The Geo-politics of the Book of Revelations
By Ruth Roberts MA, MBACP (Accred.)
Dr Robert Beckford of Warwick University stirred up the seventy or so attendees gathered at St Luke’s on January 22nd for a lively day of discussion about the Book of Revelation.
Dr Beckford is a theologian, educator and broadcaster with a clear mission of social justice underlining his work. In this one-day workshop he presented three possible interpretations of the Book of Revelation and widened out discussions in the afternoon with an invitation to consider what inspiration the text might offer Christians today.
The controversial Book of Revelation plays a central role in the faith of some Christian denominations while at the same time is avoided or sidelined as simply too difficult and challenging by others.
As a member of the Church of England my most memorable interactions with this text have been in singing choral works that predominantly use the ecstatic final part of the text “then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,…”.
It seems that the vengeful and punishing God of the first 20 chapters is not often mentioned in liberal Christian circles. While in other denominations, the Book of Revelation is a central text that dominates the choices and lifestyles of their members.
Dr Beckford, a member of the Pentecostal church, was humorously deprecating of his own denomination and the passivity that a literal reading of Revelation engenders.
However, underneath the humour was a more searing criticism of literal readings of the book that can lead to the exclusion of certain groups in society and more dangerously, to passivity and complacency in the face of social injustice and oppression.
Dr Beckford began his talk by showing his recent Channel 4 documentary in which he interviews representatives from faith groups who take an apocalyptic view of the text as a literal prophesy of the final conflict between good and evil.
Them and us
He argued that such an approach is dangerous and promotes a ‘them and us’ intolerance between communities. He showed how a literal, apocalyptic reading of the text is used by some groups to support settlement building in Israeli occupied territories and how it formed the cornerstone for the beliefs of the Branch Davidian sect, many of whom were killed in the ‘Waco siege’ of 1993.
Faith and the socio-political world
The main opposing reading of the text offered by Dr Beckford is one in which the text is ‘redeemed’ by being situated in the social-political context in which it was written and by using this context as inspiration for today. Dr Beckford argued that the text should be seen in its 1st Century context as a call to the early Christian church against acquiescence to the oppressive regime of the Roman Empire. This reading is based firmly in Dr Beckford’s own belief in the unavoidable relationship between faith and the socio-political world in which we live. His website quotes that ‘Faith without engagement with the socio-political world is "faith without works."’ Thus in this ‘neo-apocalyptic’ reading, the text becomes a call to action rather than a fear inducing prophesy, in which all but the chosen few are destroyed.
Dr Beckford briefly outlined a third possible reading of the text, used by post-modern and feminist theologians in which the text is ‘used against itself’ to provide acceptable readings of the role of women, among other things. This ‘post-apocalyptic’ approach to the text was only touched upon and seemed extremely complicated to those not familiar with post-modern criticism. However, despite the academic content of Dr Beckford’s talk, it was also firmly grounded in personal experience, open dialogue and humour which made it accessible to everyone present.
The Great African Scandal
In the second half of the day, Dr Beckford illustrated his ‘neo-apocalyptic’ reading of Revelation with further personal examples taken from his journalistic work uncovering the exploitation of poor communities brought about by world trade policies. He illustrated how such policies protect powerful global interests and perpetuate the poverty and exclusion of developing countries. He showed excerpts of his documentary ‘The Great African Scandal’ and many in the audience seemed moved by the scenes of poverty and child exploitation that this work uncovered.
Dr Beckford ended the day with a call to the audience to ‘take up a fight’; to think about issues that are important to us and to step outside of the middle ground, to make a stand and bring about change.
This was a very engaging and challenging day and one that left me wanting further debate on the issues raised. Not least, I was left wanting to take the call for struggle and non-acquiescence to a more personal level. It seemed to me that we only had time to scratch the surface of what it really means to ‘take up a fight’ as a Christian. We live in such a complex world that the exploitation experienced by the poorest in society implicates even those who would rail against it.
The struggle for social justice and for a more equal future involves not only challenging the most obvious power relations but also those in which we ourselves are implicated. I wished we could have taken this discussion further and I came away from this day thinking not only of individual issues and causes for which I could ‘take up the fight’ but of the entire power structure in which we live our lives and what this means as an everyday struggle to live in a more just and sustainable way.