In October I ran a course at Woodbrooke called ‘Non-violent Apocalypse: Peace Church Perspectives on the Book of Revelation’. There were eight of us, all coming to this final book of the Christian Bible with our own perspective and enthusiasms. Two much larger groups were running alongside ours that weekend, and at every mealtime there was a buzz running along the lines of ‘The Apocalypse? Quakers? I wouldn’t have put those two things together!’ This was a subject that caught the imagination. Our group found the material incredibly exciting and relevant, and it has been a wonderful learning experience for me. So, to continue the discussion, here are my top five reasons for Quakers to read Revelation!
- The first Quakers used it a lot
As Quaker scholar Doug Gwyn points out in his ‘Apocalypse of the Word’ (1986), it is the only Biblical book that George Fox wrote an extended, point-by-point commentary on. The language of Apocalypse (from the Greek for ‘Revelation’) infused the writings of early Friends, so getting to grips with this text can help us understand our tradition better. Fox saw silent worship, quaking and the immediacy of God all present in Revelation.
- It is about non-violent struggle
A central image of Revelation is the Slaughtered Lamb. Early Friends drew from this the concept of ‘The Lamb’s War’ – the non-violent, spiritual struggle against the forces of violence and oppression. Right from the start, Quakers were using the imagery of Revelation to communicate their identity as a non-violent yet confrontational people.
- It’s about the Kingdom of God NOW
A lot of interpreters assume that time is linear in Revelation, a chronological narrative that moves from the past to the future. This has created extremely problematic interpretations. Liberal Quakers often talk about building the Kingdom of God on earth now, rather than waiting for a heavenly afterlife. This is how Fox read Revelation, not as describing a future in the sky, but as two realities existing side by side, Babylon and the New Jerusalem. We are called to come out of Babylon and enter the New Jerusalem in this lifetime.
- We can’t leave Revelation to the fundamentalists
Lots of people are reading Revelation badly, so badly that it fuels both individual religious fear and political action. The most popular interpretations – pre-millenialism and dispensationalism – are bias towards evangelical protestants and American militarism. They are individualistic, fear driven and war-mongering. They promote unquestioning support of the State of Israel whilst also being anti-Semitic. Pushers of these interpretations, such as the writers of the ‘Left Behind’ series of novels, have made a lot of money spreading deception. The non-violent church needs to up its game and promote responsible readings of Revelation.
- Revelation can be inspirational
Just as a bad reading of Revelation can inspire people to do terrible things, in can also inspire non-violent activism against injustice. Revelation describes an apocalyptic spirituality as a process of naming and coming out, identifying injustice and corruption and withdrawing from our collusion with it. The Occupy movement, New Monasticism and exorcisms at arms fairs are just a few ways in which this apocalyptic spirituality can be expressed. Revelation is a text ready to be reclaimed by Quakers as a powerful source of images and ideas that can fuel our seeking of the Kingdom of God.
I believe all Bibles should be stamped with ‘Handle With Care’. That goes double for Revelation. It appears bonkers on a first reading, we have a lot of cultural baggage associated with it, and it should definitely be tackled in community rather than on your own. With the proper tools it can be an infinitely exciting text and I urge you to get stuck in!
I recommend ‘Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation’ by Michael J. Gorman (2011) as a good introduction.