How do you define power? What does experiencing powerless mean? Are there powers at work in the systems of the world today? Does the Bible speak about power?
Ward Ewing is an Episcopal priest and also serves as Dean and President of The General Theological Seminary in New York City. He is also the author of Job: A Vision of God. I recently picked up a copy of ‘The Power of the Lamb’ due to my ongoing interest in the book of Revelation. I was very intrigued by the title of the book and wanted to see his take on Revelation. I was not disappointed and am writing this blog to also propel his message about the concept of power and its effect on humanity and culture. Ward believes that ‘a key issue of spirituality for our time is empowerment’.
Let’s see what he means.
For Ward, ‘Revelation is about power’ because John uses the words ‘power’ (dunamis) and ‘authority’ (exousia) more than any other book in Scripture. You may have heard those words before if you are familiar with or have been exposed to the Pentecostal tradition of Christianity. Pentecostals have been known to focus on the ‘power’ of God’s Spirit. Perhaps this is why John was writing to the seven churches after-all. Maybe he was speaking an empowered word or testimony to others via God’s Spirit. In some circles we call that prophesying.
Regardless, Ward insists that John was writing to these congregations because they would have been small, poor, and struggling to survive. They would have been divided by internal squabbles and even suffering from external discrimination. Rome and Jews were targeting this new group of Jesus fanatics in ways that are not understood today. Christians were seemingly being harassed in ways similar to what Luke describes in the book of Acts. But John’s reason for writing appears to take on a different goal. He seems to be very concerned about the internal life of God’s people and congregations to which he is writing.
Why would John need to do this?
Ward believes that it is because these early believers were now dangerously drifting in beastly waters and were in need of a wake up call. When you read the letters to the churches you get a sense that complacency was setting in to the point that false teachers were being tolerated and followed. It seems that some congregations had even lost their commitment to the way of Jesus and perhaps even losing hope for a better today and tomorrow. Maybe a bleak outlook and mindset was beginning to set in as Rome powerfully continued to dominate, conquer and control the narrative and landscape.
In short, maybe John wrote to help these early Christians understand and live according to a new power that was present and already at work in the world. Ward calls it the power of the Lamb, or Lambpower.
I understand that looking at the book of Revelation this way maybe new for some and not the accepted norm for others. But if John was truly seeing something ‘in the Spirit’ on Patmost island, then maybe the day of Pentecost really did initiate Spirit-filled dreams and visions for those who believe. Maybe John does know a thing or two about Spirit empowerment after-all.
If so, then God’s Spirit did allow John to see and talk about the oppressive nature of power and its evil desire to control, manipulate and have dominion. Appropriately then, we see that ‘the beast’ in Revelation (a multi-headed conglomerate monster) is depicted as desiring to overpower people and force them to worship at its altar. John even uses other symbols of oppressive power (the four horseman, plagues, warrior locusts, little horn etc) to help convey understanding that the ‘beast’ symbolically represents the oppressive, overwhelming, unrestrained and controlling powers of evil that operate in the world.
This is where Ward’s work and book can help us discern and understand our world today. You may be asking yourself that very question: How does the imagery of Revelation and its message play out in the world today?
Well, it may depend on how you view and understand community, social structures and happiness.
Ward says that oftentimes we can tend to see human community in terms of a hierarchy of power. At the top of ‘the ladder’ are those who wield great power and have great influence. Conversely, at the bottom of the ladder are those who do not have power or influence; they are powerless. Our social structure then, is made up of complex micro-systems of pyramids that form other pyramids so that very few powerful people are actually at the top. For Ward, although this quest to ‘climb to ladder’ is generally embraced and endorsed in Western culture, it is actually a delusion.
Here’s what he means.
“The more power we have, the more we fear losing it, the higher we climb on the ladder, the greater is the danger of tumbling down. Striving for financial security has the curious effect of leading not to security but to more striving. Striving to succeed produces the competition that keeps us driving ahead with all our energy until we collapse.”
In essence then, the very ‘systems’ of this world that promise us a sense of self-worth are actually based on social status and overall material wealth. Think about it. How does most advertising and messaging from the worlds media make us feel? We feel prodded to devote our energies towards our ‘wants’ by getting a fancier car, having that larger house or owning that cottage by the lake. The warning from Ward is that by working for this ‘success’, we can actually surrender our conscience and become blind to the very ‘systems’ that threaten to destroy our world and take our freedom.
What? Really? How, and especially how do you get that from the book of Revelation? For Ward, these beastly powers can be seen via the four horseman and the imagery of Babylon.
Consider this. Businesses often enter the marketplace seeking to contribute and provide something that is positive and beneficial. However, in a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world, the same business needs to conquer their corner of the market so that profits are made and revenues gained. It is here that the commendable goals of business soon give way to conquering attitudes. The white horseman emerges.
Then, if the same business fails to gain enough security and control, the original goal of providing a needed product or service can be replace by a desire to be number one and beat all competitors. There now can be no peace in the marketplace. The red rider has arrived.
Next comes increasing pressure to maximize growth and preserve the company at all costs through leverage strategies and other means of control. This is all done so that the market will swing in the company’s favour. The scales of the green horseman and its abuse of the economic system seem to be manifesting.
Finally, ongoing domination now becomes the main goal and desire of the company. Individual needs no longer matter and human injustices seem to go unnoticed. A militant mind-set now seems to run the board room so that any and all opposition to the company is annihilated. The fourth horseman is now one the scene and is running the show.
Ward believes that the incarnation of this evil is also seen in the imagery of Babylon. For Ward, ‘Babylon’ is the ‘embodiment of the beast in the world of political and economic power’. John portrays Babylon to be beautiful and rich, but her nature and relationships are impure and lack commitment. We can see that her main objective seems to be the pursuit of personal satisfaction and individual gain. She seductively attracts and moves those who participate with her towards domination and destruction. Finally, her single most characteristic is her need to control.
Ward believes that ‘Babylon’ is recognizable today through her continued insatiable appetite for growth and shows up institutionally when goals are served rather than people. In other words, the systems of Babylon manifest whenever they move from servant to master. This means that the institutional glory of ‘Babylon’ is now more important that the individual people who are its members. Ward believes that ‘to place institutional glory above human integrity is the blasphemy for which the beast is known.’
Perhaps this is why John is writing after-all. Perhaps there are textile workers in Laodicea and Thyatira or money changers, merchants and traders in Sardis, Ephesus and Smyrna that were on the bottom of the social and economic ladder and trying desperately hard to make a living. Maybe they needed help to discern the powers that are at work in the world after all.
This perhaps is the cruz of John’s message and a big reason why Ward wrote his book. He says that in the world today there are ‘two spiritualities (that) strive for a person’s allegiance: the beast and the Lamb. One cannot belong to both.’
So if John has outlined what evil beastly power looks like, then he also surely indicated what good and true power looks like as well. Thankfully John did! This is what Ward refers to as ‘Lambpower’.
Stay tuned for my next blog and the conclusion to my review of Ward Ewing’s book.