Dr. Wess Daniels is the William R Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in North Carolina. He is a longtime part of the Kairos network, going back to his time as Quaker pastor at Camas Friends Church in Washington. Wess spoke with Colleen Wessel-McCoy about his newest book, Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance, and what it offers our work today.
Kairos Center: How did you come to this subject?
[aesop_image img=”https://kairoscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/revel.jpg” panorama=”off” imgwidth=”200px” alt=”Wess Daniels” align=”right” lightbox=”on” captionsrc=”custom” captionposition=”left” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]
Wess Daniels: I tell people that I came to it unwillingly. A number of years ago, when I was still pastoring at Camas Friends Church in Washington State, I had just come off of a retreat with Parker Palmer. He encouraged people to find energy in the things that they’re most puzzled about. And so when I went home from that retreat I was preparing for a new series of sermons, I was in prayer seeking guidance and discernment around what to do. And I thought I’d apply that new approach. What is the thing about the Bible that I know the least about or I feel the most baffled about? And as soon as I said that I really wished I had taken a different approach, because it was the Book of Revelation. And I was like, I’m not preaching on Revelation.
I grew up evangelical and went to an evangelical undergrad where I had a class on Revelation. All I knew of Revelation was End Times interpretations. So honestly, I said no. Basically, the Bible ended one book early in my whole framework. I just sort of cut it out, like there’s no hope for this book. I could do a liberation reading of all these other books, but there was no liberation here. No chance. But as I thought about it more, I tried to lean into it a little bit and ask is there some other way to read this. I started doing some research, assuming I wasn’t the first person to ask that question. I immediately found Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s work on Revelation, then West Howard Brooks’ Unveiling Empire, then Daniel Berrigan and a number of other authors. There were a lot of people just waiting for me to ask this question who I could pull in and make partners. That’s how it got started.
The origin of the book itself was seven sermons that I did at Camas Friends. We were reading the Bible from the perspective of what I learned through the Poverty Initiative: as the only piece of mass media that talks positively about the poor and as a book that is by poor people and about God building a movement to end poverty. So I brought that into what we were exploring in Revelation to see if it makes sense in that context.
Kairos Center: What are some of the key insights about Revelation when you bring that framework?
Wess Daniels: The main punchline is really that Revelation doesn’t have anything to do with the end of the world. It has everything to do with how small minority faith communities resist empire. It’s a letter that’s written by someone imprisoned by the Roman state to early Christian communities, who are predominantly at that point Jewish and Gentile Christians living under Roman occupation, about how to survive and resist, how to not become like the Empire. It helps us see, what are the kinds of practices that you would have to do to resist assimilating into empire?
[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#31526f” text=”#ffffff” align=”left” size=”1″ quote=”Revelation doesn’t have anything to do with the end of the world. It has everything to do with how small minority faith communities resist empire.” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]
Wess Howard Brooks argues there are two religions in the Bible: the religion of creation and the religion of empire. I borrow from this in Resisting Empire but use the language of “the religion of the lamb that was slain” and “the religion of empire.” The phrase that shows up the most in Revelation is “the lamb that was slain,” which signals that it is really important to the book. It lifts up the victims of empires, including Jesus, and centers them.
Early Quakers understood that to be what they called the War of the Lamb. In their minds, there is a nonviolent war against the powers and principalities. They took that directly from Revelation. I mean who would have ever thought that there were people interpreting Revelation as a book about nonviolent resistance? But early Quakers were doing that, and I have no doubt others who have followed that same track.
Therefore, if you take these two religions and lay them out, the religion of empire is about the religious elites. It’s about imperial economics. It’s about state rituals and practices that build up a kind of religion that has its own devoted followers. It uses God to legitimate its actions, but it’s really about abundance for some at the expense of everyone else. The religion of creation, as it shows up in Revelation, is about abundance for all people and all creation.
[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#31526f” text=”#ffffff” align=”left” size=”1″ quote=”If you take these two religions and lay them out, the religion of empire is about the religious elites. It’s about imperial economics.” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]
Revelation critiques the religion of empire’s destruction, scapegoating, and concentration of wealth. The empire uses scapegoating to exist. It needs an other to create its own boundaries. And so the book of Revelation is very much about unveiling that function and mechanism of empire and suggesting that something different is possible. The multitude that we see in Revelation has no need for a scapegoat. It doesn’t need an other in order to exist. The multitude is Revelation’s way of talking about what Dr. King and others have called the Beloved Community.
Revelation is critical of the economics of empire and slavery. It still shocks me that it’s right there in plain sight, a critique of slavery from the first century blatantly ignored by churches for centuries (Revelation 18:1-13). The mark of the beast is a critique of imperial economics and the imperial creation narrative. Babylon’s creation myth, the Enuma Elish, is about the creation of the world in this utterly violent way. And so Revelation is critiquing that and calling people not to participate in that origin story’s way of understanding the world and that economy’s way of ordering the world.
Another theme in Revelation is liturgy. There’s lots of worship taking place for both the religion of empire and the religion of the lamb that is slain. These are two competing liturgies. And there are imperial liturgies today. An example is something like the Nuremberg rallies in Nazi Germany on a massive scale. Lynchings of African-Americans functioned very much like a liturgy of empire and white supremacy. More recently, the White Supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, and the spectacle around the last Presidential election and the subsequent rallies, are all examples of this kind of building up into a frenzy against “wicked” others that we see in liturgies of empire. I’m drawing here on the language that James Alison uses in a spectacular article called “Worship in a Violent World.” Liturgies of empire are meant to distract us from paying attention to the suffering of our neighbor and to create scapegoats. But the liturgy of the lamb that was slain centers the victims of empire. It also connects us to the suffering of those around us and leads us to be present in the here and now.
Kairos Center: Why is Revelation important today?
Wess Daniels: One reason I believe that Revelation can still be important to us today is that it can be a tool for practitioners trying to build a movement of resistance to the ways of empire and do anti-poverty work like the Poor People’s Campaign. Revelation can be a conversation partner in what it means to do this. It’s a text that’s 2,000 years old, describing communities wrestling with the same kinds of things we’re wrestling with. Holding up a mirror like this can help us determine: Are we using scapegoating tactics or are we working to build an alternative social order like the multitude? What does the liturgy in our movements and in our faith communities look like that can actually stand up to empire? Do we have robust enough practices, theologies, and analyses of what’s happening so that we can resist? Revelation can help us think about these questions.
It is a tragedy that Revelation has been used to create so much harm and damage in the name of God. It is one of the most abused texts of the Bible. There is great potential for a reversal and recovery of the text. Yes, this is how it has often been used, but imagine if it’s actually the exact opposite of that thing. The thing that was used against you is actually a text that was meant to liberate you and show you a radical vision of a new world. That’s what gets me really excited about Revelation.
[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#31526f” text=”#ffffff” align=”left” size=”1″ quote=”The thing that was used against you is actually a text that was meant to liberate you and show you a radical vision of a new world.” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]