Patrice Rolin invites us to go beyond the usual catastrophist reading of the Book of Revelation, to show us its joyful aspects. Under his pen a manifesto of spiritual resistance is revealed to a life-giving reading.
The book of Revelation is often understood as God’s agenda for the troubled and violent last times in the world’s history. In everyday speech, the adjective « apocalyptic » is often used to refer to catastrophic, alarming destruction. Neither of these understandings does justice to the last book of the Bible.
As a matter of fact, the meaning of the Greek word translated as “apocalypse” is “unveiling”, “revelation”. And that is certainly what the book of Revelation is about: John, the seer of Patmos, lifts the veil on what is happening behind the scenes of contemporary history. He uncovers and analyses sharply the ideology of the late 1st century Roman Empire and the challenges of witnessing to the Gospel in that situation. In this way the reader is faced with the radical choice between the risk of witnessing and adherence – or submission – to the dominant values of the Empire. But undoubtedly, troubled by the fantastic and terrifying tales of the Apocalypse, many readers remember only a collection of prophecies of doom for humankind.
Beatitudes and calls to joy
However, in contrast to that first impression, many passages make the book look like « good news ». From beginning to end, the Apocalypse is punctuated by beatitudes, seven beatitudes addressed to its faithful readers (Rev. 1.3; 14.13; 16.15; 19.9; 20.6; 22.7; 22.14).
On two occasions, we find invitations to rejoice resounding after the victory over Satan gained through the « blood of the Lamb » and the testimony of the faithful (Rev.12,11-12), and again after the account of the fall of Babylon (Rev. 18.20). In chapter 19, a huge crowd is filled with joy on the occasion of the Lamb’s victory. Finally, chapters 21 and 22 crown the whole thing with the vision of new heavens, a new earth and the new Jerusalem from which « all tears will have been wiped away”.
Admittedly, this collection may seem meagre in comparison with the long chapters which describe in great detail the misfortunes and disasters. In the game of statistics, it is indeed destruction that wins. But let’s take a closer look at those who are the addressees of those appeals for joy and at what is summoned to destruction.
Fallen is Babylon the Great!
Take, for example, the story of the downfall of Babylon in chapter 18. It is at the centre of a triptych whose first panel (chap. 17) recounts the judgement and degradation of the great harlot, Babylon representing Rome, abandoned and even consumed by her lovers, who represent the vassal kings and kingdoms of the Empire. The central panel (chap. 18) details the brutal decline of the international trade which converges on the capital of the Empire. The third panel (chap. 19,1-10) provides the opportunity to contemplate a heavenly liturgy to the glory of the Lamb, celebrating his victory in a reflection of imperial triumphs.
At the heart of the triptych, chapter 18 tells the story of the collapse of the contemporary « global » economic system of which the seer of Patmos has his revelation. This even though at the end of the 1st century the system was at the height of its power; collapse would happen historically only in the 5th century AD and in a wholly different way. In this context, between genuine historical successes – the establishment of the Pax Romana and economic growth – and visions of destruction, an exhortation to joy sounds for the recipients of the book. Right in the middle of the story of the spectacular cataclysmic slump in the « globalized » maritime trade of the Empire! This call to joy comes to interrupt the desperate and repeated laments of those, the magnates and the merchants, who profited from its splendour and its wealth: « Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets! »(v.20a)
In other words, those to whom the Book of Revelation is addressed, in whom we must recognize the faithful of the community and their leaders – like the readers who recognise themselves in them – are invited to rejoice in the fall of the « global » economic system which the seer denounces as ungodly: that the powerful lament the drying up of the source of their wealth (v.10.15.19) and the end of their comfortable life (v. 22-23) is no reason for those who had no part in it – and were probably the victims of the system (v. 24) – to have to join in their lamentations! This rejoicing by the oppressed at the reference to a tipping point in the situation of the powerful echoes many other biblical passages (Dt 32,43; Isa 14,7-8…) and of course the Magnificat (Lk 1,46-55).
A call to dissent
In this chapter 18, the invitation to rejoice is not not the only instruction given by John of Patmos. In verse 4, we already find an injunction to the readers: « Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues”. It’s about escaping divine wrath, sparing the righteous so that they do not perish with the wicked and because of them. But it is first of all about « not taking part in her sins », that is to say dissociating oneself from the economic system and the imperial ideology. This first injunction therefore calls for active, spiritual dissent. We remember that at the beginning of Revelation, several of the seven letters to the Churches of Asia Minor were already stigmatising the tendency to compromise with the values of the Empire (2,14.20; 3,15), and that in chapter 13, « Not having the mark of the beast » resulted in economic marginalisation (13,16-17).
If in chapter 18, and elsewhere in the Book of Revelation, the economic dimension is very much to the fore, those who are identified as the victims of the imperial system are not victims primarily from an economic, but from an ideological, point of view. They are first of all confessing witnesses, and the joy to which they are called is not the simple joy of a hoped-for victory against all odds or vindictive joy at an enemy brought low. If they can and must rejoice, it is because they have been shown that the fundamentally idolatrous and ungodly system under which they live – and which they endure – is not the whole of the world’s reality. The risky witness of those who find strength in their hope is above all a fight, a spiritual resistance rather than a political action in the contemporary sense of the term. However it remains true that such a dissenting attitude has a political meaning, as the Empire’s apparatus of coercion understood.
Re-reading the collapse
Rereading the Apocalypse today as good news may, in an admittedly very different historical situation, offer spiritual resources for resisting dominant ideologies, so as not to be alienated by them, nor to let oneself be « dis-integrated” by them. This is of course not about promoting enthusiastic catastrophism which would be not only irresponsible but illusory. Indeed, taking on an ethics of dissent is a different matter from developing an enlightened pessimism about the catastrophic future of world. On the contrary, the perspective of the Revelation of John is that of a hope based on trust. Against the determinisms in which we often think we have to stay locked up, it offers a different, liberating reading of the history of the world and its horizon.
Even in the minority, the calls to rejoice – like the seven blessings that mark the Apocalypse – make this book a manifesto of spiritual resistance, of dissidence and hope, and therefore good news.
« Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near. » (Rev. 1,3)
For a more in-depth development of the literary, historical and economic contexts of this chapter, see the article « People who weep, people who laugh… Revelation 18” in Cahier biblique n ° 51 of Foi et Vie CXI / 4 of Sep. 2012 – www.foi-et-vie.fr)
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