There’s no doubt that we see, and interpret, the reality around us differently according to what is uppermost in our own experience at the time. I well remember the effect that conducting the funeral of a stillborn child had on me shortly after our own first child was born.
Now engaged in the study of Revelation, it was through this lens that I saw the tragic killing of nine black Christians at a prayer and Bible study group in Charleston, S.C. They were shot by a white supremacist, now in custody. Along with the usual debate about guns in US society (he was given a gun as a 21st birthday present), there is the revulsion that such a thing would happen in a place made holy by prayer, as people were praying.
Events like this are not new, however. In my lifetime we have seen the martyrdom of Óscar Romero, Janani Luwum, Jerzy Popiełuszko and Dorothy Stang, who are only illustrative of the many women and men from across the continents whose lives have been taken because of their faith and defending the marginalised.
Such martyrdom is, in fact, a major part of the narrative of Revelation, written to Churches in Asia who had known the loss of some of their own, and who are warned that they will face great persecution in the near future. While the term ‘martyr,’ or ‘witness,’ had not yet taken on the idea of giving one’s life as a witness, it was because of the increasing frequency of its occurrence that it did so.
‘When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been’ (Rev 6:9-11).
Who opens the seals of this scroll? It is the one John sees standing as a lamb having been slaughtered – Jesus. It was by his slaughtering (we tend to sanitise such words to make it less graphic in our minds, but we need to be sensitive to the bloody nature of the death) that he triumphed, and his followers will share in that victory. But in the meantime, they also share in his suffering. Being followers of the slaughtered Lamb they have experienced the same painful, bloody, messy death.
While part of John’s intention is to forewarn his listeners (the book was written to be heard) of what is to come their way, he also seeks to give them comfort and hope. Yes, the martyrs must wait for the slaughtered Lamb to bring them justice, but they will not need to wait for ever. In the meantime, they are rewarded with garments purified by his blood – there could hardly be a more dramatic oxymoronic metaphor than laundered white in blood. But in the end, they, together with the slaughtered Lamb, will triumph. Not by responding violently to the violence they have experienced, but through the suffering of the great tribulations they have experienced.
‘13 Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes – who are they, and where did they come from?’
14 I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’
And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore,
‘they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
16 “Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,”[a]
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the centre of the throne
will be their shepherd;
“he will lead them to springs of living water.”
“And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:13-17).
May the visions of Revelation help our suffering sisters and brothers in Charleston interpret their present reality, and also bring them comfort and hope.