Updated: Aug 21, 2018
In 1968, students in universities around the world were in rebellion. They had sit-ins, marched for a just world and occupied university administrative buildings.
John Lennon’s song ‘imagine’ captures the idealism of that generation, perhaps because of the Cold War threat of nuclear holocaust ever present and the dawning awareness of impending global environmental degradation.
Now 50 years on, the once triumphant capitalist forces of globalisation that could steal oil resources without impunity and declared communism dead now panics as China ascends to take its place as the coming global superpower. Expenditure on WMDs by the West is once again reaching obscene levels while polar ice melts at dizzying speed to raise ocean levels that will cause massive flooding in the mid-century.
Despite propaganda to the contrary, the trashing of land and sea continues unabated, as do the crises in the Middle East. Could the apocalypse of the Book of Revelation be true after all? Fundamentalists read them as signs of The End.
In the USA these political conservatives put their considerable political weight behind Donald Trump to help speed up the Great and Terrible Day of Judgement described in the Apocalypse. Liberals opposing Trump protest loudly, but little happens to change anything. Dismay turns into resignation and feeds into sense of hopeless gloom and doom.
Given the seeming relevance of the imagery of the Apocalypse, should Queer Christianity take its prophecies seriously? On the surface, at least, the depiction of the Kingdom of God in the Book of Revelation is hard to reconcile with Jesus’ teachings, though it is consistent with many of his parables and sayings. In Revelation, God is a burning fire of holiness, not a
loving God patiently nurturing us. Jesus the hyper-male, rides into battle with every imaginable weapon of torture and mass destruction at his disposal. The martyrs that look on cry out for revenge not mercy. They relish humanity being roasted in burning sulphur ‘to all eternity’. Except for an allusion to the Virgin Mary, woman is depicted as temptress - its holiness devoid of humanity. The final vision of the New Jerusalem is a hedonistic picture with streets of gold, woods and streams with the city walls lined with gems. The city, ‘the Bride of Christ’ finally descends like a cosmic cube to become the New Jerusalem, the former earth having been wiped out by cosmic explosions. It is nauseating in the extreme.
There is, however, a queer reading of the book that we may call a Queer Apocalypse, an interpretation that just might turn it into a profound visionary book.
The first interpretative principle that needs to be applied to the book is to take the queer principle of 'Love is love' as the starting and ending point of its interpretation. It needs to be the centre point from which all the text gets it rightful meaning. Literary criticism tells us that the book is an example of a genre of literature popular in the first century A.D. and banned by Judaism at the Council of Jamnia in A.D. 79 (this book likely dates from the time of
Emperor Damitian, A.D. 81-96) because they inspired the Jewish jihadist rebellion leading to war against Rome and the sacking of Jerusalem. The early Church with its obligatory pacifism, would have understood Revelation more like that of a ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoon. The horrific violence that cartoonists heap on Tom, the cat, is entertaining because we know none of it is real - it is a cat and mouse fable. Tom represents the ‘Fat Cats’ in business
and government and Jerry represents us, the ‘little guy’ who ekes out a living
whose life is lived at the mercy of the Big Cats. As it happens, that is exactly
the point of the book.
The story line of Revelation is full of such cartoon figures. Emperor Damitian who called himself Master and God was real and he was the ultimate Fat Cat, the kind that threw Christians to the lions. The cartoon animals and symbols would have been instantly recognised by its first readers.
The craziness of the Book of Revelation is not its cartoons but what the story stands for: the story demands a belief in a seeming absolute impossibility: the idea that unconditional love, the kind taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth [here the Slain Lamb before the throne of God], is the messianic power by which every kind of evil can and will be overcome, including all the might of Damitian and the Roman Empire. In the apocalypse, this is the power of the ‘blood of the Lamb’, i.e. the pure grace that faith believes was embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The martyrs (those that walk the talk of faith) ‘wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb’ i.e. immersed their whole being in the gentleness of the Spirit of love, the very essence of being a follower of Jesus. The Book of Revelation is therefore a creative way of presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel of the cosmic inward power of the spirit of vulnerable love that will one day become wholly externally realised in human history. All that is not love will vanish away - not by guns but by the gentleness of incarnate grace.
It is the very antithesis of how U.S. fundamentalist Christians who support Donald Trump (and enemies of Queer Christianity!) interpret Revelation. The second interpretive principle that Queer Christianity has to offer is exchanging the literary method of reflection, from one of using binary opposites to one that is non-binary or non dualistic. John’s gospel consists
of reflections on the life of Jesus using a play on the experience of love and hate. For John of Patmos, it is a cosmological dualistic play of black on white, a kind of dialectic of good and evil very popular in the culture of his day. In queer theory, such dualism is too remote to the truth of human nature when examined closely. In matters of gender, men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus. Gender polarity hides the many kinds of gender orientation that exist in people and skims over the the actual range of male and female biological characteristics present in us all. Humans are lovable not for some normative ideals but because of the preciousness of their individuality. Similarly for Jesus, the sin of the Pharisees was setting themselves up as paragons of holiness, despising everyone else but utterly failing to see that they and all humans are lovable despite and because of their mixture of failings and strengths. God loves us as we are, and has onenlaw, the obligation to love in the fullness of our peculiar uniqueness. What makes humans evil is playing God and setting ourselves up as judge. In the gospel of Unconditional Love (the meaning of the blood of the Lamb in Revelation) redemption is coming out from behind the walls of perfection
(the proverbial closet), the closet we hide in to protect ourselves from the cruel judgements of the holier than thou hypocrites. Being saved is becoming the person we were born to be, the beautiful child ‘made by God’ in our mother’s womb.
A third perspective that Queer Christianity offers for interpreting the Apocalypse is the contemporary context of the LGBTQI+ community itself. The context of Revelation was that of ordinary people living under the fascist threat of Empire with the death penalty for political deviants such as Christians that worshipped a Cosmic Christ. Fear of being found out for early Christians, just as it is for queers, are the consequences of finding themselves outed in a hostile family, church, state or country. The temptation for queers is to hide in a loveless marriage, live with fading memories of blissful love that can never be fulfilled, the threat of loss of their jobs if ‘found out’, and all too commonly brutal violence from homophobic attackers.
At the time of writing ‘Revelation’, the minimal social protest the Church expected of Christians was to boycott meat offered to idols. An equivalent in our time would be the requirement to become a vegetarian in protest at the idolatry of the culture of consumerism in which we live and the global corporations driving degradation of the environment by industrial farming.
The second minimal protest in the first century was to keep away from sexual immorality, in other words loveless sex on the streets and predatory prostitution. In our time protest is similar but for Queer Christians must also include a protest at the oppression of straight Christianity that closes its ears to the truths of contemporary biological science; that sets itself against gendered diversity with little understanding of actual human sexuality and
that hides itself behind a thoroughly unchristian legalism.
The Queer Community will not back down because it knows the truth of ‘Thy will be done on Earth as in Heaven’. The Law of Love and a world fed by ‘the waters of spirit’ [described in Revelation as the waters of the original Garden of Eden, a stream that originates at the Throne of God, ‘that is for the healing of the Nations’], is not something to be passively waited for, though the day of its final apocalypse may be a thousand years from now.
In sum, the book of Revelation is both about the New Jerusalem being ‘brought down from heaven’ and a wake up call to live lives of radical love now even if it costs all we have. We are called to be martyrs, not of the jihadist kind, but in the sense of its original Greek in the time of Domitian, the witness that walks the talk of ‘Divine Love’ regardless of cost.
It is not talking that will change the world but living lives of love that will bring it to its Queer