Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence
True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth
Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence
By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.
Part 143. The Revelation to John
Many people have found Revelation's apocalyptic vision appealing. The destruction it depicts offers an end to suffering and the promise of a better age, which often comforts people whose lives are filled with misery. It offers hope for ultimate victory for the select "good" people, while (equally satisfying to many people) "evil" people receive their comeuppance. I have yet to meet a person of any faith who, believing in a future apocalypse, does not also believe that they are among the elect who will enjoy everlasting bliss. Another reason that many Christians have found Revelation attractive is that those bent on "holy war" in God's name claim support from Revelation's imagery.
Revelation poses a challenge for those who regard the Bible as steadily revealing the scandal of scapegoating, "sacred" violence. Revelation features many images of war and death, which appear to come at the hands of God and God's forces. However, I think one can faithfully and reasonably receive Revelation in ways that accord with "God is love."
Evidently, Revelation aimed to both encourage those who were victims of Roman persecution and to inspire those who would likely find themselves traumatized by the anticipated conflict between God's empire and that of humankind (then represented by the Roman Empire).1 When Revelation was written, its readers were familiar with the genre of apocalyptic literature, such as that found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospels, and Paul's epistles.2 Readers likely understood that Revelation uses metaphors and should not, as done by some Christians today, be taken literally.
Revelation is consistent with a nonviolent Jesus. In Chapter 5, John the Seer describes the one who is "worthy to open the scroll and break its seals" (5:2). An elder told John to expect the Lion of Judah, a traditional symbol of military power. Instead, John the Seer wrote, "And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain" (5:6). People have always regarded the lion as having control over life and death. According to a Girardian view of the Bible, God desires that we assume the status of the Lamb. The Lamb is often the victim of sacrificial violence and is never the victimizer.
Proponents of Christian "Holy Wars" have pointed to images in Revelation that, they claim, endorse violence, but alternative understandings are possible and reasonable. For example, "Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world - he was thrown down to the earth . . . And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony" (12:7-9, 11). The "war" involved the voluntary sacrifice of the slain Lamb and the testimony of his followers, who proved victorious without killing their opponents.
Revelation chapters 19 and 20 describe the final confrontations, which many Christians have understood to depict heaven at war with satanic earthly forces. Interestingly, the "sword with which to smite the nations" (19:15) comes from the mouth of "Faithful and True", who sat upon a white horse (19:11-12). There is similar imagery later: "And the rest were slain by the sword of him who sits upon the horse, the sword that issues from his mouth" (19:21; see also 1:16, 2:12, 2:16). It is reasonable to regard the "sword" coming from the mouth as Jesus' voice. If so, a voice alone cannot commit acts of violence, but what the voice says could unleash a torrent of violence. Jesus' teaching that God does not want us to generate community by scapegoating violence would undermine the fragile "peace" (see Matthew 10:34-37; Luke 12:51-53) that scapegoating generates, but ultimately only communities grounded on love are stable and just. Those who resist God's truth ultimately cannot unify themselves via scapegoating, and there is war of all against all. Jesus recognized that the universal, satanic, human attempt to destroy the perceived evil ("Satan") in the midst of every community ultimately destroys the community. In other words, the attempt of Satan to cast out Satan is futile, because "If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand" (Mark 3:23-26; see also Luke 11:17-18).
I agree with Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther that Revelation is both descriptive and predictive. The early Christian churches faced real persecution from the Romans, and they anticipated greater struggles as they rejected the Roman Empire in favor of God's realm.3 In addition to official sanctions from the government, they risked social ostracism. John the Seer encouraged readers to contemplate the day when the righteous will prevail while the forces of evil destroy themselves. It is remarkable that Revelation 21:1-6 describes "a new heaven and a new earth" where "God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more" (21:3-4). This vision accords with Isaiah's prophesy of a future "Peaceable Kingdom" (11:6-9) in which all Creation will live harmoniously at the end of time.
1. Howard-Brook, Wes and Gwyther, Anthony. Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now. New York: Maryknoll, 2000, pp. 117-118.
2. Ibid., pp. xxvii-xxviii, 148-149.
3. Ibid., pp. 117-118.
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144. Wealth versus Poverty
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