Growing up, I constantly feared the rapture would happen and I’d be Left Behind.
I had been a Christian as long as I could remember. But was I a real Christian? Had my latest sin (I was a teenager, my entire mind was filled with sin!) proved I was not saved? The fear was real and common among those of us who grew up in American evangelicalism. This fear and anxiety were rooted in what I had been taught about the end-times (as well as a lot of other bad theology I had ingested). We were living at the very end of history and Jesus would return any day (or so we were told). When Jesus returned, all the real and true Christians would be whisked away, leaving their clothes behind to the confusion of all those “left behind” who would now face seven years of horror as God would pour out punishment on the earth.
It was all in the Book of Revelation!
Except it wasn’t.
As an anxious, confused teenager, when I read the book of Revelation, I had to admit to myself I did not see this future timeline. It did not make sense. But who was I to question this widely held belief? This was what everyone said Revelation meant. The Left Behind series was a runaway bestseller after all, and certainly not on its literary merits (even at fourteen I knew it was bad fiction). At some point I left the fear and anxiety behind, but as I studied the Bible and grew in my understanding of my faith, I mostly placed Revelation on the back burner, filing it as “confusing; best left alone.”
Then in 2004 I took a class studying the Book of Revelation. I do not like to often say that things “changed my life,” but this class changed my life. It changed my life because for the first time, the book of Revelation made some sort of sense. The key to understanding Revelation was not the latest newspaper headline but was the Old Testament and the first century context. John was not given the vision and called to write a message that would only have meaning millennia in the future; John was given a vision for his people in those days.
The entire idea of some sort of pre-tribulation rapture that whisked away Christians so they would avoid suffering? Absurd.
The feared Beast in Revelation was the powerful Roman Empire. Rome had the largest military, the strongest economy and all the pleasures and comforts anyone could want. To receive all the benefits of Rome, all you had to do was pledge your ultimate allegiance to the Roman Emperor and the Roman system. John, the author of Revelation, was the pastor for the Christians living in the seven churches in Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3) and in his vision he saw the curtain pulled back on the glory of Rome. Behind the outward beauty of the empire was a vicious Beast. Rome was fueled by the forces of evil and thus was a satanic force to be resisted.
John offered a challenge to his churches: will you worship the Beast or the Lamb? Who would you serve? To worship the Lamb who was slain was to stand against all Rome had to offer. You might just lose your life. But to pledge allegiance to Rome was to affiliate with the beast and to lose your soul.
I said above the way I was taught to interpret Revelation “only” had meaning in the future. This new way certainly had application and meaning for the present. It was a much more uncomfortable meaning than one that just guessed dates. The meaning came in realizing that we lived in the largest most powerful modern-day Empire. If the temptation in John’s day was to blend the gospel of Jesus with the principles of Rome, then temptation in our day was to blend the gospel of Jesus with the principles of America.
In other words, rather than being fearful of some future “The Antichrist”, we should examine the ways we had already comprised with the spirit of antichrist.
This study of Revelation helped me understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism. To be a nationalist is to simply support your nation no matter what it does. Nationalism sees no higher reality than the nation. Thus, in nationalism, to question or criticize the nation is a crime. Christian Nationalism then is to see the nation as uniquely blessed by God. To criticize the nation here is not just a crime, its a sin against God.
Patriotism is to be proud of your nation for the good it does, but does not require seeing your nation as better than other nations. I would argue, form a Christian perspective, patriotism is to hold your nation to a higher standard, to recognize there is a law higher than that of the nation and to seek for your nation to live up to that standard. Where nationalism is blind to the failures of the nation, patriotism is honest.
We see this in the testimony of Christians throughout the early church. First we see it in scripture, for alongside Revelation 13 with its portrayal of Rome as a monstrous beast, we can set Romans 13 where the Roman state is generally a force for good. These two truths of the nation – its good and evil – must be held in tension. Second, we see Christians such as Tertullian, Origen and others saying things that seem almost contradictory. They recognize the good of Rome and are grateful that Rome exists to keep the barbarians at bay. We even see them arguing that the prayers of the Christians do more to keep Rome safe than the fighting of the military. (As a side note, prior to 300, Christians did not serve in the military, seeing the inherent idolatry and violence of the military as something Christians must avoid.) These Christians also were not afraid to call out the Roman government for its evil acts and tell them one day God would judge them for the way they have persecuted Christians.
Once the Roman Empire became “Christian” after the time of Constantine, great shifts occurred in how the relationship to church and state functioned. Even in the ensuing centuries though, there was still some recognition that God stood above the nations. It was not until the collapse of Christendom that “nationalism” became a thing. But that history, though interesting and essential for a full understanding, is beyond our story here.
This interpretation of Revelation changed my life, because it pushed me to realize that whatever my identity was as an American, my commitment to Jesus must be far higher. Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, sits on the throne and any attempt to place any nation or person on that throne alongside Jesus is heresy. Rather than being cheerleaders for whatever our nation does, our call as Christians is to speak truth to power.
We must speak truth to Republicans in power even if we are Republican.
We must speak truth to Democrats in power even if we are Democrat.
We must condemn the use of torture when it is being employed by a Republican administration (which white conservative Christians failed to do not too long ago)
We must condemn drone strikes that kill innocents when they are being used by a Democrat administration (which white progressive Christians failed to do not too long ago).
What does the interpretation of Revelation have to do with Christian Nationalism and white supremacy? Christian Nationalism must regard the nation as perfect and leave little room for critique. In Nationalism, Christians fit comfortably in the nation. A solid understanding of Revelation helps us see that all nations, especially superpowers, stand in opposition to the God revealed in Jesus, the crucified lamb. Rather than whitewash our history, we name the injustice and evil for what it is.
Revelation is also known as the Apocalypse and apocalypse means “unveiling.” Like Toto in the Wizard of Oz, pulling back the curtain, Revelation unveils and reveals the sin at the heart of America. It helps us confess and condemn the history of white supremacy in our culture and own it as our history rather than saying it is only an evangelical problem (its not, its all white Christians) or only a problem for the other political party (its not, its both Republicans and democrats, conservatives and liberals).
We live in an Empire. Were John alive today, I suspect his message would be the same: will we worship the Beast in the form of a Christian Nationalist faith that drapes Jesus in the flag and promises comfort and safety or will we worship the Lamb who was slain?