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Blog Entries The Biblical

Revelation as Resistance: Moral Imagination in an Age of Empire

How would you answer if I were to ask you, “What one book of the Bible are you least interested in studying, reading, discussing, or teaching others about?”

When I considered this question in the spring of 2013, as the pastor of a Quaker meeting in the Pacific Northwest, I knew the answer before I got to the end of the question: Revelation.

As far as I was concerned, this was a text of terror that even this bible scholar and hopeful liberation-theologian and Quaker preacher could not resuscitate. If there ever was a text that baffled me, and even more, repulsed me, especially in the way that “Christianity” had used it – it was Revelation.

Let me back up. I came to this question in a roundabout way. I grew up Catholic and then non-denominational, Evangelical Christian. I went to an Evangelical college, took a whole class on Revelation for Heaven’s sake. Even while I could debate pre and post-millenarian viewpoints with the best of them, I was critical of the concept of the rapture, turned off by the Scofield Bible, and scorned Dispensationalism. To top it off, the Left Behind Series happened, and September 11th happened, and countless predictions and judgments spewed forth often with the help of national press. When it came to Revelation, I negotiated release of the whole at the expense of surrendering this one small letter. In my view, it was too far gone. And not worth the fight.

Jump ahead a few years. As a pastor in a Quaker community in the Pacific Northwest, I became more and more influenced by liberation theology through the help of some friends, the work of the Poor People’s Campaign, the work of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary. I began learning how to read the Bible from the margins, alongside people who were on the margins. 

Then, by good fortune, I was invited to participate in one of Parker Palmer’s retreats for younger leaders. I jumped at the chance. I knew who he was and knew that many Friends looked up to him, but had not yet personally connected with his work. During that weekend retreat, which was one of the most impactful retreats I’ve ever been on, Parker Palmer said something that stuck with me. When talking about how he arrives at topics for writing and research, he said, “I only write books about things that truly baffle me, things that keep me awake late at night.” He was saying that it is the unfamiliar, the puzzling, perhaps even the things he’s resistant to that motivates his curiosity, and animates his work. I loved that. I felt both challenged and freed to see preaching as a way to “lean in” to my bafflement. 

So back in my study, during the spring of ’13, I thought I’d try out this new practice of Holy Bafflement. In prayer and reflection, I asked the question stated above: what in the book of the Bible that I’d least want to preach? What is the book that most baffles me?

I knew instantly. At that moment, I wanted to take it back. It was almost as though God had been waiting for me to ask the question. I reflected in the silence about what was coming up. I felt God’s prompting, “Don’t you think there are others who have looked at this text in different ways? Aren’t you curious about what is possible here?”

That began my journey to understand not just what Revelation was about, but more importantly, how to read Revelation, and what the text was trying to do some 2000 years ago? Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance is the result of this long journey. It is grappling with my own identities as a white, straight, educated male living in the American Empire, learning how to read texts written by and for the poor as a person with plenty of privilege that led to a much deeper conversion. One that helped me see this text, and many others like it, not as some paranoid dream or bad trip, but a liberatory manifesto of God’s people living under oppression. 

“Something very strange happens when happens when this text is appropriated by readers in a comfortable, powerful, majority community: it becomes a gold mine for paranoid fantasies and for those who want to preach revenge and destruction.”

-Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (Revelation: Visions of a Just World)

In the time since, I researched and studied many other scholars who have already traversed Revelation from new perspectives, primarily liberation theologians, and feminists biblical scholars, and worked on translating this into sermons and reflections for people who are wrestling with what it means to be both victims and agents of empire. Following this, I’ve been invited to preach and teach Revelation in meetings and congregations as diverse as Liberal Unprogrammed, Programmed meetings, and Baptist congregations. Apparently, there are baffled people hungry for new interpretations of Revelation everywhere! The most fun I’ve had recently was working with a group of Quaker college students where I now work to read and study the book together and wrestle with its overall meaning. 

What has captivated me and others about this “unsalvageable” book of the Bible? I can assure you it is not because we think it offers the key to unlock the secret code of the Trump administration, or what we can finally do with Hilary’s emails. Nor do I believe it predicts that the 1000 year reign of Christ’s judgment is now upon us (though it does sometimes feel like there could be more judgment pointed at a few!). Nor is it meant to help us determine who the real infidels are. (I know this is how this text has been used and abused against so many people I and you love, and probably against some of you reading this right now.)

I am sorry that a text of this magnitude has been co-opted to do so much harm. I hope that in some small way, this work can help repair the breach. I also hope that this approach can help Christians everywhere become far more critical of empires everywhere.

Therefore, instead of Revelation being a book about “evacuation theology,” to use Rob Bell’s phrase, I argue that the book of Revelation has nothing to do with predicting when the end times will happen, and everything to do with how small, marginalized faith communities survive and resist empire.


How might Revelation help us in thinking about moral imaginations in our own day and age?

The author of Revelation identifies as John, a pastor and prisoner of the Roman Empire on the Island of Patmos, an Alcatraz like prison where Rome kept its prisoners. Like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama, Pastor John scrawls his letter and has it smuggled out of the prison cell to his seven churches in Asia Minor. The letter – we now know as Revelation – called the early Christians to be more faithful in their resistance and to not give in to the ideology of the Roman empire, even if it meant death. It is urgent. It is apocalyptic. Its position is that the followers of the Lamb will not comprise with empire. Full stop. In John’s case, these seven small Judeo-Christian congregations lived under the oppressive Roman imperial regime; in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s, it is Southern clergy tempted by white supremacy and middle-class safety. Feminist Scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza was the one who suggested reading John and King side by side, to note their parallels, to note their shared contexts, and challenges. It was reading John and King together that I realized to make it about end times is to gut Revelation of its real power.

I’m convinced that this 1st-century letter is a challenging and fierce plead for these marginalized faith communities to not assimilate into what Wes Howard Brook calls “the Religion of Empire,” but to remain rooted in and have one’s moral imagination shaped by “the religion of the Lamb that was Slain:” an image that is meant to spark non-violent resistance – “the War of the Lamb,” not some end-times paranoia. 

To put this simply: we are not the intended audience of Revelation.

Revelation is a pastoral letter read allowed in the early church’s gatherings and is addressed to specific communities under specific concerns; I believe when we start from this place it can become useful for us in a new way. It takes about an hour and twenty minutes to read out loud all together, a long sermon for us, but one that was meant to provide shape to the early Christian moral imagination, counter-imagery to the imagery of the religion of empire. I see Revelation offering four counter practices and outline them in Resisting Empire if you are interested in digging in deeper.

According to the author of Revelation, the church is to not just offer a counter-narrative and counter-practices to the religion of empire, it is to create a community that can exist within that counter-narrative: to resist and refuse assimilation into empire demonstrates faithfulness.

This leaves me, and I hope you, with lots of questions about how we resist empire in our world today?

  • What does it mean to be faithful to “the Lamb that was slain?”
  • Where have we already assimilated, and what does it mean to come out of empire?
  • How do I grapple with the reality that I am both agent and victim of empire?
  • Do I treat and think of others in ways that creat mob mentalities and scapegoats, or do I see all human beings in all their complexities as children of God?

I want to draw on one simple example from Revelation as a means of opening up these questions further: the importance of liturgy in shaping social order. Liturgy means “the work of the people,” and is about the kinds of things we do together that shape us in ways that mirror the empire or the Lamb. In other words, the book of Revelation reveals that there is a contrast between the “liturgy of empire” and the “liturgy of the Lamb.”

On the one hand, the Roman Empire has its own ceremonies, rituals, symbols, language, mantras, and sacrifices or “scapegoats.” These helped it to maintain its boundaries over and against other nations and wicked others. This is a liturgy of extraction, one that pulls people away from the suffering of their neighbors and the world around it. It distracts and displaces.  

On the other hand, Revelation reveals the Lamb that was Slain has its own liturgy as well. This liturgy is one that is shaped and formed by non-violent resistance – the image of the Lamb slain, rooted in silence, and pulls the worshippers into the presence and awareness of the suffering other. In Revelation, worship centers the victims of empire [7:9-17]. This liturgy has no need for boundaries of us vs. them in order to create social cohesion; it is described as a multitude. It has no need for scapegoats because the Lamb was the last scapegoat who reveals the lie of the “scapegoat mechanism,” demonstrating that the scapegoat is innocent. And because it centers the victims of empire it is a radically inclusive and diverse multitude made up of people of every nation, tribe, and language.  

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

Revelation 7:9

I believe, with a potent enough liturgy, an entirely different kind of social order can be created, one that has no need for scapegoats, and one that lifts up and centers those slaughtered and disinherited by empire: the prisoner, sex worker, homeless, unemployed, refugee, profiled, displaced, abused, lynched, disabled, bombed, bulldozed, walled-in, walled-out, rejected and refused. To consider that all these things happen to human beings in the name of empire should devestate us.


I know there are plenty who have many different feelings about the Bible; many have written it off and surrendered it to other interpretations just like I did with Revelation. However, in the process of doing this work first in my community and second for the book, I’ve become convinced that Revelation is not about what we’ve been taught, and we lose something very powerful, putting ourselves at risk of not only having nothing to say in the face of empire, but we are made vulnerable to assimilating into empire without these kinds of counterstories and practices.

Early Quaker loved the book of Revelation, and I think it was in large part because its imagery and language helped them to identify the religion of empire in their time. How might our imaginations and practices be reshaped by this text, in ways that we have lost due to our dismissal of the text? I have grown and learned a lot and have so far still to go to understand more fully. But for now and if nothing else, I am helped to know that for 2000 years, there have been followers of Jesus existing within and resisting empire leading the way for the rest of us.


Get “Resising Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance” Below


Ways to Connect with Wess: If you like this post and/or have feedback you think I should know about feel free to connect with me on Twitter and Telegram @cwdaniels or subscribe via email by clicking here.

*Photo credit Christopher Dombres

Categories
Books The Biblical

Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance

Purchase Your Copy Here


Note from Wess:

Dear readers of Gathering In Light, my second book, “Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance,” is now published as a paperback.

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.

Thanks for your support!
-Wess


Purchase Your Copy Here

Ways to Connect with Wess: If you like this post and/or have feedback you think I should know about feel free to connect with me on Twitter and Telegram @cwdaniels or subscribe via email by clicking here.

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Blog Entries Books The Biblical

New Book on Revelation “Resisting Empire” Coming Soon

Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation, my new book on Revelation, is coming soon from Barclay Press.

I’ve been working on a book about Revelation that offers a different perspective then the “Revelation as End-of-the-World” interpretation.

This book, Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation, published by Barclay Press, is coming out very soon and I wanted to give you a heads up to start watching out for it. It is in e-book form and will be available as an e-pub through Barclay Press, on Amazon, and, as I understand it, through the Our Bible App.

The general premise of the book is that Revelation, drawing on a number of other scholars, doesn’t have anything to do with predicting the end of the world, but rather is about how small, marginalized faith communities resisted and survived empire. The book lays out four practices that the author of Revelation points out are necessary for doing this.

You can read more about the book over on this guest column I wrote for Guilford College Gazette.

Stay tuned, I’ll announce when the book is officially out.

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Bag of Tricks Quaker The Biblical Uncategorized

Revelation at Great Plains Yearly Meeting

This past week, I had the opportunity to travel to Great Plains Yearly Meeting, gathered in Wichita, KS to speak about the book of Revelation. The yearly meeting itself was a lovely and joyous gathering, they welcomed new meetings into their group, celebrate past members, and besides getting business done, they had a lot of laughter and celebration. It was quite the joy to worship with GPYM this year.

Below are some links for follow up resources for the people who attended this year’s gathering.

Revelation Resources:

Here is a link to the handouts, sketches and some other material that is useful background knowledge on the book of Revelation.

Talk #1: Revealing Empire

Talk #2: The Four Themes of Revelation 

For Further Reading:

Blogposts and sermons from my blog – Link

Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenze – Revelation: Vision for a Just World

Wes Howard Brook and Anthony Gwyther – Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now

Daniel Berrigan – The Nightmare of God

James Alison – Raising Abel

Rene Girard – The Scapegoat

Categories
Blog Entries The Biblical Uncategorized

Mary: Revolutionary for Our Time

The Black Madonna

It is advent, a critical moment in the church calendar.

It is post-election, a critical moment in the life of the United States.

Advent is marked as a time of quiet, expectant waiting. There is hope in birth narratives of Jesus, but it is hope tempered by loss, defeat, and suffering that comes from living under a brutal imperial regime. There is no fanfare in his coming, it is noticed only by poor shepherds and Pagan Stargazers. The priests, pundits, and powerful elite were unaware.

This US election is marked by something vastly different. It unmasked the anger, pain, division, and in many cases, hatred of those ‘others’ operating as scapegoats for the US Empire. Fanfare is on order for the triumphant party, running victory laps, rallying one side over and against another. Whipping people up into a frenzy for a great return. The priest, pundits and powerful elite rejoice.

Categories
Blog Entries The Biblical

Convers(at)ions With Scripture

There has been an evolution of thought for me when it comes to understanding how to read, interpret and teach Scripture within community. That evolution has taken place over the course the last 18 years or so (I’ve been leading bible studies since I was in High School myself). It began with the basic thought a biblical teacher’s role was to teach the text. This meant raising key ideas and helping people to get the right answer about how to understand what God is saying in this verse or passage.

But over time, my approach has shifted away from this teacher-based model to one that is more participatory and dialogue oriented. There are a few factors that have helped me make the move.

Categories
Sermons The Biblical

Lament: Brought to Speech (Psalm 13)

What is Lament?

In January for the past 4 or 5 years we’ve participated in Peace Month with other churches from our Yearly Meeting. This January our focus is Lament and peace. We are going to talk about personal lament, communal lament, and more.

You may wonder the connection between these two. What does lament have to do with peace?

But before we get there I want us to explore what is lament?

Q: What are some words that come to mind for you when you think of lament?

I want to start today with one of our favorite Shel Silverstein poems:

title

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Sermons The Biblical

No! Yes and… (Matthew 3)

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“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13–17 NRSV)

NO!

Have you ever said no empathetically, because you believed that you were without a doubt right, only later to learn that saying no was going to be a big mistake?

I had a “No” like this that I said to God’s face once. When I was first called into ministry I flat out said to God, “No way, no how.” I felt kind of bad because of my attitude. [After all, my parents taught me to talk respectfully to my elders. If God wasn’t one of my elders, who was?]

So I back tracked a little and said,

“Okay God, I hear what you are saying. But here’s the thing, there is no way on earth that I would ever want to be a pastor — don’t you know I want to be a musician, an artist, a film-director, pretty much anything but a pastor. So here’s the deal. You are going to have to make me want to be a pastor, actually make me desire it and see how I fit with it. Because there’s no way on earth I’m doing something I don’t want to do like that.”

This was only a mildly better than my first response. That’s because I still felt strongly about holding down that “No!”

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Sermons The Biblical

Presence Matters (Matthew 2)

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“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:1–2 NRSV)

Alive Enough

One of the most interesting episodes from the radio program, On Being with Krista Tippet, I’ve ever listened to was titled, “Alive Enough: Reflecting on Our Relationship With Technology.” For the program, Tippet interviewed Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who has done research on the prolonged effects of technology in the practices of everyday life. Turkle’s book “Alone Together” is aptly titled and describes how we as a society are increasingly connecting with one another in ways that may look like we are together, but leave us experiencing deep loneliness.

In this particular episode, Sherry Turkle recalls a visit with her fourteen year old daughter, Rebecca, to to the “Darwin exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.” In this museum you come face to face with dinosaurs, and many other species of life that document in physical form the transformation of life over millions of years. This exhibit is a celebration of the beauty of all of life. And features many of Darwin’s insights and findings. At the entrance of the exhibit two giant tortoises from the Galápagos Islands. The location of many of Darwin’s now-famous discoveries.

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Sermons The Biblical

On Quaker PR: Salt, Light and Transformation (Matthew 5:13-20)

Resurrection City

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13–16 NRSV)

Do we have a PR Problem?

Have you ever had the experience of telling someone you are a Quaker or that you go to a Quaker meeting and get a bit of a blank stare? You watch as the wheels turn and then the person you’re speaking with says one of these things:

  • So you’re amish?
  • You mean like the guy on the Quaker oats container?
  • I have no idea what you’re talking about?
  • If you’re lucky, you might get a response like “Wow, I really like what I’ve read about Quakers.” Aren’t they the folks who were involved in the abolition movement and women’s suffrage?

I actually don’t mind any of these responses because they’re all something to start with, and usually the person I’m speaking with is interested enough to give me a minute or two to explain myself further. And with of all the brands we could be associated with, I suppose it could be a lot worse than oatmeal.

And as amazing as it is to have folks know that the Quakers are associated with great historical movements like abolition and women’s suffrage to name only a couple, that was more than 100 years ago.