In this post, I interrupt my chapter-by-chapter study of Stringfellow’s 1973 An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land in order to put this series into the context of 2021’s political, cultural, environmental, and pandemic crises.
- Preface: A tract for these times in America
- Chapter 1: The relevance of Babylon
- Part 3: The Demoralization of America
- Chapter 2: The empirical integrity of the Biblical witness
- Chapter 3: The moral reality named death
- Part 6: The human vocation
It is clear from political events since the 2020 election that the American people and their government and constitution have utterly failed to protect us from the on-going, open-ended regime of political and physical violence that dominates our national life.
This regime is not just a matter of one presidential administration or one party or one term of Congress or one pseudo-populist, totalitarian movement. From the perspective of William Stringfellow’s explication of the Book of Revelation, the seeds of what is happening now have always been sewn in the soil of this world.
To clarify: the earth as a living planet with all of its living beings is not fallen. The world, however, all that pertains to human society, is always in a state of divorce from reality. It is always under the dominion of people and institutions with their own imaginary agendas, and always under the threat of death by which these powers exercise dominion over the earth.
Whether or not we are Christians, Stringfellow wants us to understand that Revelation is not, as traditionally taught, a literal prediction of some future, catastrophic and divinely vengeful end time. 1
The book was written for late first century Common Era (AD) Christians, Jews, and others suffering under Roman totalitarianism. For these people—and just as much for readers today—it is meant to teach us about living under the dominion of the real world’s “Babylon” while at the same time living in the divine earth’s “Jerusalem” (see Part 5: Babylon and Jerusalem as events). How does one recognize and survive the former while lifting up and sharing the latter?
Stringfellow asks us to forget everything we have been taught about “the end times.” We always live in the end times. People and other living creatures suffer and die every day. The earth’s ecosystem and biosphere thrash in turmoil every day in automatic, physical law-driven reaction to human abuse. And most people submit every day, without question, to the imaginary notion that governments and institutions and powerful people are “the only ones” who can fix anything.
But also, every day, there are people on every sacred and secular path of faith who choose not to submit. Who choose, instead, to treat every living creature, including the earth itself, as sacred and whole—even at the risk of their own suffering and death.2
In “What Truth Do Martyrs Tell?,” Karen L. King writes of the traditional lore about Roman violence against Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE (Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Spring/Summer 2020). King’s focus is not the theology of martyrdom so much as its explicit public denial—at the most visceral level—of the power of the State over the hearts of the people.
Rome’s intent in the gladiatorial circuses it held throughout the empire was to remind the public of its ultimate control over them. The circuses distracted and entertained a mob eager to witness violence, either between combatants (think pro football) or against those labeled as heretics and subversives (think police response to Black Lives Matter protests).
At the conscious level, the mob was watching someone else commit or suffer lethal violence. In their guts, though, the mob was feeling what it would be like to be the victims. Rome rarely needed to say out loud, “This could be you.”
King’s profound insight has to do with the actual human experience of witnessing torture—and of witnessing willing acceptance of torture. She draws in this upon Elaine Scarry’s investigation of torture.3
Surely the truth that these martyrs tell is the vulnerability of the human body. To pain, to suffering, to death. To the cruelty and savagery of fellow humans, their desire for power and sadistic pleasure. That vulnerability that we share, that we may feel viscerally when we see the wounds of another’s pain, the suffering in their tears or cries, or the implements of torture, is a kind of knowing….
Pain can, however, be objectified through public spectacle, especially through seeing the weapon and the wound….
But why would a regime go through all the effort of this spectacle? Not only the inquisitional torture, but the public execution? Scarry argues that “[t]he body tends to be brought forward in its most extreme and absolute form only on behalf of a cultural artifact or symbolic fragment or made thing…that is without any other basis in material reality: that is, it is only brought forward when there is a crisis of substantiation.” (52-53)
In other words, the State (or any other worldly institution) uses physical suffering or the threat of it to substantiate its power over everyone. Yet those who choose to can undo the blindness of the public which is watching the spectacle.
The contest is over who gets to say what truth these tortured bodies tell. We should note that, for both Romans and Christians, both political and religious issues are at stake….
In the “optics of the arena,” those in the stands represented the Roman social-political order by seating arrangements and dress. The emperor or his representative had the best seat; those closest to him were being accorded high honor and rank. Others were arrayed according to higher or lower positions. On the sands below, surrounded by the seating, was the space of the non-Roman, whose complete subjection was displayed through the execution of criminals….
These “object lessons” of the Roman arena are precisely those which the Christians seek to oppose, but at the same time, the structure of the spectacles also structures the “vocabulary and syntax” of their refusal. Resistance requires appropriation in order to negotiate and reform the Christians’ allotted status as criminals….
Christians are not outside the Roman system opposing it; rather, they are actively appropriating its “rules” and strategies—but for their own ends. The Romans may torture them and put them to death, but they cannot…determine the behavior of Christians within those…limits.
For example, the condemned were expected to play the role of terrified victims, but Christian [martyrology] literature instead emphasized a fearless, indeed, joyful acceptance of death. Because ancients held that such courage had to be based upon true beliefs and reasoned judgments, such public…demonstrations were intended to prove the truth of Christian teaching and way of life. (53-54)
I may seem to have wandered far afield from Stringfellow’s argument in citing King on martyrdom. But the point here is not that we should become martyrs. The point is that we should recognize the truth symbolized in and evoked by the narrative and imagery of Revelation. The truth most relevant to caring citizens of the world today, caring inhabitants of the earth.
However well disguised, as entertainment or as political and judicial action, the human powers of this world use death and the threat of death as their prime weapon of control. They are idolaters of death.
Stringfellow warns that any of us who submit to these human powers, whether in good conscience or against its leadings, are complicit in this idolatry.
In the rest of this series, we shall delve deeper into how this all works, and into what we can do not to submit.
Image: “The Whore of Babylon” illustration from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible. Workshop of Lucas Cranach. [This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1926.]
- This misuse of Revelation started centuries before the perverse “Left Behind” entertainment franchise of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins rose its monstrous head as one of the deceptive creatures of the biblical Beast.
This 1995-2007 book series and its movies and other spinoffs purport to be a “Christian fiction” portrayal of the so-called Christian dispensationalist End Times: the pretribulation, premillennial, Christian eschatological interpretation of the Biblical apocalypse.
Their real impact on human society is that of a seductive, death-worshiping political ideology, the one which has now led, among other things, to the violent January 6th assault on the Congress of the United States.
As Camila Domonoske writes for NPR in “Tim LaHaye, Evangelical Legend Behind ‘Left Behind’ Series, Dies At 90” (7/25/2016):
Critics have objected to what evangelical writer Tyler Wigg Stevenson called the “macabre giddiness” of the books, which seem at times to revel in the doomsday suffering of the unsaved. Nicholas Kristof suggested that in scenes showing the death of all non-Christians, the series celebrates ethnic cleansing “as the height of piety.”
- Two important recent Quaker works join Stringfellow’s book in reclaiming the Book of Revelation for the present age. The first is Douglas Gwyn’s The Anti-War: “Peace Finds the Purpose of a Peculiar People” & “Militant Peacemaking in the Manner of Friends” (2016). The second is C. Wes Daniels’ Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation (2019).
- Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford University Press, 1985).