Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Revelation 16:12-21) transports me to the coal fields of District 12 in the fictional country of Panem, where Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her little sister Prim’s place in the annual Hunger Games. This is an annual event where a boy and girl from each of Panem’s 12 districts are selected to compete in a televised fight to the death, with only one survivor. The Hunger Games are Panem’s way of maintaining order and preventing the anarchy and chaos that had come close to ending civilization 75 years prior. The security forces are called, aptly enough, Peacekeepers. I just finished reading the trilogy, and am amazed at how quickly the story captured me, how involved I was in pulling for Katniss and Peeta and Gale and the rebels in their fight to destroy the Capital’s forces. Fiction writers are good at setting up these worlds of extreme evil in which violent rebellion appears as the only option. A world where children are tortured and sacrificed will severely test one’s values of love and grace and reconciliation. It is a world that severely tests the ultimate meaning and power of the cross.
It took less than 75 years for the early Christian community to be drawn into such a test. Toward the end of the first century, Domitian was administering the Roman Empire with as much cruelty as President Snow of Panem. Christian children were being publicly tortured and executed, burned in vats of boiling oil, fed to lions, with the stadium gladiator fights to the death providing entertainment for citizens of the Empire. The Capital was bent on all this violence so they could maintain order and keep the pax romana, the peace of Rome. It was in this context of real life Hunger Games that John wrote his fantastic drama, meant to encourage and shore up the faith of Christians who were seeing their families tortured and killed for sport. Here in today’s passage, John must have remembered writing about the Baptizer prophetically crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. But instead of preparing a way for the Prince of Peace, here he writes about an angel pouring out a bowl of wrath on the great river Euphrates, drying it up to prepare a way for the kings of the east to come and enter into the final battle at Armageddon. Prepare the way of violence. And it comes with a vengeance, with all of nature joining in the rebellion to destroy the Capital, splitting it into three parts, with the surrounding islands fleeing away and the mountains crumbling to the ground. And then, the shocked citizens are greeted with round two of the bombing, as hundred pound hailstones crush them.
What is truly amazing about the history of this early group of Jesus followers, is that many of them did remain true to the values of the cross. What effect John’s pastoral drama had on them we don’t know. Perhaps they read it and found it capturing their spirits, just as The Hunger Games captured mine, and they resonated deeply with the satisfaction of revenge and ultimate destruction of the evil empire and all its minions. But history shows that they did not translate this resonance with a call to arms. The first and second century Christianity was marked by a deep commitment to nonviolent action and resistance, by the ethic of the cross and the Sermon on the Mount. Their faith did not get highjacked by the deeply human call to violent revenge. For me, John’s revelation is a revelation of our humanity and a revelation of what torture and murder can do to our humanity. It’s the revelation of Suzanne Collins, the limitless capacity of humans to inflict torture and evil on others, and the need deep inside us to respond and destroy such evil in our midst. But, if you read The Hunger Games, I think you’ll find at least one hero who, like those early Christians, ultimately refused to be highjacked, who found that the deepest part of one’s soul is inviolable, who understood the need to break the cycle.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to respond.