There is a text from the biblical book of Revelation that keeps coming to my mind during these hard days, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Unfortunately, it is not a good, heartwarming passage that offers easy answers. It does, however, seem to me to speak honestly and frankly to the present moment. This text comes in a series of visions which describe not the end of the world, but rather represent an unveiling (or “revealing”—where the name of the book comes from) of how the world really is:
When [the angel] opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Revelation 6:9–10)
In its original context, Revelation’s author, John, points to those Christians who have died in the late first century as a result of Roman imperial violence on account of their faith. Indeed, they have been “slaughtered”—which is also John’s language to describe Jesus’ unjust death at the hands of Roman authorities (e.g., Rev 5:6). These “martyrs” (the Greek word for “testimony” in v. 9 is marturian, from which we get our English word “martyr”) cry out to God for justice and vengeance, wondering how long it will be until God intervenes and sets the world right. It is a heartbreaking text, one that bears the marks of unbearable suffering, oppression, and grief.
The response that follows, though hinting at trials to come, offers reason to hope. “Your death will not be in vain,” the angel says, in essence. The suffering and injustice you have borne in your body at the hands of those who would maintain the status quo breaks God’s heart. But God will soon intervene.
On some days it feels to me as though only divine intervention can change the course of the racial injustices that continue to roil America. The task can seem overwhelming at times, for Black Americans and white allies alike. One might be forgiven for wondering, “Will anything really change this time?”
But the author of Revelation is not content for us readers to be passive in the process. Rather, the book invites its audience to participate in the unfolding work of God’s purposes in the world. I was reminded of this while reading a column this past week by Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, president of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. He, too, invoked the book of Revelation, in insisting on the need for bold witness that leads to systemic change.
But they have conquered [evil] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. (Revelation 12:11)
The author of Revelation beckons us all to become witnesses, to lift our voices, and to give testimony to God’s desire for reconciliation and acceptance for all people. Revelation reveals that there are demonic forces that exist in the guise of systemic evil in the world. And while we white folk participate (even unknowingly) in oppressive systems of power, Revelation pleads for us to “come out,” to leave behind our comfortable accommodation to the status quo, and to find ways to engage in active non-violent resistance. Moreover, the author invites us to align ourselves with the lamb (Jesus) and stand in solidarity with all those who who have been slaughtered as a result of oppressive systems of domination.
Our combined testimony—our witness—will conquer.
There is an alternative truth to the one proclaimed by imperial Rome and imperial America, a truth that declares that all are beloved by God—Black bodies and white bodies and all other bodies alike. All of us bear the imago dei in equal measure. And yes, by the way, we are our brother’s keeper.
White churches and white Christians: what can we do? It is a question I have been reflecting on at length these last few days. And I offer these suggestions with great humility as I continue to learn and wrestle with these thoughts:
First, listen. Listen to the voices of the martyrs. Read their stories. Remember their names.
George Floyd.
Breonna Taylor.
Ahmaud Arbery.
Atatiana Jefferson.
Eric Garner.
And. So. Many. Others.
Second, listen to the voices of Black leaders who labor daily to usher in God’s vision for a just and fair world. Listen to the ways in which they are leading the struggle for justice. Find podcasts, social media posts, and blogs that share the wisdom and lived experiences they have to offer. Show up to protests in person and listen. Listen.
Third, educate and equip yourself to be an effective ally in the struggle, both in word and in deed. There are plenty of resources out there for us—books, podcasts, websites. We must be active in our effort. We can do this work. Google is your ally in this regard.
Finally, lend your voice to witness to this vision of a new world. Find ways to become an ally, both in word and in deed. This can happen in our families, our churches, schools, workplaces, and communities. Call out racism. Amplify Black voices and Black concerns. We must leverage our privilege to build a more just world.
The book of Revelation ends with a vision of hope: it imagines a renewed creation and re-ordered world in which there is no longer any place for evil, suffering, or oppression. It is a world that reflects creation as God originally intended. And it challenges all of us to strive toward this new reality.