“12:10b This is the time of victory for our God, the time of his power and sovereignty, when his Christ comes to his rightful rule! For the accuser of our brothers, he who day and night accused them before our God, is overthrown. 11 By the sacrifice of the Lamb and by the witness they bore, they have conquered him; faced with death they did not cling to life. 12 Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you that dwell in them! But woe to you, earth and sea, for the Devil has come down to you in great fury, knowing that his time is short!”
—Revelation 12:10b-12 REB
The solo song of Revelation 12:10-12 reflects the “now and not yet” of people of faith in a broken world. The loud voice proclaims the present experience of salvation and the kingdom of God, even the authority of Christ—the only time this phrase is used in the book of Revelation. What does it mean that in God’s kingdom, Christ has authority? There is victory at the description of the thrown-down dragon, and rejoicing at the cleansing of the heavenly realm. But even as the hymn declares the victory of those who have conquered by the blood of the Lamb, there is also the hint of human cost. Those who conquered were covered, yes, and “they did not love their life to the point of death.”
From his first appearance in the narrative (12:3-6), the “great red dragon” commits acts of violence. His way in the world endorses death—the destruction of a child (12:4) and the child’s mother (12:13-17), and also the violent acts of war (12:7). The “brothers and sisters” should not be surprised at the real possibility of their own deaths (12:11). The narrative also emphasizes the dragon’s work of accusation within the heavenly courtroom (12:10), an advocate of the death penalty.
But the poetic narrative proclaims over and over again that the dragon has been “thrown down” (12:9 three times!; also 12:13), and is picked up in the victory song: “the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down” (12:10). The song celebrates: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ” (12:10). Before the actions of the dragon in Revelation 13 are revealed to the reader, a hymn celebrates the inevitable defeat of violence. All the dragon’s efforts will fail. Before he starts, he is finished.
And yet, the great dragon has great wrath (12:12). He will call forth a beast to join him in his violence and coercion and deception—a beast from the sea to whom the dragon will give authority (13:2, 4). The beast attempts to usurp authority. Christians live in an in-between time—between the Lamb’s victory and an earth free of the dragon’s wrath. Whose authority do our actions reflect day by day? What songs must I sing in response to the authority of Christ? How do such songs move me to act with a love for others that is greater than love of my own life to the point of death?
COVID-19 lays bare the genocidal practices of social systems that are embedded in our everyday lives. The greatest health pandemic the world has seen in the last 100 years has also occasioned an awakening of the pandemic within the pandemic, racism. As Christians living under the authority of Christ how do we live in the here-and-now-but-not-yet when our experiences in the world are so radically different? Let me be clear, for marginalized communities “hope” often serves to maintain oppression and is used as a tool to increase the resiliency of marginalized communities. That faith must be rejected and replaced. What it means for me to love my neighbor at the expense of my own life, means something completely different for you.
Cuban theologian Miguel A. De La Torre proposes an “ethics para joder,”* in his latest publication Embracing Hopelessness. De La Torre explains a “teología para joder,” as a theology that rejects a soteriology that justifies a history of Christianity that rationalizes colonization, genocide and slavery as contexts in which an eschatological promise sustains the faithful through atrocities. De La Torre’s argument is that when hope pacifies radical liberation for marginalized masses the systems must use an ethic to “screw with” the systems. The Young Lords Party (YLP), a civil and human rights movement that began primarily in Spanish Harlem in New York during the 1960s, provides an example of an “ethics para joder.”When requests to serve the impoverished neighborhoods of East Harlem fell on the deaf ears of the First Spanish United Methodist Church, the YLP forcibly occupied the space (the church building). Under the name “the People’s Church” they fired the pastor and began offering legal services, free food, and after-school programs to educate youth on Puerto Rican and black history. The YLP demonstrates how salvation is not hope (the kind that is a cruel aspiration for change or a world to come), salvation is esperanza. In Spanish, the verb “to wait” is the same word for “hope.” When requests are made in Spanish, we often conclude by saying “espero tu respuesta” meaning I’m actively waiting on you to act. What we learn from the YLP is that when waiting does not translate into meeting the material needs of the people, faithfulness is an action on my own behalf for the sake of my survival and the survival of my community.
* De La Torre’s use of profanity (like the apostle Paul’s use of the vulgar word σκυβαλα) is intentional: messing with our sensibilities and defying the system, because those rules are the very problems he seeks to address. Cursing, so long as the curse words are directed to systemic evil or emotions arising from the experience of living, in those systems summarize the message of his book.
“This is the time of victory for our God, the time of his power and sovereignty, when his Christ comes to his rightful rule!”
—Rev. 12:10b Revised English Bible.
Victory! No word better captures our deepest desires, today. Victory over this pandemic, victory over structural racism, victory over economic depression. We want victory, and we want it now!
But our text (and the Christian Gospel which is based on it) has a strangely odd view of ‘victory.’ For, while “the heavens and those who dwell in them” can rejoice, for the rest of us (down here on “earth and sea”) woe remains for now, “for the Devil has come down to you in great fury, knowing that his time is short!” How true this is of life, where we seem all too often to take ‘two steps forward and one step back’. What kind of victory is it, when so much suffering remains? Can we trust in the promise of ultimate victory, while still surrounded by the effects of penultimate bondage? Perhaps only if we conform our idea of victory to the norm presented in the text.
For while indeed “the accuser of our comrades” is “overthrown,” he is conquered in a decidedly counter-intuitive way. The victory happens by the “sacrifice (or blood) of the Lamb,” and those who witness to it, by their own corresponding action—“for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” The sovereign power of God (“the One who Loves in Freedom”) is God’s freedom to surrender absolute power for the sake of love. The power of ‘powerlessness’! The Cross. We do not have that power, ourselves. But we can witness to it by our solidarity with the powerless, and our active speaking up on behalf of the voiceless.
This is a decidedly different view of victory. Yes, we are promised an ultimate victory in the traditional sense (“when there will be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain.” Rev 21:4) eventually, but in the interim we have to live with this radically inverted form of victory.
I write this on Juneteenth. The ‘proclamation of emancipation’ had been promulgated two and half years before (on 1 January 1863); the civil war itself had been over for months; but the last slaves (in Galveston, TX) were only finally told they were free on the 19th of June, 1865.
Imagine, for all those years, freed, but still a slave! This did not need to happen. It was a tragedy. But perhaps this day, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, might become not just a national holiday, but also a ‘tragically-profound’ parable of the Christian understanding of penultimate victory. For the interim, we are called to ‘victorious solidarity’ with the oppressed, inspired by their resilience in the face of ironic tragedy.
There are dreams and then there are dreams. We speak of the “American dream.” Martin Luther King, Jr. secured his place in memory with his “I Have a Dream” speech. The writer of Revelation had seven dreams. Bible students say John had seven visions. Our ordinary use of the words ‘dream’ and ‘vision’ often relate them to the category of “not real.” At a time when the world is held captive under the tyranny of empirical scientism ‘reality’ is equated with the ‘actual’. Here all that matters is measurable. Here we look to what has been. Here ethics is fully naturalized. Here the ‘possible’ has no place. Here dreams and visions die.
The supposed difference between those who are awake and those who are dreaming is that the ‘woke’ person is law governed and the dreamer is allegedly not. The natural world is lawful. The dream state presents us with scenes that are not coherent. And when the incoherence is exaggerated, we call those visions nightmares. There is no doubt that some of John’s visions were nonetheless, nightmares. Clearly, the fourth and central vision of John was nightmarish. Fighting dragons, sea monsters, vicious land beasts, enticing, but dangerous prostitutes all work together to seduce, deceive and coerce a simple woman and her descendants. Yet, it is prefaced with a victory hymn that the woman’s child is the victorious ruler of the world. Incoherence! No wonder our age would consign it to the category of the “not real.”
The authors, Douglas McGaughey and James Cochrane, assert “where there is no causal order, there is no personal responsibility” (The Human Spirit: Groundwork, 11). Kobe Bryant with his family and friends are killed in a tragic helicopter crash. COVID-19 airborne virus has infected nearly ten million people worldwide and claimed the lives of nearly five hundred thousand. Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, in an utter display of weakness, pinpointed his knee on the neck of George Floyd killing his dreams and visions of a nonexistent possibilities. The state of this world is a real living nightmare. Yet, God has dreamed possibilities for it that are no less real. We are called to live into God’s vision of the world. We are called to saintly patience. That means 1) thou shall not be seduced by this world, 2) thou shall not be deceived by this world, and 3) thou shall not surrender your vision for a world of righteousness and peace, even when the knee of worldly power tries to coerce it out of your sight. This is Christian faithfulness.
May you never lose sight of God’s grace and love!
HMS Richards Divinity School