Empire and The Multitude
A Message Shared at College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro, NC 7.31.2016
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. (Rev. 7:9)
I am glad to see that, after the last few weeks we’ve had, you haven’t all moved to Canada. I don’t know about you, but I certainly have a pretty bad political convention hangover from the past couple weeks. If you’re like me, I’ve been caught up in all the news, the speeches and taking notes on how not to prepare speeches, and have been interested in the protests and the scandals.
I’ve been closely following twitter hashtags like:
#ImnotsayingImoutoftouchbut which had less to do with politics but was still funny. Like my friend Greg who tweeted:
If you watched any of the two conventions you’ll know that there were a lot of words spoken, and those words, depending on the speakers perspective, tried to explain away or explain causes of things such as: continued gun violence in this country, ongoing terrorist attacks, poverty, issues around women’s rights, immigration and marriage equality.
The gist was to work ourselves up into a frenzy and rally against whatever the other side has said or done. Or, as one author, Bill Bishop, the answer is to our problems relies on “sorting” ourselves out.
In his book, “The Big Sort,” Bishop writes:
America may be more diverse than ever coast to coast, but the places where we live are becoming increasingly crowded with people who live, think, and vote like we do. This social transformation didn’t happen by accident. We’ve built a country where we can all choose the neighborhood and church and news show — most compatible with our lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this way-of-life segregation. Our country has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred, that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live just a few miles away.
Some of the the “sorting” responses from the conventions go like this:
- In order to deal with the gun violence we need be very clear about who are the good people and who are the bad people.
- In order to protect ourselves from the wicked ones we need more guns.
- In order to keep families strong, we must maintain strong boundaries around what constitutes family.
- In order to be a great country, we must refuse entry of anyone who is not like us.
Words likes “Good and bad,” “Protection,” “boundaries,” “refuse entry,” “safety,” are key when sorting.
This “sorting” mindset moves beyond any one party and is an American issue. (And don’t we reinforce this mentality every time we talk about moving to Canada?).
There are so many examples of sorting that take place in this country.
Sorting is wherever fear, segregation and discrimination adversely targets specific people and communities: redlining, white flight, hiring practices, laws around voting, our prison system, where people live, sit and sleep, eat, drink water and even go to the bathroom.
What do we make of all of this?
In the bible, we can find two kinds of religion at work: the religion of empire and the religion of creation.
The religion of empire is a religion that biblical scholar Wes Howard-Brook defines as one that people may say is grounded in God but is a human invention.
It is about “…justify[ing] and legitimat[ing] attitudes and behaviors that provide blessing and abundance for some at the expense of others.”
I think we have witnessed plenty of times when sorting is very much based religious sounding rhetoric that justify and legitimate structures that provide privilege for some at the expense of others.
On the other hand, you have a second kind of religion, the author calls the religion of creation:
“…Which is “grounded in the experience of and the ongoing relationship with Creator God…that leads to blessing and abundance of all people and all creation (WHB).”
Have you ever experienced or witnessed people where people join together across differences to love, work and extend grace toward those not like them? Have you ever witness radical hospitality, self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, or truth-telling even when it cost someone her job or personal well-being?
This kind of religion leads us in a very different direction from sorting.
We can see both of these religions at work in our world today, in religious and non-religious communities. We find find at work with Christian communities and denominations, in the public sphere and in our political parties.
Revelation is Revealing Empire
The beauty of the book of Revelation, where we find our passage for this morning is that it is very clear about these two religions and the underlying conflict between the two of them.
My understanding of Revelation is that it is about unmasking the powers of empire.
I do not believe that Revelation has anything to do with predicting the end of the world, and everything to do with how small minority faith communities survive empire. We neuter the real power of Revelation when we make it about escaping this world, rather than surviving, resisting and subverting empire.
In Revelation, the religion of empire is imaged by the Beast, a powerful, destructive force that seeks to destroy all that resists it. The religion of empire seeks to subject all it deems threatening. It breads suspicion of the other, and scapegoats those who get in its way.
This religion of empire thrives on sorting. It tells the narrative that some people are superior to others, and in order to remain superior those who are subject must know and keep their place.
In direct opposition to this is the religion of creation, or as we might call it in the book of Revelation, the religion of the lamb that was slain. That is because the lamb is the central image of the entire book of Revelation, appearing 28 times throughout.
This image of an innocent lamb slaughter as a victim of imperial violence is meant to shape the first century Christian imagination. The lamb, like all scapegoats, was killed to appease and maintain the religion of empire. As first-century Christians sought to survive and subvert empire, they were given this powerful image of the “angelic troublemaker,” to borrow Bayard Rustin’s words.
This Lamb becomes the center of the church’s liturgy and imagination and offers an alternative to all of this fear, scapegoating, and sorting of empire.
In Chapter 7, surrounding the lamb is another powerful image: the multitude.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
The multitude is a beautiful tapestry woven together made up of all of humanity. They refuse to be a quilt made up of the same color, pattern and fabric.
The multitude finds its power and vitality in its difference. They refuse falling prey to believing that unity requires sameness.
The multitude bears palm branches of peace, they refuse the tools, language and symbols of destruction.
The multitude knows fear but instead of using fear to rally against others, they pass through fear with courage and steadfast last.
The multitude is able to confess when it has benefited from and been complicit in Empire.
The multitude refuse to sort people out and instead the welcome people in.
The multitude knows that we are not whole without one another. We do not have community, in the way that God envisions community, unless it is like this image of the multitude.
As Rev. Dr. William J. Barber once said:
“‘We’ is the most important word in the social justice vocabulary. The issue is not what we can’t do, but what we CAN do when we stand together. With an upsurge in racism/hate crimes, criminalization of young black males, insensitivity to the poor, educational genocide, and the moral/economic cost of a war, we must STAND together now like never before.”
And if this is so:
- No wonder those operating from a “religion of empire” perspective try to shut down movements that build towards a multitude.
- No wonder the multitude is met with militaries and militarized police forces.
- No wonder the multitude is met with angry mobs of men and women.
- No wonder the multitude is met with policy they keep people separated.
- No wonder the multitude is met with hate and fear and scapegoating.
But if the multitude allows itself to be shaped and formed by the religion of the Lamb that was Slain, it will remain courageous, it will be filled with the love of God, even in the face of great unknowing.
As Rev. Barber said, “We must stand together now like never before.” We must refuse to be sorted and we must refuse to sort. Let us work together to create the multitude, so that we might truly Know the beloved community in our midst.
May we find ourselves on the inside of the multitude working towards a beloved community.
May we find our hope in the Lamb that was Slain, who draws all people together into a diverse and beautiful tapestry of humanity.
And May we have the courage to welcome, love and be transformed by those in our midst.
For more on the book of Revelation and the Two Religions follow this link to my website gatheringinlight.com.