April 24, 2013
In Reading Revelation Responsibly, Michael Gorman brilliantly captures Revelation’s critique of civil religion that undergirds empire:
Revelation is a critique of civil religion (first of all, but not only, Roman civil religion), that is, the sacralization of secular political, economic, and military power through various mythologies and practices—creeds and liturgies, we might say—and the corollary demand for allegiance to that power.
Because civil religion is so closely connected with power, it often appears in extreme forms in empires and empire-like states (e.g., modern superpowers), grounded in the assumption that expansion and victory (in war or otherwise) are signs of divine blessing and protection, and in the common belief that god is on the side of the powerful. At the same time, however, civil religion is not exclusively the property of empires and superpowers; it is also to be found in former empires, would-be superpowers, ordinary states, and even poor, developing nations. Human beings seem to have a need to attribute a sacred, or at least quasi-sacred character to their political bodies, their rulers, and the actions of those entities. One tragic but frequent result is the sacralization of one’s own people, whether nation, race, or tribe, and the demonization of the other. Out of such religion comes a culture of hatred and even violence. We know far too many examples of this in modern times (pp. 47-48).
He concludes this section by focusing the critique of empire as a warning to the church as it faces the seductions of civil religion (p. 56):
Is Revelation a critique of empire? Yes—but that is not its ultimate theopolitical function. The fate of empire is certain; what is uncertain is the fate of those who currently participate in the cult of empire. The more significant critique is the critique of the church, and specifically of its participation in the idolatry of the imperial cult, the civil or national religion. Will the churches repent? For the churches, one main question emerges: “Beast or Lamb?”
It’s impossible to read Gorman without sensing the power of Revelation for the contemporary American church–not as an object of fascination and speculation, but as urgent prophetic warning