Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation
by C. Wess Daniels
reviewed by David Tucker
Revelation is probably most the polarizing book of the Bible. Continually refashioned and remixed to support countless views crossing over from religious to political, Revelation is a text that is tempting to avoid confronting directly.
This was my experience growing up, scarred as I was by memories of the Left Behind series and half-remembered sermons from the evangelical church of my youth. Yet Quaker pastor C. Wess Daniels has helped me move past my discomfort through the narrative in his new book, Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation. Across a fast-reading 120 pages, he offers alternative reading strategies that rescue Revelation from a person’s past baggage and from a common assumption that the book is focused on an indeterminate future.
With an open mind, and your favorite Bible translation at hand, dive into Resisting Empire. Daniels will guide you through Revelation, capturing and transforming the imagery and symbolism of the original text. You will find a call to “reject the economics of empire” and live boldly through love and Quaker witness.
Resisting Empire interprets Revelation through a blend of liberation theology and non-violent opposition to injustice, which will feel like familiar territory to the modern, progressive Quaker. Daniels reminds us that early Friends were seeking the “New Jerusalem” or the “Kingdom of God” in the here and now. In modern terms, Friends seek to tear down the artifices of “Empire,” such as poverty-creating capitalism and the artificial demarcations of class and race. By Daniels’ account, Revelation gives us a playbook to do this.
Daniels provides enough new biblical scholarly thought and organizing structures to make Revelation feel like fresh material. Perhaps more importantly, the reading strategies he provides may motivate you to approach these final chapters of the Bible for the first time – or anew, as they did for me. What I discovered is a rich rallying cry that leans heavily into symbology and shared references, designed to motivate readers in a particular time in the history of the Church. With the right background knowledge, Daniels shows that we can begin to interpret Revelation’s message for our own time and apply it to our Church and ourselves.
Revelation’s author, John of Patmos, wrote with an urgent purpose to change the way the nascent Christian churches in the Aegean saw their world. Perhaps this urgent message might also change the way we see things today. That is the hope and mission guiding Daniels’ approach to biblical reading. He reminds us to acknowledge the pre-conceptions and worldviews we bring to Bible study, but to park them at the door, and then experience “bafflement” and “wonder” at visions of worldly destruction and perfect reconstruction.
After reading Resisting Empire – or more accurately, while reading it – I found myself delving deeper into the text of Revelation, the literature of apocalypse, and the sociology of its varied interpretations. By that measure alone, I think Daniels achieved his mission.
In late May, we saw laid bare the “Imperial” power described by Daniels in the core chapters of Resisting Empire. As George Floyd lay on the ground, a police officer’s knee robbing him of his life, we confronted yet again the humanity-stripping effects of our current cultural and economic structures. At that moment, it was a blessing to have Resisting Empire’s reading strategies, conclusions, and rallying cries fresh in my mind.
Reading the book of Revelation likely won’t give you any pat answer on how to solve the myriad problems of today. And Resisting Empire ought not to be the final word on how to interpret Revelation. But together these works offer Quakers a map and a compass to navigate exceptionally disorienting times. ~~~
David Tucker is a curious spirit, marketing strategist, and reluctant “millennial.” He holds membership at Scarsdale Friends Meeting (NYYM) and currently attends Palo Alto Friends Meeting (PacYM).