Engraving by Albrecht Dürer
Infection House was so pleased with Pastor David Brazil’s text “My Infection” last month that we reached out to him for some more. David was kind enough to share with us a short reflection on the Book of Revelation and its relevance to the current American political climate. Check out David’s work with co-pastor Sarah Pritchard at Abolition Apostles, here. If you’re looking for a way to help, they are currently seeking volunteer pen pals to write to incarcerated people.
“Last night I was so depressed/And I went and got the Bible/And I turned to the book of Revelations…”
–“(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” Curtis Mayfield
In the spring of 2019, God gave my co-pastor Sarah Pritchard and me a vision for a national jail and prison ministry, Abolition Apostles. We were sitting in a Mexican restaurant on a lunch stop during a very long drive up the whole length of California, from Calipatria near the Mexican border back up to Oakland, where we lived at the time. It was there that the Holy Spirit showed us what we were supposed to do next in our ministry. We had no idea how it fit into our existing lives in the Bay Area, but God solved that problem for us by obliterating the lives we had known and clearing the decks for a new focus. We got to work.
By the spring of 2020, we had hundreds of incarcerated pen-pals in twenty-plus states, as well as volunteers on the outside committed to writing letters, supporting us with commissary donations, visiting facilities, advocating with parole boards and other groups, and supporting re-entry for returning neighbors. That’s where things stood when the pandemic struck.
In mid-March, when everything started to get real in the US, we scrambled into action as part of a newly-formed community group, the New Orleans Mutual Aid Society. But in the midst of everything we kept writing letters to prisoners.
One of them is my friend Brian, who is incarcerated in Mississippi. He wrote me a letter asking what was going on with Coronavirus, and also inquiring as to my thoughts concerning the book of Revelation. And he wasn’t the only pen-pal who asked about this particular book. When things get crazy in the world– when natural disasters, pestilences, evil rulers and imperial violence all show up at once– it can be hard not to think of what we half-remember, about “the four horsemen of the Apocalypse” and the “seven seals.” And because I’m a pastor working with incarcerated people who would continue to be curious about this book, I realized I’d better have something to say.
Thus began my church’s spring-to-summer 2020 delve into the final and perhaps most misunderstood book of the Bible– now just in time not only for Coronavirus, quarantine, and the economic meltdown, but for the insurrections against white supremacist violence that have taken the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others.
Like so much else right now, our church, Apostles Fellowship, is on Zoom. I’ll save my reflections on the colonization of our offline life by the Internet for a subsequent epistle, and merely observe that our church now gets to be a national gathering. Folks tune in from Louisiana, Texas, California, and Washington to our Sunday gathering at 2pm Central. We’re a non-denominational Christian fellowship and our practice grows out of years of work as a community church in Oakland, the Agape Fellowship. We open in prayer, share song, and then take part in what we call a liturgy of safety. Each member of the congregation agrees to the ground rules that keep us all protected (that we will come to the space sober, that we won’t fight, shout, or use hate speech, and that we won’t call the police) by saying “I will create a safe space”.
Once that’s done, we proceed to the study of scripture. We read books together in seasons– the whole book, one chapter at a time, for however many months it takes to finish. Our study of Exodus, which has forty chapters, took forty weeks– the better part of a year. We read the week’s chapter out loud in the service, one verse at a time, round robin style, and then the day’s preacher shares the proclamation, which is followed by conversation about the text, the sermon, and whatever else bubbles up. We always find that the history through which we live while we are studying and preaching the scripture resonates with what we are learning. Going slowly through the text in community also invariably teaches us, the pastors, something new about even the most familiar texts.
And even though I’d read Revelation many times, starting as an atheist teenager drawn in by arguably the most heavy-metal and psychedelic part of the scripture, I wouldn’t say it had ever grown ‘familiar’. (I didn’t become a Christian until 2013, when I was in my thirties. I’ve often said that “I used to be a commie, and now I’m a commie Christian”– a story that’s also true of Dorothy Day and many less-well-known believers.) I wanted to be able to share something about this text with Brian and my other pen-pals, but I also wanted, at last, to understand something about it for myself.
So what about Revelation right now?
The first thing to say about it is that the author, John, wrote the text in political exile on the island of Patmos. The Roman emperor had sent him there as part of the broader persecution of the first century AD movement we now call the early Christian church, although we know that its adherents didn’t know that name and described their practice as “the Way”. Revelation is a prison letter. What would happen if we started thinking about this book as the Soledad Brother of the Roman empire?
Once we are clear that Revelation is a prison text, written by a persecuted opponent of the empire, we can take the next step and say that it is, from beginning to end, an anti-imperial text. The devastation John’s vision describes is a picture of what happens when the wickedness of empire is permitted to dominate the world. A crown is given unto the worst and most violent human impulses. The famous and terrifying vision of the horsemen in chapter six bringing war, violence, famine and death describe what life is like under the rule of emperors who have no regard for their subject populations. (Sound familiar?) John decried the Roman war-machine; we, in the belly of the beast, are called upon to speak out against the racialized capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy which are the basis of the American machine. The spiritual truth is that these empires are continuous through time. As the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick memorably put it, “the empire never ended”.
If this is true, then why is Revelation so hard to understand? Like the Hebrew Bible’s book of Daniel, Revelation belongs to a genre called apocalyptic – and, like Daniel, it is written in a sort of political allegory that encodes its meaning so that the faithful can understand it but their overseers (hopefully) won’t. Revelation is an encouragement to God’s people fighting through the tribulations brought about by empire, because human sin does not have the last word. It comes to an end through the reign of God’s justice.
On the Sunday of Pentecost, a festival that commemorates the descent of tongues of fire upon members of the early church, while insurrections flared in dozens of American cities, I preached on a verse from John’s ninth chapter, about the sorrows that will befall “those which have not the seal of God on their foreheads”. Conservative and evangelical Christianity, focused on personal piety, has trained us to read a text like this in light of our individual salvation. I shared with my congregation a text from the prophet Ezekiel, which I am certain John was thinking of when he wrote. God commissions a scribe and says to him: “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” These are the people who God will save – the ones who are grieving and lamenting over the suffering of God’s people. And, spoiler alert: at the end of Revelation, God’s people win. Justice prevails on the earth, and brings about a new earth (and new heaven) in the process. “These are but the beginnings of the birth pangs,” as Jesus says in the gospel of Mark.
We always say in church the Bible is like a newspaper if you know how to read it right. Now I had some good news to share with Brian, thank God.