Nero’s Torches, 1876
Oil on canvas
In approximately 94-95 A.D., an elderly man exiled to Patmos wrote a vision that he had received from God. How we ought to be interlocutors with his mode of composition (i.e. whether the written text is all visionary or partially visionary and partially literary) is unimportant for observing the heaviness of the content of his work: that is, the Book of Revelation as a text primarily concerned with the critique of Imperial power and the Christian answer to the problem of Empire. For the purposes of this post, I will be using the academic definition of Empire, as a political-social order that aims for hegemony over its subjects.Given the book’s concern for politics, power, and et cetera, it is not surprising that John’s work is so often co-opted for use in American political life, where various factions of political “orthodoxy” vie for theological influence. Language for American political candidates, even in this most recent election, varies from “sheer evil” (he/she is “the Antichrist,” “part of the Muslim Brotherhood,” “practicing Satanic rituals,” “a Jezebel”) to “sheer good” (he/she is “a man of God,” “a modern-day Cyrus,” “the anointed one”). These terms are used with incredible vigor: I recall leading a prayer meeting once in which the pastor asserted fervently that Republican candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was a “righteous man of God”; to apply the term “man of God” (a specialized Old Testament description of a prophet) to someone whose faith renounces the very Deity of Christ is an extraordinary claim!
Worse yet, of course, is the matter in which the various entrenched political powers-that-be represent the concerns of broader ideologies that are not actually interested in the Christian’s values as members of the Kingdom of God. The use of Revelation to buoy ideologically-empowered claims, whether conservative or liberal, actually results in a refutation of Revelation’s most fundamental theses regarding power, authority, and kingship.
These theses reveal themselves most vibrantly in Chapter 5: an angel holds up a scroll that a worthy one might open and use. From the context (vv. 9-10), it becomes apparent that the scroll is a metaphor for the right to true governance, but no one can be found who is worthy. John weeps: “I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it” (Revelation 5:4).
In John’s day, this was the utter reality of life under the hegemony of Empire. The emperor’s lust for power and control lead to the institution of festivals of man-worship, a practice unheard-of just a century prior in the Roman Republic. Here one begins to see a form that is well-recognized in the halls of political thought: Empire as hegemonic force. For John to weep that “no one was found worthy” is to decry the abysmal political situation of the world under the power of emperors. If Plato and Cicero (in their respective Republics) claimed that the ideal statesman was the Philosopher-King, then what ruled in John’s day from the city of Rome was the exact opposite: “the God-King.” And the results were palpable.
Here I find myself wanting to make a provocative differentiation, in the midst of so many and varied political philosophies of our day and age. One observes throughout the whole democratic apparatus a distrust for political powers-that-be, and the continued excoriation of those powers under a variety of names. The libertarians and conservatives point at the dangers of “The State” and its influence; some Christian libertarians even apply Peter’s description of Satan to “The State,” saying “The State is like a prowling lion searching for whom it may devour.” On the other side, the progressives and liberals campaign against the powers of “Empire,” using academic language, confronting it in its polyvalent forms: capitalism, the patriarchy, heteronormativity, and such.
It seems to me that — and I will adopt the academic terminology for unity’s sake — both the Right and the Left in America rightly target Empire as an enemy of the people, but that by taking aim at “Empire” in their own partisan terms, they wind up imposing another “Empire” upon the Other. Or, to use a different set of terms, by rejecting the hegemonic orthodoxy of the opposing party, a political community imposes their own hegemonic orthodoxy. This, more than anything else, is the root problem underneath, for instance, the recent defrocking of Prof. Paul Griffiths at Duke University; and it is also the root problem underneath, for instance, the indignation the Christian Right has towards protests aimed at calling for Justice. By rejecting the Other’s Empire, the powers institute their own Empire which demands the same level of moral-political commitment.
All of these competing modes of governance vie, as it were, for hegemonic authority.
My provocative differentiation is a tentative thesis: I would suggest that there is some sort of difference between the State, rightly-understood, and Empire, as I’ve laid out above (keeping in mind that most of what libertarians mean by “the State” is really what I would call “Empire”). There is surely some kind of governance that can exist which aims for the mutual good of its people; it is that kind of governance that makes certain Biblical passages of Christ’s now-and-not yet Good Kingdom promises intelligible. How to discern the lines between the State and Empire is quite difficult, but my proposal would suggest that the former vies for “good governance” (see II Sam. 23) while the latter vies for hegemony. I am not, for the sake of this blog post, discussing what “secular” “good governance” might look like, although I’ve long pondered various theories (following Plato, Cicero, Augustine, and Luther) on that matter.
It is in direct, radical, revolutionary opposition to the latter (Empire) that John pens his lament. None is worthy to read the scroll, none can break open the seal. God may entrust men with the authority to govern (cf. Rom. 13), but the access to true governance is inappropriate for the kings of the earth, who only succeed in enforcing their hegemonic wills upon the subservient populaces. Who can rule? What John writes (what is revealed to him) is a claim that is not only the reverse of our expectations, but also incredibly antagonistic to the Roman Empire and its theo-political claims: “Worthy are You [the Lion-Lamb] to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).
Rather than imposing His will through power (cf. Nietzsche), Christ is declared worthy because He is slain. Not only this, but His Kingdom is one of co-regents and co-monarchs, a Kingdom and Priesthood that shall reign as one people. Rather than abolish the monarchy (or the emperor), Christ establishes as Kingdom of many kings and queens whose power is co-eval and egalitarian and who rule with true Justice.
Such a vision is thoroughly opposite of any and all of the political atheologies that are currently being advanced in the common American context. Rather than simply replace Empire with another version of its oppressive rule, as both liberals and conservatives aim to do, the Christian view of God’s Kingdom is one that upends and uproots the whole system and replaces it with the radical, egalitarian Kingdom of priests who are ransomed by the Lamb who was slain.
Thus, as Walter Brueggemann says in Israel’s Praise, we find that “the liturgy [of the church] begins to subvert the empire.” When God’s people sing songs of the lordship of Christ and the coming rule and reign of His Kingdom, they are making a political claim that sets them immediately in opposition to all the hegemonic powers-that-be. “Praise,” Brueggemann asserts, “is the beginning of political practice.”