Hope in a time of Empire: The Lynching of Ahmaud Arbery & the Vision of Jesus in Revelation 1

This is a message I prepared for First Friends Meeting where my family and I attend.

Rev. 1:12   Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.

Rev. 1:17   When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this.

Revelation Chapter 1

This week has been a tough one for our country.

Besides the ongoing struggle of millions of parents all over the country trapped at home with their children, states are fighting over how and when to reopen. Some people are protesting their state governments, many armed to the teeth, dressed out in camo and face masks, demanding that their liberties are being infringed upon.

Meanwhile, we’ve reached over 1 million Cases and 73,428 Deaths in the US and 263,685 deaths globally due to the virus.

Add to this that fact that this week saw another 3.2 million people filing for unemployment putting the total at 33.5 million Americans (16% unemployment). Many of these individuals have very little hope of returning to full-time work any time soon.

And if that isn’t bad enough, there was another leaked of another black man, this time 26 year old Ahmaud Arbery, killed by two white men – a father and son – in Georgia while out on a jog.

Arbery’s death is yet another modern-day lynching where an African-American is gunned down in broad daylight by white people with no recourse and no consequences.

NY Times author Charles M. Blow put it like this:

These men stalked Arbery, projecting onto him a criminality of which he was not guilty, then used self-defense as justification to gun him down in an altercation that they provoked. Arbery was killed eight years to the month after Martin was killed, just about three hours north.

This “anti-black vigilantism” (Charles Blow) is a recurring cycle that has claimed the lives of so many in recent years, including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland, and so many more.

Why am I telling you all of this?

I want to tell you what is. I want to remind you that in the midst of whatever you may be facing in this moment, these are very real, very challenging and traumatic things happening around us.

This is what it looks like to live within an empire in the midst of a crisis.

And I don’t know about you but when I look at what is, considering all the ways people have been impacted because of the Coronavirus and I begin to look forward into the future, I struggle to find hope.

  • I do not feel hope that the poor will be taken care of.
  • I do not feel hope that African Americans lives will begin to matter in ways that will change our society.
  • I do not feel hope that our leadership has our best interests in mind, are willing to make their own sacrifices, or have the moral imaginations needed to do what is right even if it costs them.

This is the context that we read Revelation 1.

Many of you know I have a thing for revolution, not as a book predicting the end of the world as it has often been co-opted to justify, but rather – as one friend put it – kind of 1st-century “Rules for Radicals.”

You want to be a radical Jesus person, here is how to do it.

In Revelation 1, John tells us that he knows what it is like to live in the midst of an empire

I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

John then describes this vision he has of Jesus.

It is this wild image of man whose hair wooly white, his eyes are on fire, he has a sword coming out of his mouth, and his voice sounds like the sound of rushing water.

As you hear this description, I wonder what do you feel in your body? I wonder what you see in your mind’s eye?

John is a pastor writing writing from prison to his congregations of Christians, people from the land of Palestine, living under the Roman occupation, and seen as a threat to Caesar because they would not go along with the religion of empire.

  • They knew exactly what it was like to live under imperial empire.
  • They knew what it was like to have their lives discounted, rejected, and threatened.
  • These were the individuals who were burned at the stake, fed to lions, scapegoated for the emperor’s problems, the majority poor and powerless. That is, at least when they are not an organized social movement.

John is their ancient Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, organizing these poor communities to see and understand what empire really is and to resist it with all their might.

What does pastor John say to his churches in the midst of all of this?

He says,  “Here is Jesus.”

The same Jesus who was a poor man, who worked among the poor, and built a movement of poor and marginalized people, and who was killed for it. He stands before us today and is going to lead us through this.

This is the same Jesus who challenged the bogus religion and politics of his time, and offered instead a look at what it could be like to live the Reign of God on earth.

Here is that same Jesus who himself was lynched by the Roman imperial state.

It is this Jesus who lost. Who was crushed. And who rose victorious on Easter Sunday. He is the one who holds the keys to death and Hades. He is the one who has proven that death is not the end and that death has no real power over those whose hearts and minds are set on things above.

Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last.

You want to know the very first rule of surviving an empire in crisis – Follow this Jesus rather than empire no matter what it costs.

This image of Jesus is meant to be an image of hope when all hope is lost.

Criminality was projected upon the innocent Ahmaud Arbery and he was slain for it.

Criminality was also projected upon Jesus was himself slain revealing to us that the victims of empire are innocent.

The empire will stop at nothing to crush the innocents ones, scapegoating them, building suspicion around them, in order to distract us and sustain its own sense of power and identity.

Remembering the innocence of Arbery and Jesus and the way empire plays games with human lives, and not giving in to playing by their rules, that is part of what it means to have hope.

In Cornell West’s book, “Hope on a Tightrope” acknowledges the shape of this kind of hope when he says:

“Yet hope is no guarantee. Real hope is grounded in a particularly messy struggle, and it can be betrayed by naïve projections of a better future that ignore the necessity of doing the real work. So what we are talking about is hope on a tightrope.

Cornel West

Real hope is grounded in a particularly messy struggle. The necessity of doing the real work.

This triumphant image of Jesus is not that of some superhero who bullets fell off of him and he beats the bad guy.

This is the Jesus who received the blows and who was wounded by real weapons of the state.

And he died from those wounds.

That is the one who reveals that the victims of empire are innocent.

That is the one we are given by John the Revelator as our hope. The one who returns to us bearing the weight of the entire tradition with him. This is the meaning of the bricolage of images and symbols, each from different passages in the Hebrew Bible like the book of Daniel, Zechariah, Ps, Ezekiel and Isaiah.

It’s someone said to Jesus, “you and whose army,” and he shows up with all the old prophets (who have been criticizing an undermining empire for generations). A pretty sweet flex if you ask me.

This tapestry woven together in the image of Jesus is a composite of all of the teachings of the biblical account of people sustaining and resisting empire even when it seemed like all hope was lost. Jesus here is embodying the cloud of witnesses of the human story.

This “I am” statement of Jesus in Revelation the whole prophetic tradition comes to bear weight on this moment, this moment of survival, this moment of resistance, this moment of hope.

You can have hope because you are a part of a much bigger story and struggle because it is one that the lamb who was slain has been leading throughout human history. We can live into the reign of God even in the mist of messy struggle, not because we want to, and not because it is easy, but because everything in our bones, and everything in our hearts and in our minds, and our entire faith rests upon the one who calls out to us to not be afraid.

Friends let’s let this shape our hearts and imaginations in the coming days, and allow us to hold on to hope that we can create something better for everyone out of the ashes of our own struggle.