Eleven days ago, I wrote about what made the prophets of the Jewish and Christian traditions prophetic. I said that you don’t have to believe they had literal visions of the future to understand their work. They understood what oppression, injustice, and empire to do people, families, communities, and the planet. The horsemen John wrote about from Patmos bear the gifts of broken, unjust systems: plague, famine, poverty, war, ecological disaster, and needless, senseless death.
I said that the prophets have always known this. I also said “The headlines are all the same. They’ve been the same for fifty years, or for a hundred. They’ve been the same since Gutenberg. Since Revelation.”
Eleven days later, I want to rephrase something.
When I said “the headlines are all the same,” I did not mean that we can avoid taking every necessary precaution in some “this too shall pass” way. We must take every precaution we can.
With that said, here’s the rest of what I wrote:
There is pestilence. There is war, and rumors of war. There is sickness, God, is there sickness. There is famine, there is poverty, there is ecological destruction. In John’s vision on Patmos, the world is poisoned by the fallout of a star, called Wormwood, and what’s a star, anyway, but a nuclear reaction? And I don’t want to get too strange, but in Ukrainian, Wormwood is Chernobyl. I don’t think John had an actual, technicolor vision of the 80s, but Ukrainian milk still has a half-life, even now, in 2020. Speaking of now, and of pestilence and disease and these riders and their horses, John did not foresee coronavirus, but he knew plagues would spread and economies would crumble whenever power rests with a selfish, greedy few.
I’m not calling the seer of Patmos some proto-democrat. But he was a prophet, in a long tradition of prophets. Even now, some 3000 years since Moses, we don’t really use the word in its proper context. We think it has to do with fortune telling, a literal seeing of the future, or with esoteric Bible codes and arcane symbols. We forget, or never learned, that the Hebrew and Christian prophets were never primarily like their sibylline counterparts, that Jerusalem and Patmos weren’t Delphi. We forget, or never learned, that prophecy in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is a speaking of present truth to present power.
The book of Revelation gets a lot of attention. It is vivid, scandalous, and scary. It has been used to justify all kinds of hatreds, and as a cipher for thousands of agendas.
Though it is also many other things, the book of Revelation is primarily a sociological allegory about life among oppressed peoples (specifically, Christians) in the Roman Empire in the first century of the common era. It’s apocalyptic, not merely because of its prophetic tropes, but because Roman society was, itself, apocalyptic. I don’t mean that apocalyptic visions dominated the social, artistic, philosophic, or theological mores of the day; I mean that the Roman Empire was an oppressive, idolatrous, all-consuming beast of a socioreligious, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical thing. That the things John of Patmos described 2000 years ago should be easy to recognize in our own headlines now speaks to his prophetic status, even though prophetic need not mean predictive. The Hebrew and Christian prophetic voices were prophetic in part because they understood the externalities systemic injustice produces. (It’s a crime of language that we call these things ‘externalities’; they’re only external if you’re among the parties producing them and able to shield yourself from them).
That Revelation, with its images of death, and war (and rumors of war) and poverty and famine and plague, sounds very much like a modern litany of fears is no accident and need not be the function of oracular gifts or actual visions of a far-flung future. The prophets understood what power does, and they spoke against it. The patterns are predictable. Concentrated power in the hands of a few elites leads to poverty, famine, hunger, pestilence, disease, and environmental disaster. It’s all right there in the ancient writings. You don’t need to believe these writers had literal visions of the future to understand that they foresaw it. Their vision, as it were, is in their recognition of the putrid fruits of voracious greed and inverted totalitarianism. God did not show them a literal vision of the inverted tyranny of late capitalism. God didn’t need to. True prophecy is not (and never has been) about mystical predictions of the future. Prophecy is what happens when men and women bear witness to justice in the face of injustice, and usually against all conventional wisdom. This is the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, of Jesus, of Martin Luther King, of Liberation theology. If the prophets of old speak to us now, it’s because they understood the conditions we will always find ourselves in when we don’t take a stand for the kingdom of justice, peace, and love that would find us in solidarity with the margins and with each other, instead of in competition for things that need not actually be scarce, in service of obscenely wealthy powers who convince us that there’s not enough to go around and control us with that fear.
Prophets are stoned, crucified, and assassinated on the balconies of their motels for a reason, and I think we all know what it is.
John of Patmos (like Jesus) lived under explicit tyranny. The tyranny we live under is what theorists call “inverted,” but it produces all the same things. It must likewise be resisted.