Critique of Empire, Warning to the Church

In Reading Revelation Responsibly, Michael Gorman brilliantly captures Revelation’s critique of civil religion that undergirds empire:

Revelation is a critique of civil religion (first of all, but not only, Roman civil religion), that is, the sacralization of secular political, economic, and military power through various mythologies and practices—creeds and liturgies, we might say—and the corollary demand for allegiance to that power.

Because civil religion is so closely connected with power, it often appears in extreme forms in empires and empire-like states (e.g., modern superpowers), grounded in the assumption that expansion and victory (in war or otherwise) are signs of divine blessing and protection, and in the common belief that god is on the side of the powerful.  At the same time, however, civil religion is not exclusively the property of empires and superpowers; it is also to be found in former empires, would-be superpowers, ordinary states, and even poor, developing nations.  Human beings seem to have a need to attribute a sacred, or at least quasi-sacred character to their political bodies, their rulers, and the actions of those entities.  One tragic but frequent result is the sacralization of one’s own people, whether nation, race, or tribe, and the demonization of the other.  Out of such religion comes a culture of hatred and even violence.  We know far too many examples of this in modern times (pp. 47-48).

He concludes this section by focusing the critique of empire as a warning to the church as it faces the seductions of civil religion (p. 56):

Is Revelation a critique of empire?  Yes—but that is not its ultimate theopolitical function.  The fate of empire is certain; what is uncertain is the fate of those who currently participate in the cult of empire.  The more significant critique is the critique of the church, and specifically of its participation in the idolatry of the imperial cult, the civil or national religion.  Will the churches repent?  For the churches, one main question emerges: “Beast or Lamb?”

It’s impossible to read Gorman without sensing the power of Revelation for the contemporary American church–not as an object of fascination and speculation, but as urgent prophetic warning.

9 thoughts on “Critique of Empire, Warning to the Church

  1. Peter

    Excellent. I’m a big fan of Gorman.

    FYI, Tim, I have translated some of your posts into Spanish and posted them on my blog. The blog doesn’t get much traffic but I hope it will as things proceed. I don’t post my own thoughts but those of people who speak to me, of whom few people in Latin America are aware.

    There is very little awareness of modern scholarship down here, so I recommend books and blogs in Spanish (not that there is much available). I have more of your posts I want to translate but have very little time available.

    1. timgombis

      My copy of ‘Inhabiting the Cruciform God’ is one of my most marked up and treasured volumes–a brilliant book!

      Glad to hear that anything I have to say is useful, and worthy of translation! I’ll check it out and gauge my Spanish (I did take 4 years in high school…).

  2. Andie

    REV is all about the church coming BACK to Jesus Himself. He is standing at the door and knocking and that is for the ones in the church.

  3. Andrew T.

    Given the obvious connection between Revelation and prior prophecy (references to common episodes, use of common motifs, etc) seeing Revelation as a critique of civil religion seems rather anachronistic and too selective.

    Sure, we can look back on Rome and see civil religion as a theme of the age, some Christian’s (meaning American Christians) might even see how such a motif might fit into the rubric of modern American political concerns, but when Revelation is fit into the broader repertoire of prophetic work, or when we look beyond the American Christian experience, it seems too narrow a fit. Not all Christian’s are struggling with the problem of civic religion, and its doubtful the prophets concerned themselves with this particular facet of Rome.

    This square peg is not fitting nicely into that round hole (even if it seems to, to some who are looking intently for resonant themes between now and the early church).

    1. timgombis

      Gorman (and Bauckham, along with many others) note all of these devices, allusions, motifs, etc., but the question is the end to which these devices are being used. They are indeed present, but Revelation puts them to use to render a critique of cultural corruptions in the audience’s present circumstance.

  4. Andrew

    I agree, the question is to what end are these devices being used, to which I would pose the following:

    These devices are being used to document the divorce between God and his adulterous bride [Isa 54:5], her foray into the wildness (again) which happens to look suspiciously like exile for a period, or her sifting through the nations (specifically meaning 4 beastly super-powers designed to punish her, ultimately to be broken by her due to their pride).

    Since a wife is no longer bound to her husband by law once he dies [Rom 7:2][1 Cor 7:39], the adulterous wife redeemed as a virgin, is eligible to return and remarry her husband[Hos 2:7]. Therefore God’s re-marriage to one ‘no longer adulterous’ (call it the marriage supper of the lamb) is also being documented.

    Plain and simple – this is what prophecy is about. The problem arises when we fail to see that the redeemed bride was the one sent away. Issues of civic relations make sense when we know God promise His people “I will bless those that bless you and curse those that curse you”. So for a beastly nation to oppress and curse his people has implications ….

  5. Andrew

    If this seems like the mad ramblings of an anonymous internet ‘commentator’ and should be rejected therefore, yes – perhaps, but even a donkey can speak truth [Num 22:28].

    Look closely at [Isa 54:5] where YHWH speaks to his bride. He says “For your maker is your husband“. Now see what the verse beforehand says “.. for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your windowhood, you will remember no more“. When was His bride in widowhood [Rom 7:1-5]? What was the shame she would remember no more?

    The only way one becomes a widow, is if one’s husband dies; and if the bride was responsible for His rejection and death – that would be shameful indeed (especially if she was an adulterous). Since YHWH claims to be that husband, He is saying that He, Himself would die. Therefore this conversation between I AM and his bride directly references a messianic prophecy.

    Look also at [Amos 9:9]. Why will no pebble fall to the earth? Perhaps because these living stones would cleave to one another, built upon that rock of offence, the stone of stumbling, to break apart in pieces the iron, brass, clay, silver and gold, to become a mountain that would never end and grow and fill the earth … ([Dan 2:44-45]). Doesn’t that sound like the beast of [Rev 17:3] to whom the Kingdom was given [Rev 17:17] until the words of God be fulfilled?

    Somehow, the wisdom of God always seems foolish to the world.

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