The book of Revelation was likely written in the 90’s a.d. to seven communities of faith in Asia Minor in the Roman Empire under Emperor Domitian. Written by a Seer named John (probably not the author of the fourth gospel), it presents itself as a pastoral letter, a prophetic announcement, and an apocalypse.
-As a pastoral letter Revelation offers practical wisdom for churches in the crucible of living faithfully amid the most powerful empire on earth. Here we discover the focus of the book.
-As a prophetic announcement Revelation provides the content from which the Seer draws his pastoral counsel.
-As an apocalypse (a revelation, the first Greek word of the document, from which it gets its name) Revelation gives us an x-ray (as it were) into the character of the empire, the kingdom of which God is the King, and what it means to participate in God’s Kingdom). From this aspect of the book we get the necessary perspective from which to hear it content and counsel.
Pastoral counsel, prophetic content, and perspective – that’s what we get from this volatile mixture of genres. As such Revelation addresses our passions (apocalypse), priorities (prophetic), and practices (pastoral). It brings heart, head, and hands into an integrated whole. We must respond to it as a whole, heart, head, and hands.
Like all empires, Rome ruled with an iron fist, for the benefit of the 1%, and with unlimited pretentions. And Rome, here, means the Emperor. It promulgates a totalizing ideology to justify its privileged, divinely ordained, place in the order of things. Michael Kruse writes: “The defining feature of Empire is its totalizing agenda. Everything and everyone must come under the service of the Empire. That certainly has implications for how empire relates to those outside its immediate influence but it equally involves hoe it subjugates those who reside in the empire.”
These are all features of the young Trump presidency. They apply in varied measure to all the expressions of American empire through its history but are being pushed with great vigor by Trump. Increased military spending, and likely use in the world, policies put in place to benefit business and the wealthy, unlimited pretentions (“Make America Great Again”) are evident signs of a beefed up imperial agenda. Further, Trump has made it clear that America needs a big change in its view of itself and its place in the world. American exceptionalism is getting a major makeover!
John writes primarily to contest the Empire’s ideology shaping the minds and hearts of Jesus’ people. This ideology was impossible to avoid. Currency, architecture, proclamations, festivals, and the like served as ubiquitous reinforcers of the imperial ideology (think “In God We Trust” on our currency). Their world was steeped in empire, as is ours. And we are assaulted by empire’s rhetoric, images, and ideology as thoroughly as those first century Christians in Asia Minor. It is primarily on this level, the apocalyptic, that we need to hear the Seer’s words to us.
John counters the ideology of the empire with the Old Testament. Though he seldom directly cites it, every letter and syllable of Revelation draw breath from it. One estimate I’ve seen is that there are over 500 allusions to the Old Testament in the book. That puts us American Christians at a bit of a disadvantage because we do not know the Old Testament well. Perhaps reading Revelation is a way to remedy that to an extent. If your Bible has cross-references it would be good to check out these references and allusions. I’ll comment on some of them but I don’t have the space to include all of them.
Reading Revelation “Resistically”
One crucial part of a comprehensive program of resistance to Trump is nurturing our memory of the events and traditions, especially the biblical, traditions from where we draw and sustain our lives as God’s people. This effort to read Revelation “resistically” is part of that program.
I susspect Revelation will turn out to be more valuable to us Americans than we can imagine. Along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer I believe Revelation is an essential resource for our struggle. Perhaps most importantly, John’s visions can help us refuse to normalize this new expression of imperial ideology. That at least I my hope and prayer.