Q&R: jesus and violence in the book of revelation
A life.remixed reader writes (in the comments section of my post Who Would Jesus Whip?):
Thanks for this post. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog and appreciate your perspective on a number of issues, particularly this one, as your view is quite different to mine.
My question (not a trick one I should point out) is how you reconcile the image of the non-violent Jesus of the Gospels with the recurrently violent image of Him portrayed in Revelation?
Here is an example of what I’m talking about…
“I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war.” (NIV)
My point is that if Jesus’ character is one of non-violent resistance, must that not consistently be His character throughout the ages? Are you arguing that He is specifically calling us to model His non-violent attitude demonstrated in the Gospels but ignore (or at least disregard for the moment) His violent responses in other parts of the Bible (in a Deuteronomy 32:35 sense)?
This certainly gets back to your point about what constitutes violence. I definitely read a correlation between Jesus’ violence and His perfect justice…an aspect that we certainly lack.
This may be a subject for another post, but would love to know your thoughts.
It was in fact I who requested from this person permission to use this question in a post, not just because I thought it was a great question, but because I know it is a similar question to those many others have sought a response to.
In saying that the breadth of the question will mean I will only be able to deal with the issue of violence in the book of Revelation; the other concerns will need to wait for another time and post.
What do we make of the apparently violent images in the book of Revelation? One very famous pastor has said this (condensed, full quote here):
In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.
I find this a rather puzzling statement, as we did indeed beat Jesus up; we even crucified him.
This kind of statement seems to suppose that the Jesus on the cross is somehow different from the Jesus of Revelation. It is as if Jesus, in his present and future persona, realised that all that hippie, peace-and-enemy-loving stuff he spouted during his time on earth didn’t work, and that he should renounce it in favour of a new cage-fighter image.
The original question above is such a great one because it points out the apparent inconsistency of this dualism and asks implicitly, “what is going on here?”
Indeed, many Christians have been trained to read Revelation in a way that takes the violent images at face value. But this is to misunderstand the apocalyptic genre in which Revelation was written.
Apocalyptic literature was a genre that was slowly developed from the period of the Exile onwards (mid-first millennium BCE). It tended to be authored by those who were part of a marginalised and persecuted group (namely Jews in exile, or later under the Roman Empire) and expressed in symbolic terms a positive vision of the future and an alternative to the dominant order in the present.*
So why did the author of Revelation use symbolism? Why not just say what you mean in a straightforward way? There are a number of reasons that could be listed, though the most relevant to our current discussion is given by Bauckham:
“[the visual imagery in Revelation has the] capacity to create a symbolic world which its readers can enter and thereby have their perception of the world in which they live transformed.”**
Indeed such a change of perception would be incredibly important for Christians in the first and second century where the Roman Empire ruled the world; powerful images of Rome’s vision of the world were constant, displaying Roman imperial power and pagan religion. This power needed to be subverted with an alternative vision of an alternative kingdom. One way to do this was through combating symbols and myths with alternative symbols and myths.
What did such subversion look like?
One way demonstrated by Revelation was to draw readers into familiar visions of violence, but then twist them at crucial points to satirise that violence.
For example, Jesus is said in Revelation 19:11 (quoted in the question above) to judge with justice and wage war. Hardly a nonviolent image (the warring at least). That is until you see the kind of “war” Jesus wages (19:12-16):
His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
Do you see why this might be subversive to the dominant Roman order of the time?
Such an image overturns not just Rome, but also the violent methods used by Rome to enforce their so-called Pax Romana, the “Peace of Rome”.
In other parts of Revelation we find that the modus operandi of the saints, the followers of Jesus, is not to conquer by weapons and violence, but “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death,” (Revelation 12:11). Interesting that the saints are called to demonstrate nonviolence in their testimony of the alternative kingdom of God, even to the point of dying, thus laying down any notion of violent defence.
The saints, like the Lamb in Revelation 5, conquer not through waging war, but through their own martyrdom. Indeed, the Lion himself is quickly morphed into a slain Lamb.
To conclude, yes there is violent imagery in Revelation. But the whole point of that imagery is not to sanction violence, but to subvert it, to parody it. Jesus wages a war in which he has died and in which he calls his saints to die with him. He then subverts the weapons of war and defeats his enemies with a sword out of his mouth, which is not a sword at all, but is his truth.
We must remember that truth is a most threatening thing to empires for their power is largely built on false myths and symbols, unjustifiable nationalism, bankrupt and abusive ideologies, and/or baseless claims to divine sanction. For Jesus’ followers to speak truth in the context of empires, then and now, means confronting such falsity nonviolently with the reality that there is an alternative king and kingdom.
Hopefully this response proves to be at most a cursory exposition of the seemingly violent symbolism in Revelation and at least some material to induce reflection. I would love to get your thoughts as we work through these issues together.
* Examples of apocalyptic literature other than Revelation include 1 and 2 Enoch, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, Apocalypse of Abraham, the Testament of Levi, the Sibylline Oracles.
**Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 17. I would recommend this book, or Bauckham’s other masterpiece The Climax of Prophecy, as some of the best reading on the book of Revelation in existence.
Posted on June 29, 2011, in Conflict and Nonviolence, Eschatology, New Testament, Q&R and tagged Empire, Eschatological Violence, Jesus, Love your Enemies, Nonviolence, Revelation 19:11, Revelation 19:15, Second Coming, Violence. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.