What comes into your mind when you hear the word apocalypse? Most of us think of us think of the total destruction of the world, or at least life as we know it. Think zombies roaming the streets, feasting on brains. On the other hand, my sarcastic generation is doing a pretty good job of using apocalypse as a silly word. I remember a few years ago when we had a large winter storm here in Washington, DC; it was instantly dubbed Snowpocalypse!
The English word apocalypse derives from the ancient Greek apocalupsis, which is the original title for the infamous Book of Revelation. Revelation involves a lot of fire, smoke, battles and things generally blowing up, so it’s understandable that today we would associate apocalypse with end-times battles. However, the word apocalypse contains a much deeper meaning. Far more profound than the long-awaited zombie hordes – or even the end-times prophecies of some churchgoers – this ancient, misunderstood word is an essential tool for comprehending the world we live in.
Apocalupsis is a term that means unveiling – as in setting aside a covering to discover what lies underneath. At the most basic level, the Book of Revelation is about removing the blindfold that the Powers have pulled over our eyes, allowing us to see the world as it really is. Revelation is about unveiling Empire, exposing the ways in which powerful interests destroy the earth and enslave other human beings to promote their own luxury and power. Despite its reputation, Revelation is not about a future-oriented, earth-hating vision of universal destruction. On the contrary, it is a vision of a new creation and universal restoration – the world finally set right and edenic harmony restored in the midst of the city.
OK – great, you may be saying. Nice to know, but how is this relevant to me?
Fair question. It’s true that the Book of Revelation was written almost 2,000 years ago. Those were the days of the Roman Empire – think Ben Hur and Spartacus. For sure, things have changed a lot since then.
Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Romans had their legions, roads and sea routes; today’s empires have nuclear arsenals, superhighways and airports. The technology has changed, but the nuts and bolts of Empire have remained pretty constant: A world order enforced through continuous military intervention and occupation; systems of patronage and domination; the worship of wealth and stark income inequality; and widespread slavery. Today’s global economic Empire does these things far more efficiently than Rome ever dreamed.
Here’s a quick example: Just yesterday, I felt like Revelation was jumping off the page when I read an article in the Washington Post about the ongoing maneuvers around the federal sequestration. For those who aren’t following this story, the bottom line is: While social services for the poorest, most vulnerable of our people are being slashed, Congress is rushing to make sure that budget cuts do not cause flight delays at airports. Sparing the overwhelmingly middle- and upper-class citizens the inconvenience of a flight delay is a top priority. Keeping 70,000 low-income children in Head Start? Providing education to children with special needs? Funding global humanitarian assistance, health programs and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? Not so much.
As I was reading about this whole situation, my mind was drawn to Revelation 6:5-6:
When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s wage, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wage, but do not harm the oil and wine!”
OK, yeah; that was a little weird. But if you’re still reading, let me explain. The rider on the black horse, with the scales in his hands, represents the imperial economic system, which consists of ensuring access to luxury goods for the rich, while turning a blind eye to the high price of basic necessities for the poor. In the ancient world, wheat and barley were basic necessities for working class folks – bread and milk, rice and beans. Oil and wine were – well, things haven’t changed that much. These are still luxury goods, things that the poor can survive without, but which are held in high esteem by the wealthy.
If John were writing his apocalypse today, he might have the voice say, Pick between paying the rent and buying school supplies for your kids, but make sure the airplanes run on time!
Our job, as followers of Jesus and readers of John’s apocalypse, is to see through all the respectable talk and recognize the obscenity of this situation: Families are going hungry, children are denied a good education, and unemployment is depriving millions of their dignity, but the priorities of our society remain focused on the amenities of the most privileged.
Now more than ever, we need help taking the blinders off, to see that the peace and security that today’s global Empire offers us is built on the backs of the poorest, weakest and most marginalized people. We need the prophetic witness to remind us that our careless consumption and luxury come with a price – though it is usually the most vulnerable who pay it. The Apocalypse of John is relevant, now more than ever, as Christ calls us to live as his people in the midst of Empire.