One respect in which Revelations is like the Hebrew Scriptures is its prophetic aspect–not the intention of predicting a specific future, but the insistence that God intervenes in history in a meaningful way–and that the sufferings of nations are not simply cruel accidents of a badly-run world, but consequences of who they are and how they behave.
We could talk about the “wrath” of God in this context, how the prophets said that horrible things happened because God was angry, and we don’t think so anymore. But horrible things did happen, have happened ever since, and continue to happen.
Is that because we don’t make gay folks suffer enough? Not likely. The major thing that was said to anger God, the trigger for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, was human suffering. Because of the “outcry” against those cities–which does not mean a moralistic “tsk tsk,” but the screams of a person in torment–they were destroyed.
Egypt was hit with plague after plague, while God went on hardening Pharoah’s heart, (strengthening his determination to maintain his power over those pesky Hebrews)–and this certainly made for some interesting talk at Torah study, the one year I took part. My thought was, this was what it took to persuade the Hebrews to leave the sufferings they knew for a more hopeful path.
In Revelation, we’re going to come, soon enough, to disaster after disaster rained down upon the Earth and its inhabitants. Because God is an abusive Father? No, I think we’ll have to consider all this as descriptive, not as a glorification of punishment for its own sake. We suffer–others more than us–and it isn’t meaningless, nor a divine response to God’s outraged honor (although the author of Revelations may well have seen it in that light) but a consequence of our alienated condition.
In much of the Bible there’s this totally unfair notion of collective responsibility. You get axed because there’s something wrong with your community. Maybe one could be righteous as an individual, but it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t done. Historically, our culture doesn’t see things that way.
Wrestling with homelessness among us–that subject came up again last night; it’s still disquieting how I’ve managed to be reconciled to its existence. Because I needed to be. We have an intolerable condition which persists because our whole way of life produces it and works to perpetuate it. No one of us would tolerate it for a moment, if we saw it for what it is, and if our individual power could make an end of it. The war (whichever one it is at the moment)? I still intend to be downtown on the corner with a peace sign and some other local Quakers in an hour or two. But we aren’t going to end it. Nor global warning, though it threatens our children and their children. These things are not in our power. They are symptomatic.
More and more of what threatens us is visibly like that. We need to cut loose of “Babylon”, lest we be charged with her sins–and yet that “Babylon” includes everyone we know and love, even ourselves.
It isn’t so much that there’s an “answer” to this in the back of the book. We need to learn how to work this sort of problem, how to live in this context. That may be what Revelations reveals, the actual spiritual situation we live in and need to address.