I recently read this incredible book, Reading Revelation Responsibly. It’s about exactly what the title says – how to read the book of Revelation properly. But I can’t believe how prophetic it (or I guess really the book of Revelation) reads for the church today. And the thing is, I think when read correctly, it speaks precisely against a group that’s somewhat obsessed with Revelation – the part of the church that’s intertwined itself with politics. The book isn’t primarily about judgement on the heathen world (though there is that). It’s above all a call for the church to keep itself pure. And on that front, we’ve failed.
One main topic of the book is about why Babylon (Rome) is judged in Revelation. It’s not because it persecutes Christians. Rather, the danger of Babylon is that it offers a tempting civil religion that the church must resist with true worship. The book is a letter for the church, an encouragement to remain pure from improper worship. None of this I think is controversial.
But the book is powerful because it strongly suggests that the U.S. is a new Babylon, offering a syncretized civil religion that contrasts with true worship, and that the church has succumbed to the temptation of joining in that. Any time you see the phrase “God and country” – that’s espousing the same attitude of civil worship that was reflected in the Roman imperial cult, the attitude Revelation is warning against. It’s even more fraught today because it wraps itself in Christianese language, which makes its danger more difficult to discern.
Some quotations from the book:
“The imperial cult was an elaborate ‘God and country’ phenomenon, or type of ‘civic’ or civil religion that in various ways attributed a sacred character to the Roman Empire and to the emperor himself…. When secular power is deemed sacred and worthy of devotion and allegiance, the result is the phenomenon of civil religion, which may be defined as follows: The attribution of sacred status to secular power (normally the state and/or its head) as the source of divine blessing, requiring devotion and allegiance of heart, mind, and body to the sacred-secular power and its values, all expressed in various narratives, other texts, rituals, and media that reinforce both the power’s sacred status and the beneficiaries’ sacred duty of devotion and allegiance, even to the point of death.”
“The syncretism of American civil religion involves the blending of American ideology and Christian, or at least theistic and quasi-Christian, religiosity. The early church had a natural suspicion of Roman civil religion because it was so blatantly pagan and idolatrous–though even it could be appealing. Contemporary Christians can much more easily assume that Christian, or quasi-Christian, ideas, language, and practices are benign and even divinely sanctioned. This makes American civil religion all the more attractive–that is, all the more seductive and dangerous. Its fundamentally pagan character is masked by its Christian veneer…. Syncretism in the churches (‘when you see the red in the flag, think of the blood of those who died to make us free, and also think of Jesus’ blood that was shed to make us really free’) runs rampant but is hardly ever questioned.”
“Revelation [is] a critique of secular power wherever and however it expresses itself oppressively, and especially as a critique of such power that is deemed sacred and granted devotion and allegiance. This manifestation and sacralization of power is undoubtedly part of the American situation.”
“Inasmuch as idols are connected to a larger vision of life, such as the American dream, or the inalienable rights of free people, they become part of a nation’s civil religion. I would contend, in fact, that the most alluring and dangerous deity in the United States is the omnipresent, syncretistic god of nationalism mixed with Christianity lite: religious beliefs, language, and practices that are superficially Christian but infused with national myths and habits. Sadly, most of this civil religion’s practitioners belong to Christian churches, which is precisely why Revelation is addressed to the seven churches (not to Babylon), to all Christians tempted by the civil cult.”
And why is civil religion bad? Because it confuses where power really lies, sets up false idols that confuse what we ultimately worship, fosters a tribal mindset that’s against the spirit of Revelation (where fellowship is among every tribe and tongue) and leads to a spirit of violence and domineering that, again, is entirely against the spirit of Revelation.
Some more great passages:
“Those who worship God and the Lamb must be deliberate in their refusal to engage in anything approaching idolatry, especially the syncretistic nationalism that permeates so many churches (churches that may disagree, ironically, on many other matters). According to Revelation, in the church’s worship we should remember and honor prophets and martyrs, not veterans and fallen warriors; faithful witnesses, not loyal patriots; the One who was slain to secure our true freedom, not the ones who killed and were killed to preserve (so it is claimed) our freedom. That this self-evident truth about worship seems so odd, so radical, simply demonstrates how comfortable the church has become in bed with the beast…. Nationalistic allegiance or devotion, especially when dressed in religious garb, may not feel like idolatry, but Revelation makes us face the issue head on (13:4, 8, 12, 15; 14:9, 11; 16:2; 19:12).
“One tragic but frequent result is the sacralization of one’s own people, whether nation, race, or tribe, and the demonization of the other. Out of such religion comes a culture of hatred and even violence. We know far too many examples of this in modern times.”
“Revelation tells us not only who is really sovereign but also what kind of sovereignty the true God exercises, namely what many have called nonviolent and non-coercive ‘Lamb power’.”
The book expands quite a bit on what “Lamb power” looks like. It’s not violent and assertive. Jesus is repeatedly depicted in Revelation as a slain Lamb, and that reflects not only his work on the cross but what his power looks like – it overcomes by submission and sacrifice. And the same is displayed by the faithful martyrs in Revelation. When we use the language of violence, power and domination, that’s the culture of Babylon, not of the Lamb.
I’ll be blunt – when I read all this, I feel like Revelation is speaking directly against Trump-loving Evangelicals. I’m not talking about Trump voters in general – one can obviously be Christian and vote for Trump. I’m talking about people who have equated being a Christian with supporting Trump, and it’s a sizable group. All the things this book notes Revelation as warning against describe this group. Ascribing too much status to the state and specific leaders? It’s weird, because this group (correctly!) tends to be extremely wary of “government” and Democratic political leaders. But their loyalty to Trump is strong, such that they threaten anyone who questions it (among many examples, see what happened to Russell Moore and Beth Moore and the SBC, or what happened to Christianity Today with editor Mark Galli when each criticized Trump’s character as not reflecting Christian values), sometimes to the point of violence. And the exaltation of the state (U.S.A!) is extreme and unreserved. Anyone who crosses it is either against Christianity or America. And that this group is marked by violence, and not Lamb power, is pretty clear.
And as I said, it’s ironic, because a segment of this group is somewhat obsessed with Revelation – they see in the vaccine the mark of the beast, they see antichrists everywhere, from Fauci to Bill Gates to Biden, and have much to say about the end times. But they’re reading Revelation all wrong.
I don’t mean to misrepresent the book. This makes it sound like it’s primarily a political anti-Trumpism book and it’s really not – it was written in 2011, way before Trump, and the vast majority of the book really is about how to study the book of Revelation. I read it because it was recommended by the Bible Project. This political stuff is largely from just one of the chapters. But as the book notes, Revelation is theopolitical, so discussing this subject when studying Revelation is unavoidable, and it’s remarkable how the problems in the church that were apparent then have become even more acute today.