|The Book of Revelation, once ignored but now used to justify military action in the name of Christ, presents at a deeper level a dream of peace on earth through patient endurance.|
Daniel Berrigan, S.J., confessor, poet, peacemaker, and teacher resides in New York City, where he also ministers to persons with AIDS.
IT has been of help, in pursuing the subject of the peaceable kingdom, to take note of a peculiar document. It is the handbook of the early Christian refusers, their visionary alternative, the book of Revelation.
I have lived long enough to witness utterly varied uses (and misuses) of the book. During the Vietnam War years, the book of revelation was largely closed, ignored by Christian resisters. Questions raised in the book had yet to become our own. Indeed, it seemed as though we were still too young, too naive, to suffer nightmares. More accurate to say, we took little note of the nightmares we secretly sweated through. Least of all could we imagine that so recondite a book as Revelation might shed light on a world that seemed like a perpetual midnight.
If in going counter to the tides of a monstrous war, we were out of our depth (and in our more lucid moments, we knew it), if we were helpless, beset, at sea, we were inclined to keep the news to ourselves, somewhat ashamed as we were. Grown men (sic), and Christians to boot, and peacemakers above all! Our credentials were unassailable; they forbade confession of weakness or sin in our midst.
Many who drew in large or small measure on a religious past, suspected that the past could shed little or no light on the horrid present. With most, that ‘religious past’ was done with in any case; the religion of their childhood had been — perhaps “unbalanced” was the most charitable word; it was merciless toward weakness of the flesh, tilted favorably toward the rich and powerful, indifferent to war upon war.
No wonder some left the book of Revelation (not to speak of the entire Christian testament) severely alone.
More, we were Americans. As such we were the children of war, of some war or other. War was imbedded in our history; peace, in any real sense was not. Many had marched in former wars, or their relatives had followed the flag. Everyone knew someone who had died in war; all, as a matter of course had paid taxes for war.
Such as we could become peacemakers only with the greatest difficulty. Whatever resources we could draw on, were meager indeed; and religion was not among them. But somehow, we must confront our own monsters and nightmares; so awful a history, so claimant and violent a church and state.
It was a birth struggle, it was like a death. No wonder we came along, slow and reluctant, that we had yet to learn what a cold eye was cast by scripture on American specimens — whether peacemakers or warmakers!
Scripture was rife with far different episodes and images of the human than the ones we had been instructed in. Scripture spoke of us in ways that broke the heart and froze the mind; admissions of helplessness, shouting matches, despair, interventions, noninterventions. The silence of God. Indeed, far different humans than we dwelt in those pages, and suffered, and believed, and died; and sometimes won out. Were they not far more human than we? And then above all, by implication, by attitude and word and work — was not God far different than we had imagined?
So, for a time, we took the long way round this hermetic unsettling tome named Revelation. Self-knowledge still evaded us. Or perhaps we feared, knowing more of our weakness and folly than we dared admit.
The book remained closed, for years. And meantime, who indeed was to teach us that violence, dread, despair, lay not just in corporate and military America, or in the Vietnamese dynastics — but in ourselves as well? That we who fought for peace, and even went to prison for our convictions, held a stake, large or minuscule, in the kingdom of war? That in our communities, depth charges lay hidden, hostilities and divisions, unaccountability (‘don’t be judgmental’ seemed the only commandment), shabby treatment of women, mistakes unregretted, fantasies unexorcised?
And what might the book of Revelation, with its weird ebb and flow of daymares and nightmares, its ecstasies and violence, spirits angelic and demonic, what might it be thought to offer our plight?
We were to learn — the hard way, and by and large, the wrong way. Shortly, in the seventies, the neglected book was flung open — literally with a vengeance. Suddenly the book was ‘in.’ It was scanned with a kind of fundamental fierceness; by eyes that positively blazed as they read.
The eyes lit on images of horror, vengeance, vindication; ah, that was it! Purportedly, the word, the images, the apparitions, invited believers to settle accounts, to clean up the messy world, once and for all.
Into such hands, just and justifying, hands are eagerly reaching for the sword of Jehovah, the book was placed; like a sword.
I have another image. American culture, a helmet of reprisal and vengeance, of God on our side and we on His, of blazing eyes and intractable innocence (the innocence that kills), — the helmet is lowered over the head of Christians. The visor is lowered upon this seeker after illumination. And eureka! the seeker sees, and cracks the code. Or so we are told.
Such light, so offered, became a more afflicting darkness. The seeker prided himself that he saw. And thereupon grew blinder than ever. America; fury, anomie, fear, the war — all these shrouded the book in darkness, disguised its mercies, isolated and distorted its images. The reader, wrapt in that strange garment woven of many strands (his culture), self justified, instant salvation at hand, seized on this or that image with a spasm of recognition; images of showdown, war in the heavens, no peace on earth. He had seen all this before! It was the climate and landscape of America.
And now, a moment of Greek recognition! He rode with the horsemen, he forgot the rest. He rode in the night and called it day. The outcome was a cultural triumph nicely disguising a biblical disaster.
According to this (peculiarly American) reading, the book offered a perennial blessing on war. The blessing now went further, as the times did. Nuclear weapons were blessed; and, push come to shove, nuclear war itself. March to Armageddon, Christians, bring it to pass! Rapture will follow; for you and a number of others of like mind and justification.
Thus the culture seized on the book, the code was cracked. The culture walked away, owning the book. Walked in supreme confidence. Back to the job, the drawing board, the laboratories, the bunkers and the bases and air strips, wherever the tolling bell of humanity was hailed as a blessed event, thrice blessed in anticipation.
There was heard, as though arising from the text itself, the shield of Mars vibrating with the stroke of his sword. It was like the last heartbeat of dying time. For if these revisionist Revelationists were correct, not only nukes, but a nuclear finish to the human adventure, was the very will of God.
It might be adduced, and here and there it was, that such a reading of the book implied more than met the eye. That behind the reading, a very plague of fantasies, all unacknowledged, was at work. And that such fantasies, drawn as they were from a cultural matrix at odds with the word of God, barred all access to biblical truth.
The fantasies were weighted with malign power. Seldom such voices, such enticing exegetes as buzzed about the ears of believers! Under that spell, Christians could be certain beyond doubt, and were not shy in declaring who the beast was, who the rampageous horsemen, the locusts that rained fire and fury on the world, the steeds with their not quite human faces. One and all, these were images of the enemy; of the enemy’s devious intentions, crimes, atheism, wickedness.
We were informed further, that nuclear war was inevitable. The point of Christianity was thereby clarified. Christians were by no means to raise an outcry, prevent, resist. They were called to ‘stand by the right side’ in the war of the just. And past all argument, the cause was just; for it was American.
Thus, in many circles, prayer groups, prayer breakfasts, prayer rooms, retreats (had ever such an outpouring of piety moved the powerful in such directions?) — thus went the reading of Revelation. The closed book was open, its throat blazed with judgment and justification. Stage by stage, the true believers moved with the message; from a truly stupendous innocence, to a cultural collusion of note. And thence to a consorting with false gods.
I thought of such matters, I heard such talk, such premises and conclusions drawn from the Book. Mad as a conventicle of mad hatters! For years I studied the book, meditated, consulted experts. Appalled as I was at the drummers of doom, the mishandling of texts, the assumptions, the deadly frivolity. Surely there existed a better way.
It must be possible, I thought, to reconcile the Christ of Revelation and of the Gospels; the warrior image of Christ with the meek and compassionate One of the sermon on the mount. To reconcile the violent images of Revelation with the prohibition of violence in the gospels. There must be in sum one Christ, not two; if we were not to suppose that our God is as divided in mind as were His stupefied votaries.
We must claim the book from the violent culture. Nothing must be allowed to subvert the text; no optimism springing from political chauvinism or national frenzies. No pessimism, issuing from the fall of this or that cherished ideology. And above all, no false gods; enticing, telling of our moral excellence, probity, fame, prosperity, and the violence that beckons us to secular nirvana. No gods of America ventriloquizing, aping, displacing true God.
We must flee them; they are putrid, they smell of death. We must plant ourselves in a wilderness, a desert, a prison — where the soul might grow literate, might ‘tolle et lege: In such unlikely places a vision might be granted us, as was granted to the prisoner John in the slave camp on Patmos. A modest and serviceable vision to be sure; something so modest as a sane reading of a simple text.
Indeed, as my study went forward, the book came alive, and dovetailed with the entire testament. Revelation offered a vision of peace. Offered also, believable images of the human, images of holiness; images that named and then banished the superhuman and the bestial. To put the matter another way; Revelation exorcised the ruling images of my culture.
Which is to say, the book offered images of ourselves, our gods, our obsessions, the spirits that reign in us. That was the rub. What we cast upon the God of Jesus — the vengefulness, the hatred of the human, the wars that reached from earth to high heaven — all this was an unbearable imagery of the hell we bore within, and were busily engaged in bringing to pass on earth.
The book was a series of images about the human predicament; including God’s judgment on human conduct. It showed us our gods. And the images corresponded exactly and ironically with our shrines and cults and tributes and prayer rooms and breakfasts and all the rest! Corresponded with the beast we worshipped, the horses we rode roughshod. We had been worshipping the false gods all the while; could we now, opening the book, suddenly recognize the idols that stood tall, within our culture and our hearts?
We could not. We could only continue in our idolatries, with more fervor and will than ever. Thus the armageddonists became our rightful prophets, the prophets of the culture. And Revelation was transformed to a madman’s handbook, filled with gleeful chaos, telling of a creation doomed to end in radiated dust.
John offers us something else; a setting, and a state of soul. Which is to say, the Revelation is not granted in prosperous enclaves of the world. It is granted in unexpected and unpleasant places; in ghettos and prison islands. It steadies the soul, a light in a prison cell. It offers cold comfort but true; the unmasking, to the confusion of the mighty, of the puny and penultimate face of death.
The vision occurs amid the thankless, humiliated tasks of mere survival. It is granted the disenfranchised and suspect, the exiles, the conscientious outlaws, the unrehabilitated misfits; the foursquare pegs, so to speak, who resist being plunged in the world’s potholes.
Soul is the inner landscape of the teachable of God. Those who, as John describes them, ‘have ears, and hear.” They take their stand in the shadow of the frown of Caesar. Their mark is fidelity, witness; they are both afflicted and exalted by the relentless word of God. By a vivid sense of ‘here I stand, I can do no other.’
John knows his times, the positions that kill. He assembles bits and pieces, bones and rags, of Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, in order to limn the bestial physiognomy of Rome, his persecutor, the maker and breaker of martyrs. There is a noble irony at work here, an admirable understanding.
He has grasped the perennial cliché called empire. Rome in John’s vision is a nothing decked out as something; preening and pretentious, a moral void; overweening, a killer, a rider on rampage, a beast never seen on land or sea. Indeed, Rome sums up and embodies a certain conception of power. It is the cunning convergence of all former tyrannies, executioners, fools, pretenders. Thus a history of empires is implied in the image of one empire. Revelation is no exercise in taxidermy, but a way of grasping one’s own times; Rome, its mechanism of death.
The vision is a summing up, left in our hands, with a strong implication. The clich called Rome is never quite finished with; tyranny is the constant and sedulous ape of Christ. It resurrects, takes new form, dusts off the seats of power, seizes new weapons.
And inevitably, tyranny seeks out and befriends religion, an ally, a blessing on the enterprise, a bargaining partner, a power broker who can be winked at and wink back.
But not this community. Christians, John reminds us, are to name the old names anew; Washington or Moscow or whatever. Name them for what they are, and suffer the consequence, in some latter day Patmos or gulag.
Revelation is neither magical nor evasive. It is penetration, meaning, light in dark times. Our own. Now, John insists, is the hour of martyrs, of resistance against tyranny — a time is by turns brutal or seductive, but inevitably exacts a life and death claim. Thus the book implies a call to responsible action — or equally responsible passion. The revelation of the power of God is at hand, in the powerlessness of the faithful.
John summons the past, whether of secular history or the Jewish testament. Martyrs and prophets are invoked, and Christ, martyred and risen from the dead. All for the sake of an enlarged understanding of the present summons, the ‘way’ of the believers.
RAISING THE QUESTIONS; A WAY OF FAITH
How indeed are we to live, and how die? And what shall we make of the tears, grief, losses of our world? How shall we steadfastly refuse the accepted reading of the times, let go the common clutch of money, nation, security, bloodline?
And deeper, more impenetrable than the brow of Caesar, further questions; does God witness the plight of the just, does God take the torment and blood into account? And if so, why is God silent? And if not, why endure at all? Why, Why?…
The future is respected and summoned; “I will show you what things are to be.”
What things, what future? Surely not the future once confected by the magic men, today by technologists. In Revelation there is apparently no interest, either on the part of the revealing angel or the afflicted exile, in the common understanding of ‘future.’ In the sense of mere time-to-come, John needs no revelation; he knows quite well what lies ahead for such as him. For his compatriots in the faith, death multiplied. For himself, indefinite exile.
But such considerations are beside the point. One believed, one was in the hands of God; hands slightly more merciful, he trusted, than the mailed fists of the emperor. Thus, biblically, the future was of a different order than the fortune or misfortune sweeping through a life. The new community might be groaning, humiliated, only half born in the world. No matter; its vitality and continuity were assured in the death, rising, and witness of the Savior.
Mere factitious sequence, inevitability, blind destiny, these are of no moment, are torn asunder. The heavens open; the faithful Witness, Christ, stands at the side of the afflicted, speaks for them, strengthens and heartens. That is all they need to know, all they are allowed to know. The rest is tinkering, magic, forbidden games.
I venture a few convictions I believe were granted John, with regard to his future and our own.
Neither Orwellian nor Faustian, his vision. The beast, in murdering the faithful, has by no means resolved his trouble.
Death is no deterrent; indeed, the blood of martyrs heartens the living, and draws more converts to the ‘way.’
And with regard to ‘the world; which he boasts is under his rule, things also fall apart. The beast is in command neither of this world nor any other. He looms big, poses as superhuman, deceives adroitly, cuts a broad swath. But all this is no more than the thrashing about of a cornered killer; dangerous indeed, but only because endangered.
What of the fate of the empire, that glittering amalgam of ego, avarice, sophistication, duplicity, high culture, contempt for life? The end is a short unhappy one. A supreme irony indeed! The empire is in need of no external enemy to accomplish its downfall. The death of the saints brings the topless towers down. This is the theme of the angel bearing the bowl of wrath: “Just are you in these your judgments, you who are and were, O Holy One. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is their due” (Rev. 14: 4-6).
The empire, in the direst sense, has disposed of the saints. And yet, they are disposed of not at all. They have by no means finished their work in this world. A curiously disturbing scene in Revelation points to this (Rev. 6: 9-11). The scene is one of agon and victory. The dead are living, their voices are heard. But no hint is offered, either of beatific vision or ecstasy.
The setting, the mood are indeed strange; reminiscent of the crowded holding cells that everywhere in the world, shove into one constricted place, the violent, the larcenous — and the heroes. In such a setting the martyrs are sequestered; under an altar, we are told, a place of sacrifice. There they linger, by no means comforted or silenced. Is God their deliverer or their jailer? Either — or both. No hint that the face of God is manifest, that the Comforter is revealed to the noble dead — any more than on earth. Their estate is altered, but their suffering has taken no new turn. They are God-haunted; God remains opaque, disguised, absent.
And all the old wounding questions, questions with which we mortals comfort ourselves or distance ourselves or make minimal sense of the absurdity or cruelty of life, all these hover in the air. Our world indeed; How long, O Lord?
Lives of unexampled valor have won no revelation, whether of justice, of God’s purpose, of the value of their terrible deaths. The innocent die, the powerful walk free. The dead know it; and the knowledge is a torment.
Heaven, like this? The scene is staggering. The martyrs, their contest won, cry out once more, as they cried out on the scaffold, before the beasts and the torturers. How long, O Lord, until your holy ones are vindicated?
They are not given to know, any more than ourselves; in the year 90, in the year 2000. Indeed in regard to justice, the murder of the innocent, the silence of God, a silence like a void – with regard to these, the valiant dead stand in our own tracks, no wiser than our ignorant selves.
They raise their cry, a voice responds. It is one of the striking non-answers of history. They are told — precisely nothing. “Be content. Or failing that, be patient. The time of knowing is not yet. And though you have brought the end time closer, there is more to come.”
Then or now, as we can presume, the martyrs do not bring on the end. Still, one thing is clear; they are the measure of the end, its sign and warning. Like a pot dipped in a stream, like clay fired in the furnace, their lives must be filled to the brim, fired to full strength. Then the stream will run dry, the vessel be broken. And God in the godly, will be all in all.
Exalted matters, none the less heart-rending, for those who in so many places of the world, perish today. Martyrs; the one constant in church and world. Indeed it seems that for literally millions, there is no other vocation but untimely and violent death.
The warnings come early. From birth, multitudes are denied all access to a human life. They are hardly born, and they die; and that is all. Or they struggle free of moral infancy, vague
discontent, the misery that clings like an acid to the flesh. They raise an outcry; and their voice is quenched. It is heart-rending, beyond all accounting.
And what of ourselves? We stand so near the hand that wields the sword that cuts the martyrs down. We also are helpless. We hear the sound of a clock; someone has described it as “a clock with a single hand, a hand that is a sword.” Can we alter the times, beat the sword to a plowshare, summon true kairos?
Will the future be measured by that clock, a sword for a hand? God has assured us; there is a better timepiece. The true kuiros, the ‘right time,’ is to be announced, not by a few heroes – but by all. Indeed it might be called a ‘mark’ of the church; the ability simply to tell the time, to read the times aright, to interpret, judge, announce, denounce. It is not as though there could exist two churches, one of truthful judgment, the other of collaboration, concealment. Then or now.
Saul, we are told, in virtue of God’s mercy, became Paul. And yet before he was transformed, he was stiff of neck, the fiercest of persecutors. His was not merely the crime of silence; he thirsted for the blood of the innocent.
And yet, and yet. Saul became Paul. The transformation illustrates something both unlikely and hopeful, for our time; a change perhaps already underway, tentatively, in the church of the persecutors.
Let us recall. During the Vietnam war, the American church was by and large, the church of Saul. Collaboration, silence. Was North Vietnam bombed? Were Laos and Cambodia invaded? Were the dikes broken, and Hanoi carpet-bombed? For each week, during seven and a half years, was an equivalent Nagasaki bomb exploded against the ‘enemy’?
The church knew; or should have known; it came to the same thing. The church stood there, holding the garments of an international lynch mob.
Shame we are told, is a great emetic. It helps vomit up the collusion and crimes of the past; at least sometimes. And despite all, here and there in the land, we may hope that shame and confusion of spirit are underway.
I offer an image. It takes its start, let us say, according to common practice and expectation. In the image, men (it can only be men, it is about the Church, and our recent past) – men of dignity and pride of place form a procession.
The impeccable entourage of churchmen (sic) gets underway. Garments, ikons, incense, gold and jewels — all this splendor, we have been taught, is a reminder of spiritual maturity, of the kingdom come. In the noblest among the dignitaries, the color purple sounds like a trumpet. The wearers are princes of the church. They are to a man ready to die for the faith; hence their clothing blazes, the color of blood.
The procession proceeds in majesty. The question never rises; are these exalted gentlemen merely stand-ins for the secular authority, (which is to say, the militarized and monied elite), decked out in the relics of a grand tradition, playing godly, playing human, playing Christ?
Doubts. Processions like this have been wending their splendid way for centuries. And few, very few of the princes of the Church have died in the way prescribed — for anyone or anything.
Then something happens.
The dignitaries have gone a certain distance, in accord with immemorial ritual. Then something, beyond all accounting, stops things short. Great ones, here and there, drop out of rank. Accoutred as they are in princely vesture, they fall to knee.
Now they are crawling along on hands and knees. One or another of the princely marchers is crawling along in the dust. Pride of place? The procession is like a glacier moving grandly through frigid seas. Then, all unaccountably, it drifts into southern waters. And it breaks up, falls away under a torrid sun.
Their majesties? They are becoming a public show, a procession of shame, they inch along in the dust.
Toward what? Vocation, holiness, truth?
It is as though the cry of the martyrs had sounded in our midst, had become a great summons to the church, the church of Saul, of silence, of moral majorities, crystal cathedrals, hatred of gays, contemning of women; the church of shady deals, of racism and pride, of property and tax exemption and central planning and sound investment, of sexual purity and nuclear terror.
And what of the citizens, onlookers, bystanders, churchgoers? They are severally appalled or dumbfounded or bemused at the turn of events. Many are outraged. Expectations are violated. They came for a holiday, carne in throngs, brought the children. To watch, to be edified, to be blessed, assured that all is as usual, all is well. To be asperged, befogged, to be told nothing of gospel or prophets, to hear no nation (least of all their own) reproved. No judgment, no repentance.
“A terrible beauty is born.”
Among the onlookers, some raise an outcry. They call for the law to deal with these churchmen turned motley and fools, these disrupters of normal traffic and trade, bread and circuses, normal religion ….
The Church that marched in pride of place, heel to toe with the generals, presidents, secretaries of war and commerce, with the tycoons and robber barons; and welcomed the cronies and clients of all these, the juntas and shahs, the torturers and oligarchs why, the princes of the church are brought low, a progress of fools, the progeny of Gadarenes! The robes are befouled. They crawl along with the dogs and swine.
And they — are we.
What can it mean, this abasement, this flagellation of spirit? A prince raises his head from the dust. He murmurs; I heard an outcry, and a summons. Another sighs; How blind we were, and for how long!
A glimmer of light. There are not two Christs, one of power and place, another of infamy and scorn, of prisons and torture.
And then, if there exists such an entity in our world as the Church of Christ, it is by no means the church of empire.
And yet, and yet. Ours can become His. Our crimes, our malfeasance and blindness and cowardice notwithstanding. There are not two Christs, but one.
The realization, humiliating in the extreme, that ours has been the wrong form; up to this hour, and including our triumphant yesterdays, the centuries when we rode high and mighty.
Our church can become His, in the measure that we allow ourselves to be stripped of our fondest hope, our proudest possession: ego, intractable pride.
It may yet come to this; after we have learned something of life and death, something of letting go and making do, there will be a finis worth it all. Our second coming, toward the One who comes.
We will mingle with another procession, coming toward us. Those whose outcry we have heard, faintly first, then more urgently. The cry that long before, perhaps in 1987, brought us to knee, shrove us of selfishness, reproved our numb spirits.
We heard before we saw; the cry of the martyrs was the prelude. But as events proved, it was prelude only. Then we met those others, saw those faces, and knew them for our own.
You should see us now, redeemed. The faces of the suffering mingle with ours, we see in that mirror all that is possible, even to us.
You should see us now, they and ourselves. They await us, as we crawl along. Then they come toward us. Then they kneel to embrace us, and lift us to their side. And we know, at length, many things once hidden from our eyes. It is all one, the humiliation and the glory, the blood and the outcome.
And we are one. The chastened church, the church of martyrs. The imperial church redeemed by the suffering church. Indeed it could be said that the imperial church has even learned, a little, to suffer, to endure — and to prevail.
Saul, Paul, pray for us.