Revelation — A Diagnostic Manual

At Mass during this Easter season we hear the highlight passages of the Book of Revelation. If you’ve ever tried to read the whole thing, you know that a lot of the good stuff gets left out. At Mass we miss out on ” the Four Horsemen,” ” the Sea of Blood,” “the Beast from the Land,” “the Beast from the Sea,” “Babylon, the Great Harlot,” “the 144,000,” and lots more. Even if you’ve never read the book, you can wonder from the cast of characters: What’s going on?

As I wrote last week, Revelation tells a story — as if from heaven’s perspective — about the true direction of history. At the time of telling it was to encourage Christians suffering persecution by the “Beast/harlot” of that age, the Roman Empire with its worship of imperial conquest, of luxury, and (ultimately) of itself. (Fantastic imagery, then as now, is one way for an oppressed people to disguise what they’re talking about in the face of persecution, and for the storyteller to save his/her neck.) But the church still reads and prays over it because, in one form or another, worldly powers will always seek to seduce or compel people to worship them and their priorities, rather than the true God. Disciples will always be faced with the temptation to offer that worship (which may well not take religious forms), rather than to remember that God is the final director of history and judge of nations. Revelation is our diagnostic manual for living in a fallen world.

Revelation is, when studied as a whole, an exacting dissection of the way social structures — governments, economic arrangements, societal expectations, theories about society and markets, ideologies of every sort — will constantly overreach their legitimate role of fostering human cooperation and flourishing, and will make themselves into small-g gods. Anyone who’s lost his/her house or job because of “the economy” or “market forces” or is even curious about how certain banks got “too big to be allowed to fail” has gotten a glimpse of the process Revelation is talking about. (You may remember that twenty years ago the U.S. Bishops issued a Pastoral Letter on the economy, Economic Justice for All, that insisted that market forces had to be judged morally — by what they did to people, and what they did for people. They were carrying forward the task of Revelation — unveiling the semi-invisible forces that shape and mis-shape human lives, and with which disciples have to contend lest we fall into idolatry. We’ve had quite an education in that since the economic collapse of 2007-8.)

Of course Revelation doesn’t offer an economic or political program. It offers instead a perspective that could be summarized something like this:*

  • Human life is shaped (for good and ill) by spiritual/social forces that have two “poles”: one spiritual (the “theory of free markets,” for instance), and one tangible (banks, stock exchanges, paychecks, eviction notices, etc.) The New Testament calls these bi-polar realities “Powers”;
  • The Powers are good, because they are (ultimately) God’s creations for human flourishing;
  • The Powers are also fallen, turned in on themselves and their own good rather than the wellbeing of all of creation;
  • The Powers need to be redeemed by Christ along with the rest of God’s creation;
  • The work of disciples is to see and name the Powers as good / fallen / to be redeemed; this is a key part of our cooperation with the Risen Christ in His work of returning creation to the Father renewed and purified and transformed;
  • To do this work we must not fall into the idolatry of taking the Powers at their word and giving them uncritical respect. Sometimes this will lead to oppression and persecution.

The writer of Revelation knows that the Powers seek to dazzle, befuddle, seduce, or (if that fails) compel us to see things their way. The “Revelation” shows them as they are: good, fallen, and to be redeemed. Until next week, peace.

*I am indebted to the theologian Walter Wink for much of this material. See his work The Powers. (Four volumes: Augsburg-Fortress Press, 1984 — 1992.)