One rendition of historical Jesus (long hair was not the custom of the day for men, and Jesus is here portrayed as a fairly typical Palestinian Jew, circa 30 AD)
In the section for Week 5, when we are reading the Book of the Revelation of John, we will spend a fair amount of time unpacking the historical context, and interpreting both Greek language nuances and genre-specific symbolism for Jewish apocalyptic writing. Chapter 12 of John Howard Yoder’s book, The Politics of Jesus, the chapter entitled “The War of the Lamb” (reprinted below, Note 7), will not prepare us for that kind of scholarly investigation, but will deal in advance with the modern ideas with which we are more familiar — treating the series of visions described in John’s Apocalypse as if we have already accomplished the scholarship.
Yoder’s chapter will look into John of Patmos’ (”the seer of Patmos” — one who “sees visions”) visions for what they mean to us — now.
This reversal of the usual academic sequence — working out from the original source and finally into our own experience… we are doing the opposite — is a reversal of that method. Instead of jumping into the deep end and swimming back to shore, so to speak, we have been wading into the shallow end and taking steps toward the deeper water, getting used to the water as we go.
First, we used a B-movie, an entertainment commodity, that attaches itself to certain familiar cultural conventions, and which we normally consume passively… light-mindedly, participating in the story uncritically; and we tried to become critical about the film Volcano as a way of practicing critical thinking about these cultural conventions. We were knee-deep.
Then we studied a film that was more innovative — an independent film — and one that was a good deal less light-minded: 28 Days Later. Character development was more nuanced. The imagery (as we will see in Revelation, too) is more violent and disturbing. The direction and editing is edgier. The moral dilemmas are more stark (Selena killing Mark, for example). The intermediate themes are more “controversial” (military as rape culture, for example, or science and the attempt to control nature, as far less benign than Volcano’s portrayal of the Man-conquers-Nature trope).
By the time we studied this film, we had already begun to familiarize ourselves with some epistemological questions. Those questions bear on the ethical dilemmas raised in these conditions of extremity; and we had already “practiced” looking through our heuristic device of the Ecology-Culture-Personhood Triangle, as a way of giving ourselves a “dislocative jolt” out of the passive acceptance of our day-to-day, 21st Century way-of-knowing. By now, we were waist-deep in the water.
Finally, we watched Children of Men, a film based on a dystopian novel written by a Christian author, a film with very original production values, and a film with cristological overtones that were very apparent, beginning with the title (a play on Jesus’ title, the Son of Man — meaning “the human one” in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), and ending with a miraculous birth (of hope) in the midst of an extremely broken and seemingly hopeless world.
Here we stepped further away from the familiar shore. We are in the water to our chests.
Yoder will hold our hand as we wade out to our necks, and we begin to let our feet release the bottom a bit as we experience our own buoyancy.
Theologian Ivan Illich — who we have also followed in this study — said that modernity (and its stepchild, postmodernity) and its vagaries were not anti-Christian, but that they are the outgrowth of aperversion of Christianity… a distortion of the call to discipleship exemplified by the Samaritan as friendship across social boundaries (in the case of the Samaritan, a member of an enemy people) and a constant choice of fidelity or infidelity to that friendship.
This distortion of the message of the Samaritan began with the Constantinianiztion of the church (an alliance with the Powers) and the “criminalization of sin.” It culminated in the depersonalization of “service,” and the creation of a new personhood — one characterized by alienation from one’s own body, and by incessant attention to our own “needs” with respect to that divorced body.
This loss of the sense of our own carnality (fleshiness) is reflected in an idea of Christ that is no longer incarnational… no longer wet, warm, throbbing, alive, centered in our skins, experiencing suffering and joy that is physical and in the world. This depersonalization corresponds to an instrumental and objectifying approach to both culture and ecology. We stand apart from ourselves, looking in from the outside; and we stand apart from our dis-enchanted environment (reducing it to a supply of “resources”), and we stand apart as a culture. We become a culture of abstraction, of general laws, of categorical imperatives, of conformity, and all the boundaries that were effaced by love when the Samaritan took the beaten Jew off the road and into his home… all these boundaries that were broken on the cross, are redrawn. We begin to talk about “values” (a rather abstract concept) in place of “right” and “wrong” — “good” and “evil.” We go down the endless and pointless path of relativism (relativistic being far different from “relational”).
[Illich also said that we have entered a new period, post-instrumentalist, wherein we conceive of everything — including our own selves and bodies — as systems… an array of “feedback loops,” or an “immune system.” Treating others instrumentally, however, seems not to have passed, but become more and more normative and malignant. All others are seen as a means to some self-serving end… in the medicalized language of psychoanalysis, narcissism.]
Yoder takes on the same subject — Christianity versus Christendom… the latter being that alliance of the church (and its perversion) with the Powers (e.g., the state and-or its dominant classes) and with the instrumentality that plays the chicken to the Powers’ egg.
In Stanely Haeurwas’ book, After Christendom?, in an essay entitled “Why There Is No Salvation Outside the Church,” he notes, anticipating our reading of the visions of “the seer of Patmos”:
God in Jesus has defeated the powers so that as disciples we can confidently live as a cruciform community in a world that has chosen not to be ruled by such love. Thus as John Howard Yoder suggests, “The Church precedes the world epistemologically. We know more fully from Jesus Christ and in the context of the confessed faith than we know in other ways. The meaning and validity, and limits, of concepts like ‘nature’ or a ’science’ are not best seen when looked at alone but in the light of the confession of the lordship of Christ. The church precedes the world as well axiologically, in that the lordship of Christ is the center which must guide critical value choices, so that we may be called to subordinate or even to reject those values which contradict Jesus.”
If we say, outside the church there is no salvation we make a claim about the very nature of salvation — namely that salvation is God’s work to restore all creation to the Lordship of Christ. Such a salvation is about the defeat of powers that presume to rule outside God’s providential care. Such salvation is not meant to confirm what we already know and/or experience. It is meant to make us part of a story that could not be known apart from exemplification in the lives of people in a concrete community.
Something to ponder: the word “sovereignty.” An exclusive right to control. What Yoder and Illich emphasize in their writings, that comes directly from the scriptures, is that God alone is sovereign. To claim, as Rome does (as the United States of America does), sovereignty, sets us up to recognize that claim, and therein become idolatrous. To claim, as classical liberalism does, that the lone individual (the “self”) is sovereign is idolatry.
Leo Hartshorn has written a nice summary of key points from The Politics of Jesus, reprinted here to help us understand what preceded Chapter 12, “The War of the Lamb”:
John Howard Yoder’s classic book The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans,1972; reissued 1994) has had a profound impact on how many Christians read the Bible and understand Jesus. James Wm. McClendon, Jr., a theologian within the Anabaptist tradition, was highly influenced by the book. McClendon describes its impact as being like a “second conversion.” In turn, as Jim’s friend and pastor, I was influenced by his passion for Anabaptism and subsequently became a Mennonite.
The Politics of Jesus taught Christians how to read the Bible and Jesus “politically.” By that I mean it opened up a way to read Jesus as a nonviolent revolutionary who confronted the religious and political powers of his day and had an explicit social agenda grounded in a vision of God’s reign [emphasis added — that agenda was “jubilary” -SG].
Since The Politics of Jesus was published, many others have read the Bible through the lens of the social sciences, political theory and new understandings of the social situation of first-century Palestine under Roman occupation. New studies have brought to the foreground even more political implications of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
I have tried to compile and simplify a number of the implications of these political readings of the Gospels. These readings make it difficult to deny that Jesus and the Gospels have a social and political vision. These insights into the Gospels and Jesus provide the peacemaker and justice-seeker with a vision and model of social and political engagement.
The birth of Jesus
* Jesus’ birth is presented in royal images to intentionally contrast with the violent rule of Roman political leaders (Matt. 2).
* Jesus’ mother, Mary, proclaims his coming in the Magnificat as subverting and inverting the politics of injustice (Luke 1:46-56; a song of the anawim or “poor ones”).
* Jesus’ birth is heralded as the reign of peace and witnessed by shepherds, social outcasts (Luke 2:8-14).
The life and teachings of Jesus
* Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11)
Jesus resisted the devil’s temptation to rule the nations, which in the context of first-century Palestine under Roman colonial domination could only be practically and politically achieved by means of violent revolution (insights from Yoder).
* Jesus’ preaching/teaching ministry
Jesus’ first hometown “sermon” was a definitive moment for his continuing mission (Luke 4:16-30). It was based upon Isaiah 42: 1ff. The Spirit was upon Jesus for the purpose of proclaiming good news to the poor (i.e., a suggestion of economic transformation, not simply “pie in the sky”), release to the captives (such as those in “debtor’s prison”), recovery of sight to the blind (i.e., resulting in the restoration of the dependent and marginalized to economic self-sufficiency and community [emphasis added]), freedom for the oppressed (i.e., the victims of injustice), and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Scholars suggest this last may be an allusion to the year of Jubilee, a time of restorative economic justice; see Lev. 25. Jesus ends his “sermon” with a prophetic challenge to ethnocentricity that almost gets him killed!
In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, which reveals some of Jesus’ core teachings, Jesus blessed the peacemakers (5:9) and taught love of enemies (5:43-48), as well as a way of nonviolent challenge to injustice over retaliation (5:38-42).
Jesus’ central teaching was the reign or kingdom of God (Matt. 4:17). This was a social and political metaphor that spoke to, among other things, a covenant, or faithful way of life among God’s people.
Jesus’ parables, which reflect the unjust social conditions of first century Palestine, frequently served as social commentary and critique (e.g., The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16, or The Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, which uses a person from a despised social group as its “hero”).
Jesus taught the way of nonviolence and peace (e.g., Jesus rebuked James and John’s desire for revenge and the violent destruction of a Samaritan village, in Luke 9:51-55).
* Jesus’ healing ministry
Jesus made healing contact with the “unclean” and social outcasts (e.g., lepers). The Temple purity system kept the unclean from social interaction and in economic dependence. In his healing acts Jesus brought back into the community the socially marginalized. His healings had wider social implications.
Jesus’ healing freed many from financial dependence.
Jesus offered healing free from its brokerage by an unjust Temple system.
Jesus’ exorcism, in the symbolism of Mark’s gospel (5:21), points to an overcoming of Roman political oppression (i.e., pigs=the unclean; possession=physical occupation; demon=Legion=Roman military unit).
* Jesus’ prophetic ministry
Jesus challenged the religious and social boundaries of his society, which defined holiness as separation, by having table fellowship with “tax-collectors and sinners” (labels for a distinct social group of outcasts deprived of certain civil rights). This prophetic act got Jesus labeled as a social deviant, a “friend of tax-collectors and sinners.” Meals can be seen as a microcosm of the larger culture’s views on social boundaries (who’s in and who’s out). Jesus’ act of table fellowship was a form of social protest, symbolically proclaiming that the Reign of God included the disenfranchised (Matt. 9:11-13).
Jesus challenged the purity/holiness system of his society, which ostracized those who could not observe its detailed regulations.
Jesus juxtaposed “justice, mercy and faith(fulness)” over against meticulous observance of ritual law (Matt. 23:23).
Jesus broke down socially constructed gender barriers by associating with women (e.g., the Samaritan woman in John 4) and having women as disciples (e.g., Mary in Luke 10:38-42).
Jesus challenged Roman occupation and tribute/allegiance to Caesar and Rome with the bigger issue of tribute/allegiance to God (Matt. 17:24-27).
Jesus prophetically critiqued the injustices of the Temple system and its elite leaders (e.g., the story of the widow’s mite, which must be understood in its immediate context of Jesus’ critique of Temple officials, who “devour widow’s houses,” and his saying on the destruction of the Temple; see Mark 12:38-13:2). Jesus questioned the Temple tax (Matt. 17:24-27). He carried out a public protest, or “political street theater,” in the tradition of the symbolic acts of the prophets, by overturning the tables of the moneychangers, which represented the economic injustices of the Temple system (Matt. 21:12-13). This act may have been the precipitating event of his crucifixion.
The death and resurrection of Jesus
* Jesus intentionally headed for Jerusalem, the seat of the coalition of religious and political power, to confront the injustice of the system and its leaders (Matt. 20:17-19).
* Jesus entered Jerusalem with “political theater” lampooning the people’s expectations of a violent, military messianic kingship by riding in on a donkey instead of a warhorse (i.e., re-enacting Zechariah’s vision of a coming king who would bring peace among nations; see Zech. 9:9-10).
* When he was arrested, Jesus told Peter to put away his sword, for “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:51-53). Jesus could have called upon a heavenly army to protect him, but violent resistance to Rome was not on Jesus’ political agenda.
* Jesus was crucified as a political criminal, as an enemy of the state, between two bandits (most likely social bandits, who violently resisted economic injustices; Matt. 27:38). He was accused of political subversion: 1) refusing to pay taxes to Caesar (Luke 23:2; if we are to give to God what is God’s, as in Matt. 22:17-21, what is the implication for Caesar’s tribute?); 2) threatening to destroy the Temple (Matt. 26:61 and Mark13:1-2); and 3) claiming to be a messianic king (Matt. 26:63-64).
* At Jesus’ trial, the people are given a choice between Jesus “bar Joseph,” the nonviolent revolutionary, and Jesus bar Abbas, the violent revolutionary (Matt. 27:16-17).
* On the cross, a Roman political instrument of torture for revolutionaries and insurgents, Jesus identifies with the forsaken and abandoned.
* God’s resurrection of Jesus is a vindication of his life, including his way of peace and social justice.
* In John’s gospel (14:26), the resurrected Christ leaves his disciples with his way of peace, unlike the world gives (e.g., the Pax Romana, the Roman “peace” through violent suppression). Finally, Jesus offers his peace and breathes his Spirit, his way of life, forgiveness and peace, upon the group of disciples, the prototypical Church (John 20:19-23).
In preparation for Good Friday and Easter, as we go through Lent, we have pointed to the subject of renunciation, and we have made the claim — through Illich first — that renunciation is an exercise of freedom.
A while ago, I wanted my dog to go outside. My dog is a sensible being, like us. But if he is reluctant to go outside (it’s cold today), all I have to do is wave a biscuit in front of his face, then throw it outside, and he will follow. He is powerless to choose, moreso because he doesn’t recognize he has a choice. The difference between that dog and us is that we can choose, and we are therefore inescapably moral beings.
The degree to which we are controlled by fears or by appetites — once we have been shown that we can “renounce” them — is the degree to which we might fail morally.
Everything in modern society tells us differently, because fears and appetites are marketable… and we live in a society that has raised the market as an idol, from “be all that you can be,” to “Pantene, because I’m worth it,” to a popular magazine entitled “Self.” This ideology has led to a culture, an ecology, and a personhood characterized not by choice, but by addiction. Addictions are our new rulers. The market throws a biscuit out the door, and we run outside after it.
What Yoder explains in “The War of the Lamb” is that Jesus three times in a row renounced the temptation to dictate and dominate. When he goes to be tempted, the temptation is political power. When the crowd cheers his entry into Jerusalem, he could have taken power, but he didn’t. When he again whips up the crowd by running the bulls through the tables of the moneychangers at the Temple, he stands down. Then Jesus shows us what the renunciation of power looks like… on the cross. He renounces the appetite for power; and he renounces the fear of death.
Here is Yoder from “The War of the Lamb, referring to the visions of Revelation and meaning:
What Jesus renounced was thus not simply the metaphysical status of sonship but rather the untrammeled sovereign exercise of power in the affairs of that humanity amid which he came to dwell. His emptying of himself, his accepting of the form of servanthood and obedience unto death, is precisely his renunciation of lordship, his apparent abandonment of any obligation to be effective in making history move down the right track.
But the judgment of God upon this renunciation and acceptance of defeat is the declaration that this is victory. “Therefore God has greatly exalted him and given him the title, which every creature will have to confess, the Lord“. “Lord” in the earliest Christian confessions was not (as it is in so much modern piety) a label to state a believer’s humility or affection or devotion; it is an affirmation of his victorious relation to the powers of the cosmos [italics added]…
…this text affirms a philosophy of history in which renunciation and suffering are meaningful…
…The renunciation of the claim to govern history was not made only by the second person of the Trinity taking upon himself the demand of an eternal divine decree; it was also made by a poor, tired rabbi when he came from Galilee to Jerusalem to be rejected.
Jesus did not show us the freedom of God in his renunciation. He showed us the possibility of our own freedom, and in that showing He gave us a new being.
A question to provoke a closer reading of Yoder here: How does this explanation of renunciation relate to Yoder’s pacifism, his renunciation of violence?
In the first section of “The War of the Lamb,” Yoder critiques the idea of a “thread” or “handle” on history, by calling into question three assumptions:
1. It is assumed that the relationship of cause and effect is visible, understandable, and manageable, so that if we make our choices on the basis of how we hope society will be moved, it will be moved in that direction.
2. It is assumed that we are adequately informed to be able to set for ourselves and for all society the goal toward which we seek to move it.
3. Interlocked with these two assumptions and dependent upon them for its applicability is the further postulate that effectiveness in moving toward these goals which have been set is itself a moral yardstick.
If we look critically at these assumptions we discover that they are my no means as self-evident as they seem to be at first.
Another question to ponder: What is the significance here of the term “effectiveness”? Does that mean Yoder eschewed taking action in the world?
Yoder and Illich talk much about “primitive” Christianity, that is pre-Constantinian Christianity, wherein people’s churches were simply homes, where Christians met and ate and worshiped together. They greeted each other with conspirato a mouth-to-mouth kiss that “exchanged breath,” breath being seen as spirit. This is the community of communities that John of Patmos addresses, and these churches are not great edifices… but private homes.
As a way of shifting out of our current epistemology, listen to this NPR broadcast on ethnomusicologists rendition of the kind of music that Jesus and the early Christians likely listened to: Click here to listen. Note what the ethno-musicologists have to say about how language was constructed, and enjoy the music.
THE TEXT (initially broken into individual sentences for the purpose of close and careful study, with asterisks to indicate paragraph changes):
Jesus and Paul have been the foci of our exposition.
They must represent the centers of any New Testament theological synthesis, due to both their originality and to the amount of material that makes them knowable to us.
But there are four other figures, other minds at work.
A thorough treatment would demand that we test there as well the reading we have taken already.
There would be the thought of the author of Matthew or of the writer to the Hebrews; there would be the mind of Peter, of John, of Jude, or of the seer of the Apocalypse.
There is a reason to trust that the reading there would confirm the orientation already sketched.
Here, however, I must renounce the further cross-referencing and leap ahead to a summary, rooted nonetheless especially in the last-named Apocalypse.
I shall seek briefly to characterize the stance of that book, as it might by contrast throw some light on our contemporary agenda and at the same time draw together the argument of the entire book. [covered in Note (3), above… SG]
One way to characterize thinking about social ethics in our time is to say that Christians in our age are obsessed with the meaning and direction of history.
Social ethical concern is moved by a deep desire to make things move in the right direction.
Whether a given action is right or not seems to be inseparable from the question of what effects it will cause.
Thus part if not all of social concern has to do with looking for the right “handle” by which one can “get a hold on” the course of history and move it in the right direction.
For the movement called Moral Rearmament, ideology was this handle; “ideas have legs,” so that if we can get a contagious new thought moving, it will make its own way. For others, it is the purpose of education that ultimately determines the character and course of the civilization; whoever rules the teachers’ colleges rules the world.
Rambunctious students believe that the office of the dean or the president is the center of the university and therefore they occupy that office.
Che Guevara believed the peasant to be the backbone of the coming Latin American revolution, so he went to the hills of Bolivia.
The Black Economic Development Conference directed its Manifesto to the administrators of the denominations because it believes that when the individual heart is turned in another direction the rest is sure to follow.
For still others it is the proletariat or geopolitics that explains everything.
CRITICAL NOTE: Yoder’s writing can be difficult because his diction is unusual, and because he doesn’t tell you when he’s being ironic or expounding a different point of view from his own. Obviously, he is very critical of this whole notion of a “handle” on history. He is neither confirming nor denying any of the approaches listed, but simply showing that they hold a “handle on history” assumption in common, even when each describes a different handle.
Whichever the favored “handle” may be, the structure of this approach is logically the same.
One seeks to lift up one focal point in the midst of the course of human relations, one thread of meaning and causality which is more important than individual persons, their lives and well-being, because it in itself determines wherein their well-being consists.
Therefore it is justified to sacrifice to this one “cause” other subordinate values, including the life and welfare of one self, one’s neighbor, and (of course!) of the enemy.
We pull this one strategic thread in order to save the whole fabric.
We can see this kind of reasoning with Constantine saving the Roman Empire, with Luther saving the Reformation by making an alliance with the princes, or with Krushchev and his successors saving Marxism by making it somewhat more capitalistic, or with the United States saving democracy by alliances with military dictatorships and by the threatened use of the bomb.
If we look more analytically at [a] way of deriving social and political ethics from an overview of the course of history and the choice of the thread within history that is thought to be the most powerful, we find that it involves at least three distinguishable assumptions.
1. It is assumed that the relationship of cause and effect is visible, understandable, and manageable, so that if we make our choices on the basis of how we hope society will be moved, it will be moved in that direction.
2. It is assumed that we are adequately informed to be able to set for ourselves and for all society the goal toward which we seek to move it.
3. Interlocked with these two assumptions and dependent upon them for its applicability is the further postulate that effectiveness in moving toward these goals which have been set is itself a moral yardstick
If we look critically at these assumptions we discover that they are my no means as self-evident as they seem to be at first. There is for one thing the phenomenon Reinhold Niebuhr has called “irony”: that when people try to manage history, it almost always, it almost always turns out to have taken another direction than that in which they thought they were guiding it.
This may mean that we are not morally qualified to set the goals toward which we would move history.
At least it must mean that we are not capable of discerning and managing its course when there are in the same theater of operation a host of other free agents, each of them in their own way also acting under the same assumptions as to their capacity to move history in their direction.
Thus even apart from other more spiritual considerations, the strategic calculus is subject to a very serious internal question.
It has yet to be demonstrated that history can be moved in the direction in which one claims the duty to cause it to go.
The other question we must raise at the outset about the logic of the “strategic” attitude toward ethical decisions is the acceptance of effectiveness as its goal.
Even if we know how effectiveness is to be measured — that is, even if we could get a clear definition of the goal we are trying to reach and how to ascertain whether we had reached it — is there not in Christ’s teaching on meekness, or in the attitude of Jesus toward power and servanthood, a deeper question being raised about whether it is our business at all to guide our action by the course we wish history to take?
It is, however, not the concern of our present study to deal logically or systematically with this kind of question within the traditional or contemporary idioms of theological debate.
In recent centuries debate around the question of the meaning of history, and the place of Christian decision within that meaningfulness, has generally been a conversation of the deaf,[emphasis added] with some so committed to pre-Enlightenment understandings of the stability of the proper social order that any sense of movement is only a threat, and others committed with an equally unquestioning irrationality to the progressivist assumptions of post-Enlightenment Western thought, according to which the discernible movement of history is self-explicating and generally works for good, and therefore is the only terrain of significance from which ethics should self-evidently be derived.
From neither direction has there been any expectation that light might be thrown upon the question by the New Testament.
What medieval Christendom, with its vision of the divine stability of all the members of the corpus christianum, has in common with post-Enlightenment progressivism is precisely the assumption that history has moved us past the time of primitive Christianity and therefore out from under the relevance of the apostolic witness on this question.
The earlier portions of this book have sought to spell out in considerable detail the elements of a vision of the Christian’s place in the world that can claim rootage in the thought of Jesus and Paul.
It remains, we have seen, to test the concordance of this approach in the remaining sections of the canonical literature.
This literature (the General Epistles and the Apocalypse) is less unified, less easy to understand,and there is also less of it; so we can not ask for the fullness of delineation toward which we have pointed in the earlier sections of the study.
We can, however, ask whether that which it is possible to discern in these writings is concordant with the other strands of apostolic witness we have been pursuing; and it is fitting to center this question upon the concern for history’s meaning.
For a sense of the apostolic perception of the meaning and curse of history and especially of the interplay of trust and coerciveness within history, we shall find that the most immediate resource comes from that segment of the biblical literature from which we are least accustomed to learn, namely from the liturgical literature which is embedded in the New Testament at certain scattered points, but which especially dominates in the book of the Revelation of John.
In the first vision (Rev. 4-5) the seer of Patmos is presented with the image of a sealed scroll in the land of the “one that was seated upon the throne” (a circumlocution for God himself, who cannot be looked at directly, but whose presence is known as Light).
The question laid before John by his vision of the scroll sealed with seven seals is precisely the question of the meaningfulness of history
This is a question that, the vision says dramatically, cannot be answered by the normal resources of human insight.
Yet it is by no means a meaningless question or one unworthy of concern.
It is worth weeping, as the seer does himself, if we do not know the meaning of human life and suffering.
Speaking more generally we can affirm, as numerous historians of philosophy are arguing, that to be concerned about history, to assume that history is meaningful, is itself a Judeo-Christian idea.
The concern to know where history is going is not an idle philosophical curiosity.
It is a necessary expression of the conviction that God has worked in past history and has promised to continue thus to be active among us.
If God is the kind of God-active-in-history of whom the Bible speaks, then concern for the course of history is itself not an illegitimate or an irrelevant concern.
No mystical or existentialist or spiritualistic deprecation of preoccupation with the course of history is justified for the Christian.
But the answer given to the question by a series of visions and their hymns is not the standard answer.
“The lamb that was lain is worthy to receive power!”
John is here saying, not as an inscrutable paradox but as a meaningful affirmation, that the cross and not the swoard, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history.
The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience (13:10).
The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of right, which is of course the justification for the use of violence and other kinds of power in human conflict.
The triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys.
The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.
We have observed this biblical “philosophy of history” first of all in the worship life of the late New Testament church, since it is here that we find the most desperate encounter of the church’s weakness (John was probably in exile, Paul in prison) with the power of the evil rulers of the present age.
But this position is nothing more than a logical unfolding of the meaning of the work of Jesus Christ himself, whose choice of suffering servanthood rather than violent lordship, of love to the point of death rather than righteousness backed by power, was itself the fundamental direction of his life.
Jesus was so faithful to the enemy-love of God that it cost him all his effectiveness; he gave up every handle on history.
The rest of the text for “The War of the Lamb” is linked here. Continue to read the text carefully, one sentence at a time, to let the meaning soak in. Page 237 is also excised from the Google Books layout, so I’ll reproduce it here (normally formatted) to fill in the blank:
This is significantly different from that kind of “pacifism” which which would say that it is wrong to kill but that with proper nonviolent techniques you can obtain without killing everything you really want or have a right to ask for. In this context it seems that sometimes the rejection of violence is offered only because it is a cheaper or less dangerous or more shrewd way to impose one’s will upon someone else, a kind of coercion which is harder to resist. Certainly any renunciation of violence is preferable to its acceptance; but what Jesus renounced is not first of all violence, but rather the compulsiveness of purpose that leads the strong to violate the dignity of others. The point is not that one can attain all of one’s legitimate ends without using violent means. It is rather our readiness to renounce our legitimate ends whenever they cannot be attained by legitimate means itself constitutes our participation in the triumphant suffering of the Lamb.
This conception of participation in the character of God’s struggle with a rebellious world, which early Quakerism referred to as “the war of the lamb,” has the peculiar disadvantage — or advantage, depending upon one’s point of view — of being meaningful only if Christ be he who Christians claim him to be, the Master. Almost every other kind of ethical approach espoused by Christians, pacifist or otherwise, will continue to make sense to the non-Christian as well. Whether Jesus be the Christ or not, whether Jesus the Christ be Lord or not, whether this kind of religious language be meaningful or not, most types of ethical approach will keep on functioning the same. For their true foundation is in some reading of the human situation or some ethical insight which is claimed to be generally accessible to all people of good will. The same is not true for this vision of “completing in our bodies that which was lacking in the suffering of Christ” (Col. 1:24) If Jesus Christ was not who historic Christianity confesses he was, the revelation in the life of a real man of the very character of God, this this one argument for pacifism collapses.
We thus do not adequately understand what the church was praising in the work of Christ, and what Paul was asking his readers to be guided by, if we think of the cross as a peculiarly efficacious technique (probably effective only in certain circumstances) for getting one’s way. The key to the ultimate relevance and to the triumph of the good is not any calculation at all, paradoxical or otherwise, of efficacy, but rather simple obedience.
No homework, except to think and think hard.
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:11-12)
Posted by stan in Analysis