The old name for the book of Revelation was The Apocalypse of St. John
I read an article a few months ago by Catherine Keller and John J. Thatamanil, theology professors in the U.S., entitled ‘Is this an apocalypse? We hope so – you should too’. The old name for the book of Revelation was The Apocalypse of St. John but the word has come to carry the meaning of doom, disaster, catastrophe – and, to be sure, there is plenty of that in Revelation. But it really means unveiling, a revelation or revealing, a drawing back of the curtains to see what is going on behind. The apparently civilised and civilising Roman empire (many legal systems are still based on Roman law) is exposed as founded in violence and seduction. The power of empires – including neo-liberal global capitalism – is always the same. Violence is cloaked as security and peace, and seduction as lifestyle, success, standard of living. In wanting to preserve these ‘goods’ for ourselves we are complicit in maintaining the status quo. The trouble is, we have relied on the state to deliver us from evil and the market to provide for us our daily bread. The gift of the apocalyptic is for us to see our idols and our sin for what they are and be offered the opportunity to be converted – to turn away from the counterfeit to the true, to live by faith and not by sight and possession. St Augustine of Hippo was clear sighted about the nature of the political systems that uphold idolatrous empire and wrote about two cities – of God and of earth. He has been interpreted to justify a fundamental pessimism about anything that we can do – individually and together – but Catholic political theologian William Cavanaugh suggests Augustine was talking about two citizenships or performances rather than two cities. This means that we don’t need to wait to the end of the age for the city of God (the trouble with it coming at the end of the bible), but we can perform it now. Those who do, who do not live by the destructive values of empire, are ek-klesia – called out to exercise a different kind of citizenship. Augustine did not equate this with the church, because even then the church was a mixture of performances.
So, what does it mean to live as ekklesia now? You may have seen the cartoon that has three tsunami waves approaching the shore: the first is Covid 19, the second and larger wave is recession, the third enormous wave is climate collapse. People on the shore are saying ‘as long as we wash our hands, we’ll be alright’. These apocalyptic events are cracks in the unsustainable systems we have built, the groaning of earth cursed by our sin. There is judgement, but it is a mercy to us so we can receive the grace of repentance. Keller and Thatamanil say, “John of Patmos, was not writing about the end of our world, but the end of his.” Extinction Rebellion, school strikers, guerrilla gardeners, protesters against airport expansion – all these and more – in their own ways – are ek-klesia, as they live out a citizenship that counters the destructive idolatry of our world and experiment with ways of being that repair and care for our planetary home. They may not be perfect, but you know what they say to people looking for the perfect church – ‘don’t join it, you’ll spoil it’.
Written by Mike Love