Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time : Dn. 12: 1-3; Ps. 16:5, 8-11; Heb. 10:11-14; Mk. 13:24-32
I hope you’re all watching what’s unfolding in Yemen.
Over the past three years, a Saudi-led coalition there, with complete endorsement and logistical support from the United States has created hell on earth. It’s the world’s worst humanitarian crisis described as absolutely “apocalyptic” by Mark Lowcock, the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.
The reference to apocalypse is relevant to today’s liturgy of the word which features two apocalyptic readings – one from the Book of Daniel and the other from the Gospel of Mark. Your priest or minister will tell you that the excerpts are about the end of the world. But they’re not. They’re both about the end of empire.
Consequently, we who live in the belly of the world’s current imperial beast should take heed. With the affliction our government is causing in Yemen, the readings should make us tremble at the prospect of our inevitable fate.
Before we get to that, think about what’s happening in the poorest country in the Middle East.
Since 2016, bombings by the U.S.-Saudi coalition have killed more than 57,000 people in Yemen. Water supplies, and sewage treatment plants have been destroyed. Epidemics of cholera and diphtheria have resulted. Bombings of the port city of Hodeida have made it impossible for emergency relief to enter the country. And that has pushed 14 million Yemenis to the brink of famine. Fourteen million!! More specifically, 500,000 children currently face death by starvation. As a result of it all, a Yemeni child dies every 10 minutes.
Last week, House Republicans blocked Democrats from forcing a vote on the U.S. role in Yemen under the War Powers Act. Why would those who portray themselves as “pro-life” want to continue killing so many children?
The answer, of course, is: because that’s what empires do. It’s what empire’s victims have always contended with. By their very nature, empires create apocalypses.
And that brings us to today’s readings. The literary form apocalypse first appeared about two centuries before the birth of Jesus. The context for its emergence was Israel’s struggle against the Seleucid (Greek) dynasty headed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
In the year 168 C.E., Seleucid troops invaded Palestine and devastated Jerusalem. Antiochus hated Judaism and defiled the Jerusalem Temple by offering a pig on its altar. He also erected an altar to Jupiter in the Temple. Patriotic Jews called it “the abomination of desolation.” While occupying Palestine, Antiochus also destroyed all the copies of Scripture he could find and made it a capital offense to possess such manuscripts. It was against Antiochus IV and the Greek occupation of Palestine that the Bible’s Book of Daniel (excerpted in today’s first reading) was written. Its thrust is to predict the destruction of Antiochus’ imperialist empire. Apocalypse is resistance literature.
Writing nearly two centuries later, Mark adopts Daniel’s resistance form to describe the absolute destruction of Jerusalem that he accurately foresaw. It was very like what’s happening in Yemen. After a six-month siege, the Roman Emperor Titus, with four Roman legions finally captured the city of Jerusalem from its Zealot defenders. Moving from house to house, the Romans destroyed everything within reach, including the City’s Temple. Palestine would not again belong to the Jews until 1947. It was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans that Mark has Jesus predicting in today’s Gospel excerpt. It’s that sort of thing that empires have always done.
Years later – sometime in the 90s of our era – John of Patmos penned his Book of Revelation. It employed apocalypse to predict the fall of Rome – the bloody whore seated on her seven hills drinking the blood of martyrs (REV 17:6). John’s context was the persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor, Domitian. John’s prediction about Rome? Absolute devastation! Its leaders, legions and ideologues will be “thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (REV 19:17-21). That inevitable fate of empires should scare the hell out of us.
However, as I’ve indicated, most of us have been led to think of such writing as describing the end of the world. And why not? It keeps us from facing what our country is doing in the world and the fate that awaits us.
The false connection between apocalypse and the end of the world has been fostered and exploited by a whole industry of empire-friendly evangelical preachers like John Hagee who appear regularly on our television screens. Their domesticated approach to apocalypse is foundational to the publishing success of the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. It is also foundational to numbing us to scriptural warnings about empire.
According to the preachers and books I’ve just mentioned, apocalypse describes a final battle between Good and Evil. The battle will be fought in the Middle East on the Plain of Armageddon. Two billion people will die as a result – including 2/3 of the Jewish people. The remaining 1/3 will be converted to Christianity because God’s final violent revelation will be so awe-inspiring and convincing. A “Rapture” will then take place, taking all faithful followers of Christ into heaven, while leaving behind the rest of humanity for a period of “tribulation.” In all of this, God is the principal actor. As an angry father, he is finally taking his revenge for the disobedience and lack of faith of his ungrateful children – whom he loves!
Problem is: all of that is dead wrong and blasphemous in terms of the God of love revealed by Jesus. The Rapture story, for instance, appeared for the first time only in the 19th century. In fact, apocalypse is not about the end of the world. It is about the end of empire – the Greek Empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the case of Daniel, and the Roman Empire in the case of the Book of Revelation. The mayhem and unprecedented suffering referenced in all three sources is not something God does to the world, but what empire routinely does to people, their bodies, souls and spirits, as well as to the natural environment.
Because it has ever been so with empire, today’s excerpt from Mark called for a complete end to the politics of violence and domination. That meant obeying the command of Jesus to reject empire, but also to refuse alignment with Zealot nationalists.
As the Romans under Titus approached Jerusalem between 66 and 70, Zealot recruiters traveled throughout Palestine calling on Jewish patriots to defend their homeland by joining guerrilla forces. Instead, the words Mark put in Jesus’ mouth warned the Master’s followers to flee to the mountains (Mark 13:14-16). They were absent themselves not out of cowardice, but from apocalyptic conviction that God’s order of justice could not be established by the sword. Obeying Jesus’ direction meant that Christians were not only threatened by Romans but by Jews who accused Jesus’ followers of treason.
How should those readings affect us today whose Commanders-in-Chief repeat the crimes of the Seleucid Antiochus IV and the Romans Titus and Domitian – all of whom thought of themselves as doing God’s work in destroying what they despised as a superstitious, primitive, tribal, and terrorist religion? (Yes, that’s what they thought of Judaism!)
Today’s readings recommend that we adopt an apocalyptic vision. That means refusing to defend the present order and allowing it to collapse of its own weight. It means total rejection of U.S. imperial ambitions and practices. It means supporting cease-fire measures in Yemen, calling for total U.S. withdrawal of support from the Saudis, and refusing to treat as heroes those who advance the policies of destruction and desecration inevitably intertwined with imperial ambition. It means letting go of the privileges and way of life that depends on foreign conquest and vilification as “terrorists” of patriots defending their countries from invasion by U.S. forces. It means determining what all of that might signify in terms of our consumption patterns and lifestyles and supporting one another in the counter-cultural decisions such brainstorming will evoke.
So, in a sense, apocalypse is after all about the end of the world. The entire Jewish universe was anchored in the temple. Its defilement by the Greek Antiochus IV, its complete destruction by the Roman Titus seemed like the end of the world to the Jews. The threat of westernizing the Arab world might seem that way to the occupied Muslim world today. And the end of the American Way of Life premised on resource wars under cover of a “war on terrorism” might strike us as the end of everything we hold dear.
However, the apocalyptic message of hope is that the passage of empire and nationalism is not really the end. Instead it represents an opportunity for a new beginning. In the words that Mark has Jesus say this morning, “Do not be alarmed . . . This is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.”
How might we support one another in letting go of imperialism, nationalism and the lifestyles dependent on them?