“Revelation doesn’t have anything to do with predicting the end of the world,” explains C. Wess Daniels. Instead, the last book of the Christian New Testament was written as “a handbook for a minority faith community in how to resist empire,” a source of inspiration for early Christians enduring Roman oppression that still has much to teach Friends about pushing back against a dominant culture.
Much of Revelation’s stunning imagery is an allegorical representation of what Wess calls the liturgy of empire, the ways the “Beast” works to bend people to its will. “There have been communities standing in resistance to this for thousands of years,” he urges. “Let’s draw on that wisdom and those tools where it helps—where we can—and join that community of resistance over time.”
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The Book of Revelation is an enigma. It has been made into a joke and a laughing stock, primarily by Christian nationalism and right– very Conservative Christian interpretations of Revelation as being about predicting the end of the world; predicting the rapture; you know, the Mark of the Beast as like a kind of birthmark on my forehead sort of thing and like, “Oh, I could be the anti-Christ” sort of stuff. Revelation doesn’t have anything to do with predicting the end of the world. It’s like a handbook for a minority faith community in how to resist empire, and as soon as we see it that way it totally shifts the usefulness of this book because now it actually is instructive about what does it mean to stand in opposition of the religion of empire?
Reframing the Book of Revelation
My name is Wess Daniels and I am the Director of the Friends Center at Guilford College. I use he/him/his pronouns. I live in Greensboro, North Carolina, and my family and I attend First Friends Meeting in Greensboro.
The Origin of Revelation
The reality is that actually Revelation was written by a John, who was a pastor, living– who was a Jewish person, as far as I know, living under the Roman empire and was imprisoned on the Island of Patmos, which was kind of like an Alcatraz of the day, and he’s writing to these seven churches which are made up of Christians who are trying to follow the way of Jesus and resisting empire, and these are individuals who are not wealthy, educated politicians; these are the minority folks who are living the Roman imperial regime. Revelation is a letter to those people to say, “here is how you can resist empire; here is how you can continue on in the midst of something that looks like all hope is lost.”
Examples of Resistance
Revelation kind of works as like, here’s what the empire does and here’s what God calls us to do, and it kind of goes back and forth like this. And it– so some of the ways John invites these communities into resistance is through nonviolence: what early Quakers call the War of the Lamb, so a nonviolent resistance to empire. It talks about liturgies, so it shows that empire has its own liturgy and that liturgy is meant to shape and form people in a particular way, in a particular moral framework. One last one is this idea of the Mark of the Beast, and the Mark of the Beast is actually about– it is a critique of an economics of empire that is an entire system that creates oppression.
The Mark of the Beast Expanded
The Mark of the Beast, and the mark here in the Greek is the imprint on a coin, so the coinage of the Beast (empire) creates both poor and rich, and it subsumes all. And later in revelation it talks about that the empire trades in human bodies– that the empire is a system, an economic system, that enslaves individuals –in Revelation 18! In like 90CE there’s a critique, in Christian text, against human slavery as being a part of the economics of the Beast. And so this is what we lose when we make Revelation into a big joke– is a two-thousand year old critique about stuff we’re still dealing with, so you can see how there’s a lot in there to unpack and we’re not sort of left to our own devices when coming up with, “how do we resist empire? How do we do this?” There have been communities standing in resistance to this for thousands of years. Let’s draw on that wisdom and those tools where it helps– where we can– and join that community of resistance over time.
- 1) What does it look like to take back or reinterpret sections of the Bible that have been used in harmful ways? Is this practice useful or productive to you? If so, why? If not, why not?
- 2) How do we resist empire today? What does that mean to you and your community?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.
4 thoughts on “Reframing the Book of Revelation”
Excellent. Though it isn’t a joke, it is being used as a tool to frighten people into the churches that support that empire. That the mark of the beast is symbolic of the thoughts of the mind and the works of the hands as to whether your thoughts and works support the empires of oppression or the works of God.
Surely this video has opened my eyes & mind to a much better grasp of what “Revelations” is all about…thank you so much
Such an interesting and worthwhile “Quaker Speak”! I like the fact that Friend Wess seems to know ancient Greek well. It would be interesting to hear him discuss the meaning of the original Greek that has been mistranslated into English; or to enhance the meaning of the English by explaining what the Greek actually means. The “mark of the beast” explanation was especially apropos. Many thanks to Friend Wess Daniels
I’ve been struggling with reading the Book of Revelations from the canon of the New Testament and to explore what might have happened. It’s from the point of view of the scribe. To be read either as a poem, or as a monologue.
The cave is a contradiction
of pebbled black and filtering light,
of silence as well as a wailing
as if soaring angels give voice,
Is it only the occasional breeze
sweeping through roof fissures?
Does Grandfather John perceive
Voices – more than what I hear?
Daily I visit with my parcel of fried leaves,
barley buns, and my ink and scroll,
his bent crippled fingers unable to hold the quill.
He will dictate messages from the God,
not Artemis, nor Diana, but the Wonderful One
that the new Way defines as Everlasting.
It is dim inside, his resting place
a thin pallet on a rough rock ledge.
He is so frail and more than twice my age.
His stories exaggerate, embellish, confuse.
He declares he sees rainbow-filled visions,
his hero Yeshua standing at a doorway
and knocking like just anybody.
The cave walls have little indentations,
scratches, one mark for each day,
his term of imprisonment unknown.
Perhaps the Romans are expecting death soon.
Grandfather John says, ‘I want to go home.’
Does he mean Ephesus or
going to his Father’s Heaven?
This sojourn in Patmos Island a consequence
of insulting the Emperor, his insistence
that Domitianus is not a god.
Why wasn’t he more cautious like me
instead of rants throughout the marketplace?
I have been a Deacon in the Way, quietly
doing my task in overseeing hospitality
and the frail aged like Grandfather John.
So I offered to follow him to the prison island,
take care of his needs, his food, his health.
My wife refused to leave city comforts;
afraid of both prisoners and soldiers.
When Patmos became a prison camp
they worked in the harsh granite mines
so the natives of Patmos fled
to Ephesus or other islands, leaving cottages,
fields (though the land is harsh),
their fishing nets, lobster pots, little boats.
I came with my son and a former slave,
and my mother so now they work the soil,
wrestle with its stubbenness, or go fishing.
I write on my scroll his ramblings,
his incredible store of magical sightings,
mayhem, beasts, and disarray
that may be about the End Times.
I am the Alpha and Omega I write.
This is not about the Jesus we knew about,
a compassionate man, an ordinary man
yet he who had God’s spirit in him.
Grandfather John’s first visions
are to write letters, seven of them,
to real people he knows intimately.
who are frightened, even fractured,
so letters are easy, though convoluted
by metaphors, symbols and signs.
Sometimes I wonder if, instead of a scribe,
Grandfather John needs an artist.
At sunset the cave glows luminous
with streaming light through the fissures
but I cannot see dragons or beasts.
I see fireflies, or a shawl in the sky
which is only an arced flight of birds.
He speaks in colloquial Greek but occasionally
he lapses into his home language,
Ulysses and his adventures were also embellished,
so I wonder what is real and what is imagined.
Has age turned his head? He is not demented,
but has creative stories spinning in his mind,
beyond our ordinary world of hard rock and spring?
I gather what I can of the makings of meals –
– barley, olives, figs, honey – though food is scarce.
The lads wave from a small boat
signalling they have caught three lobsters
as well as octopus, sufficient for three days.
‘This land is God-forsaken,’ my mother says,
as she washes clothes at the trickling spring
then tends Grandfather John’s tender skin.
She comments that the morning glory vine
still grows merrily outside the cave.
How long we will be here, I cannot guess;
Grandfather John’s heart beats strongly.
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