“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.