by Rachel Held Evans
In light of recent news, it seems appropriate to share this excerpt from Chapter 5, “Resistance Stories,” in Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking On Water, and Loving the Bible Again:
The Bible teems with monsters.
From the sea dragon Leviathan, with its fearful scales and claws, to the rumbling Behemoth with brasslike bones and cedar-strong tail, to the mysterious giant fish of the Mediterranean Sea that swallowed Jonah whole, the creatures of our holy text practically roar and fulminate from the page.
In a vision, Daniel encountered four great beasts—one like a lion with eagle’s wings, one like a bear with three ribs in its mouth, another like a leopard with four wings and four heads, and a fourth with iron teeth, bronze claws, and ten horns (Daniel 7). The book of Revelation combines these images into a description of a single monster rising from the sea, resembling a leopard, lion, and bear, with “seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns” (Revelation 13:1 kjv). The beast is joined by a fearsome consort, a fiery-red dragon, whose tail thrashes so widely it sweeps a third of the stars from the sky.
Biblical beasts can represent several things—the awe-inspiring mystery of the natural world, the fearful chaos of the unknown, the sovereignty of God over even the most powerful forces in the universe—but in the case of the mutant creatures of Daniel and Revelation, they represent the evils of oppressive empires.
It’s easy for modern-day readers to forget that much of the Bible was written by religious minorities living under the heels of powerful nation-states known for their extravagant wealth and violence. For the authors of the Old Testament, it was the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, and Persian Empires. For the authors of the New Testament, it was, of course, the massive Roman Empire. These various superpowers, which inflicted centuries of suffering upon the Jews and other conquered populations, became collectively known among the people of God as Babylon.
One of the most important questions facing the people who gave us the Bible was: How do we resist Babylon, both as an exterior force that opposes the ways of God and an interior pull that tempts us with imitation and assimilation? They answered with volumes of stories, poems, prophecies, and admonitions grappling with their identity as an exiled people, their anger at the forces that scattered and oppressed them, God’s role in their exile and deliverance, and the ultimate hope that one day “Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the pride and glory of the Babylonians, will be overthrown by God” (Isaiah 13:19).
It is in this sense that much of Scripture qualifies as resistance literature. It defies the empire by subverting the notion that history will be written by the wealthy, powerful, and cruel, insisting instead that the God of the oppressed will have the final word…
...Throughout the Bible’s resistance stories, we encounter examples of apocalyptic literature. The word apocalypse means “unveiling” or “disclosing.” An apocalyptic event or vision, therefore, reveals things as they really are. It peels back the layers of pomp and pre- tense, fear and uncertainty, to expose the true forces at work in the world. Using highly symbolic, theologically charged language, the authors of Scripture employ apocalyptic literature to dramatize the work of the Resistance, to offer hope to those suffering under the weight of an empire that seems, on the surface, all-powerful and unassailable. So when the prophets Daniel and John envision the empires as vicious beasts, what they’re saying is, Beneath all the wealth, power, and excess of these dazzling empires lie grotesque monsters, trampling everyone and everything in their path. And when they depict God as tolerating, then restraining, and finally destroying these monsters, what they’re saying is, The story isn’t over; even the greatest empires are no match for goodness, righteousness, and justice. It might not look like it now, but the Resistance is winning.
The beasts of Daniel and Revelation need not be literal to be real. To the people who first read the Bible, they were as real as the imperial soldiers who marched down their streets, the royal edicts that threatened their homes and livelihoods, and the heavy fear that crept into every fitful dream, every visit to the market, every hushed conversation about what to do if the emperor demanded their worship or their death.
“The point of apocalyptic texts is not to predict the future,” explained biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine in The Meaning of the Bible; “it is to provide comfort in the present. The Bible is not a book of teasers in which God has buried secrets only to be revealed three millennia later.” Rather, she argued, apocalyptic texts “proclaim that a guiding hand controls history, and assure that justice will be done.”
But a lot of Christians, especially American Christians, prefer instead, wild, futuristic stories about children vanishing out of their clothes, airplanes dropping from the sky, pestilence overtaking the earth, and a Democrat getting elected president—the stuff of paperbacks and Christian B movies. And I think that’s because Americans, particularly white Americans, have a hard time catching apocalyptic visions when they benefit too much from the status quo to want a peek behind the curtain. When you belong to the privileged class of the most powerful global military superpower in the world, it can be hard to relate to the oppressed minorities who wrote so much of the Bible. (And no, their oppression did not consist of getting wished “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” at Target. That’s not actual persecution, folks.)
The fact is, the shadow under which most of the world trembles today belongs to America, and its beasts could be named any number of things— White Supremacy, Colonialism, the Prison Industrial Complex, the War Machine, Civil Religion, Materialism, Greed…
...America’s no ancient Babylon or Rome, I know that. But America’s no kingdom of God either.
If you doubt it, study an old diagram of a slave ship. Try to count the number of chained-up bodies drawn flatly in the cargo hold, and multiply that by hundreds of thousands, representing the nearly half a million Africans brought to America in the slave trade. Then remember that each of those bodies represents the very real life of a very real human being, created in the image of God, with memories and ideas and quirks and fears, and that those who survived the voyage across the Middle Passage were brutally enslaved by people who claimed to be Christians.
Or consider the Trail of Tears, and try to imagine what it would be like to be a Cherokee mother, driven out of your home by the US government, stripped of your belongings, and forced to walk thousands of miles with your small children, from Georgia to Oklahoma, without enough food or medical care—all because white men wanted the gold on your land. More than four thousand Cherokees, including many mothers and children, died from expo- sure, disease, and starvation while making that gruesome march. Imagine watching your toddler die of hunger in the snow.
Or google the history of child labor in the United States, or its treatment of the mentally ill in so-called “lunatic asylums,” or Japanese internment during World War II, or Jim Crow, or the nine hundred Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis who were turned away from the United States and sent back to Europe to face the Holocaust. Or find out if the children of Flint, Michigan, have access to clean water yet.
The fact is, despite wistful nostalgia for the days when America was a supposedly “Christian nation,” the history of this country is littered with the bodies of innocent men, women, and children who were neglected, enslaved, dispossessed, and slaughtered so the privileged class could have more and more and more and more.
More furs, more guns, more profits, more amenities, more square footage, more security, more fame.
And these are not just ghosts of the past. Having been historically dispossessed and discriminated against, African American and indigenous communities continue to face higher rates of poverty and crime, and struggle disproportionately for access to quality education, healthy food, secure housing, and affordable health care. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world; and even though five times as many white people use drugs as African Americans, African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of whites. While the ultrarich get richer, middle- and lower-income wages have stagnated so that the number of “working poor” in America continues to grow. In many states, you can still get fired from your job for simply being gay, but you can be a serial womanizer who brags about grabbing married women “by the pussy” and still get elected president.
There’s just no denying that the very things for which Israel was condemned by the prophets—gross income inequality, mistreatment of immigrants and refugees, carelessness toward life, the oppression of the poor and vulnerable, and the worship of money, sex, and violence—remain potent, prevalent sins in our culture. These sins are embedded in nearly every system of our society from education to law enforcement to entertainment to religion. We are all culpable, all responsible for working for change.
Yet rather than confessing our sins, and rather than dismantling the systems that perpetuate them, many Christians shrug it off as part of an irrelevant past or spin out religious-sounding rhetoric about peace and reconciliation without engaging in the hard work of repentance and restitution. Ever the quick-fix culture, we want oppressed people to “just get over it,” to move on and let the injustice go. I’ve heard many black preachers liken the church’s response to racism in America to the words of Jeremiah, who cried, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
Saying we are a nation of peace doesn’t make it so—not for Trayvon Martin, not for Tamir Rice, not for the twenty kindergartners shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School, not for that Cherokee mama, not for the Iraqi villagers in the crosshairs of our drones.
Tensions around issues of injustice must not be avoided in the name of an easy peace and cheap grace, but rather passionately engaged, until justice rolls down like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.
My friend Jonathan Martin, who is a third-generation Pentecostal preacher, described the election of Donald Trump as an apocalyptic event—not in the sense that it brought on the end of the world, but in the sense that it uncovered, or revealed, divides and contours in the American social landscape many of us did not want to face, deep rifts regarding race, religion, nationalism, gender, and fear. It was certainly apocalyptic for me in the way that it exposed, to my shame, my reluctance to resist certain injustices in this country until the resistance movement fit more conveniently with my political persuasions.
For too long, the white American church has chosen the promise of power over prophetic voice. We have allied ourselves with the empire and, rather than singing songs of hopeful defiance with the exiles, created more of them. We have, consciously and unconsciously, done the bidding of the Beast—not in every case, of course, but in far too many.
This is why it’s so important to follow the lead of modern-day prophets like Bree Newsome who, in scaling that flagpole, removing the Confederate flag, and declaring God’s reign over and above the tradition of prophetic protest. Her actions helped my generation visualize a better future. She simultaneously revealed things as they are and how they might be.
We must listen too to Rev. William Barber of North Carolina, who, though he struggles with a severe arthritic spinal condition and bursitis in his left knee, has marched and preached for decades on civil rights, pressing upon elected leaders and private citizens alike the moral imperative to “shock this nation with the power of love.”
I think also of my clergywomen friends, who, in the face of near-constant obstruction and all kinds of sexist double standards, preach the Word, run soup kitchens, anoint the sick, tend to the dying, sponsor refugees, get arrested at protests, and speak truth to power, day in and day out, with little thanks or praise.
I think of Jeremy Courtney of the Preemptive Love Coalition, whose work providing medical care for families in Iraq led him to advocate tirelessly on behalf of refugees and to challenge the complicity of American Christians in turning those refugees away.
And then there are the many prophets outside the United States, like the Coptic Christians of Egypt who, after terrorists bombed two churches on Palm Sunday 2017, showed up to church in unprecedented numbers seven days later to celebrate the risen Christ, their numbers literally spilling out the doors and onto the streets. Sometimes just showing up to the communion table is a way of looking straight into the eyes of the Beast and saying, “Not today.”
These are the people telling today’s resistance stories, drawing from the Bible’s deep well of prophetic examples for inspiration and strength. Though political, they avoid partisanship; though clear-eyed, they remain stubbornly hopeful…
...What I love about the Bible is that the story isn’t over. There are still prophets in our midst. There are still dragons and beasts. It might not look like it, but the Resistance is winning. The light is breaking through. So listen to the weirdos. Listen to the voices crying from the wilderness. They are pointing us to a new King and a better kingdom. As Jesus said, “Let those with ears, hear.”
Read the rest in Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking On Water, and Loving the Bible Again.
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