiate himself from what is being asked of him by his superiors. While he accepts the work he is beholden to something larger than the Prince. He knows he is a woodcarver only. He must have integrity in that work, regardless of who has hired him. Otherwise, he is no longer an apprentice to his tradition. To me, this process of letting go, the process of leaving, “All that might distract me from the work,” is a practice of love. It loves and respects not only his tradition but those for whom he is in community with and working for.
Second – let the material of the place guide you
Author David James Duncan writes,
“One of the signs of a true artist is a willingness to work patiently and lovingly with even the most inferior materials.”
David James Duncan (River Teeth)
The woodcarver goes into the woods and lets the work of God speak to him through the trees. What looks like a tree on the outside, only he is able to see as a bell stand within. He allows for the material to guide him, rather than the condescending notion that he knows better or best of all. Rather than going into the forest to find the one he wanted, we could say that the tree finds him. Heart spoke to heart. A mysterious knowing that is both hard to understand and name takes place for anyone willing to patiently and deeply listen:
“I was collected in the single thought.”
This singularity of focus – purity of heart is to will one thing – means that he was willing to above all not do the job.
> “If I had not met this particular tree > There would have been > No bell stand at all.
Had there been no tree, he would have let the Prince know that he wouldn’t be completing the request, rather than to go against his own craft. I think in our time we are accustomed to the cheapyes far more than well-discerned no. The willingness to not act in the face of demands from the outside is a powerful testimony to the Woodcarver’s integrity.
The willingness to wait, to say, “not now, not yet, this isn’t the right time or the right path,” requires virtue and practice. There is a necessary humility if one is to hear the Eternal within others.
This kind of non-anxious presence and love for craft and community will always gain trust in a way that no other approaches fall short. Therefore, it is not surprising that the crowd wants to know the formula. They want to know what his secret is. How is it that he can summon the spirits in a way no one else can.
Why is there some secret when people do their work well?
He reveals to them that there is no secret. Instead, it is something far more simple, but not easy. It is a deep listening and encountering of the “hidden potential in the wood.” I would call this the “eternal within,” the living tradition, the thing easily discarded, seen as obsolete, un-nuanced, and completely missed by those who are not able to let go of their own desired outcomes. To let go, to do nothing, and to be willing to listen and wait to encounter the hidden potential. That is love. There is no shortcut for that kind of practice, nor is there a formula that you can follow to get there. That kind of love is what we need in this moment and in the coming days. May we draw from deeper wells.
It will pull together writings and research dealing with faith, resistance, cultural change, and collective intelligence. I am doing this to continue to develop my own writing, as well as create a single place where the work I am doing can be shared as broadly as possible. I hope that you’ll not only like it but share it with those who you think would enjoy and benefit from it.
If you are subscribed to this blog, you don’t need to do anything other than keep an eye out for it. I will move everyone over there shortly. But if you want you can get in early by visiting the site here: Remixing Faith.
One of the things I am currently focused on and really hungry to know more about is the concept of liturgies of resistance. A concept I originally discovered when studying the Book of Revelation. I think this is one of the keys to our ability to resist and survive empire (and the “liturgy of the lamb” is one of the practices I write about in my book that I see from Revelation that are key to the resistances of empire). I also believe that in the majority of Christian churches today, the liturgies have been so de-fanged, watered-down, even compromised by the religion of empire that they are not strong enough to inoculate us in any meaningful way.
What are the liturgies that form us currently? Here liturgy being rituals that we engage in that shape our desires, our language, our imaginations about what is possible and what is “out there.” Liturgy shapes us by telling us we are in a certain story. The American empire fueled by late-stage capitalism is rife with liturgies.
Liturgies of empire (I have been greatly helped by James Alison‘s thinking on this):
Shape our desires by the kind of story we see ourselves a part of (if we are the good guys and “they” are the bad guys then we will see our actions as benevolent)
Shape what we believe is possible (and what is impossible)
Dull our senses so that we are not aware of the suffering of our neighbors
Drive us towards seeing the “sacrifice of others” (or scapegoating) as a necessary part of what we do in order to maintain the peace
Distract us by excitement, sensationalism, and spectacle that feels good to be on the inside of but keeps us from actually knowing what is going on
Scholar Wes Howard-Brook points out that in Revelation 12 there is a clash between these two liturgies and some of the ways we see these liturgies in use around us:
We are surrounded by these kinds of liturgies from when we pickup our phones and scroll the news or social media, to the ways we rally over and against one another politically, to the policies and procedures of our country and organizations, to our justice system (and all its proceedings and liturgical mannerisms), to what we passively consume whether it be news or other forms of media, to where we live, and how we worship and who we worship with.
In the coming weeks and months, I plan to unpack this further and develop my own thinking around liturgies of empire and liturgies of resistance and as a part of a larger project I am working on. I want to get clear on this subject for myself and I want to share ideas about what communities are doing now to think about these issues. If we are going to resist the religion of empire in any meaningful, we are going to need stronger, more potent forms of liturgy to shape our communities. I want to understand what makes them stronger and I want to know what we can put into action as people who are in this fight.
For today, I invite you to in a reflective manner, consider the above list and think through the places where you may be intentionally or unintentionally participating in “liturgies of empire.”
This is a message I prepared for First Friends Meeting where my family and I attend.
Rev. 1:12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
Rev. 1:17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this.
Revelation Chapter 1
This week has been a tough one for our country.
Besides the ongoing struggle of millions of parents all over the country trapped at home with their children, states are fighting over how and when to reopen. Some people are protesting their state governments, many armed to the teeth, dressed out in camo and face masks, demanding that their liberties are being infringed upon.
Meanwhile, we’ve reached over 1 million Cases and 73,428 Deaths in the US and 263,685 deaths globally due to the virus.
Add to this that fact that this week saw another 3.2 million people filing for unemployment putting the total at 33.5 million Americans (16% unemployment). Many of these individuals have very little hope of returning to full-time work any time soon.
And if that isn’t bad enough, there was another leaked of another black man, this time 26 year old Ahmaud Arbery, killed by two white men – a father and son – in Georgia while out on a jog.
Arbery’s death is yet another modern-day lynching where an African-American is gunned down in broad daylight by white people with no recourse and no consequences.
NY Times author Charles M. Blow put it like this:
These men stalked Arbery, projecting onto him a criminality of which he was not guilty, then used self-defense as justification to gun him down in an altercation that they provoked. Arbery was killed eight years to the month after Martin was killed, just about three hours north.
This “anti-black vigilantism” (Charles Blow) is a recurring cycle that has claimed the lives of so many in recent years, including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland, and so many more.
Why am I telling you all of this?
I want to tell you what is. I want to remind you that in the midst of whatever you may be facing in this moment, these are very real, very challenging and traumatic things happening around us.
This is what it looks like to live within an empire in the midst of a crisis.
And I don’t know about you but when I look at what is, considering all the ways people have been impacted because of the Coronavirus and I begin to look forward into the future, I struggle to find hope.
I do not feel hope that the poor will be taken care of.
I do not feel hope that African Americans lives will begin to matter in ways that will change our society.
I do not feel hope that our leadership has our best interests in mind, are willing to make their own sacrifices, or have the moral imaginations needed to do what is right even if it costs them.
This is the context that we read Revelation 1.
Many of you know I have a thing for revolution, not as a book predicting the end of the world as it has often been co-opted to justify, but rather – as one friend put it – kind of 1st-century “Rules for Radicals.”
You want to be a radical Jesus person, here is how to do it.
In Revelation 1, John tells us that he knows what it is like to live in the midst of an empire
I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
John then describes this vision he has of Jesus.
It is this wild image of man whose hair wooly white, his eyes are on fire, he has a sword coming out of his mouth, and his voice sounds like the sound of rushing water.
As you hear this description, I wonder what do you feel in your body? I wonder what you see in your mind’s eye?
John is a pastor writing writing from prison to his congregations of Christians, people from the land of Palestine, living under the Roman occupation, and seen as a threat to Caesar because they would not go along with the religion of empire.
They knew exactly what it was like to live under imperial empire.
They knew what it was like to have their lives discounted, rejected, and threatened.
These were the individuals who were burned at the stake, fed to lions, scapegoated for the emperor’s problems, the majority poor and powerless. That is, at least when they are not an organized social movement.
John is their ancient Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, organizing these poor communities to see and understand what empire really is and to resist it with all their might.
What does pastor John say to his churches in the midst of all of this?
He says, “Here is Jesus.”
The same Jesus who was a poor man, who worked among the poor, and built a movement of poor and marginalized people, and who was killed for it. He stands before us today and is going to lead us through this.
This is the same Jesus who challenged the bogus religion and politics of his time, and offered instead a look at what it could be like to live the Reign of God on earth.
Here is that same Jesus who himself was lynched by the Roman imperial state.
It is this Jesus who lost. Who was crushed. And who rose victorious on Easter Sunday. He is the one who holds the keys to death and Hades. He is the one who has proven that death is not the end and that death has no real power over those whose hearts and minds are set on things above.
Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last.
You want to know the very first rule of surviving an empire in crisis – Follow this Jesus rather than empire no matter what it costs.
This image of Jesus is meant to be an image of hope when all hope is lost.
Criminality was projected upon the innocent Ahmaud Arbery and he was slain for it.
Criminality was also projected upon Jesus was himself slain revealing to us that the victims of empire are innocent.
The empire will stop at nothing to crush the innocents ones, scapegoating them, building suspicion around them, in order to distract us and sustain its own sense of power and identity.
Remembering the innocence of Arbery and Jesus and the way empire plays games with human lives, and not giving in to playing by their rules, that is part of what it means to have hope.
In Cornell West’s book, “Hope on a Tightrope” acknowledges the shape of this kind of hope when he says:
“Yet hope is no guarantee. Real hope is grounded in a particularly messy struggle, and it can be betrayed by naïve projections of a better future that ignore the necessity of doing the real work. So what we are talking about is hope on a tightrope.”
Real hope is grounded in a particularly messy struggle. The necessity of doing the real work.
This triumphant image of Jesus is not that of some superhero who bullets fell off of him and he beats the bad guy.
This is the Jesus who received the blows and who was wounded by real weapons of the state.
And he died from those wounds.
That is the one who reveals that the victims of empire are innocent.
That is the one we are given by John the Revelator as our hope. The one who returns to us bearing the weight of the entire tradition with him. This is the meaning of the bricolage of images and symbols, each from different passages in the Hebrew Bible like the book of Daniel, Zechariah, Ps, Ezekiel and Isaiah.
It’s someone said to Jesus, “you and whose army,” and he shows up with all the old prophets (who have been criticizing an undermining empire for generations). A pretty sweet flex if you ask me.
This tapestry woven together in the image of Jesus is a composite of all of the teachings of the biblical account of people sustaining and resisting empire even when it seemed like all hope was lost. Jesus here is embodying the cloud of witnesses of the human story.
This “I am” statement of Jesus in Revelation the whole prophetic tradition comes to bear weight on this moment, this moment of survival, this moment of resistance, this moment of hope.
You can have hope because you are a part of a much bigger story and struggle because it is one that the lamb who was slain has been leading throughout human history. We can live into the reign of God even in the mist of messy struggle, not because we want to, and not because it is easy, but because everything in our bones, and everything in our hearts and in our minds, and our entire faith rests upon the one who calls out to us to not be afraid.
Friends let’s let this shape our hearts and imaginations in the coming days, and allow us to hold on to hope that we can create something better for everyone out of the ashes of our own struggle.
I am interested in these three questions with this course: how does can the bible be used as a tool for building a social movement by, of, and for the poor; what do you say to people who believe this is the “end times” and use Revelation to justify all manner of bad behaviors and ideas; and how do we as people of faith and good conscience work to resist empire in this moment?
I will run this as a free 6-week online course that will meet weekly for an hour, with some optional readings to do in between. We will use, “Resisting Empire,” and the Book of Revelation as the main texts for the course.
The course is free and you do not need to feel obligated to buy the book to participate (donations are welcome but not necessary).
In this course you will learn:
How our own biases, experiences, and interacts with our reading of the biblical texts
Various tactics for reading the bible from a liberatory framework
What the “religion of empire” is and how it functions in the world
Social context and background to the book of Revelation
Ways of “resisting the empire” that the first witnesses of Revelation would have practiced
What it means to resist the “religion of empire” in our own day and time
I trust that you are all staying safe and well. I am sending love and blessings to each of you in this trying and uncertain time. I take hope in knowing and believing in the Christian story. Knowing that God experienced and experiences human suffering. That uncertainty and waiting is a part of the human condition and part of the Gospel accounts. And that the message and commitment remain the same. We are to always look out for the poor, the most vulnerable, and those in need of help. We are to look out for and love one another. And while it is hard in times of scarcity, we must remain as loving and generous as possible. Blessings to you all in the wake of resurrection.
I know it’s a couple days late, but I wanted to post some links and resources from last week that – if you’re still in the reflective mood from last week’s liturgical holidays, I hope you take some time to listen/read/reflect/watch as you are able.
In this episode, we sit down with Quaker theologian and small business owner Wess Daniels, the author of the book Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance. He talks about the value of silence; reshaping systems of money and power; and building community during a time of struggle.
Here is a virtual stations of the cross that I put together with a couple of other collaborates connected to the Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign. Take some time and work you way through it, I think you will find it to be a powerful reflection.
This virtual “Way of Sorrows” we have prepared for you this year is meant to deepen this reflection of Jesus as a poor person, leading poor people, guided by the love of God in the face of the many ways empire manifests itself today: poverty and inequality, systemic racism, militarism, environmental devastation, and an imperial religion exemplified by a faulty moral narrative that serves the few at the expense of everyone else. This Holy Week we join Jesus’ suffering in the form of a global pandemic known as COVID-19. Plagues like this are nothing new for empires throughout the biblical account, and yet again, in the face of great crises, and the consolidating of power, it is the most vulnerable who will suffer.
> Tonight is a night filled with sorrow and despair. I want to acknowledge that we are living amid something that the world has not seen in over a century. Not far from where we each sit; doctors and nurses are fighting a deadly pandemic with a lack of resources. Our neighbors are sitting alone, some of who haven’t had any physical human touch in weeks. We all do not know what is next. We are living in uncertain times. As a parent, I was not prepared to explain to my 3-year-old what a pandemic is or why we can’t take her to her preschool to see her friends.