Graduate Theological Society

May 16, 2006

Response to Nate Kerr’s paper

Filed under: Church and Politics, Kerr on Lacoste — graduatetheology @ 6:30 pm

Add your comments to Nate Kerr's paper "The Politics of Praise" or Aaron Simmons' response here.

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

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