Two posts back we explored whether Jesus’ teachings of non-violence should be taken seriously during violent times. After that post I had a few people bring up the image of the sword-wielding, white-horse-riding Jesus that we see in Revelation 19. Just the other night I saw someone share a blog about how irresponsible it would be for a Christian to not carry a gun and defend those they love by means of firearms. One of the curiously few New Testament texts that they used to defend their view was, as you might guess, Revelation 19. What the author of that blog didn’t do, however, was engage the text in any meaningful way. There are several details that we can, and often do overlook in the text that can lead us down a very disastrous path in our interpretation. We’ll get to those details in the next post. But if it’s important to look at the details of a particular set of verses, it is also important to read the whole book. The violent readings of Revelation 19 tend to do neither. Particularly important to the interpretation of the book of Revelation are chapters 4 and 5. We briefly dealt with those chapters in the previous post and I would recommend reading that before jumping into this one if you are interested in, or are struggling with, the questions of violence raised in the book of Revelation.I’ve really wrestling with this post as there are two different directions that I want to take. Rather than trying to make them all fit together (which could end up being a lengthy endeavor), I’ve decided to divide the post into two. In this post we will look at an influential scholar who argues a non-violent reading of Revelation 19 with a focus on the context of the severe judgment described. In the next post we will delve more into some of the nuances of the text itself and will reference some different scholars. While the two approaches are different, and even slightly at odds, they are both immensely important to help us with a proper reading.

One of the accusations leveled at those of us who have a non-violent reading of the New Testament is that it doesn’t work in the “real world.” Further, it is said that it is easy for us living in the comfortable west to muse about such ideals while brutal violence is taking place in other parts of the world. However, not all scholars who struggle with the apparent violent images in Revelation, or the non-violent teachings of Jesus for that matter, do so from an ivory tower. A Croatian scholar named Miroslav Volf, for example, begins his massively important book “Exclusion and Embrace” with the following words:

“After I finished my lecture Professor Jürgen Moltmann stood up and asked one of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating: ‘But can you embrace četnik?’ It was the winter of 1993. For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called  ‘četnik’ had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities. I had just argued that we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ. Can I embrace a četnik…I immediately knew what I wanted to say. ‘No, I cannot–but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.’ In a sense this book is the product of the struggle between the truth of my argument and the force of Moltmann’s objection.”

Far from simply arguing ideas, Volf is struggling with what it means to be a Christian in an immensely violent world. What does it mean to love your enemy when your enemy is not simply a person with whom you’ve had a squabble at church, but one who has killed your loved ones and desecrated your land? In the final pages of his book he deals with Revelation 19. For Volf, the white horse passage is not the exception clause that allows Jesus followers to commit violence, rather, it is the key to what makes non-retaliation possible. How could this be? It is because the passage is about judgement. Not just any judgment, of course, but final judgement. For people like Volf, non-retaliation is ultimately an issue of faith, not to mention obedience. Can we trust that God will ultimately judge the world’s evil and put things to rights, or will he simply ignore the worlds oppressors (and oppressed)? If it were true that there is no final judgement, or if God is not in the picture at all and the world simply works by the “survival of the fittest,” than it makes sense to pick up our weapons and and rid the world of evil by force (though, for the record, that approach has never worked). But if there is a God who will finally and ultimately judge the world’s evil, then we must leave judgement in God’s hands. “There is a duty prior to the duty of imitating God,” writes Volf, “and that is the duty of not wanting to be God, of letting God be God and humans be humans.” Divine Judgement is not our business, it’s God’s. Isn’t this the Apostle Paul’s point in Romans 12?

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. (20) On the contrary:

‘If you enemy is hungry, feed him;

if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’

(21) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

-Romans 12:17-24

As followers of Jesus, our duty is to feed and give drink to our hungry and thirsty enemy. It is our duty to overcome evil with good. It is not, however, our duty to take up ‘the sword’ against our enemy. Paul reminds us that God said “It is mine to avenge.” This is the difficult “duty of not wanting to be God.” We’ve been wanting to play God, sorting out good and evil, ever since the garden, but doing so places us further from God, not closer to Him. It’s important that we stand firmly against the words of people who claim to be followers of Jesus but urge us to judge things that are only God’s to judge. Recently Jerry Falwell, Jr. made the controversial remark that if students had weapons on them during an attack they could “end those Muslims before they walked in.” He tried to justify his words by stating that he was referring to terrorists. Such a ‘justification’ misses the point all together. Regardless of who he was referring to, the truth remains–we don’t get to play God. Similarly, Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson made this remark about Isis, “you either have to convert them, which I think would be next to impossible. I’m not giving up on them, but I’m saying convert them or kill them. One or the other.” But this is direct affront to the words of Jesus and the previously mentioned teaching of Paul. (As an aside, I do wonder if Paul – the terrorizer of the church – would have survived either of these men long enough to be a convert). Such comments are unfaithful to the Way that Jesus is. It is not ours to judge, for we are the kind of people who leave room for ‘God’s wrath.’ We, particularly in the West, are uncomfortable with the idea of God’s wrath, but Volf writes that,

“God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God’s terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah.”

Jesus is making things right, and one day, things will be right. Isaiah foresaw this day when he wrote that on that day people will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Is. 2:4). In that day violence will not belong, and if people insist on their violence and resist the “powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah,” they will not belong. They will be judged. The point is the same, by the way, when Paul writes about the fruit of the Spirit and the works of the flesh (Galatians 5). These are not random list of ‘do’s and don’ts’. No, Paul says that those who live according to the works of the flesh “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 21). Such a way of living, Paul says, doesn’t fit in God’s future. If we insist on acting in such ways, we won’t belong either. But the further implication is that we are to live Spirit fruitful kingdom lives, the way of God’s future, now. The fruit of the Spirit is not something that we should aim for when all is set right, it is the way that we should seek to live now. This is the christian’s vocation, to demonstrate to the world what God’s future is like. We are to live as a community who represents an alternative reality, the true future reality of the world, in the present moment. We must not seek to solve the worlds problems by the worlds means, but follow the crucified Lamb in His way. We have been told to take up our crosses and put down our swords. By so doing, we demonstrate to the world through our cross-shaped lives what looks like to “study war no more.”