Opened to the call of God: Reading Revelation 6.9-11 with Walter Wink and John Howard Yoder

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May 10, 2013 by jmar198013

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar those who had been slaughtered on account of the word of God and the witness they had given. They cried out with a loud voice, “Holy and true Master, how long will you wait before you pass judgment? How long before you require justice for our blood, which was shed by those who live on earth?” Each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to rest a little longer, until their fellow servants and brothers and sisters—who were about to be killed as they were—were finished. (Rev. 6.9-11 CEB)

Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying that the nonviolence of Christians may very well make the world more violent. In fewer places is this more apparent than the sixth chapter of Revelation.  John the Seer is given a glimpse into the heavenly realm, where God’s altar is surrounded by those whose blood has been shed for their witness. That they have been “slaughtered” connects their witness to that of Christ, imaged in the previous chapter as the lamb slaughtered yet victorious (Rev. 5.11-12). In one of the most chilling passages in the New Testament, the Seer records that: Each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to rest a little longer, until their fellow servants and brothers and sisters—who were about to be killed as they were—were finishedThe slaughter is to continue. This should not surprise the careful reader of Scripture, for Christ’s invitation to his disciples is: All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me (Mark 8.34 CEB). The cross is not merely a trope for self-denial; for the followers of Jesus in Caesar’s empire, it was a tangible possibility. Crucifixion was the cost of insurrection, and disciples of Jesus are those who have given themselves to the heavenly insurrection named the Kingdom of God. On the one-year anniversary of his death, I’d like to remind us all of some salient words from Walter Wink about why we Christians are called to wage peace even if it kills us.

The cross means that death is not the greatest evil one can suffer. It means that I am free to act faithfully without undue regard for the outcome. God can bring out of voluntarily assumed suffering the precious seeds of a new reality. I cannot really be open to the call of God in a situation of oppression if the one thing I have excluded as an option is my own suffering and death … The cross also means not necessarily winning. The Principalities and Powers are so colossal, entrenched, and determined that the odds for their overthrow or repentance are miniscule, whatever means we use. It is precisely because the outcome is in question, however, that we need to choose a way of living that already is a living of the outcome we desire. The Reign of God is already in the process of arriving when we choose means consistent with its arrival … There are times and places when suffering and even death become inescapable … Jesus’ … Way was certainly no way to avoid persecution and death. On the contrary, Jesus’ way deliberately evokes the violence of an oppressive system, using its momentum to throw it. As Charles Williams once remarked, if the energy of evil is to be deflected or transformed, something or someone must suffer its impact. (Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003], 88-90).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his disciples not to repay evil for evil. Rather, if they are struck on the right cheek, they are to offer the left; if one garment is required of them, they must give the other as well; and if they are forced to carry another man’s burden for a mile, they should carry it for two (Matt. 5.39-41). These modes of deflecting and hopefully transforming the violence of this world by absorbing it prefigure the way God deals with the violence of the world through Christ’s cross. For Jesus was struck, stripped naked, and compelled to carry a burden of shame and exclusion that was not his. Following Christ means confronting the violence of the world in a manner that models Jesus. This may very well mean that we, like him, will be slaughtered. But it is only by so living–by, as Wink put it so well, choosing “a way of living that already is a living of the outcome we desire”–that we faithfully witness to the Word of God embodied in Christ. This is also why the church has been gifted with the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, and with John the Seer’s vision of Christ as a slaughtered-yet-victorious lamb. The promise of our being raised with Christ if we share in his sufferings (Col. 3.2-4; 2 Tim. 2.11-12; 1 Pet. 4.12-14) was given first to those who witness to him involved the probability of suffering and death. We live and die as we do because God has ordered the cosmos by Cross and Resurrection. This brings me back to my favorite words John Howard Yoder ever wrote:

The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience. The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and the other kinds of power in every human conflict; the triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.

Being a disciple means being invited by Jesus to wage peace even if it kills you. To so live is to acknowledge that God has already made peace through the cross of Christ (2 Cor. 5.19; Col. 1.19-20). Death is not the worst evil that can befall those who are assured that God has already declared peace–not when that death is a witness to the peace God has proclaimed. Not when the life given is one that has been lived practicing for resurrection.

Walter Wink wrote: “I cannot really be open to the call of God in a situation of oppression if the one thing I have excluded as an option is my own suffering and death.” I want to end by amen-ing and amending that claim. We cannot be open to the call of God period if the one thing we exclude as an option is our own suffering and death.

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