"In the history of the people of Israel we find an evolution from the prophetic literature toward the apocalyptic ..."
Pablo Richard, Apocalypse: A People's Commentary on the Book of Revelation (1995)
As a liberal Christian I'm used to looking at the Book of Revelation as the playground of the lunatic fringe of the half-baked religious right, at best a mystery, at worst an embarrassment. So imagine my consternation when, a few years ago, my liberal pastor gave me this book by Pablo Richard. I took a look at it, didn't understand a word of it, and set it aside.
Lately, I took it up again, and suddenly it made sense. A lot of sense. I now realize the pastor gave the book because it is aimed right at people like me: lay teachers of religion. When I finish the book, I will make a full writeup on it, but for now I thought I'd share a few thoughts in a daylog. I know that the E2 readership contains a lot of struggling progressive Christians, who need all the support they can get.
Perhaps current events helped me understand this book, in a way I couldn't six or seven years ago. If you follow the news at all, you know that today, Christianity is divided into warring camps. The Catholic Church, the largest and most visible institution of Christianity, embodies the struggle in rather stark terms with easily identifable issues: human sexuality, hierarchical authority, the ordination of women, the meaning of priesthood and ordination generally. The elevation of Cardinal Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI confirms which side is winning in the Vatican: the authoritarian, patriarchal side. Ratzinger made his career as head of the modern-day Inquisition, repressing movements like liberation theology and people like Swiss theologian Hans Küng. The Roman Catholic Church is by no means, however, the only institution wracked by the struggle. Clearly, getting rid of the Pope isn't the solution to bringing Christianity into the modern world. Without the Pope we have Pat Robertson, who is hardly an improvement.
This is a book of liberation theology. If you are like me, you've heard the term but have only the vaguest idea of what it is about. This is a good place to start. Pablo Richard was born in Chile. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of San Jose, Costa Rica, and a university professor. He holds degrees from Chile, the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, the Biblical School of Jerusalem, and a doctorate in the Sociology of Religion from the Sorbonne. He is about as well-educated in the Bible as you can possibly get these days. Don't bother with this book if you don't know the Bible and at least a little modern Biblical scholarship. He writes like a professor. He says things like "the precise date is not important" and then tells you the precise date.
Pablo Richard's book helps me avoid the overwhelming temptation to judge the other side as the "bad guys" and my side as the "good guys". While I am very much committed to my side, seeing how the respective sides or tendencies have functioned in the past gives me an understanding of their role and value in the Church, and implies that both will be important in the future.
Apocalypse also helps me reconcile some doubts about Judgment. In the Judgment story, God divides humanity into two distinct groups, one to be rewarded and the other punished. This notion is hardly unique to Christianity (compare the end of the Republic by Plato, or the Buddhist idea of karma). The Christian idea of "hell", however, particularly as expressed by characters like Tertullian or Fred Phelps, is by far the most savage, bloodthirsty and cruel, and perversely antagonistic to the message of the Gospel. I've always found it repulsive. When I talk about such things with religious people, I say that guys like Fred Phelps already are burning in a hell of their own imagination. Yet if I am honest with myself, I also secretly yearn to see justice done and bad people punished.
In the very first sentence of the book (quoted above), Pablo Richard introduces working labels for certain tendencies –the "prophetic" and the "apocalyptic". These are distinct literary styles in the Bible. Sometimes whole books are in one style. The books of the Prophets tend to be "prophetic" (hence the name), while the Book of Daniel is "apocalyptic". Sometimes, however, writings in both styles are mashed together as one "Book" in the Bible, like Isaiah. Also, there are plenty of writings which didn't make it into the standard canon of the Bible (they are called the "apocrypha"). Pablo Richard asks us to look at all of this material in a historical context, so that the Book of Revelations doesn't come as a weird sport, tacked onto the end of the Bible.
The primary historical event is the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the exile of Jews to Babylon, around 587 BCE. Before the Babylonian destruction and Exile, Israel had a vigorous, centralized religion and and independent political, economic and military power. The Prophets of Israel criticized the political and religious establishment, but they did so from a position of power within that establishment. Often they seem very "liberal" to moden prejudices: some of the very best social justice rhetoric can be found in the Prophets. But when a prophet admonishes the establishment to, for example, care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, he is not calling for liberation or enfranchisement of oppressed people. He is reminding the powerful that the source and foundation for their rule is security for the people.
The prophet's modus operandi is authoritarian: he demands obedience to "God" and "God's law". One example: consider the relation of the prophet Samuel and Israel's first King: Saul. (1 Samuel, Chapters 8-16). Samuel is the last of a line of leaders called the "Judges". He makes Saul the first King of Israel. In a war with a neighboring tribe, the Amaleks, Samuel instructs Saul to completely slaughter the Amaleks: men, women, children and even their domesticated animals. Saul disobeys by allowing his soldiers to take the flocks of animals as spoils of war. Samuel announces that God is unhappy with Saul for his failure to follow Samuel's instructions to the letter, and annoints David to replace him as King. This story is probably not a contemporary or accurate historical account, but rather a bit of rhetoric crafted by priests at a later date, with a distinct political message for the secular rulers of Israel: we made you and we can break you.
Comparisons to the contemporary Catholic Church are hard to resist. Some of former Cardinal Ratzinger's more outrageous writings include demands on political leaders to obey Church doctrine, without question or compromise, on such matters as contraception, abortion, or homosexuality.... or else. John Paul II's role in the fall of Communism strongly suggests that this "or else" is no idle threat.
The Church's male, celibate, hierarchical priesthood makes them special, sacred and magical ... and feared. These increasingly inconvient requirements for priests are retained because they help give credibility to the age-old threat: we made you and we can break you. But political threats by religious leaders are hardly unique to the Catholic Church. The religious right in the United States (nominally "Protestant") has lately been rather blatant about insisting upon extreme, irrational and unpopular policies, like opposing gay marriage and the compromise favored by an overwhelming majority of Americans (some kind of legal or civil recognition of homosexual couples).
Have you wondered why the Religious Right makes such a big deal about gay marriage? Wouldn't it be better for them to rest silent in smug self-assurance that homosexuals will burn in hell, instead of speaking out and alienating many sensible people who would just rather leave them alone? Do you think guys like Pat Robertson really care whether homosexuals get married? Does he care any more than Samuel cared whether Saul's captains got to keep a few sheep and goats? It's all or about authority, power and obedience.
I can laugh at Pat Robertson all I want, with his pretension to a theological education, and the silly way he scrinches up his eyes when he prays for the death of Supreme Court justices on television. It stops being so funny, however, when guys like him can muster up an Act of Congress (e.g. Terri Schiavo) at the drop of a hat, or have bishops assassinated. ("Fear will keep the local systems in line.")
Now, up until I started reading this book by Pablo Richard, I have always viewed "apocalyptic" literature as yet another tool in the priest's bag of tricks for inspiring fear, destroying hope, and commanding obedience. Certainly that is how the Religious Right uses Revelation today. What's the point in trying to build a better society when the Rapture is going to happen any day now, and Jesus will make it all better? But I'm only a few chapters into Apocalypse and I'm beginning to see that I have been mislead. I was mislead, first of all, by the editing of the Bible.
If you try to read the read the canonical Bible in the order it is published, Revelations just seems weird. I mean, picture me reading this in the 1970s, and trying to explain it to my stoned hippie friends: "First there are these stories about this cool dude who can turn water into wine and come back from the dead. (the Gospels). Then there are these inspirational speeches from these preacher dudes. (the Epistles). Then, blammo, there's this psychedelic acid trip with like whores and horned beasts and lakes of fire and Armaggedon and like Jesus appearing in the sky with armies of angels ... whoa. I want some of what this dude was fucked up on! Or seriously, maybe I don't. I mean, is this psychotic or what?"
In between Daniel and Revelations, however, there is a whole series of writings they don't put in the Bible, and a political and historical context which is entirely missing from the Holy Book. For one thing, the order in which they were written: today we think the Epistles were first, then Mark. These were written before the war between Jewish insurgents and the Roman Empire that culminates with the destruction of the Second Temple. Then after the war: Matthew, Luke, Acts, then Revelations, and finally the Gospel of John.
Revelations is written after Israel is crushed, and only a few still believe that a Messiah will literally come soon and throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. Jewish culture and religion has been smashed into little pieces. One of those pieces becomes Rabbinic Judaism, another evolves into the Catholic Church, but there are all sorts of other socio-religious fragments which didn't survive. They wrote books, however, and some of them, like Revelations, survived the conciliar editing process of 393-419 CE.
Revelations was written by people whose social, political, economic and cultural structures were all utterly destroyed. They lived as displaced people, wandering about a vast empire with a completely alien culture and world view. Most of them didn't even speak their native language any more. The ones who can write, write in the lingua franca of the day: Koine Greek: a pidgin form of the Greek of the educated elite. The New Testament was hardly a literary masterpiece by the standards of the day. The early Christians lacked positions of authority in the Roman Empire, so any unsubtle or blatant "prophetic" threats against the Roman Empire would have been laughable. The Roman Emperor does not fear the "God" of these barbarians: he is a God!
(As soon as the Christians gain power, however, the rhetorical eloquence and the "prophetic" moralizing returns: in the writings of the Church Fathers. Augustine's City of God, for example, warns the Romans that the decay of the Empire is attributable to their worship of pagan "demons").
The early Christians had a cultural memory of at least two similar periods in the Jewish nation's history: the Babylonian Exile, and before that, when they were slaves in Egypt. During both times, their leaders weren't kings or priests, but they were –so the stories go– interpreters of dreams: Joseph interpreted Pharoah's dreams, and Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar's dreams. Pablo Richard compares their situation to Central America after the Spanish Conquest. He compares the syncretic transformation of the native goddess Tonatzin into the Virgin of Guadalupe –from the Aztec Mother Goddess into the Catholic Mother of God– with the work of Bartholome de la Casas. De las Casas was a Dominican friar who became Bishop of Mexico and vigorously denounced the oppression and subjugation of the Native Americans. Richard implies that today, Bartoleme de Las Casas is a historical footnote, but the Virgin is a revered symbol throughout the Americas. The myth of the Virgin is "apocalyptic", whereas de Las Casas's condemnation of the establishment, from within the establishment, was "prophetic".
The early Christians were not eloquent, but could speak in riddles, like Jesus probably did, or they could create apocalyptic myth. The Book of Daniel provides the most immediate example, and, unsurprisingly, Revelations is full of imagery stolen directly from Daniel. However, something has happened in the meantime: the whole Jesus movement ...
So what happens next? I don't know, I haven't finished the book.
Suffice it to say that Western Civilization has always had its "dark side", which thrives on oppression, death and destruction. This is no less true today than it was in the days of Rome or Babylon, and if anything, our technical prowess for destruction has only grown worse. Pablo Richard does not "believe" in, or think oppressed people can draw hope and strength from, a literal interpretation of Revelations which imagines a "Rapture" during which good Christians disappear from moving vehicles. An "apocalypse" worthy of the name is a revealing, an uncovering of reality; not a reality in the future or in the afterlife, but a reality which lies hidden in the present. Myth and symbol are necessary to see it.
I will keep you posted.
chastised me for my many typos and sloppy links, and worse, points out that Bartolome de Las Casas was not a total failure, and generally objects to liberation theology as marxist claptrap. All true, though we can argue about de Las Casas "legacy", and this book I casually review here doesn't have any Marxist ideology in it. I'll fix the typos, but I think it's fair to remind people that anything in my daylog is just a journal entry and not a final work by any means.