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?):

Hey Matt,
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…

Revelation 19:11
“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.”**

Domitian, emperor at the time of Revelation

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.

Interesting. No notion of violence here. In fact the sword wielded by Jesus is not even in his hand, it is in his mouth! Surely this is a hint as to its symbolic nature; the sword is his words, his truth. Jesus is seen confronting and judging the nations, not least the violent, war-waging empire of Rome, not with violence as they do, but with truth, his only sword. Indeed the blood on his robe is not that of his enemies, for a battle has not even begun; it is assumedly his own.

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.

MCA


* 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.
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Posted on June 29, 2011, in Conflict and Nonviolence, Eschatology, New Testament, Q&R and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. John McKinnon

    the whole idea of ‘subversive speech’ is an interesting one. For those of us taught that evangelical hermeneutics was about ‘plain meanings’ it is a somewhat new concept but, when looked at in a first century context, makes a lot of sense. Revelation, because of its genre, is perhaps obvious but now scholars are also pointing out where Paul may have been using subversive speech to ‘fly under the Roman radar’ but remain true to the radically liberating message of Jesus.

  2. I like to use the terminology that Christians are called to live a “subversive lifestyle” within the confines of a non Christian social / cultural environment and that is the thrust of the actual Epistle writings. In this regards Revelations has a commonality with the rest of the NT..and they too can be considered to be subversive writings within a political system – though obviously not in the same genre.

    In regards to violence though – using your hermeneutic (which I believe is the right one)🙂 what are we to make of the warnings given to the 7 churches – there does seem to be some form of violent repercussions in regards to these warnings.

  3. I find it interesting, this discussion. One of the last assignments for my recently ended Theology class was a discussion of whether one would have joined Bonhoeffer’s resistance during the Second World War. I honestly don’t know if I would be able to go as far as violent resistance to oppression, but there is a practical aspect lacking in your post, as far as I can see.

    It’s one that is oft repeated and one that is hard to answer with finality: if the neighbour down the street was being beaten by the police, what is your response as a Christian? Is it enough to simply bear witness to the beating and then hope to testify at the court case, if there is one, for the officers involved? What if it is state-sanctioned?

    I can understand taking a pacifist stance for my own self. That is almost a given. But what about the defence of others? I’m not talking justification for the Iraq war or whatnot, but honest, my-daughter-is-in-danger-of-being-raped defence of fellow humans from active, malicious violence. Is there a point at which even Jesus would defend them? I think there is.

    Your use of the pastor’s quote above is slightly out-of-context. What he is trying to do is to change the way we see Jesus, not the blue-eyed, flaxen-haired paintings of which we are all familiar, but as a strong man capable of defending himself if needed. Ys, we beat and crucified Jesus, but *only because he let us*. Like he says to Peter, ‘Don’t you think I could have an angelic host here if I wanted.’ The subtext to the line: ‘I don’t want one.’

    Revelation is a hard book to make sense of. I’m interested that you took only the sword reference out of the passage you quoted and not the other mentions of ‘armies’, ruling with ‘an iron rod’, the ‘fury of the wrath of God.’ The sword image is not an isolated one, but one that speaks of strength, power, determination and just judgment on the foes of God (and his people).

    The other thing I notice about your treatment of the Revelation text is that the apocalyptic argument only seems to apply to violence. You seem quite happy to say that ‘sword’ doesn’t mean violence but that ‘the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony’ is to be taken as read, rather than getting the same apocalyptic work-over.

    The bottom line though in all of this is whether the depiction of Jesus as a warrior in the book of Revelation justifies Christians going to war or using violence. I think I can safely agree that that is not the case. There is no mandate in Scripture for Christians using violence in an aggressive way, and only limited support for violence in a defensive manner, and not usually for one’s own benefit.

    I will be following this discussion with interest!

    Cheers!

    • Hi Tom, thanks for the comment. It is indeed a challenge to respond to a comment that rivals my post in terms of length 🙂

      Bonhoeffer is an oft-used example of violence for a greater cause. It is noteworthy however that he instructed people not to do what he was doing. His inner turmoil over his decision was self-documented. This was a man who said “There is no thinkable deed in which evil is so large and strong that it would require a different [that is, violent] response from a Christian.” For Bonhoeffer, his decision to engage in violence was a self-recognised act of sin. He seemed to consider that in rare situations the most viable action would be sin in order to confront a situation that may not be able to be resolved according to God’s will. This, however, would be to act outside of a Christian ethic. As he wrote:

      “…the blood of martyrs might once again be demanded, but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith. On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant who is cast into outer darkness.”

      Gandhi had a comparable ethic – “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence…” (Though many Christians would not view Gandhi as an example despite the fact that the Sermon on the Mount and the teaching of Jesus was a major foundation for him.)

      What’s the point? I suppose I am saying that a Christian ethic insists on nonviolence (as opposed to the ‘pacifism’ you mentioned; they are different). There may be circumstances however in which God’s will cannot be done in the midst of a broken world and a restrained level of violence is necessary. This must be, however, named for what it is – a contradiction of the character of God revealed in Jesus (this is likely how I will approach Old Testament violence in an upcoming post – God may sanction violence in exceptional cases, not because this is his will, but because of the fallenness of humans. To do violence remains contrary to God’s will).

      This should not preclude nonviolence, as if our first reaction should be violence. Violence is of course our final recourse once all other options have been exhausted. The problem is though that nonviolence is hardly ever adopted, and I doubt there are hardly ever circumstances where nonviolence is exhausted.

      Practically speaking I would point contemporarily to the success of the nonviolent protests in the Arab Spring in contrast to the ongoing nature of the violent protests. I realise the situation is more complex than that, but there is surely something to be said about this juxtaposition.

      In regard to such practical considerations you are correct that they are absent from my post; imagine the length if I had started down that track!

      In saying that, I think there is a misunderstanding of my approach to nonviolence, as if I am advocating non-participation in resistance. By no means! My previous posts (which are necessarily mere fragments of my theology) will testify to my insistence that Christians should unceasingly resist evil, though I advocate nonviolent means.

      To use an example in a recent post as an illustration – Jesus’ example of what could be considered ‘force’ in the temple cleansing episode was nonviolent, though he put his own body and presence on the line in a creative way of resisting the temple system. I am of course defining force in a way that does not cause violence, but exerts pressure on others to shift their course of action. If a person was being attacked by the police violence would, in my view, not be the best solution given the alternative options available.

      I agree I am taking the pastor’s quote out of context, though the posts get too long if I start including whole quotes. I did however link to the original so people could see what you have pointed out. I am in complete agreement that our image of Jesus should be separated from the Swiss man sitting under a tree hugging lambs. I do not think, however, that this means turning Jesus into a bloodthirsty militiaman. The quote assumes a shift from one pole to another. Jesus indeed “let us” crucify him, though because his actions are an example to his followers (who cannot call an angelic host) we must take seriously the implications of this paradigm for the attitude of God to violence, and the imperatives for us.

      In regard to symbols, you raise an excellent point – why mention only the sword, and not the armies, rod, fury etc. The main reason is again my interest in trying to limit the length of posts. In saying that none of those symbols mentioned necessarily implies violence, and in fact further serve to subvert violent methods of power by presenting images that would seem to narratively lead to violence, and then twisting them through the complete lack of a battle in the course of the passage. Indeed, the armies mobilise for a battle in which Jesus proclaims his word, and the fury of the winepress is seemingly connected to the same proclamation, thereby equating such violent images with announcement.

      I’m not exactly sure why my interpretation of the symbolics is inconsistent. We must remember that apocalyptic imagery functions within a narrative framework, and that as such they still embody narrative signification. The original audience would have largely understood the symbols because they were images derived from their symbolic universe (we know this because many of the symbols used by John can be found in other apocalyptic literature).

      The blood of the Lamb, contrary to your statement, is of course a metaphor that I have treated symbolically – I do not believe it refers to a real lamb ;-). Within early Christian mythology the Lamb of course referred to the crucified Christ. In reality I have not necessarily drawn heavily on the symbolism of the sword imagery – I have simply pointed to their course within the narrative, that is, the sword turns out to be held in a mouth. If anything, I have taken the sword as read! (But not completely, inasmuch as I construe this as a subversion of Rome’s violence…).

      We must be careful not to assume that everything in apocalyptic must necessarily be taken as non-literal (perhaps I have given this sense in my post, though I did not mean to do so). This would be to miss the point of apocalyptic – a genre used to shift people’s perspective about the current order of things, and not to be quirky for the sake of it. Symbolism is merely a tool for this purpose. The symbolism would have had historical referents that were decipherable within the ideological and mythical world of the recipients; it is likely only cultural distance that makes it so hard for us (and indeed the Romans at the time). Symbols are symbols only if they function as such in the particular narrative universe. ‘Lamb’ obviously did. The ‘sword as word’ symbol is not unique to Revelation; see Ephesians 6. Etc.

      That was long… I look forward to our continuing dialogue, Tom.

      Matt

  4. This is great Matt. I’d just have one word of caution: it can be easy when arguing vociferously and passionately for nonviolence to turn it into a new form of legalism. I know I have at times.

    This is where I’ve found James Alison’s work expounding Rene Girard so helpful.

    Of course Tom, what you are talking about above is not nonviolence, but passivity. I don’t hear Matt suggesting that nonviolence is inaction, just that it’s not _violent_ action (which opens up a whole world of creative possibility rarely accessed). In fact, if you take the examples you’ve suggested and work them through logically, I think you’ll find that nonviolence is the best solution to all of them. Nonviolence does not “simply bear witness to a beating” – that’s inaction. Nonviolence actively intervenes in ways that reveal people’s humanity and inspires compassion. Do you really think violence would work in protecting someone against a police force, armed to the teeth and already geared up for and engaging in violence? You’re outnumbered and outgunned. You’d end up with them feeling threatened, and beating you up too. Brave maybe, but hardly any effective ‘protection’. Your only choice then is to be smarter. Actions which distract, confront (in ways that don’t inspire threat), or inspire awe or surprise are all likely to be much more effective.

    That I think Matt is where it’s helpful to posit nonviolence as an active, creative force instead of simply the negation of violence (in fact, I’d argue it’s closer to violence than it is to passivity. The opposite of nonviolence isn’t violence, but apathy.) I don’t think you’re intentionally doing that, it’s just the inevitable assumption of those who don’t understand nonviolence.

    Hope that’s helpful! Keep up the great work.

  5. Great post Matt!

    I’ve done quite a bit of research into this question, and will hopefully pop out a journal article fairly shortly on the exact topic.

    As you’ve already noted, Bauckham’s work (building on the work of other scholars like Caird) is really a must read for this issue – particularly his chapter in “Climax of Prophecy” where he examines Revelation as a “Christian War Scroll.”

    I will try to summarise his conclusions fairly quickly here to hopefully add something to this conversation, but I would suggest that anyone wanting more information on this topic should really read that chapter at least.

    I think what really needs to be noted here is the rhetorical devices that John uses in his text, remembering the fact that this would have been read out to congregations in full in one sitting. As we look at the way John paints this fantastic picture with his imagination brush (to steal a quote from Scrubs), we notice a few very important things at key points within the text.

    For example, when John is taken to the throne room (chapters 4-5), he weeps because no one is able to open the sealed scroll. At that point, though, he *hears* one of the elders say that “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals” (5:5). This immediately conjures up in the minds of those from the Judeo-Christian tradition images of a military messiah after the order of David the warrior, who would lead the people of God to victory over their oppressors.

    But what happens next changes all of that.

    John has *heard* that it is the “Lion” who will open the seals, but he turns to *see* a “Lamb, looking as though it had been slain” (5:6). This is not merely a way of juxtaposing the “majesty” and “meekness” of Jesus together, but is an all-out subversion of the military messiah expectation. Jesus is *not* the military warrior who overpowers everyone else by force (as the Roman Empire was trying to do, and doing fairly convincingly); Jesus was the one who triumphed through faithful prophetic witness even to the point of death, and through this he was vindicated and gained victory over the beast of Empire.

    Interestingly, the exact same thing happens in regards to the people of God.

    John *hears* the number of the “sealed”: “144,000 from all the tribes of Israel” (7:4). What follows is a fairly standard sounding military census, listing the number of all the “fighting men”.

    But again, at precisely the right point, John subverts the whole image. Though he *heard* the number of the 144,000, he turns to *see* “a great multitude that no one could count” (7:9), made up of every ethnic group, wearing martyrs robes, holding palm branches, and worshipping God. The whole image has been overturned, because they are not dressed for battle at all. The fight here is something other than traditional war.

    Finally, this all comes into play once again in chapter 19, when the imagery of Psalm 2 is brought out and the final battle of armaggedon happens. Except it doesn’t!

    What actually happens is that the “battle” is lead not by the all-powerful, Caesar-smashing brutish military Messiah, but by him who’s name is “faithful and true” and who can conquer only by means of his sacrificial death and subsequent vindication. He rides into “battle” with his martyr-army behind him, who don’t have any of the weapons necessary to fight a real battle at all. They only partake in victory through their own sacrificial life of faithful witness – even to the point of death.

    Thus, there is no actual “battle” at all. The Rider on the white horse conquers by the “sword that comes from his mouth”, which has to mean his testimony rather than an actual metal weapon.

    And all of this means that, while John is using the military imagery, he is completely undermining it at every point. He has a military-looking-yet-totally-non-military Messiah, with a-military-looking-but-totally-non-military militia, fighting what looks to be a military battle but is simply a fantastic account of the victory of the testimony of Christ and his faithful witness over all the powers of evil in the world.

    What this means, I think, is that Revelation is actually the *most* non-violent text in the Bible, even though it *sounds* like a very violent one. John seems, I think, to be undermining these military, violent images at every point, pointing out that Jesus’ victory is of a totally different kind. Jesus doesn’t win by being bigger and badder than Rome; he wins due to his faithful life and sacrificial death, and his resurrection that overthrows any powers of violence in the world.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents worth…

  6. I’ve been sitting in front of the comments window now for some twenty minutes, trying to formulate a response. Thanks Matt for dealing with my comments re: Revelation and Bonhoeffer. I’ve read a little about his reaction. It’s more interesting, then, to see his actual response to the evil of Nazi Germany in light of what he wrote concerning it. If it is sin, and he identifies it as such, why was he willing to continue in it. Surely, as far as he was concerned, it was the only course of action left to him, even from a non-violent point of view! I’m not sure what to make of that.

    The Revelation stuff simply struck me as inconsistence. On the one hand, the sword was an image for God’s word (maybe Jesus had haliotosis and was using that? j/k) and the ‘word of their testimony’ was a straight equivalent. Josh’s two cents were quite valuable in that area (thanks)!

    Thanks too to smoyle for the clarification of non-violence vs. passivity. I find it very difficult to be passive in the face of some threat, especially made against others in front of me. I think I need a working definition of non-violence. I’d be interested to read some more about non-violent responses to immediate threats (the Wikipedia article was not particularly helpful in that regard), as opposed to political or sociological threats, which the Wikipedia article seems to major in.

    Would you mind recommending some reading for me (I’ve got some leave coming up!)? It would be good to go deeper with this topic.

    Thanks again.

    • Tom – I know the feeling!

      Like I said, I would warn against the tendency to make everything a symbol referring to an external. In saying that how might you interpret the sword, and the ‘word of their testimony’ if not in the way I have?

      To introduce you to my friends – Simon (smoyle) is a Baptist minister and peace activist, and Josh is a fellow biblical scholar, and Revelation is one of his specialties. Their comments will be guided by more specific expertise than I on the practicalities of nonviolence and Revelation scholarship respectively.

      If you are after an introduction to the topic of nonviolence and theology, I would highly recommend Walter Wink’s little book, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. It is a good starting point, and can be read in about two hours.

      Simon – have you got any key suggestions for intermediate to advanced reading on nonviolence?

  7. “In saying that how might you interpret the sword, and the ‘word of their testimony’ if not in the way I have?”

    You mean, apart from halitosis?

    Well, here’s a go at re-imagining some of the word-pictures, or at least finding some other options or whatnot. (I’m on relatively new ground here for me, so bear with me. I appreciate your patience so far.)

    Jesus tells his followers to buy swords if they don’t already have one (Luke 22:35ff), and then rebukes them for offering two for him to use – perhaps this is confirmation that although Jesus’ one was one of non-violence (which is evidenced in rebuking Peter for his use of his in the Garden (Jn. 18:11)), his followers could still have need of a sword, albeit in defense not offense, although those ‘living by the sword’ (career soldiers, Zealots, etc) might not fare so well.

    Looking at the use of sword in Revelation (and this is just a cursory glance – your mate Josh can correct me!), it does equate with words, and God’s words, but aggressive words? Violent words, perhaps? I don’t know. It doesn’t seem, in the latter passages, to be a nice image, that’s for sure. And it doesn’t at all sit well with Swiss-jesus.

    What of the seeming sanction from the Lamb (or the Scroll) of the second rider, the one on a red horse (Mars?). He takes away peace and is specifically given a sword.

    The verses you mention in your original post, to bring them up again, although they seem to refer to the words or the message (much like Ephesians), the next six or so verses paint a very ugly picture of the results of those words/that message, one of death and destruction (but with a triumphant tone). Last week’s lectionary reading (I’m an Anglican Christian…) from Matthew follow his pronouncement that he ‘didn’t come to bring peace but a sword.’

    Perhaps the overall tone is one of words and messages, but the results are those of war. Again, I’d look for someone who knows more of what they are talking about than I to interpret these images, but birds feasting on the flesh of the dead seems to be very violent.

    The word of their testimony is less of a violent image, for sure. But perhaps (and this is said with tongue in cheek), if sword = word, then word = sword? In that case, the strength of God would fill them and they would be able to literally vanquish their foes! I’m being silly of course. My question, I guess, was less of reinterpreting them and more of applying the same critical devices and tools to both in equal measure (not with equal results, though).

    (Let me just reiterate, I don’t think that the image of a violent sword-bearing Jesus is justification for Christian war, or any form of Christian violence. I know the original post was in regard to that, but I just wanted to clear up my own position. I think that the two things are separate and one can’t apply the apocalyptic pictures of Revelation in a literal sense to everyday life.)

    By way of introduction, then, I’m a recently ordained Anglican deacon, leading a small rural parish in Victoria, who one day happened across this and another blog on refugees (a topic I feel strongly about). I’m still in the throes of studies but am committed to a proper Biblical exegesis and a true picture of how the church should be working in the world (yeast being a good metaphor). Sometimes I feel I’m at odds with my church tradition, other times it has the capacity to inspire beyond what I had thought possible. I thoroughly enjoy my work and ministry and my family (wife and three gorgeous if morning-oriented kids) and I’m looking forward in being educated by you all!

    Thanks for the reading recommendation. I’m also a fan of Shane Claiborne, whose attitude is definitely one of non-violence.

  8. Thanks for your thoughts Matt (and other commenters). At the risk of broadening out the topic beyond the scope of a blog post, my thoughts on this topic are two-fold
    1) There is noplace in the NT where Jesus (or other writer) enjoins his followers to do violence on God’s behalf (some will quote Lk 22:36 but Lk 22:51 shows that this is not Jesus intention)
    2) the broader question is about how we understand the ‘dark side’ of God where Rev attributes the unleashing of destruction on the earth to God. Similarily the constant interplay in OT prophets between God’s judgement and God’s grace

    So even if we accept that God allows/causes destruction there is still no place for followers of Jesus to take it upon themselves to use violence as agents of God’s Kingdom (sorry USA!).
    But it still leaves the question of how we understand God’s judgement and God’s grace.

    PS just read last comment which says similar things!

  9. @Tom: I think that, in Revelation, John is very much taking over “violent language” (at pretty much every point), but investing it with new meaning.

    Remember, many Jews and Christians in the first century (except, I guess, groups like the Sadducees who did fairly well out of dealing with the Romans) were fairly sure that God was going to intervene in a big way to dish out to Rome a little bit of its own medicine. The question was, would the faithful rise up with Messiah and help overthrow the oppressors in literal battle, or would God sort of do it on his own, letting the faithful know when it was safe to come out of hiding? Groups like the zealots more naturally favoured the first option, while groups like the community at Qumran seem to have favoured (for the most part) the latter.

    After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, resentment against Rome in these communities grew even more (obviously). The historical documents seem to also reflect at this time a general move more towards the latter option outlined above, because Rome was apparently too powerful and only God could handle giving the seemingly almighty Empire the whooping it deserved.

    In this context, then, Revelation is quite interesting.

    Although the general move in the literature was *away* from the people of God actually participating in the great End Times reversal battle (not forgetting that some stayed with the idea of the people of God being involved in the battle – an option that didn’t end up so well in the Bar Kochba rebellion), Revelation seems to *sound* very much like the other option.

    What it seems to do, though, is to pick up the language almost exactly, but to offer some really important changes at key moments and in key images that actually seems to completely undermine the traditional use of the language, investing or infusing the language with an entirely new meaning (John was the first theologian – playing with words and making them mean what ever he wanted them to mean!!!). So, as I was talking about above, the images *sound* very violent indeed! I guess this is why so many people have traditionally read the text in a way that treats it as simply being an ultra-violent response from a disaffected seer.

    But I think that a careful reading changes everything. Sure, it’s gory in places – the end result for the “great prostitute” is one of the most horrific pictures imaginable, and has thus been the focus of many a feminist critique (and probably rightly so). However, it’s interesting to note that the destruction of the “great prostitute” is also at the hands of the Nero-like beast who returns with the kings of the East to wreak havoc on the city of Rome (a popular myth circling around at the time). So, the “real” violence seems to be perpetrated at the hands of Empire, and is one of the reasons it is being judged.

    There’s also a couple of clues that “judgments” from God are not the way that people will come to give glory to the God of heaven, but it is only through the faithful prophetic witness of the church that this will happen. I don’t have time to explain this here (read Bauckham’s work in regards to the “Two Witnesses”), but the point seems to be that God is more concerned with testimony about Jesus (bringing people into relationship with God) than he is in punishing people, and is concerned with destroying the great oppressive Empire for exactly the point that people were not being treated as people and were suffering at the hands of a boastful monster. God, in Revelation, seems to want to destroy the systems of oppression far more than he revels in the destruction of individual human beings.

    Now, John can only use the language and conventions that are available to him in his own time, but I think that some of these points help to bring out an entirely different reading of Revelation than is sometimes offered – and, I think, a more authentic one.

    This doesn’t get into debates about non-violent active resistance versus “passivity” or “apathy” (which I would personally like to hear much more about), but I think it does help us be a little bit careful about reading ancient apocalyptic reading at a surface level and perhaps misunderstanding the profound work of literary geniuses like John.

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