Revelation and the Question of Violence

Apocalypse_vasnetsovIn “Revelation’s Violence Problem: Mapping Essential Questions”, Greg Carey offers a helpful account of Revelation’s theme of violence.

“Few actually pause to articulate precisely what we mean when we call Revelation ‘violent’… Most interpreters believe it attributes violence to God and to Jesus. Some would say the book even fosters the desire for violence within its audience. More debatable is the question of whether a literary text can actually cause violence. Surely some people have used Revelation to justify their own violent behavior; then again, most of Revelation’s readers have not done so.” (p 296)

I would be curious to know the “some people” Carey believes “surely” to have justified violence in Revelation’s name. They’d have to be the once-in-a-blue-moon fringe. Revelation attributes violence to evil super-powers, and to the “bad guys” who make war on the faithful, but never to the “good guys”. The faithful don’t engage in holy war, and as Carey himself notes, they are specifically encouraged not to. They conquer the Dragon through witnessing and pacifist martyrdom — basically they’re called on to simply endure. Any hacking and slashing is reserved for Christ alone, and ultimate judgment is left to God.

It’s true that the image of a sword-bearing messiah on a war-horse is militant and unlike the gospel pacifist who rode an ass. And the drama would make a good horror film: angels kill a third of humankind, while divine plagues kill another third. Like most apocalypses, Revelation’s tone is unremittingly bleak. But Carey’s conclusion that “Revelation celebrates and endorses violence even though it calls its audience to abstain from violent action” seems like a top-heavy statement. It certainly celebrates divine violence and the punishment of evildoers through a punitive theology. But to say, as he does, that “it is not enough to translate Revelation’s holy warfare as spiritual warfare, as if this mathematical reduction would leave no remainder,” undermines the fact that there really is no holy war in Revelation to speak of. For nowhere do any of the divine monstrosities constitute a call to action. God never tells Christians to enforce his commands on his behalf — just the opposite in fact — which is why Christians have almost never misused Revelation in this way.

In any case, Carey’s advice that, “One need not follow John in order to learn Revelation’s lessons” is to be applauded, whatever we take as the book’s meaning. That’s what I was getting at in arguing that books like I Maccabees (a clear template for holy war) and Galatians (Paul’s less than admirable way of dealing with ethnic conflict) can still be esteemed despite their problems (in their case, by allowing other texts, like II Maccabees and Romans, to serve as a “control” over them). This cannot be said for all texts of all religions to the same degree, with a straight face. The reason I believe that Revelation can retain a positive role in the Christian canon is for the same reason I think Daniel can. Apocalypses are wrong but for good reasons. They yearn for a deity who will defeat evil, redeem the world, and hold humanity responsible for the wrongs they inflict on others. The danger, as Carey notes, comes in the dualism of white-hats and black-hats, and the way apocalyptic dramas cause people to internalize unhealthy desires for vindictive punishment.

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