Confronting Beastly Economics – An Anti-Imperial Look at Revelation 13

Artwork by Ebony Watkins as a part of the We Cry Justice Cultural Art Project

I have a chapter called “Beastly Economics” in the book, We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible With the Poor People’s Campaign. In the chapter, I discuss the concept of the “Mark of the Beast” not as some mark on a person or group in the future, but as a way of describing systems of economic oppression.

Even better, Ebony Watkins told me she was moved by the chapter so much so that she made a powerful artistic rendition of it as a part of the We Cry Justice Cultural Arts Project (above).

I wanted an opportunity to share Ebony’s artwork with you (shared with permission) because I think you’ll find it inspiring too. And if you want to hear about her process and some of the meanings behind what is in the piece you can listen to the Freedom Church Service here where she shared.

Below you will find the remarks I made about Revelation 13 as a precursor to what Ebony shared about her artwork.

Excerpt from “Beastly Economics” in We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign.

The mark of the beast is not a symbol found on the forehead of an evil person that we can identify and ostracize. It’s much worse than that. To the first readers of Revelation, it is both a symbol and an ongoing pattern of an evil and oppressive system that consumes all. The mark of the beast is how Revelation describes the oppressive economic system of the Roman Empire, not a mark that identifies unbelievers…The economic system of empire is not just something you participate in; like a devotee of a religion, you have to believe in it. Any questioning any challenging of the prevailing economic system – and you are seen as a heretic, or worse (“all who refused to worship the image,” Revelation 13:15 says, might be killed).

“Beastly Economics” in We Cry Justice (p. 159-160)

“Beastly economics ” is the name we are using to describe what John the prophet and pastor uses to describe the economics of empire in Revelation 13.

Beastly Economics is an economic system that is rooted in the “image of the beast,” and based on the religion of empire which John describes as being both material and spiritual in nature. For John’s part, the economics of empire, where a tiny few get all of the wealth and power, while the rest fight for scraps under the table, is not a spiritual sickness, as though it could be made well: it is a fundamentally different spirituality from the one rooted in the “image of God.”

John’s apocalypse unmasks a pattern in human society, revealing the beastly nature of systems of economic inequality. This is not an economics that generally works well for everyone, but then some misfortunates happen and people go through a difficult time; no, beastly economics is an economics predicated on the necessity of inequality: some get all, the rest get the scraps. As we often say in the Freedom Church of the Poor:

Poverty isn’t a sign of a broken economic system, it is a sign that the system is working as it intended.

Let me be clear, this isn’t the latest in radical marxist thought, this is a prophetic word and spiritual insight rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition going all the way back to this imprisoned pastor writing a letter we call Revelation in the first century!

This is why it is so important to me that we understand the book of Revelation in its ancient context. Rather than thinking that John was pretending to write to his seven congregations living with the daily threat of poverty and imperial occupation, but in reality, he actually had us 21st century people in mind, we recognize that his one and only concern are the people in his congregations. Not only is it ludicrous to think the text is really about us, it conveniently undermines the real power of this text.

Following this Revelation-as-Prediction, the phrase the mark of the beast has been turned inside out and used for “paranoid fantasies” of Preachers and Politicians alike; all using the Mark of the Beast as a symbol for a wicked person as the anit-Christ or non-believers. As though Revelation is some gotcha text for whoever those in the church don’t like next.

I literally just read a tweet from a pastor today that said:

Wake up! Do you realize that we are smack dab in the middle of the Book of Revelation? If you think you’re following Jesus, I got news for you, you are going to get caught on the wrong side!

Instead, when we read Revelation, not as a book trying to predict the end of the world, but as a pastoral and prophetic letter to poor and marginalized communities trying to resist the Roman empire, we see that this isn’t some code word for staying away from bad people or getting “caught on the wrong side,” it is a damning critique of an oppressive economic system that bears the mark of Casaer Augustus’s face on the coinage it uses to create wealth for some and debt and slavery for others.

This symbol or “mark” (Greek: charagma) of Caesar as the “son of god” according to the Roman imperial myth, also refers to mark of the empire forcibly burned into the prisoners of war, slaves, and religious devotees of the religion of empire. This mark, John tells us, seeks to re-make, or “re-mark” if you will, all us from the outside in made in the “image of the beast.” In other words, an economics that deforms and degrades the body and the soul, slandering the good creation of God, creating a scarcity rooted in the exploitation of the human and more-than-human world.

Perhaps Revelation is about us if you happen to look around at the poverty in America and around the world and you want to talk about “beastly economics” and empire being on the wrong side of God. Those pre-existing patterns that continue to oppress and form us have a long history in human society.

I know saying this will upset some folks. I’m reminded of a qoute from King I came across the other day when I was reading Colleen Wesell-McCoy’s new book “Freedom Church of the Poor,” when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

“We must not consider it unpatriotic to raise basic questions about our national character…For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born. Our economy must become more person-centered than property-centered and profit-centered. Our nation must depend more on its moral power than on its military power.” (p. xiii)

Recently, I came up against something similar during an interview about this chapter on Beastly Economics from our book We Cry Justice. After sharing similar thoughts the interviewer said, wasn’t I worried that I was being too harsh on capitalism. He pointed out that some people might be offended by what we are saying throughout We Cry Justice? Like King noted, some might think we’re being unpatriotic by questioning the evils of racism, poverty, militarism, climate devaation, and religious extremism.

What do you think? Are we being to harsh on capitalism? Are we being too hard on exploitative economic systems that create and maintain poverty?

No, I do think we’re being too hard on capitalism. Capitalism is being to hard on us. I have no sympathy for a system that some humans created and use to their own benefit at the expense of people’s lives.

I do not think we are being to hard on what Revelation sees as a “system of death.”

I don’t think we’re being too hard when we call the system of beastly economics to account for its sins.

When we ask why should Jeff Bezos be able to fly to the moon whenever he wants, when the people who work for him can’t even go pee when they want. When they can’t have a union if they want. When they have to work to the point that their their physical and mental well-being suffers.

Are we being too hard on a system that allows for a beach home, and a mountain home, and an RV, an a boat, and a beautifully renovated weekly home, while neighbors sleep on benches when they’re not chased off by Police? Under bridges and in cars until society can find ways to take even that away.

Here in Greensboro there is the Hiatt Trailer Park that houses mostly poor immigrant families. Many of these families have been living there for 20 years and the trailer park has been there for 50 years. Now the owner has passed away and the granddaughter, Lynn Anderson, who owns a real estate company inherited that land too. Seeing an opportunity for another sale, she sold the land to a developer who has set the date of eviction for all the residents so it can begin building new properties. When asked by the residents if she would sell the land to them, Anderson has repeatedly refused to consider it.

Anderson recently told the Triad City Beat why she won’t work with the residents of Hiatt Park.

“These people have protested on our land,” Anderson said. “Why should I work with them? You don’t treat people like that and expect to work together…. They have moved on from me helping them, so no. At this point I have done everything that I can possibly do to help these people and they’re not interested in my help.” -Lynn Anderson

I guess these people who have very little, who are about to lose their homes after more than 20 years, are just being too harsh. Who knew capitalism was so fragile?

Can we be too hard on a system that allows for mass death of the poor and marginalized while others sit in grotesque luxury? That easily paves over the homes of the poor in name of profit. They continue to pass laws to outlaw to terrorize the houseless, while refusing to offer alternatives.

Beastly economics then names not just an unjust, oppressive economic system, but a distorted theology and spirituality that refuses to see that of God in all people. This is why beastly economics will leave its mark on:

Rev. 13:16 “…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…”

As Freedom Church, we must refuse to allow ourselves and others to be made in the image of the beast, continue to lift up the dignity and leadership of the poor, and relentlessly name beastly economics wherever we see it. We do this through these meetings, through teaching, preaching, writing, mobilizing, singing, and through the arts. That’s why I’m so excited to hear more about the We Cry Justice Art project and what Ebony Watkins has done here.

See Related: Beastly Economics & King’s Vision for the Poor People’s Campaign