Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Revelation 16) transports me to the streets of the Libyan city of Sirte, hometown of the late Muammar Ghaddafi, where someone with a cell phone has recorded a shaky video of the end of a dictator’s life. Rebels drag the bloody and bruised tyrant kicking and screaming onto the hood of a pickup truck, and presumably he took a bullet to the head soon thereafter. The mixed sounds of celebration and fierce rage being vented adds to the chaotic feel of the minute long video that has gone viral. The disturbing scene comes with one of those warnings that tells us YouTube has identified the content as being potentially offensive or inappropriate.
The dramatic scene from today’s Passage in Revelation could probably use one of those disclaimers. The unrepentant tyrants of the world are on display, covered in painful sores, forced to drink from rivers of blood, scorched by fierce heat until they gnaw their tongues in agony, until finally huge hundred pound hailstones drop from the sky and crush them. All this happens while voices of celebration are heard yelling out It is what they deserve! Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just! John’s apocalyptic vision no doubt went viral in its own way for the first century Christians who were suffering intense persecution from the brutal Roman regime of Domitian. John wrote Revelation in the form of a Greek drama, and like those classical productions the real staging is interior, the theatre of the human soul. In this case it reveals to us an honest and clear picture of what a faithful soul under torture looks like. Grasping for hope as family member after family member got brutalized and murdered, often times in very public displays by the powers of the land, the faith community was primed and ready for visions of their persecutors coming to their own public and brutal end.
It has been interesting to me this week to hear pundits and social critics and naysayers critique the news of Ghaddafi’s demise. They poo-poo the notion of an Arab Spring and democratic uprising, pointing to the celebrating Libyan fighters who executed Ghaddafi as a sign that there really isn’t an authentic democratic spirit among these Arab rebels, that they don’t really share our value system at all. When I heard that, I thought about movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read about the birth of democracy in our own country, during the American Revolution, and the challenge to that democracy during our Civil War. I thought about Mel Gibson’s character in The Patriot, and the rage he violently vented on the British officers in revenge for the suffering they had inflicted on his family. The hatchet job he put on those officers was, as YouTube would say, potentially offensive or inappropriate for some audiences. Or I think of Wilma Dykeman’s stories of the horrific acts of guerrilla warfare enacted by outliers in the mountains during the Civil War, in her book, The Tall Woman. So, for people to say that the Arab sentiments seen in the vengeful and brutal treatment of Ghaddafi is somehow foreign to us, that we are somehow more democratic in our disposition, is to deny our common humanity. John’s Revelation shows us that the deep recesses of the human soul include voices that cry out for justice and for retribution when people have witnessed their loved ones suffer unspeakable acts of violence. Part of being human is to acknowledge these voices, to even place them on the stage of the sacred drama of our faith journeys. Even so, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to square passages like this with Jesus’ teaching of love for enemies and the Spirit of grace. I have finally come to believe that this same Spirit inspired playwright John’s fantastic drama to serve as a cathartic healing for historical traumas suffered in places of horrendous oppression. My hope and prayer is that this healing grace will one day go viral, so that both the traumatized and the traumatizers of our land will be transformed and cleansed by the blood of the Lamb that was slain, and the cycle of violence will be broken.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.