Above all, the Book of Revelation has always been used as a kind of codebook to discover the hidden meanings behind the great events and personages of history—war and revolution, kings and conquerors, pandemic and natural disaster. And the words and phrases of Revelation, its stock figures and scenes, have recycled and repurposed artists and poets, preachers and propagandists—all in the service of some religious or political or cultural agenda. The conquest of Jerusalem by medieval crusaders, the Bonfire of the Vanites [1492-4] in Florence during the Renaissance, the naming of the newly discovered Americas as the New World, and the thousand-year Reich promised by Adolf Hitler are all examples of the unlikely and unsettling ways that the book of Revelation has resonated through history. Even today, end-of- the-world fears and fantasies are peddled by Hollywood moviemakers and best-selling novelists, hard-preaching televangelists and presidential hopefuls.Jonathan Kirsch, A History of the End of the World. (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), pp.3-4.
(Photo credit – Alamy)
Professor Kirsch has given only a very short list of examples of how Revelation has been (ab)used by fanatics, zealots, and cynical manipulators to justify their own wickedness as Divine will. From Augustine of Hippo (early 5th Century) calling for the Emperor’s wrath on the Donatists to the Inquisition to some of the US’s farthest Right in the last few decades, the refrain has been the same.
The sincerity of someone’s belief in their own rationalization for taking on the role of God’s avenging angel to bring judgment on apostates and infidels does not reduce their delusion or the downright wickedness of their deeds. All the more if those deeds were done in full knowledge of their ability to inflame others to do their dastardly work in the name of Christ.
It is the shame of the Church (the Universal Church of Jesus, not any particular denomination) to have sanctioned and participated in some of the bloodiest and most reprehensible deeds of history by invoking the glorious King of Kings as their Commander in launching aggressive and murderous war. As Kirsch notes, even Hitler used that angle to deceive, or at least salve the consciences of, millions of German Christians as he went about “cleansing the earth” of the unworthy in order to inaugurate his own version of the millennium.
Fanatics are not peculiar to Christianity. We have seen them in action within other religions with the same manifestations of justifying heinous and diabolical actions in the name of their god(s). We have seen them in action in atheistic socio-political ideologies with fury that at least equals and often exceeds that of religious zealots. When Christians slide into that yawning abyss it is a fundamental betrayal of everything their Master taught and exemplified. Only the deepest (self-) deception about who Yeshua is, why he came, and what he did can move those calling themselves his disciples to behave like the Devil himself.
Which brings us to what I call the “Imperial Church”.
The Church (Greek – ekklesia – the assembly of the people, of the citizens, of the community) is the institutionalized form of the community that Yeshua left behind him when he left this world, promising to return someday to renew it from top to bottom. Meantime he instructed his disciples and followers to go into all the world and teach and demonstrate what the Kingdom of God should be like in action, not just in a theology about judgment and punishment of sin (human failure to turn back to the Creator and to treat one another and His creation as they should).
In the Bible there are plenty of metaphors and images of what that Kingdom is and what it should look like when put into place and lived in action in the here and now, not just in some future age when Yeshua will return to actually rule as the final King. Jesus once told his disciples that they should be “in the world, but not of it”, that they should not seek to rule and dominate “like the rulers of the nations do” – by fear, coercion, manipulation, oppression, and violent force to bring compliance or face annihilation. He told his followers, “If you want to be great in God’s Kingdom, be the servant of all…. Wash one another’s feet.”
“Aye, and there’s the rub,” as Shakespeare would say. The Yeshua way is a lot harder than gathering a powerful army, marching into some place, ordering everyone to believe or face the alternative of, at best, being a slave or lower-class menial serving the elite, or, at worst, death and destruction. The Yeshua way is feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, caring for the poor and destitute and downtrodden, lifting up the oppressed and bringing them hope, and even offering mercy and the opportunity to repent and change to the most depraved and criminal.
The truth about the Yeshua way is that it takes a long time to bring about change in human hearts and society itself. And you still have to always contend with the rebels, the recalcitrant, and the plain old incorrigibly wicked who still want to use and abuse and control and dominate others.
In an ideal word where people were really inherently good rather than broken and selfish and prone to take advantage of others for self enhancement and personal gratification, we could bring in the Kingdom of the Messiah by lived example and persuasion. According to all the evidence available in history, psychology, sociology, and anthropology, we find ourselves in a world where humans do not naturally (perhaps with some odd exceptions) treat one another nicely and fairly with any constancy. Even the best of us fall into patterns of behaviour that put ourselves in the place of the Creator at the core of our being.
Which is why we need one another’s help; which is why we needed (and need) the Creator to take a direct hand in showing us the way out, and giving us a changed heart. Which is why the Creator sent the embodiment of all that in an actual living human being – Yeshua of Natzeret – two thousand years ago.
We will not engage here in the debate about whether what Christians traditionally believe about Yeshua-Jesus is true. The purpose of this reflection is to consider what those who profess to follow him and to desire the coming of his Kingdom in this realm of time and space have made of his legacy. That legacy was entrusted to a community, not merely to individuals to figure and live out on their own. Yeshua called that community his ekklesia – see the definition above – more like a great extended family acknowledging God, the Creator, as its Father-King, and the members as sons and daughters, sisters and brothers.
For about 250 years after Yeshua bodily left the earth, the Ekklesia more or less remained true to the intent of its Founder. But things were often hard. Most of the family lived inside the Roman Empire, and the Roman authorities were capricious in their treatment of them. Some Emperors ignored them as relatively harmless idealists suffering from delusions of mystic grandeur. Some decided they were a threat to the social and even political order of the Empire and sporadically persecuted them. Some local governors sometimes took it upon themselves to use force and coercion against these dissidents who claimed there is a heavenly King even above the Emperor and discouraged their sons and brothers from serving in the Roman military and government.
The numbers of the family grew into the millions over the generations, and finally the Roman State decided to destroy this insidious social infection. Massive persecutions broke out in the Third Century. Tens of thousands of Christians were killed. Tens of thousands more recanted, at least publicly. Tens of thousands more went underground, but carried on – and the numbers continued to grow.
A crisis was at hand. It seemed that one side or the other must give way in the great contest of Caesar versus Jesus Christ (Messiah Yeshua).
TO BE CONTINUED