Friday, September 30, 2011

John's Revelation, Bonhoeffer's Germany, and Our America—Guest Post By Lawrence Garcia

Around the turn of the first-century, several congregations in Asia Minor received a letter from a grey-haired and banished Apostle John who, at that moment, was a resident of the island of Patmos. No doubt they had received Johannine correspondence before, but this one was different. This letter functioned more like a gateway to another world, with John himself playing the role of mediating host. It would not be long after they had taken up residence within John’s visionary escapade that they would realize they weren’t in another world per se but rather their own world, albeit from a different perspective. This was home—Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum—this was Asia Minor.

The torrent of images all had their points of contact with aspects of daily Greco-Roman life and history: the wounded and healed head of the beast recalled the recent rumor of Nero redivivus, the prostitute on the beast had its correspondence with the Magna Mater, the goddess Cybele worshiped in the area, and Babylon’s opulence that depicted all too well the wealthy aristocrats situated on Rome’s posh Palatine Hill. Thus, it is in this sense that John’s letter is an “apocalypse”, that is, a removal of the veil exposing what was previously hidden.  According to the revelator, the particular reality that was being unmasked was that of the Emperor Cult and its ubiquitous propaganda which the churches seem to have accepted as truth. Dio Cassius, a contemporary of John wrote:

At that time Caesar was attending to general matters, and he permitted the establishment of precincts to Rome and to [his] father Caesar—calling him the hero Julius—in Ephesos and in Nicea, for these were the most distinguished cities of Asia and in Bithynia respectively. He ordered the Romans who settled among them to honor these two. But he allowed the Hellenes—to concentrate precincts to him, the Asians in Pergamum and the Bithynians in Nicomedia… Yet even there (Rome), various god-like honors are given after his death to those who rule uprightly; and heroic shrines are built to them.”[1] (emphasis added)

The bestowal of divine honors upon the emperor, coupled with the erection of imperial shrines, had its very beginnings in Asia Minor, which happens to be the locus of all seven churches. This is not a connection to be merely glossed over in a mad rush to have the book tell us all we want to know about the end of the world.  Such a shallow reading is ruled out of court, precisely because the parodying of Roman-imperial propaganda that can be witnessed throughout Revelation was designed to reveal the true nature of the empire itself at that exact point in history. Small wonder then that the letter asks of its recipients to “Hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” for it would demand that they open their hearts and minds to this startling alternate reality. One commentator sums it up well:

Revelation is a call to have faith in God rather than empire. This call takes place in a narrative through which John tells of his visionary experiences… This plot is the story of YHWH’s plan for the people who live in a world dominated by concentrations of human power. The Biblical Story of a people called to be ‘set apart’ from power arrangements that characterized Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.”[2]

So in the light of John’s vivid drama, Rome’s military glory, its material prosperity, and its forms of justice and peace were shown forth to be nothing more than a ravaging of the earth, blatant economic exploitation, and raw violence and bloodshed.   Thus, the churches in Asia Minor were to renounce their allegiance to Rome, see Rome for what she really was, and “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.”  In light of this realization, they would find the Lamb’s way of conquering not by way of martial victory, but rather, that of blood-stained love.

Undoubtedly, John’s creative way of unmasking empire would have proved invaluable in the churches continued struggle to not be absorbed into the wider imperialistic culture—a struggle endured from the days of Constantine to our own.  Perhaps the struggle is due to our susceptibility as human beings to be shaped by the constant bombardment of imperial propaganda?  For those in Asia Minor, absorption occurred by way of imperial temples, altars, coins, festivals, and inscriptions, all serving to legitimate the divine status of Roma Aeterna (Rome eternal)And closer to our own time, such as exemplified in the early twentieth-century by Hitler’s propaganda machine, as Erwin Lutzer, states:

Hitler believed that books could never bring about a revolution; only the spoken word, delivered by a person who could convert them to a radical agenda. He said that when you want to tear down a world and build another in its place you must first separate the supporters and the members. The function was to attract supporters, and change people’s minds so that they would be in agreement with the aims and the philosophies of the movement.”[3]

Lutzer continues to site Hitler’s Mien Kampf which is worth quoting:

“The first task of propaganda is to win people for subsequent organization… The second task of propaganda is the disruption of the existing state of affairs and the permeation of this state of affairs with the new doctrine, while the second task of the organization must be the struggle for power, thus to achieve the final success.”

We can only speculate, but could the mass murder of millions of innocents have been averted if the largely German Christian nation would have “heard and obeyed” John’s call to resist uncritical allegiance to Empire?  In his book, Authentic Faith: Theological Ethics in Context, Heinz Eduard Tödt recalls Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (one of the few German Protestants to actively resist Hitler) reflection on social “stupidity” in the face of power:

Bonhoeffer knew that what he saw was not obvious to all. His surprising thesis in the section on stupidity [Dummheit] is that stupidity ‘is not an intellectual defect,’ and ‘not so much a psychological problem as a sociological problem… On closer examination, it appears that every strong external exhibition of power, be it political or religious, stupefies a large section of people.’ Under the ‘overwhelming impression of exhibition of power,’ people often lose their ‘inner independence’ and refrain from ‘finding an authentic way of responding to the given circumstance of life’.”[4](174)

Bonhoeffer’s analysis of society’s “Dummheit in the face of impressive displays of power characterizes the failures in Asia Minor vis-à-vis Rome, and in Germany vis-à-vis Hitler.  Indeed, seductive displays of power need apocalyptic visions to counteract these stupefying effects of imperial propaganda. Thus at this point  it can become all too easy, as we stand from our perspective at the precipice of history, to critique those in Asia Minor who colluded with the imperial cult, while also passing judgment on those German Christians who signed oaths of allegiance to Hitler, silently stepping aside and standing by as he “Cleansed the Land.”  Engaging as it were from a superior perspective while ignoring the question of whether or not we in America today, in something of a Constantian power paradigm, are likewise  blindly following the pro-military propaganda that allows our government to advance its agendas unhindered.  I suggest that it is vital for us to begin reading John’s apocalypse in light of our current situation, especially as our government maintains a constant idle of fear and power that it might quickly rev-up new military ventures by employing the familiar rhetorical tactics put to effective use by Rome and Germany. We would do well to heed the warnings of the apostolic visionary, lest we also be condemned by history for refusing to “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches”.

[1] Dio Cassius 51.20.6-9 Translation by Loeb.
[2] Wes Howard-Brook, Anthony Gwyther, “Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now,” (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY, 1999), pg 23.
[3] Erwin W. Lutzer, “When A Nation Forgets God: 7 Lessons We Must Learn From Nazi Germany,” (Moody Publishers: Chicago, IL, 2010), pgg 76-77.
[4] Hienz Eduard Tödt, “Authentic Faith: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Ethics in Context,” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, MI, 1993), pg 174.

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