The world is a violent place. The horrifying story of Mollie Tibbetts shoves that in our faces this week. Violence happens at the personal level, as with Mollie, at the geo-political level as we stand in frozen horror with Nuclear missiles at the ready, and everything in between. This is nothing new. Humans have been destroying each other since Cain killed Abel.
The thing that gets to me is when we realize that a vast amount of human violence has been done in the name of God, in general, and in the name of Jesus Christ specifically. Really? Did Jesus endorse the Crusades, the colonization of the Global South, the Salem witch trials, the Doctrine of Discovery and Genocide of indigenous people? Isn’t Jesus the guy who told his disciples to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, and pray for those who persecute you? How can followers of Jesus rationalize violence toward others in Jesus’ name?
The answer to this perplexing question comes to us in this week’s sermon topic. This week we continue our Summer Worship Series Alive with Chapter 51 of Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking. This chapter is titled Spirit of Hope and dives into one of the freakiest and most controversial books of the Bible: The Revelation.
I invite you to check out my Bible Bookshelf page on Revelation to get an overview and some resources.
The main reason people justify Jesus-violence is due to a misunderstanding of the metaphors and symbolism of Revelation. Look at Revelation 19:11-21. At first glance it looks like Jesus rides in and kicks sinner butts.
We forget that Revelation was written to a group of people who were experiencing severe persecution under the command of the Roman Emperor. It was against the law to speak out against the Empire, so the author had to write in metaphor. Revelation is a vision that draws from Hebrew imagery and prophetic poetic language to condemn the violence of Empire and bring comfort to suffering people. McLaren says,
People who read Revelation without understanding that context tend to miss some telling details. For example, when Jesus rides in on the white horse, his robes are bloodstained and he carries a sword. Many have interpreted this scene as a repudiation of Jesus’ nonviolence in the gospels. But they miss the fact that he carries his sword in his mouth, not his hand. Instead of predicting the return of a killer Messiah in the future, Revelation recalls the day in the past when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. His humble words of peace, love, and justice will, Revelation promises, prove more powerful than the bloody swords of violent emperors. In addition, we notice his robe is bloodstained before the battle begins, suggesting that the blood on his robe is not the blood of his enemies, but is his own, shed in self-giving love. In that light, Revelation reinforces rather than overturns the picture we have of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. (p. 256)
The Bible Project does an excellent job of mapping this out. Here is their chart of Revelation.
Notice how Jesus is the lamb that was slain in the beginning of the story. The fact that he gave his life for the whole world, even his enemies, is what makes him worthy to open the scroll.
Then, at the end he comes in on the white horse. Yet, like McLaren said above, his robe is already dipped in blood and his sword is coming from his mouth. The victory of Jesus is not through violence. It is through love and truth, just like it was in the Gospels.
I invite you to listen to our Carry On Podcast where we discuss this passage.