What the Book of Revelation was REALLY about

No book has been more abused and abusive than the Book of Revelation.

Gunnison Memorial Chapel, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY

Gunnison Memorial Chapel, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY

Martin Ramirez Sostre. inmate held in solitary confinement, later pardoned.

Martin Ramirez Sostre. inmate held in solitary confinement, later granted clemency by NY Gov. Carey..

Below are excerpts from a sermon preached at the Gunnison Memorial Chapel of St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY inspired by Martin Sostre and re-reading the Book of Revelation. The sermon was published by The Christian Century (March, 1974).

The first half of the “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom” introduces the hearer/ reader to the case of Martin Sostre’s resistance as a political prisoner incarcerated in solitary confinement at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY, known as “New York’s Siberia” or, as the inmates refer to it, “the Hell Hole of the New York Prison system”.

It was during my weekly Wednesday evening program and visits with prisoners there that I learned about the case of Martin Sostre, held in solitary confinement in resistance to dehumanizing prison practices, and joined the campaign for his pardon.

Excerpts from “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom:

“Incarcerated on the Aegean Island of Patmos, a penal settlement of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D., was a political prisoner named John. He wrote a political-religious manifesto declaring open resistance to the Roman Empire. The Revelation to John – the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible – is the earliest extant Christian tract deliberately and openly directed against the pretensions of the world’s greatest power. In the Revelation to John, resistance to Roman power and authority is so inextricably bound together with worship of God that they constitute two sides of the same coin. Worship and resistance are the twin sides of faith’s freedom to celebrate God’s gift of life. The unity of resistance and worship is expressed with notable clarity in the passage where the fall of mighty Babylon occasions a celebration in heaven. The destruction of Babylon is joined to the salvation of the world itself and is the sign of God’s power and righteous rule over the nations. Only those who profit by Babylon’s wealth, power and injustice have reason to mourn her fall, while those who have ‘come out of her’ – who have disentangled themselves from her oppression, corruption and imperial claims – have cause to worship God and sing joyful hymns of praise.”

….

“Babylon is the state or nation in its presumption to be God. Babylon is any state, nation, or constellation of principalities and powers, which attempts to rule as final judge of persons and nations. Babylon is any such power – in any time or place – which makes its people subjects, calling them into idolatry of the nations, and any state or nation that persecutes its prophets of righteousness, peace and justice while rewarding the aggressive supporters and the silent ones who acquiesce. America is Babylon.”

….

“Envision once more a visit to Clinton Correctional Facility. Remember the disorienting sensation of having left everything familiar on the other side of the wall, the feeling of walking out of a real world into a nightmare, the shock induced by the size of the walls and the presence of the guards – strange and terrifying.

“But the closer one gets to the prison reality, the more one comes to realize that it is not so strange, that it is simply a more exaggerated and visible form of our own everyday reality in the face of death. Here on the outside, the walls are not visible, but they are much higher. Out here the guards do not stand poised with machine guns, but they are real and far more powerful – the guards our own fears provide.”
….
“Then I heard another voice from heaven ssying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…’” (Rev. 18:4 RSV).

A commentary will follow soon on my experience of visiting Martin during the time he was transferred to the Federal Detention Center in NYC where he was held as a witness in someone else’s trial. Prior to that visit, none of us in Northern New York had been able to meet with Martin because of his refusal to see visitors on the principle that the rectal “searches” required before and after visits violated his human rights.

NY Governor Carey eventually issued a pardon.

2 thoughts on “What the Book of Revelation was REALLY about

  1. Thanks for posting this. As I mentioned on a previous post, I had been put off reading Revelation because of its association with ‘end times’ and ‘hell and damnation’ theology. I thought it to be just too terrifying and largely irrelevant to my faith.
    I have now read through it – rather quickly, I might add (I need to go back and take some time with it). And I realise it is a very beautiful book. I had not realised how much imagery is taken from the book. I was particularly struck by how many (what do we call them now – African American Spirituals?) were based on the book – 12 Gates to the City, the “people robed in white” etc. They knew exactly what the book was about as they sang those songs on the plantations. Meanwhile the white “owners” must have thought, how nice they are singing their bible verses.
    So definitely a book to go back to and read more about. And glad it is was kept in the Cannon.

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    • David, James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues is worth a read. Jim is professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. It was after reading this book and spending several days with William Stringfellow that it dawned on me that the Book of Revelation, and, the Gospels themselves, functioned in their times the way the slave narratives and the spirituals functioned in theirs. You nailed it with your comment: “They knew exactly what the book was about as they sang those songs on the plantations. Meanwhile the white “owners” must have thought, how nice they are singing their bible verses.”

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