Graduate Theological Society

March 19, 2006

Church and Empire in the Book of Revelation

Filed under: Church and Politics — graduatetheology @ 6:57 pm

“But after three and a half days the breath of God’s life penetrated them, and they were resurrected, and those who saw them were terrified.  Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Come up!”  And they were caught up into heaven in a cloud while their enemies watched them.  At that moment there was a great earthquake, and one-tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed, and all the rest were frightened and gave glory to God in heaven.” (Revelation 11:11-13).

It is striking, no doubt, the way in which John the Seer describes the pervasiveness of empire in The Apocalypse.  Almost everything he sees and observes – including, even, Christ’s final triumph – appears as draped across the backdrop of this political phenomenon.  The totality, the universality, of empire here can hardly be exaggerated.  Empire is not simply an external form of earthly rule, but one pervasive of world-history itself, one which undermines the integrity of all competing powers, rendering them impotent, in its arrogation of all authority to itself.  Here, in Empire, the Antichrist has taken a social form of life that wrests humankind’s ultimate allegiance from Christ.  In history, and on earth, there is no escape-route, no way out the back door.  Not even in the church, it seems, are we given a form of stable, earthly social life that qualifies this judgment.

So this, then, is the question:  Why is the church, as an alternatively catholic, universal social order on earth, so conspicuously absent from John’s elucidation of the logic of empire?

There is nothing obstinate about my putting the question this way.  I am not looking to deny what is patently clear:  John’s revelation has to do precisely with Christ’s Lordship over history, and it is no doubt by his church in history that Christ’s Lordship must appear.  But this fact forces us all the more to grapple with this most fundamental of observations:  For John the Seer, there is no place for a genuine church catholic on earth.  True, nowhere else in the New Testament is the eschatological triumph of the church so boldly proclaimed as a social and political triumph.  We are here permitted finally to glimpse and to anticipate that conquest by which the power politics of Empire may be countered at last by the alternative politics of doxa.  And yet, only as we lift our eyes to heaven, to what is descending from beyond history, are we given to see the reality of this worshipping community:  in the gathering of the Jewish and Gentile faithful in chapter 7 and in the first fruits of the elect in chapter 14.  But if here indeed we have the establishment of a true city, there is equally as little solidity given to the vision of the Christian community in its present form on earth.  The faithful Christian appears in history as a solitary individual (“the conqueror” of 6:2) or as a pair of martyrs (the “two witnesses” of 11:3).  And tellingly, the only times John uses the word “church” in his book are in reference to the seven local communities he is addressing at the outset of the letter, communities that themselves turn out to be ambiguously faithful, communities that are all in some way or another being put into question:  by persecution, by temptation.  These “churches” are fractured and broken bodies, bodies cut to the core by the sins of the world, bodies so embroiled in the logic of world-empire that Christ must not only continually judge them, but is even prepared to destroy them if necessary (2:5).

From all evidence, then, the church stands in an adjunctive relationship to the dominant moral and socio-political order.  The history of the church on earth is revealed to be more than ever bound up with the universal history of fallen humankind.  The church’s appearance as an alternative city, an alternative socio-political order on earth, has been greatly attenuated – one might even say that it has, as such, disappeared.  This is the curious thing about the “two cities” in revelation:  not their stark distinction in the final days on earth, but rather their striking identification.  That “Holy City” Jerusalem that is given over to the gentile peoples to be trampled for forty-two months (11:2) is in fact that “Great City” named (prophetically) Sodom and Egypt (11:8), that city in which the Lord was crucified (Jerusalem), which has, at last, been handed over to Babylon (18:21).

A single point must here be stressed:  If Christ is indeed the One Lord of history, if he sits alone on a single throne from which he judges the one world created by God, then there can only ever be one distinct human community, one true polis.  This then, finally, is why John the Seer refuses to map the Christ/Antichrist distinction onto the earthly church/world distinction.  Because the church in history is not apart from and over-against the world (empire) as Christ alone is apart from and over-against Antichrist.  The church on earth cannot claim for itself its own “proper” space apart from the world, over against which alone its socio-political logic is sovereign.  For in a world where empire has arrogated all sovereignty to itself, we have only one hope:  the claim of Lordship that has been given by the Father to the ascended Christ.  The church, then, is rather within the world as its hidden sanctuary; it is, in the dark night of empire, the soul of the world which prays, which bears the wound of history and cries out:  “How long, sovereign Lord, before you come to judge and avenge our blood on earth?”  It is not for nothing that in response to the cries of the pair of martyrs the seventh trumpet is blown, and it is heard from heaven that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ” (11:15).  It is for precisely this reason that John the Seer will not allow the church to be visible as a universal, catholic sovereignty vis-à-vis the world on earth:  for it is in response to the cries of its martyred witnesses alone that Christ appears, to claim back the Great City, earthly Jerusalem-become-whore of Babylon, for the one true Holy City, Heavenly Jerusalem.

If we can begin to think what it means that precisely here – in the cries of this martyred pair, in the aftermath of whose death the inhabitants of Sodom and Egypt are found celebrating the church’s disappearance – Christ in fact appears as the Lord of his Church and as sovereign over the whole of earthly reality, then we shall perhaps be in a position to begin to think the church’s visibility otherwise, as the outline of a new communal existence that is not the product of history, but rather brought about and created anew by the judgment of God upon history.  In the face of the church’s martyrial disappearance, while the inhabitants of empire laugh, the true church shall be seen – ascending to heaven, where alone the true city exists, and from whence alone the true city descends.

Posted by:  Nate Kerr



  1. Nate, I don’t know if there is a way of posting this somewhere a little more visible, but I had a hard time finding this. I just put up a comment on the other post…just wanted to direct any traffic there before this thread takes off. Thanks.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — March 20, 2006 @ 3:29 pm

  2. This is just to taunt any of you into commenting.

    Comment by Josh — March 21, 2006 @ 11:54 am

  3. I’ll bite…

    Nate, I’ll ask a question that I’m sure others will ask (or at least might ask themselves): if the visibility of the Church is completely bound to the empire-world polis (even as Christ is Lord over this polis), and for this reason we are not allowed to see “the church to be visible as a universal, catholic sovereignty vis-à-vis the world on earth,” then does that mean that the Church is only “visibile” at all in the eschaton? I think that’s what you seem to be saying–please correct me where I miss you, here. And if so, what’s the point of having a “church” at all this side of the eschaton? You give us a hint at the end when you say, “If we can begin to think what it means that precisely here – in the cries of this martyred pair, in the aftermath of whose death the inhabitants of Sodom and Egypt are found celebrating the church’s disappearance – Christ in fact appears as the Lord of his Church and as sovereign over the whole of earthly reality, then we shall perhaps be in a position to begin to think the church’s visibility otherwise, as the outline of a new communal existence that is not the product of history, but rather brought about and created anew by the judgment of God upon history.” So, here it seems you are saying that indeed the Church does take on a “visible” form in history, but obviously this has to be thought “otherwise” than has heretofore been thought about the Church’s visibility–especially in relationship to (or, what is usually the case, “over-against”) the world. I think I’m with you here…and I think that you would probably go further here to say that this “communal existence” or “visibility” would most likely look “foolish” or “insane” to the empire-world which sits and laughs at the Church. The only question I would add here is “Can a mystical, foolish type of ‘judgment’–which is truly only to submit to the prior and sole judgment of God’s sending the Son–ever be anything other than a denunciation, a calling into question, an infinite deferral? In other words, can the Church ever be a source of hope for what is to come, or is its only role the judgment of sinful institutions?” Thanks.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — March 21, 2006 @ 4:14 pm

  4. Dave B. — First of all, I don’t think I ever said that the church’s role is to sit in judgment of sinful institutions. Christ alone is judge, and in submitting to Christ as Lord, the Church bears the wound of the world’s judgment. The Church is born of Christ’s wound, a wound that world-history inflicts. This is simply to say that the via crucis supplies the only manner in which, for the endurance of history, the Church is to be visible as Christ’s body.

    Now, to your question as to whether the Church can ever be a source of hope for what is to come, a foretaste of the Kingdom if you will. We can only begin to answer this question by questioning our assumptions as to just what it is we expect “to come”. We must give to this future its proper shape: doxology. The eschaton is not about a “better world,” and so the church does not anticipate the eschaton by simply offering a “better way.” It is about the doxa and kratos of God in Christ: “glory” and “dominion” — words we all too easily let slip from our lips are mere banalities. All throughout The Apocalypse the Church is represented before God and the world by those who in their praise and adoration of Christ give way to the vision of his glory alone. Glory: Kabod. The dispossessive weight of God’s grace and presence. The Church isn’t a sign of the eschaton because we can feed all our people: the Church is a sign of the eschaton where it is revealed that man does not live by bread alone. That is, the Church is a sign of hope when its liturgy takes it to the thirsty, to the poor, the hungry, the naked, the excluded, the addict, the imprisoned, the atheist, and says with them: “Come.” Christ is the hope of the world, and the Church lives that hope. Christ is Lord of the Church as the hope of the world, and so the Church only lives that hope when its liturgy takes it out into the world, to proclaim Christ’s Lordship there.

    I actually think Dave’s pattern of fasting and feasting is very helpful here. I would simply like it to be construed in a more “missional” manner than in the “reactionary” way that I am hearing it deployed by him. And I’d like to hear him tie the Church’s practices much more closely to the (necessarily fractured and untamed) logic of doxa than to the more or less fixed structures of an institution. When it comes to the Church’s visibility, it is not so much what we do as how we do it that makes all the difference.

    (All of this requires a very developed and sophisticated doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s work in history as the pervasive movement of God’s dispossessive grace, lest we get the impression that Christ’s is sitting up there on the throne throwing down lightning bolts of dispossession from heaven.)

    (I’m using the word “dispossession” alot, and not nuancing it in the way that it needs to be. I’ll try to do that when I deal with Lacoste in April. Or Dave B., you can say some things here as well, as it is also a concept that you are developing in distinct ways for your own work.)

    Comment by Nate — March 21, 2006 @ 10:16 pm

  5. Right, I never gave any content to the judgment–which is why I said that this judgment is really only to “submit to the prior and sole judgment of God’s sending of his Son.” We are in complete agreement here–along with Barth: it is the Judge who is simultaneously judged by history…we as the Body of Christ are “judged” by history through our sufferings (or, taking up our “cross”). Cool.

    I think we are pretty much in agreement with just about everything here; though, I think that in some sense there are “objective” practices that are simply commanded to be done in order to demonstrate Christ’s lordship–such as feeding the hungry, releasing the captives, etc. (and of course we have to make clarifications here–this is not merely obligatory, since we do this out of love for one another, and thus for the love of God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength; likewise, “working out our salvation” thusly is not something we have the “potency” to do…we have no potentia obedientialis…we can only so act in obedience to our Lord’s going forth by the grace of God in his Spirit). So, I don’t think that the book of James is to be torn out of our bibles along with Luther…rather, along with Bonhoeffer–a good Lutheran–we should talk about the way in which such practices are marks of our discipleship–they do in some sense make manifest the “visible Church-community.” It is not this, I think, which should be called into question. Otherwise, de Lubac’s entire point about the shift in eucharistic theology is not only ignored, but the problem is repeated (which is to say, the “mystical body” becomes the only visible mark of Christ’s Lordship, and the social or true body is eschatologically deferred, now becoming invisible). So, Dave’s paper is mistaken in ignoring the fracture of Unity of the Body of Christ (which amounts to the disappearance of the true body…since its “visible manifestation” is only as this body is united as the one loaf broken for many)…which subsequently places the visible body (the way in which we ‘recognize’ the Church, as he says) in the practices of the body rather than in her unity…[all of these nuances here are KILLING me]…but these nuances all matter because the practices of a body which is not one become thoroughly empty. This of course does not mean that the one body does not act–does not have certain practices which do in fact make her visible (but, let’s be clear that baptism and eucharist are the pinnacle of these practices since they bring the body into unity…the others flow from the unity of the body–and this would be the point of saying that the Church has a “mission”: one which is always coming from and returning to the unity of the table of the Lord in the rhythms of the Church calendar). And even though we ‘cannot’ do any of these practices without the grace of God…’nevertheless’…God calls us to obey in these practices–and as Aquinas (and Augustine before him) both say: God does not command an end to which He does not also supply the means (grace is in some sense “guaranteed” in the pledge of the Spirit–though this is still only ever the Spirit’s “coming”–the point of an “invocation” in the liturgy–and not a possession of the Church). These practices are the way in which the Church–as the “called out ones”–is made into the one body of Christ “for the life of the world”…as the bread and wine are transformed in the “transubstatiato” (or if you like in the East, “metaousiosis”), we eat and drink the flesh and blood of our lord…but we do not consume him like other food…this food which, as the voice in Augustine’s garden says, is “for those that are grown”…rather, by eating this bread we are consumed by Christ, changed into his flesh and body so that the world might be healed, saved, sanctified by his sending us forth within his very body to those who are hungry and thirsty for the resurrecting life that He alone can give.

    So, to receive new life (which simply means: to become the Triune God’s gift for the life of the world…and nothing else), we cannot hold onto the breath which fills our lungs (and which was, as it were, given in the first place by Christ’s Spirit)…rather, a prior dispossession is required. Paul, in Romans 5 and 6, tells us what this means. Grace abounded more than sin in the cross of Christ, but does that mean that we should remain in sin because grace abounds all the more? By no means…do you not know that all who have been baptized into Christ’s body have been buried with him?…in order that we might walk in the newness of life in the likeness of his resurrection…therefore put off the old humanity. Most readers have interpreted what follows in the rest of chapter 6 as a call to “moral integrity” (cf. Joseph Fitzmeyer, for example)…because Paul lists practices which must cease in order to “put off the old humanity”–obviously “baptism” is what truly washes away the old humanity for Paul. The dispossession of Baptism is not something which we can do, however (as I stated earlier…this is God’s work in us and upon us). So, there is no lightning bolt from heaven–as Nate said–which dispossesses us in the “practice” of Baptism…in fact it is a liturgical act, a “work of the people”…and yet all through the liturgy are moments of relinquishment, “releasement towards” [gelassenheit] God’s Spirit, which prepares a space for God’s action to clear away all that we KEEP in order to make us into his gifts. Because the people who do this work are the One Body of Christ united by his flesh and blood, already his gift to the world for its salvation, this liturgical act, this work of the people is always the movement of Christ’s body and HIS action in and upon this body (and those who are entering into this body by their intentionality towards the unity of this body through charity given by the Spirit). Ok. I’ve said too much and not enough already.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — March 22, 2006 @ 11:25 am

  6. Sorry, I meant to add that interpretations of Romans 6 as a call to “moral integrity” are WRONG, since they ignore the fact that the only “action” required of the Christian in putting off the old humanity is the dispossession of Baptism, which CANNOT be done by the human, and yet must (here again, the paradox of grace and human freedom comes into play).

    Comment by Dave Belcher — March 22, 2006 @ 11:32 am

  7. Dammit…I just can’t help but clarify myself a thousand times.

    The reason there is a “paradox of grace and freedom” is that the intentionality of the baptizand is a free act…and yet even this free act is only possible by both the prior operative grace of God [action upon the subject] and the action of God in cooperating with the free act of the decision [action within the subject]….I’ll let Josh add required nuances here (this is all built up in his work with Lonergan and scholastic notions [and misconceptions] of grace). And I COMPLETELY disagree with Bulgakov that Augustine has NO conception of human freedom since all freedom is “subsumed” under predestinating grace, OR that the human is only “partially” free “psychologically.” Bulgakov even uses the phrase “development of operative grace” when he says these things, and yet he pays NO attention to the actual development of this notion which moves past this narrow-minded view (as Augustine himself admitted) somewhere around his writing of Ad Simplicianum. Nor do I agree with either Bulgakov or Pelikan in their respective statements that the East somehow “avoided” the problems of nature and grace by not talking about the issue of human and divine freedom in those terms…they entered into it, just by a different route. I’m not even sure why I added that…I just think that a properly Augustinian notion of grace and freedom understands the two as joined together as “paradox,” which the East has never properly attributed. Thanks. Bye.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — March 22, 2006 @ 11:40 am

  8. Dave B. — What do you mean by saying that the intentionality of the baptizand is a free act? What about infants? What about mentally ill adults? Those whom we bring to the baptistry kicking and screaming — literally?

    Comment by Nate Kerr — March 22, 2006 @ 1:47 pm

  9. Infants, those who are mentally ill, those who are brought to the baptistry kicking and screaming….all of these must be affirmed by the faithful body to which they enter…the faith of the Creed (pronounced by the entire baptized congregation) makes up for the “lack” of faith, or really, the inability to prounounce faith by these (because a lack of will and conscience)…but still a sponsor (or what is usually the case these days, a family member) brings these people into the body, and so by freely choosing this one, the sponsor/congregation in a certain sense place faith in the baptizand…to “live into their baptism” though these baptizands don’t even know why. As Aquinas says in reference to the baptism of infants: “But the faith of one, indeed of the whole Church, profits the child through the operation of the Holy Ghost, Who unites the Church together, and communicates the goods of one member to another.” It is the unity of the Church which confers grace…but unity does not happen, as you said earlier, merely by a lightning bolt from heaven, just as though one is led into the Church by grace, it is also simply because a person LITERALLY led them into the building. It is the intention, will, conscience, and faith of the sponsor (and of the whole faithful, as Augustine says) that speaks as substitute for the one who lacks these.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — March 22, 2006 @ 4:12 pm

  10. And remember that to say “intentionality is a free act” is situated for Aquinas within the complex workings of operative and cooperative grace, which is light years away from positing human freedom, like does Bulgakov for example, as being an “ontological barrier” to God’s act. Bulgakov actually says that human freedom is the “door” upon which Jesus knocks…and that God has no other way through that door if the free human being does not open it–I remember Jesus’ resurrected body walking through doors, though.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — March 22, 2006 @ 5:09 pm

  11. Dave B. — I’m still not sure how your using the notions of “intentionality” and “the subject” here. though I must admit that I have not read Aquinas on this material, and so need a primer in the workings of operative and cooperative grace.

    I am convinced that Bulgakov can only say what he does against Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin in such an unqualified way because he represents a most Pelagian position on the question of human freedom. But then again, what else should we expect from such a staunch Schellingian?

    Comment by Nate — March 22, 2006 @ 5:18 pm

  12. “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt” (Leviticus 2:13).

    Comment by Craig — March 22, 2006 @ 8:43 pm

  13. Wow! Craig! Great to see you on here. Please say more. I know you probably intentionally said only this, but please say more if you can.

    Nate, if it helps, you can rest assured that I don’t understand “subject” as a “substance behind” actions…and intentionality is not merely a product of a subject’s action (though it is located within the activity and operation of the will). Especially when I talk about a ‘dispossessed’ subject, or a ‘mystical’ subject, I mean both terms in the same sense as does Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, and Jean Surin: a willing ‘I’ which wills nothing and everything at the same time, such that the will is all that is left…a will-to-nothing…a Gelassenheit towards the speaking and willing of God within the “interior castle” (as Teresa of Avila called it) of the ‘I’…or, in terms of Michel de Certeau, if you like. For Certeau, it is the felt absence of God which prompts this willing…the “mystics” take up the absence, the disappearance, and create a space within the ruins–a hollowed out space, delineated by a set of linguistic practices that are perceived as “foolish” or “insane” or “lude”–an opened-out space within which God can again speak, be present. So, for Certeau’s mystics in the wake of the “disappearance of God” in the early modern era–and for us in the wake of the “disappearance of the Church”–the “dispossessed” subject is a tactical subjectivity. This is different from Aquinas’ “subject” (he never used this word…of course he didn’t, he wrote in Latin!) because Aquinas’ theory is speculatively metaphysical…this is not a “tactical” and much less a “moral” theory…according to Aquinas this is simply the way in which the human operates within the created order. Even so, I think one can use Aquinas’ theory in order to deploy this sort of “dispossessed” subjectivity speculatively…or “apply” it, if you will, to the “mystics” tactic. That’s kind of what I’m doing (but this is all very implicit in what I said above). Hope this mess is still a bit helpful.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — March 22, 2006 @ 10:38 pm

  14. A much shorter way of saying what I mean by “paradox of grace and freedom” is that any human action, especially to a “supernatural end,” is always 100% God, but also 100% human.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — March 25, 2006 @ 2:21 pm

  15. And this latter does not mean that I am trying to hypostasize the Church…in my opinion that is what Bulgakov ends up with (sorry all, I’ve been reading through Bulgakov this week which is why I’ve said so much about him!). The Church is not the incarnated Jesus Christ…rather as the body of Christ there is still a “distance,” as Marion would say (or perhaps a “broad ditch” as Kierkegaard’s Lessing says), between the historical body and the true body (it is mediated across, but it is not destroyed…).

    Comment by Dave Belcher — March 27, 2006 @ 9:13 am

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