The Rev. Teri Daily
Language has a dual function when it comes to political struggles. On the one hand, language can serve the powers of oppression and colonialism. We saw this in South Africa during the days of apartheid. The Afrikaans language emerged from Dutch and was associated with the apartheid establishment, and so it was thought of by many black South Africans as the “language of the oppressor.” When the policy of using Afrikaans in secondary schools began to be enforced in the 1970s, black students mobilized themselves for protest. They marched at Soweto on June 16, 1976—a march that turned violent when heavily armed police officers met the demonstrators with teargas and live ammunition, a march that was the catalyst for many other such marches and demonstrations. Both the students and the government understood that language is inherently political.
But if language is inherently political, this means it can be used not only for the purpose of oppression; it can also be used in the service of resistance and revolution. Nadine Gordimer was a white South African writer. Born in 1923, Gordimer joined the African National Congress before it was legal to do so; she was an avid anti-apartheid activist. But her instrument of resistance and revolution was not primarily that of demonstrations (although she did participate in them); instead, her way to resist the evil of apartheid was through her writing—her novels, in particular.
One of Gordimer’s novels, July’s People, describes a fictional, chaotic South African revolution in which the system of apartheid is overturned. In the novel, a white liberal South African family flees Johannesburg to escape the violence of the revolution. With nowhere to go, their black servant July helps them journey to the rural village where he is from. The book chronicles the relationship of July and this white family as the previously established social norms shift and ultimately disappear. The novel was banned in South Africa when it was published. The government knew that its evocative dialogues and images held the power to do more than just describe the possibility of a deeper truth or some alternative world; the language and imagery of the novel could serve as a call to action—it could ultimately help create the world it described. Language can be a form of political oppression, but it can also be a form of political resistance. This is something Nadine Gordimer and the South African apartheid government knew; it is something that John of Patmos, the writer of the book of Revelation, also knew.
The book of Revelation is best understood as resistance literature. Its evocative language and imagery is meant to sustain and motivate Christians living in a particular place and time. It is meant to give them courage and to inspire their imagination. The book of Revelation was most likely written between 81 and 96 CE, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian. It was a tension-filled time for the Church in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).
Although there wasn’t widespread bloody persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire during that time, there were localized persecutions that resulted in martyrs. And there were other types of oppression, more subtle in nature. Participation in the emperor cult was a form of patriotism and cultural solidarity; anyone who refused to do so risked social, economic, and religious discrimination. In addition, up until now Christianity had been a Jewish sect—Christians worshipped with Jews, they identified themselves as Jews. But at this time in history Christians were being expelled from the synagogues. And along with added social tensions, this break with Judaism resulted in a crisis of identity. Finally, as if strained relationships with Rome and with the Jewish community weren’t enough, there was also conflict within the churches themselves. For not all Christians read the situations around them in the same way or felt moved to respond in the same way. In short, the book of Revelation was written to a people who were struggling with their identity, who were experiencing multiple tensions with the world around them (some of which threatened their very life), and who wondered how much they should actually accommodate to the culture of their day.
Into this situation John of Patmos writes to the seven churches in Asia Minor; he gives them a vision into a deeper reality, a deeper truth. In this morning’s reading from the book of Revelation, there is a great multitude from every nation and tribe and language and people standing before the throne and the Lamb. John’s vision reminds the people of God that ultimate allegiance belongs not to Domitian or any other emperor who rules by force and fear, but to the God who gives himself in love. This God is the deepest wisdom and glory and blessing. This God is the reality underlying all that is. But it is not enough just to recognize this deeper truth; John’s vision is also a prophetic call to action. Its vivid imagery is meant to ignite the imagination so that those who hear John’s letter can begin to envision a world where love reigns supreme.
Living this alternative vision of the world takes courage. After all, John is exiled to the island of Patmos, and other Christians have been killed or tortured or mistreated. Part of the reason John writes this letter is to assure the churches that they can, in fact, have the courage and strength to live according to this deeper reality—no matter the consequences. Christ is with them, sustaining them in their trials and tribulations, bringing through the great ordeal. In today’s reading, Christ—the Lamb—is also their shepherd, guiding them to springs of the water of life. To a place where there is no more hunger, thirst, or scorching heat. To a place where God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. It’s a beautiful image.
The Book of Revelation paints a picture of a deeper reality; it stirs the imagination; it cultivates the courage necessary to live this alternative vision faithfully. The book of Revelation is resistance literature. Did John receive this vision in a trance, or did the images spring consciously from his faith-filled imagination? I don’t know, and I don’t think it really matters. We followers of Jesus are called to dream dreams, and hold visions, and imagine possibilities for a world guided by the goodness of God. Not many of us would choose the language that John uses to describe this alternative world. After all, John was writing to specific churches, in a particular time and place, with his own temperament most likely shining through at times. The book of Revelation may be too violent, too patriarchal, and too fantastic for many of us.
But, then, God does not expect us to speak of this deeper reality, of this deeper truth, using John’s language and images. Yes, our ultimate dream may be the same as John’s, but we are to tell the vision in our own words, in our own actions. We invite everyone to the Eucharistic table, and we dream of a day when divisions will cease and people from every tribe and language and nation will gather in peace. We open the food pantry each Saturday morning, and we remember a promise in the twenty-second chapter of Revelation, a promise of the tree of life that produces fruit every month of the year, twelve kinds in abundance. We say prayers for healing on Wednesday evenings and our medical mission team serves our brothers and sisters in Guatemala, and we tell again the story of a day when (as John says) “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” At baptism, we mark our foreheads with oil, and we remember the promise of a time when, as John of Patmos tells us, the name of God will be written on our foreheads. Using our own language and our own actions, we resist a world of division, scarcity, and violence. And as we do, we change the reality around us. We bring the dream closer into being. This is what John knew; it’s what Nadine Gordimer knew; it’s what the South African government feared.
In our own time and place, we are each called to tell the story of a generous world upheld by a gracious and loving God. We are to tell the story in our life as the Church; we are to tell the story in our life as individuals; we are to tell the story trusting in the presence of God with us to guide and sustain us. So, then, this is the question: what words and images and actions will you use to tell the story?
 I owe the idea itself of preaching on Revelation as resistance literature to the Sermon Brainwave Podcast SB479.
 Frederick W. Schmidt, Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 2005) 36-39.