Bringing down the eschaton
I have started a number of posts contrasting my previous traditional understanding of Christianity with my current project of addressing Christian themes from a politically radical perspective. Here I will do the same, but the subject of this essay will be the Fourth Evangelist and supposed Apocalypse author, St. John. Known as “the Divine” or the “Theologian”, it is traditionally thought that the author of the last canonical Gospel and visionary of the end of the world was “closest to the heart of Jesus” and thus the most mystical author of the New Testament, with perhaps St. Paul being a close second. In the ancient church, for example, John’s Gospel was begun at Eastertide since the new catechumens baptized during the Paschal Vigil were deemed sufficiently purified to listen to those most august opening lines of John’s description of the deeds of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word…”
As I have stated previously, these are pretty stories, but it is too bad that they aren’t true. The fact is that John’s “mystical” passages and his visions of cosmic cataclysm had real world foundations that came out of ancient Israel’s struggle against empire and its most contemporary manifestation of the time: Rome. The two books that I will be reviewing briefly in this essay deal with John’s writings employing similar methodologies and they come to proximate conclusions. The first is Wes Howard-Brook’s and Anthony Gwyther’s book, Unveiling Empire: Revelation Then and Now, which is an attempt to approach the last book of the Christian Bible from a contemporary perspective. The second is José Porfirio Miranda’s doctoral thesis on the themes addressed throughout St. John’s Gospel and Epistles: Being and the Messiah: The Message of St. John. While these works discuss the canonical books in different contexts, both try to place the historical figure of John firmly back on earth: clipping the eagle’s wings, so to speak (the eagle being the symbol of the Fourth Evangelist). However, in the process, they place the emphasis of these books back where it should be: on doing justice to one’s neighbor and struggling against a social order that exploits the many for the sake of the few.
Howard-Brook’s and Gwyther’s book on the Apocalypse tries to contextualize that most controversial book in the struggles of the past and present. Indeed, their reading of the situation of the first Christian churches in Asia Minor strikes one as very similar to the situation of people living in the developed world who both benefit and are exploited by a great empire. The authors’ contention is that the startling events described in Revelation have nothing to do with their contemporary future and described what was going on in the first century Roman Empire “below the surface”. The word “apocalypse” is derived from the Greek word for unveiling. So what John of Patmos is really describing is “what is really going on” under the heavy veil of propaganda and violence of the Empire. In other words, it is describing what happens when people trade their freedom for security and their thirst for justice for awe at imperial pomp. That is the central tension at the heart of the book when the image of the Beast and the Whore are presented. Unlike past scholars, Howard-Brook and Gwyther state that the churches in Asia Minor at that time were not undergoing direct violent persecution, but were rather under siege by the luxury and false tranquility of the Pax Romana.
From this understanding we can read the “cosmic” imagery of this most peculiar book. One of my favorite chapters in Howard-Brook’s and Gwyther’s volume has to do with contrasting imperial myths to their counterparts in the anti-imperial Christian Bible. For example, “eternity” was very much a trope signifying the longevity of Roman rule. The Empire was going to last forever, according to imperial propagandists, as it held up the sky and made the sun rise and set every day, etc. We in the modern world have learned to separate nature from the political realm, but in the ancient world, this was not the case. The order of the heavens reflected the order on earth and vice versa. By speaking in the language of cosmic cataclysm, John of Patmos was expressing that the Empire was not eternal and that its fall was inevitable, even if that meant that the stars would fall out of the sky. This would cause much pain and suffering, but this is mainly due to people becoming “hooked” on empire and imperial propaganda like a drug. Once the veil is lifted, people can see the brutality and exploitation of this social order for what it really is.
Thus, the Apocalypse is mainly a long political cartoon drawn with Jewish religious imagery describing events that were then happening and continue to happen in places where power and wealth persecute to build up their own glory and honor. The only thing that can defeat the Beast is the Lamb, that is, Jesus’ path of nonviolent direct action against the imperial order. The authors here point out that people in the first century had little time for prophecies that may occur in a thousand years: all prophecies were ultimately about “now”. The eschatology of the first Christians was thus not about a time yet to come, but the “end times” were then, and they are now as well. Empire is always slaughtering the saints and always on the verge of falling; it is always at once monster and courtesan making its subjects numb with propaganda. The Apocalypse was John of Patmos’s call to wake up.
Miranda’s book on John similarly posits justice at the center of the texts’ message. For example, John’s opening line of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word (logos)”, has nothing to do with Greek metaphysics, in spite of sharing a common language with it. Miranda does an excellent job in pinpointing what this “word” is in John, and it is precisely the love of one’s neighbor. This is not love in the modern sentimental sense, but the Hebrew concept of love as justice done towards the oppressed. Miranda then analyzes how “word” is also interchangeable with “commandment” or “words” in John’s writings, as in “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” or “This new commandment I give to you: that you love one another as I have loved you”. In stating that the word was “at the beginning” and that the Word was God, John is stating that there is no God without this commandment and therefore nothing before the love of one’s neighbor. As Miranda eloquently puts it:
The defining characteristic of the God of the Bible is the fact that he cannot be known or loved directly; rather, to love God is and to know him means to love one’s neighbor and to do one’s neighbor justice. This is what makes the God of the Bible different from all other gods; by overlooking this Biblical teaching, ‘Christian’ theology has fallen into a protracted idolatry. I affirmed above in chapter 2 that religion is incompatible with real Christianity, because religion is the desire for a direct relationship with divinity; the confines of the self, however, cannot be transcended without the real otherness of the neighbor who seeks justice. Those who desire a direct relationship with God wish to prescind from the ‘other'; they may practice a religion of multitudes, but they have enclosed themselves in solipsism and in the irremediable immanence of solitude.
Similarly, when John speaks in his writings of the enemies of the word who “received it not”, he is primarily speaking about those who refuse the commandment to love one’s neighbor and to bring about justice in the here and now. As in Howard-Brook’s and Gwyther’s reflections, it is those who put the Kingdom of God in the indefinite future who are the “anti-Christs”. Here again Miranda agrees with these authors’ thesis in viewing that the Biblical John saw the end of history in the “here and now”: “now” is the time that the words of Jesus are being fulfilled. The coming of the Messiah (the Christ or “anointed one”) was primarily a political and cosmic event, and not a metaphysical one affecting a time yet to come. Those who refused these political and cosmic implications were the enemies of the Word: the word of love and justice that advocates for the orphan, the widow, the foreigner, and so on.
Miranda also discusses the theme of resurrection and eternal life in John’s discourse. First and foremost, eternal life in John’s Gospel is not about life after death, but life without death. In the ancient cosmovision in which John was dealing, death was a result of sin, that is, injustice. Just as the order of empire was seen reflected in the order of the stars, so physical death was a reflection of the spiritual death of exploitation and oppression. Once the latter disappeared, so would the former. Miranda here sides with the Biblical worldview in defense of the “miracle” of eternal life. In other words, he defends against our modern prejudices that posit that nature and the societal order do not and cannot affect each other. In essence, he is saying that there is no true liberation until death itself is overthrown, and condemns such ideologies as existentialism and Marxism as being incomplete and “undialectial”.
Here of course I cannot agree with Miranda. As our modern science has found perfectly natural causes for death, and witnesses death even in peoples who have perfectly egalitarian societies (hunter-gatherers, for example) one cannot deem death to be a moral evil. While Miranda’s critique against scientific rationalism may be valid on one level, we cannot vacate entirely the past five hundred years of scientific knowledge purely on a moral hunch. Neither can we pretend that the Biblical authors “knew something that we don’t”. At best, they were particularly astute at reading the signs of their times while we might be too blinded by our gadgets and knick-knacks to interpret the signs of ours. Although we have been somewhat convinced by our capitalist society of the opposite, prophecies and the concerns of one hundred or one thousand years in the future cannot really concern us. The voice of God, if it exists, is very much in the here and now among those who suffer and those who struggle against that suffering.
All the same, I am very much appreciative of both books for their astute and highly readable accounts of this misunderstood apostle. If loving / doing justice for one’s neighbor is all God is, then this is a God I can sign up for. This is the only God I can defend at the end of the day. This is a God who “will be” (the real significance of the Tetragrammaton), this is the Good News (evangelion) that John was proclaiming. This is not news that commands us to be passive and wait for a savior, but one that calls us to the fight against empire, poverty, and unjust death:
A myth is an event that occurs independently of human will and action regardless of what we do, but the news that the kingdom arrives means that we must make it arrive.
-José Porfirio Miranda