(Note: This sermon ended up in a very different place than it would have if events in Charlottesville had played out differently. This began as an exploration of the apocalyptic genre, as part of my summer series on exploring [and often overturning] familiar theologies, and became both an analysis of the contrast between prophecy and apocalyptic and a somewhat personal reflection on Charlottesville. The following text is not exactly what I preached; my in-person meditation was much more off-the-cuff than is usual for me. Read what follows as notes. If you’re interested in my reflection on prophetic morality, go here.)
There may be no genre of writing in the history of the written word more feared and misunderstood than that of apocalyptic literature. Growing up in a pretty progressive corner of the American Baptist Church and the Episcopal Church, I was largely ignorant of it. Then I went to an evangelical college, where suddenly I was in the midst of people who passionately debated topics related to the Book of Revelation such as premillennialism vs. postmillennialism, and the precise identity of the great dragon, with his seven heads and ten horns. It. Was. Baffling.
In my junior year I studied at Oxford University, and one of my tutorials was in feminist theology. The tutor wanted me to meet with another scholar, a New Testament scholar, to get a sense of how feminist biblical scholarship influenced theology and liturgy. I remember the New Testament scholar asking me what I thought about Revelation, and I said, “It doesn’t fit with the rest of the New Testament.” And she replied, “It makes sense of the New Testament! It’s the connection between the Hebrew Bible and the early Jesus Movement.” She explained that apocalyptic literature is arguably the newest portion of the Old Testament and found in such places as Daniel, Joel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. There is a lot of non-canonical apocalyptic, as well—apocalyptic literature which is not considered part of the Bible, but is related to it, usually attributed to a biblical character or a figure from Jewish myth. These include a long list of books titled “Apocalypse of X,” such as Apocalypse of Abraham, Apocalypse of Daniel, Apocalypse of Moses. There’s a corresponding body of non-canonical apocalyptic attributed to Christian figures, too: Apocalypse of Paul, Apocalypse of James, Apocalypse of Stephen.
We tend to think of apocalypse meaning some kind of final battle or disaster of some kind, especially when we speak of “post-apocalyptic” fiction. This usage makes sense, since apocalyptic literature often involves a conflict between God and God’s forces, on the one hand, and the agents of evil, on the other. But apocalypse literally means “uncovering,” “unveiling,” “revelation.” Apocalypse is inherently dualistic, and sees the world divided in two camps: righteous vs. evil, “children of light” vs. “children of darkness,” the present age vs. the age to come. The “uncovering” refers to knowledge that is held by the select few, but will eventually be made to known to everyone by the actions of God and God’s forces, to the misery of the wicked.
Apocalyptic grew out of prophetic literature, and, if you recall my meditation on prophetic morality, you can see the continuity between prophecy and apocalyptic. Both are concerned with corporate ethics, both call out the misdeeds of the current regime in stark and often shocking language, and both use often-fantastical imagery and refer to dreams and visions. But there’s a difference between them: where prophecy attempts to call people to repentance and remind them of their covenant with God and its moral demands, the apocalyptic vision often seems unconcerned with transformation and repentance. Often it seems that it has already decided that people can’t be changed, and merely waits for God to intervene and put things right. I’m oversimplifying a bit here; you can find calls to repentance and transformation in apocalyptic literature, and you can find outright denunciations and condemnations of people in prophecy. But by and large, the prophets are driven by God’s call to transform the world and live up to God’s righteousness, whereas apocalyptic writers sought to inspire people to be patient and trust that God’s judgment would sort things out soon.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to guess that the apocalyptic language and imagery most of us have encountered is from white, economically-comfortable, evangelical Christians. But apocalyptic originated in oppressed communities under foreign imperial domination. The Greek and Roman empires that subjugated Israel and oppressed Jews and early Christians was so dominant, so powerful, that the people they oppressed often couldn’t conceive of fighting them or freeing themselves. This sense of helplessness is the crucible that turns prophetic calls for repentance into oracles of comfort to the oppressed, telling them that God, who is more powerful than any empire or army, will save them and set them free. Most of the prophets preached under Israelite kings, some of whom were pawns of empires. But all of the apocalyptic writers composed their work under foreign domination.
Did you see the counter-protestors—clergy and other people of faith—in Charlottesville yesterday morning? They were rejecting dualism by refusing to condemn the people who hate, only the hatred. They framed their response to hatred around love—love that can change people, that can soften hard hearts. Love that can triumph over hatred in this world, and not just in a perfect world to come. By opposing hate with love rather than with condemnation and by framing their message as a call to act differently, these clergy and other people of faith chose the prophetic standpoint over the apocalyptic one.
This is the point I was at in writing this reflection when I learned that a counter-protestor had been killed—murdered in broad daylight—when a man drove his car into a crowd of people, the people standing up for love and against hatred and fear. (I wanted to keep the disjunction clear, so you can see how easy it is to turn to judgment and vengeance.) I watched the video of the attack. Besides the woman who was killed, many others were injured; in one still photo, you can see several men in the air, with a jumble of shoes falling to the ground. They were literally knocked out of their shoes. And, God, I want that man punished. I want God to smite him. I want God to step in here and eradicate the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, all the terrorists. I want every tear to be wiped from our eyes, and death and pain and mourning to be no more. I just want it to end.
Some theologians say that, when God created the world, God chose to give up some power so that humans could be free, like God. God limited Godself in order that human beings could be in relationship with each other and with God—because only free beings can be in relationship. Over and over in the Hebrew Bible, God shows delight in creation—in the first human naming the animals in Genesis 2, in “playing with” the sea monster Leviathan in Psalm 104—and over and over, God “repents” and changes God’s mind because of something humans say. Over and over, God becomes despairing of human sin and evil. This is because we are free. This is because God is a God of relationship and not of slavery. You can only delight in or love or change your mind about or despair over someone when that someone is free.
And that is why I have to choose the prophetic model over the apocalyptic one. I choose to hold fast to hope, as exhausting and frightening and demoralizing as that can be. Because when someone does hear and does let themselves grow, that is a miracle unlike any other.
As I was preparing this reflection, I started wondering, “what if my insistence on hope is a reflection of the relative unearned privilege and safety I’ve experienced as a white person? What if I’m being naïve?” And then I read something written by the Sikh lawyer and filmmaker Valerie Kaur. If you don’t know of Valerie and have an internet connection,* check her out! Her inauguration day speech is possibly my favorite speech of all time—she uses the imagery of a pregnant woman in labor for the work we are doing when we resist hate. She says, “the mother in me asks, What if? What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?. . . What is this is our country’s great transition?” And she ends by saying “What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe! And then?” And the audience shouts, “Push!” “Tonight we will breathe,” she says, and “tomorrow we will labor—in love, through love! And your revolutionary love is the magic we will show our children!”
But, getting back to prophecy vs. apocalyptic, to hope vs. condemnation: I want to end with what Valerie said yesterday—and keep in mind this is a woman whose Sikh community has experienced a lot of violence in the past couple of decades, and she herself has lost friends and even an uncle to white supremacist violence—she says, “The wound of grief is deep and does not heal with time. But I have learned that the pain becomes bearable when others share in that grief. Today may America’s eyes open to the what has been there all along — hate that this President has legitimized and emboldened. May we grieve the woman killed today out loud and with each other. May those who have never spoken about such things before speak up now. May we allow ourselves to feel angry. May we honor our outrage as good and necessary. And even inside this anger and grief, may we affirm that every person we saw today — yes, even the ones marching with torches — is worthy of love. They are not evil; they are frail and afraid. Their hate is only possible because they fear a nation where they as white people no longer have cultural & economic dominion. They need places and people to help them grieve and face the harm they inflict on us. In the mean time, we refuse to hate them because we refuse to be like them. We set a place at the table for when they are ready to join the larger WE, even if that day is years from now. I know it’s possible because I have seen former white supremacists stand by my side to preach love; I have held the phone with trembling hands to hear my uncle’s murderer ask for forgiveness. Only because we refused to believe they were incapable of love — we refused to hate them. So this weekend, in our own ways, through anger and grief and resolve, at the kitchen table and online and in our hearts, let us show them what #RevolutionaryLove looks like.”
*This is not a given in my part of the world.