An excerpt from Tommy Airey’s recent release Descending Like A Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity.
A few weeks into 2016, the Flint water crisis went viral. Tap water was poisoned with high levels of lead and bacteria. As complaints from residents came pouring in, city and state officials did nothing to change the situation. Just denial. For almost two whole years.
A month after the crisis made the headlines of every major newspaper in the world, Flint native and retired autoworker Claire McClinton drove sixty miles south to visit a group of us organizing for clean and affordable water in Detroit. These were Claire’s opening remarks:
We send you greetings from the occupied city of Flint. You can go to the gas station and get lead-free gas. You can go to the hardware store and get lead-free paint. Even a capitalist knows the dangers of lead. But we can’t go to our sink and get lead-free water. I’ve got PTSD. In fact, everybody’s got it if you care about humanity.
The disastrous decision to switch water sources was made by the full, unquestioned authority of a governor-appointed emergency manager who was appointed because of a $25 million accumulated deficit. In the decade leading up to this decision, the state government withheld $55 million in revenue sharing owed to Flint (all states redistribute a portion of sales tax revenue to local governments).[i] Flint, too, wasn’t bankrupt. It was bankrupted.
The state government used Flint’s sales tax revenue to plug holes in its own austerity budget, as taxes were slashed on the wealthy and corporations. There is also plenty of evidence that the decision to switch water sources in Flint was directly tied to campaign contributions from corporations seeking rich government contracts to build a new water pipeline to Lake Huron (in addition to fracking interests).[ii]
A year after Claire visited us in Detroit, the state’s Civil Rights Commission issued a scathing 135-page report naming “systemic racism” as a major factor in Flint’s water contamination. Redlining, white flight to the suburbs, intergenerational poverty and “implicit bias” were all chronicled as contributing to the unnatural disaster.[iii]
More than 50 percent of Michigan’s Black residents have lived in cities governed by unelected and, most often, unresponsive, officials. Only 2 percent of white folks have had the same experience, even though there are many other financially struggling cities in Michigan that are majority white.[iv]
Meanwhile, Michigan ranks last in the nation in transparency and accountability, as Governor Snyder signed multiple bills to conceal actions of the state government and shield the identity of the state’s biggest political donors.[v] Fifty years after the Kerner Commission report, history has come full circle. White politicians still shrug off the fierce urgency of now.
And yet, Claire and her friends are the only reason that Flint’s water crisis “made the news.” They organized and recruited researchers from Virginia Tech to come test the safety of their water. They never gave up. As Claire boasts, “When they poisoned Flint, they poisoned the wrong ones.” These grassroots leaders refused to accept the ending of the story that the powers scripted them into. They pulled off a miracle and the rest of the world came to believe.
* * *
Flint was an exposé. A revelation. Just like the final pages of the Christian Scriptures: The Book of Revelation. No “s” at the end. Most Christians mispronounce it. The real problem, though, is how they misinterpret it.
“Revelation” is the English translation of the Greek title apokalypto. The Apocalypse. The genre of apocalyptic literature, in the ancient world, utilized metaphor and hyperbole to “reveal” reality, to pull the curtain back on power. It was coded language—those on the margins were in on it. Those thriving in the mainstream were the butt of the joke.
Apocalyptic literature pierces through the veil of the colonial script to see reality more clearly. It strips away the denial and propaganda to expose suffering and injustice by taking the perspective of the poor and marginalized. It also infuses hope in a world as it should be by taking the perspective of a divine love that descends in solidarity with all who groan. Ched Myers calls this the task of “apocalyptic double vision:” seeing the world as enslaved, but envisioning it liberated.[vi]
So much of this is completely lost on those, like me, who grew up in an Evangelical faith mesmerized by Revelation as an end-times blueprint, retrofitting numbers and symbols to fit current events. Back in the ‘80’s, I was taught that it was very likely that Communist Soviet Union was the Beast (Revelation 13) that would force us all to place a mark on our hand or forehead, and that we should be anticipating a False Prophet (Revelation 19:19-20) from the Democratic Party who would force the entire world to worship at his feet. Those of us who faithfully refused would live through the great tribulation, at least until we were raptured, leaving the world to burn in our salvific wake. This is what I learned from my junior high youth leaders in suburbia.
Written from the margins, however, the ancient roots of apocalyptic literature are anti-imperial. These scenarios were envisioned from places like the streets of Flint and Detroit, not the mega-churches of suburban Southern California. Revelation was written by one banished to exile, likely an indication that the author grew up with some semblance of privilege and then prophetically turned his back on the mainstream (those from lower classes, like Jesus, were beheaded or crucified).[vii] John the Revelator descended like a dove.
The Book of Revelation, a challenging address to seven churches paralyzed by the colonial script, is a thoroughly stinging critique of power, wealth, comfort and the use of violence in service of greed. The beast and prophet were referring to Rome and Caesar during the first century. The great tribulation was what those followers of Jesus were suffering then—to exile, on crosses, in prisons and arenas. For them, it already was “the end times.”
The spiritual power of Revelation is that every generation of disciples is called to “faithful resistance” (Revelation 1:9)—from beasts like power hungry Presidents and emergency managers, stripping human rights and shutting off water. If followers of Jesus since the fourth century read Revelation in ways that are more congruent with the original intent—if they got the timeless message—the history of Christianity would be dramatically different. If we grappled with “the prophetic” as a prodding to resist and recover, instead of as a foretelling of the future, we would have had access to a script that challenges and empowers instead of one fueled by fear and fantasy.
It is easy to miss the point when reading Revelation. Its message is more relevant than ever as the colonial script continues its vicious cycle. Fifty years ago, Dr. King lamented that Black Americans were being “crucified by conscientious blindness,” linking that violent tribulation with the words of Jesus on the cross, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Today, more than ever before, mainstream America continues to be crucified by conscientious blindness.
[i] Anna Clark, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2018).
[ii] Curt Guyette, “A Deep Dive into the Source of Flint’s Water Crisis,” Detroit Metro Times, April 19, 2017.
[iii] Michael Gerstein, “Snyder Commission: Racism Played Role in Flint Crisis,” The Detroit News, February 17, 2017. http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/michigan/flint-water-crisis/2017/02/17/flint-report/98058024/
[iv] Anna Clark, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2018).
[vi] Ched Myers, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: Warning Tale and Interpretive Key to Luke,” RadicalDiscipleship.net, September 22, 2016. https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2016/09/22/the-rich-man-and-lazarus-warning-tale-and-interpretive-key-to-luke/
[vii] Wes Howard-Brook, The New Testament—Introducing the Way of Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 192-193.