Saturday, November 08, 2008

It tolls for thee

The fruits which your soul lusted after have been lost to you, and all things that were dainty and sumptuous have perished from you, and you will find them no more at all. The merchants of these things, who were made rich by her, will stand far away for the fear of her torment, weeping and mourning; saying, ‘Woe, woe, the great city, she who was dressed in fine linen, purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls! For in an hour such great riches are made desolate.’ Every shipmaster, and everyone who sails anywhere, and mariners, and as many as gain their living by sea, stood far away, and cried out as they looked at the smoke of her burning, saying, ‘What is like the great city?’ They cast dust on their heads, and cried, weeping and mourning, saying, ‘Woe, woe, the great city, in which all who had their ships in the sea were made rich by reason of her great wealth!’ For in one hour is she made desolate.

The Revelation to John 18:14–19

The above text from what is commonly called the Book of Revelations is describing the fall of Babylon. To the readers of its day, however, it was predicting not the fall of Babylon, but the fall of Rome, most probably the fall of the Emperor Nero. For persecuted Jews and Christians to speak directly of the fall of Rome during the height of Roman power would have been so politically provocative as to be suicidal. Speaking of the fall of Rome could only be done by speaking of the fall of another detested enemy of the Jews from a past era. Conjuring up the horrible memories of the Babylonian captivity that a previous generation had suffered was a veiled way of reminding readers of a similar tragedy in the lives of the intended readers.

The generation of readers who suffered persecution during the time of Nero eventually slipped into history. The text written for them, the Apocalypse (or Revelation) to John, survived. In a sense it outlived its urgency. Its survival raises an interesting question to later generations who inherit it as a piece of presumably inspired canonical scripture.

As many interpreters of texts from the past have pointed out, there is no single meaning to a text. The meaning the text had for its author(s) is one meaning—it may well be a meaning that no later generation can fully recover. It's original meaning can be compared to a mathematical asymptote; it is a limit that can be approached but never quite reached. But the meaning of a text is by no means limited to the meaning it had for its original author or authors. Layers of meaning are constantly being added as circumstances change. This is why there can never be a definitive or final understanding of a living text. Texts are dynamic and forever shifting from one generation to another, and from one interpreter to another within a generation, and from one decade to another in the life of a single interpreter. With all those cautions in mind, let me play at finding meaning in the above passage from The Apocalypse to John.

First, it would be a mistake, I think, to read the text from the point of view of the authors. After all, they were not writing the text for themselves, but for their intended audience. In the case of the text under discussion, it was no doubt meant to give some kind of comfort to those who were being subjugated by an overwhelming power. It was meant to be read by those who were being left out of the wealth and comfort and luxury—the dainty and sumptuous being enjoyed by the wealthy and powerful.

To put the issues into the terms of today's society, the text was being written not to comfort the elected politicians and the prosperous executives of international corporations and those who lived on inherited wealth bade by their ancestors, but to comfort those people whose land has been taken from them and those who have been enslaved and those who must beg, or work at substandard wages, to eke out a living for themselves and their families. It is a text of comfort to, among others, Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos and immigrants whose countries have been devastated by wars the Americans in positions of political and economic power have visited upon them

If John's Apocalypse has the purpose today of bringing comfort to the counterparts of the disenfranchised Jews and Christians experiencing neglect or subjugation during the time of the Roman empire, what is its meaning for the counterparts of the Romans? What is its purpose for the likes of wealthy and powerful men such as George W. Bush, John McCain, John Kerry, Rush Limbaugh, Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey and T. Boone Pickens? It could mean something like this:

The day is fast arriving when the “fruits which your soul lusted after have been lost to you, and all things that were dainty and sumptuous have perished from you, and you will find them no more at all.” And not only will you be mourning the loss of all that used to comfort you, but so which those merchants who became prosperous by catering to you in your hours of self-indulgence. Prepare for torment, weeping and mourning.

The text is not an invitation to be smug and self-satisfied with one's prosperity. It is not a text of congratulations to the wealthy and powerful for having God on their side.

Reading the text through a mind conditioned by Buddhist teachings, I am inclined to see the text as a reminder that all conditioned things are impermanent, and those who have become addicted to impermanent things are in for suffering, probably much sooner than they think.

The sunset was beautiful tonight. It did not last. The waxing moon is shining through my window. Whose is it?