Reign of Christ
Proper 29 (34) B
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
By: Ron Berezan
I used to avoid apocalyptic scriptures like the plague. I’m beginning to rethink that.
For many years, I found the violent imagery, intense dualism and gnostic sounding anti-earth passages too hard to stomach. So I chose to ignore them – mostly. I’ll admit, there was always a tinge of guilty fascination, a bit like staring at an accident scene, even though I knew I really shouldn’t.
But over the past decade or so, it’s been hard not to notice the ubiquitous “end times” narrative popping up under every nook and cranny in popular culture. I got hooked on Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy even though it kept me up at night. Then a friend introduced me to John Howard Kuntsler’s The World Made by Hand series and there was no turning back.
It might be easy to explain the recent rise in apocalyptic writing as catharsis in a time of growing existential angst and the threat of real world biological annihilation. I think there’s probably some truth to that. Reading these books or watching their cinematic equivalents seems to allow this ever-present knot in my gut a little room to breathe.
Admittedly, our use of biblical apocalyptic texts in the Christian world has often been very problematic, used as they have been to demonize the “other” – mostly the foreign, dark skinned and indigenous “other.” Or yet again to justify an abusive attitude to all things “earthly” given the eventual ascent of the righteous to some far away paradise in the sky.
A re-examination of the biblical apocalyptic tradition offers the possibility of an alternative emphasis, albeit a badly neglected one. For all of its baggage, properly placed in its historical context, a biblical apocalyptic can be read as a powerful vision of world transformation and liberation that includes not just humans but the entire cosmos.
Both the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation can be seen as texts that attempted, in highly imaginative and allegorical fashion, to challenge the hegemony of an occupying empire. As such, they were narratives of resistance that sought to energize and fortify an oppressed people in the long struggle against assimilation and institutionalized violence.
The Book of Daniel was written around the end of the second century BCE. At the time, the Jewish people were living under the rule of the Greek Emperor Antiochus Epiphanies. The Greek domination of Jewish society was so complete that the emperors would frequently insist that statues of themselves be placed in the holy temple of Jerusalem. They considered themselves ordained by God and demanded loyalty and sacrifice.
Rather than challenge the reign of the Greek emperor head on (an undertaking that would have surely had him killed) the writer of Daniel sets the context for his story back in the Babylonian exile, while clearly making a strong comment on the present. Walter Brueggeman refers to this as “future giving memory.” Those who heard this story set in the past could not help but see its relevance to the present. We remember Babylon, therefore we can imagine an alternative future to the oppression of today.
It is theorized that “John of Patmos” wrote the Book of Revelation while in a Roman penal colony on the island of Patmos. It is likely that he refused participation in the Roman imperial cult and this put him in conflict with the authorities. Borrowing much from the Book of Daniel, John writes a powerful allegorical narrative imploring the seven Christian communities not to capitulate to the Roman definition of culture, religion and cosmos.
He is writing to communities that were under siege both by coercion and by seduction. He implores these communities to be true to the vision of God’s reign through Christ who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and not to give in to imperial definitions of reality.
The Roman economy at the time of John’s writing was based largely on the creation of luxury goods for the upper classes. Vast numbers of people labored in abject poverty so that the wealthy elites could have purple dyed clothing, gold and silver, lavish homes and tables overflowing with fine foods. Such great disparity of wealth was held in place by brutal violence and death waged against any who might resist. This culture of excess lead too, to massive deforestation and eco-system degradation.
The problem with empires is that they tend to have a stranglehold on the imagination. “The world is the way we say it is, better just accept it, there is no alternative….” When the imperial voice echoes in our public space, our institutions, and eventually our own ears, day after day, year after year, it becomes very easy to start believing it. That definition of reality can become the only one we know or can imagine.
And for those of us who may be in positions of relative privilege in the hierarchy of the occupying empire, the great danger is one of seduction, of forgetting who we really are, of becoming that which we once struggled against. Of being complicit in the empire’s machinery of oppression.
So here enter the dramatic and compelling cry of the apocalypts: “This kingdom shall not last! “ The promised reign of God is contrasted in dramatic terms to the horrors and brutalities of the current regime, “He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. There will be no more death, no more mourning or sadness, the world of the past has gone.” Rev. 21:4
Apocalyptic texts by design are meant to wake us up, and to subvert the spell that the empire has cast over us. Daniel Berrigan reflects on this “holy prodding;”
Then an interruption, a no to all that. The small secret start of …something else. Someone moves ever so quietly out of lockstep. And the oh-so-solid throne is ever so slightly jarred; the neat dove-tailing of power and self-interest, eternal, regarded as a metaphysical verity, is suddenly, inexplicably out of kilter. (Berrigan, Daniel, p. 10, Under the Siege of the Divine)
Both Daniel and Revelation are cosmic in their scope. They recognize that the social injustice and violence of empire threaten the very foundations of the known world, including land and water, trees and wild beasts. The Tree of Life is cut down in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel and it is restored at the end of the Book of Revelation. Liberation is for All.
Unlike the nihilism that characterizes most contemporary apocalyptic impulses, (and indeed has been too often been grafted onto our readings of Daniel and Revelation), a reclaimed Christian apocalyptic offers an alternative view of the future that proclaims Shalom – a time of balance, a time of peace, a time of healing and restoration for all life. And they challenge us with the question, “Whose kingdom do we really serve?”
Ron Berezan lives within the traditional Coast Salish territory of the Tla’Amin first nation on the BC coast. His people migrated as peasant farmers to the prairies of Alberta from Ukraine and Poland in the 1920’s. He settled on the west coast with his family eight years ago where he is a permaculture teacher and practioner and an “eco-deacon” in the Anglican church.
Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on land, creation and environmental justice themes in the texts of the revised common lectionary, is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territories.