“…we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing‐oriented” society to a “person‐oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered…True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam” (April 1967)
This is a sermon I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro on 2020-01-19.
Today, I want to talk to you about two things that may at first seem unrelated – Martin Luther King and the Mark of the Beast from the book of Revelation.
I know the concept of the Mark of the Beast has been greatly misused, misinterpreted, and misaligned by Christians over the years, but before you crawl out of your skin or run out give me a few seconds to try and show you why it has been misinterpret it so badly.
As you’ve already heard this morning, I’ve been researching and writing on the book of Revelation for sometime and have just published a book on the subject called, “Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation.”
My argument is that we need to reject the “evacuation theology,” (ht Rob Bell) version of Revelation. You know the one where people in the church says, “Who cares, it’s all going to burn anyway, and we – the people who are on the right side of this theology – are going to escape.”
Revelation interpreted this way is a text used to predict not only some future trauma, violence, and scapegoating of those the elect deem wicked.
If you follow the path of an “evacuation theology” interpretation then you can displace the Mark of the Beast into some future person or technology, a chip, a credit card, a country’s leader (usually some other country’s leader), etc. All we need to do is identify whoever has the mark and then we’ll know they’re a bad guy or are doing bad things. But this makes it way to easy to dismiss what it is actually saying.
I see Revelation being about how a marginalized group of faithful people were being guided to resist the Roman Empire at the end of the first century. It had nothing to do with evacuation theology and everything to do with resisting, surviving, and not assimilating into empire. Here you the early church made up predominately of Jewish and Gentile Christians living under Roman occupation. As Jews, as Christians, as the poor, they were themselves the marginalized. And Revelation tells them that God is with them, God is on their side, and that their work was to resist empire and follow God no matter the cost.
This is a very different reading of Revelation that what we’re used to isn’t it?
If we look back at it then, the Mark of the Beast is not about a little birthmark or an implanted chip, it is a critique of an entire economic system that is set to exploit the many for the benefit of a few. Revelation is unveiling and critiquing the economics of empire, arguing that it is out of alignment with what God intends for the world. In fact, Revelation 13 mostly uses the language of “image of the beast,” rather than “mark” to say that these kinds of imperial systems try to make people into its own image. To be make in the image of the beast is something extremely different than to be made in the image of God.
As it says in Chapter 13:
15 those who would not worship the image of the beast [would] be slain. 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark…
Rev. 13 is an ancient critique of an economic system that is based on exploitation, one that is far-reaching and impacts everyone, and one that is opposed to how God intended the world to work.
Unless you go along with the “beastly economics of empire” you will not have the right to buy and sell, and are liable to be killed.
Beastly Economics in our Day and Age
Let’s turn now to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If you’ll go back with me to March 18, 1968. On that day, King visited Marks, Mississippi. There he witnessed devastating poverty. Marks was at that time located in the poorest county in the country and what King witnessed there moved him to tears. While touring Marks, he witnessed school children who had nothing more than one slice of an apple and a couple crackers to eat all day and other children without basic needs like shoes. It is well-chronicled that King wept as he walked through the streets of Marks.
You know it is beastly economics when Children living in the richest country in the world go without basic necessities.
A couple days later he announced what he called the Poor People’s Campaign saying:
“We’re coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. I was in Marks, Miss., the other day, which is in Quitman County, the poorest county in the United States. And I tell you I saw hundreds of black boys and black girls walking the streets with no shoes to wear.”– How A Mule Train From Marks, Miss., Kicked Off MLK’s Poor People Campaign
The Poor People’s Campaign was to be a fusion of the poor in this country across race lines; people caravanning across the country to setup camp on the Mall in DC and create a city they called “Resurrection City.” There they would form a committee of 100 people to lobby for an economic Bill of Rights with five planks, including:
- “A meaningful job at a living wage”
- “A secure and adequate income” for all those unable to find or do a job
- “Access to land” for economic uses
- “Access to capital” for poor people and minorities to promote their own businesses
- Ability for ordinary people to “play a truly significant role” in the government
King knew that beastly economics needed to be challenged, resisted, and corrected. He understood that underlying the creation America’s economic system was slave labor that has persisted and disadvantaged those without previous access to wealth and power (Via Wikipedia).
Signified in that visit to Marks, Mississippi, King realized that Civil Rights could not be fully secured until they were able to take on a Human Rights lens.
In one place he said:
“What good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger.”
And In another he remarked:
“We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.”
King understood something very deep about our own country: we can pay lip-service to “rights” for some while blocking equality in other spheres of our society.
In other words, one of the ways our underlying philosophy and commitment to beastly economics as a country shows up in who and how we prioritize our spending.
In his sermon at Riverside Church, “Beyond Vietnam” he critiques war just not on grounds of non-violence, he critiques war based on the underlying racism and economics that fund wars.
“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
It was this turn towards a critique of beastly economics, and the threat of uplifting the voices of the poor that ultimately got King assassinated.
To resist empire out of faithfulness to something bigger, something more generous and loving, something more universal will always be dangerous.
My Friend, and bible scholar from the Kairos Center at Union Theological Center, Colleen Wessell-McCoy once pointed out that there are many ways to think about poverty (see an interview I did with Colleen on this subject here):
Poverty comes by way of an accident (it is no one’s fault, the system is basically fair); it comes through bad behaviors and bad choices (remember those unjustly labelled “welfare queens”); it is destiny, spiritual, even to be desired (Why take away someone’s destiny?).
But Rev. Dr. King, a pastor in the black church stood in the biblical prophetic tradition alongside the book of Revelation, understanding that there is another way to understand the origins of poverty and that is that poverty is systemic.
Poverty is the result not of a broken system, but of a system that is working. Poverty is the result of beastly economics (see Taking the Widow’s Mite: Economics from A Christian Perspective).
Building the Multitude
King knew that one had to resist this reality of beastly economics as though it were the only one possible, and instead bring people together across racial and class lines, empowering the poor to bring about the changes necessary.
King stood in a long line of actors and agents challenging “the religion of empire” and worked towards building what he called the beloved community and what Revelation calls “The Multitude,” one rooted in a vision of abundance for all people and all creation.
For our part today – what does it mean to be of this multitude, to be a people of love, goodness, goodwill and faith, willing to follow God in the face of empire no matter the cost?
King, in the Poor People’s campaign, reignited this prophetic thread and that work is not done yet.
How might we honor King’s challenge to us to have a revolution of values that touches all aspects of our lives?
How might we honor King, in this long thread of prophetic witness against systems that creates economic conditions that are so harmful to human flourishing, and instead work to build the multitude.