Commentary on Revelation 5:11-14
In Wes Howard-Brook’s important book, Come Out, My People: God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, he shows that the root of religion, religio means to “bind again,” suggesting that we can see religion as being about “the attitudes, beliefs, and/or practices that bind individuals together as a people”.
This is important because, as Howard-Brook argues, we can see empire functioning like a religio with practices, beliefs, liturgies, and even narratives (or myths) that keep it together, just as much we find in more typical religions like Christianity.
Following this, Howard-Brook demonstrates throughout Come Out, My People the ways in which there is a “religion of empire” and a “religion of creation” present within the Biblical text. Each religion has its own ways of articulating the source of divine power, where God’s home is, places of sacred encounter, basic social and economic structures, relationship to land, strangers, and enemies. They each have their theologies, their practices, and their liturgies.
The religion of empire is bound up by protecting power, monopolizing violence, casting suspicion on the other, focusing on destroying enemies, and stockpiling resources for the few even if it means the rest must go hungry. The other religion, the religion of creation, is rooted in an economy of gift, set on making strangers into neighbors, peace, and laying the groundwork for love of all: enemy, neighbor, stranger, and even love for the more-than-human world.
Opening Revelation is like unfolding a map to these two religions, charting the imagery, practices, and systems that make them up. Revelation seeks to expose the confrontation between these “religions” in the hopes of keeping the early church from assimilating any further into empire and calling people back to faithfulness in resistance to the religion of empire. Knowing this much can transform the way we approach Revelation. Anything that marks death, violence, fear, “beastly economics” (Revelation 13 and 18), and other critiques of wealth, are likely stand-ins for the religion of empire. Those standing in faithfulness, with patient endurance, often standing alongside the lamb victimized by empire are stand-ins for the religion of creation.
For John, faithfulness is to refuse cooperation with the Roman Empire no matter the cost. Here in Chapter 5, we see why and how. The early ekklesiai, stands as an alternative to the Roman city in that it stands in the witness, memory, and Spirit of Jesus Christ. That witness was nonviolent resistance in the face of empire, symbolized by the “lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.”
The Lamb refused assimilation
The image of the lamb that was slain is central to Revelation, appearing 30 times throughout the book. John uses strong language to paint a memorable picture of Jesus as a lamb in this predominantly oral culture. Here, at least two things are important about this text:
First, the nonviolent nature of Jesus’ own resistance to empire was the very tactic that undermined imperial violence and the religion of empire: the lamb is still living and is honored by God for his faithfulness. The lamb refused assimilation, resisted the ideology of empire and was killed but is still living.
The juxtaposition of 5:4-6 is important. Here, pay attention to the difference between what he hears and what he sees. John is overcome with emotion when he recognizes the scrolls cannot be opened by anyone on earth or in heaven. No amount of exercising the right belief, abiding by the law perfectly, having the right lineage, demonstrating wealth and power can break the scroll open. The usual points of power and authority break down in the face of the divine. John is struck by the inadequacy of everything.
Then the elders spoke to him saying:
“Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
He is first comforted by these words. What would John have imagined in his mind’s eye when he heard these words spoken? I imagine that he would have heard what we hear, a mighty warrior who is fierce and courageous coming to slay and conquer God’s enemies.
But then he sees. I don’t know if he doesn’t see at first and then turns around or if things just come into focus for him but what he hears from the elders and sees creates great dissonance:
“Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…”
John hears the elders say a powerful lion, a great warrior, but then all he sees is a tattered lamb that looks as if it had been slaughtered. I don’t think we can downplay this. John would have been shocked. It is indeed a striking image: a slain lamb living and standing at the throne of God. The one with power and authority to break open the scrolls is the weak one, the small one, the innocent victim of empire lifted up and honored by God.
The religion of empire crushes the lambs and small ones in its midst. Here is Jesus the lamb not just symbolizing the nonviolent death and resurrection of Jesus, but symbolizing all those who have been and continue to be crushed by empire. When God had a chance to reveal the leader of this alternative, revolutionary ekklesiai, God chose a broken lamb for that imagery.
“A man considered a nobody set it off by showing radical love and revolutionary compassion and by speaking truth to power. Jesus turned the world right-side up. The empire thought it had just Jesus down by lynching him, but all it did was plant a seed.” (Erica N. Williams in We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor)
The scapegoat mechanism
The second point I want to draw out here is the importance of the scapegoat mechanism. Empires need scapegoats in order to exist; the scapegoat mechanism is one of the main ways that empire creates social control. The constant need to maintain borders that distinguish between us and them, the constant push against difference, aliens, immigrants, and the other all reveal the religion of empires “theology of order.” Furthermore, when we scapegoat someone or some group, we sidestep the real issues (conflict, racism, class, gender, religious differences, etc) and provide a sense of “psychological relief” so things can be swept under the rug without being dealt with. We found someone to blame, we feel better, and now we can move on.
Revelation 5 unmasks the scapegoat mechanism as a system of the religion of empire, one that Jesus unmasked with his own life. But even more potently, Revelation demonstrates that the scapegoat is innocent. The victim of empire, who was used to create social order, who was blamed and cast out, is the innocent victim lifted up and honored by God. And the underlying issues remain unresolved with the way religion of empire functions in the world. What did the empire get from killing Jesus, an innocent poor Jew? Nothing, but it did mobilize a movement of people who in his memory would continue to resist empire through their own faithfulness to the God of creation.
When reading this passage, I cannot help but identify so many in our communities, country, and world who have been scapegoated by empire in an attempt to create social order and psychological relief for some groups of people in America.
Among our most horrendous examples in America was the lynchings of African Americans. Those lynchings, often taking the form of Christian services, attended by Christian parents and their children, clergy and other religious leaders leading the charge. This “liturgy of empire,” functioned as physiological and social relief for White Supremacy, but also as a tool for spiritual and moral formation.
James Cone, in his tremendous book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, demonstrates how lynching was itself a form of scapegoating that Christians participated in, refusing to see that Jesus himself was lynched by empire. The loss of ability to see this connection between Jesus’ lynched body and all victims of empire throughout human history, may in large part be what keeps many Christians today from being able to see what Revelation is trying to unmask: the religion of empire is pervasive, adaptive, and seductive to us all and convinces us that scapegoating and murder is necessary for order. However, if we follow the lamb that was slain, we will come out of empire and refuse to turn strangers into victims, and instead, create alternative, revolutionary ekkelsiai where there is no need for us versus them or antagonisms against our “enemies.”
“This lamb that was slain is central to shaping the first century Christian imagination: it is about patience rather than effectiveness; it is about subverting and resisting the wiles of empire, trusting that to follow the cross is about sacrifice rather than by the exploitation that is at the root of the religion of empire. If the cross is not about getting our way or taking the upper hand, then the orientation toward one another, the world, and even ourselves begins to shift. It is very hard to get to Constantinianism, the Crusades, colonialism, chattel slavery when driven by these principles rooted in the lamb that was slain.” (Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance).
- Wes Howard-Brook, Come Out My People: God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond (Orbis, 2010)
- James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2013)
- Liz Theoharis, We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign (Broadleaf, 2021)
- Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Orbis Books, 2005)
- C. Wess Daniels, Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance