Title: A May Day for all People
I’m sure all, or at least most, of you know that May Day is an important day of remembering the importance of worker solidarity. May 1st, historically was celebrated with festivals, dancing, and singing as the first day of summer. But in 1888, it was picked to commemorate the “hay market massacre” in Chicago on May 4th 1886. During that time workers were rallying peacefully for an 8 hour work day when conflict broke out that ultimately resulted in the deaths of 11 people and more wounded. Hay Market holds deep significance, as a galvanizing moment in worker solidarity that was certainly not the first, nor the last struggle for people to gain better working conditions, wages, hours, benefits, and let’s face it basic dignity.
What, if anything, does something like May Day, where we lift up worker solidarity have to do with the book of Revelation?
It has only been since the time of pastor, John Nelson Darby, and lawyer and politician C.I. Scofield, in the mid to late 1800s, the book of Revelation has been interpreted as a book that predicts the end times. If you know much about their theology of the rapture and dispensationalism, you know that core to its theology is that God’s people get to evacuate the struggles of earth and go to heaven without having to deal with or work out the issues on earth. Rapture theology is like an escape hatch for God’s select. I have also heard it referred to as evacuation theology. Either way, implicit in this theology is an abdication of responsibility for where things are now, the suffering that people face, and the structures that some benefit from that creates that suffering - no wonder someone like Scofield who was trained as a politician (and who lied about being ordained by the way!) was such a big proponent of this.
During the same time that Scofield was popularizing this kind of theology, workers around the country were trying to get things changed. I find it unfortunately, not ironic at all that during the time of the Haymarket Massacre you have this kind of evacuation theology being peddled by some Christians - like we see today this kind of distorted moral narrative or theology of abdication that acts in service to empire. There’s no time to wait for some after-party in the sky. May Day represents a need for the kingdom of God to be enacted here on earth.
Therefore, rather than read Revelation wrongly as piece on end-times-theology, it is a letter that was circulated around freedom churches of the poor. Communities of the fledgling Christian movement trying to survive and resist assimilation into the Roman Empire. Revelation should be read as a document of subversion and resistance to empire, not magical escape the problems empire creates.
Revelation looks to answer the question:
What does it mean to be faithful to God as disempowered people living under empire?
As an apocalyptic text, it is about unmasking the religion of empire and the ways in which empire uses the name of God to justify systems that benefit some at the expense of everyone else. Revelation unmasks how this works in the ancient Roman Empire but quite frankly its insights hold true for empires today too.
As we see here in Revelation 5:11-14 - one of the most important passages of the book of Revelation, and perhaps all of the New Testament, we see an unexpected image.
Earlier in the chapter the reader follows an interesting sequence:
John, the one having the vision hears words of power and strength, dominance, even perhaps military might described by the elders when they say:
“Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
But then, what he actually sees is something dramatically different:
Rev. 5:6 Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
The phrase “the lamb that was slaughtered,” and phrases like it, are recurring refrain throughout all of Revelation - it is repeated 28 times. This image is meant to shape the early Christian understanding of resistance to empire. John reveals that the early church is not waiting for a way out whether through dominance or evacuation, Jesus nonviolence death demonstrated that no military was being sent from heaven to bring military conquest. Instead, the early freedom church of the poor, is given the image of the Lamb that was slaughtered. A image of absolute solidarity. This image of the lamb slaughtered yet risen stands in for Jesus, who was himself a poor man, a worker, an organizer of the poor, and one who was a victim of the Roman empire.
Jesus demonstrated that God is not just in solidarity with but is actually among the poor workers that empire continue to oppress, exploit, and scapegoat. The execution of Jesus as a poor man linked with Revelation’s call to resist empire tells us that there have been May Days that go all the way back to the original for the Freedom Church of the poor as well.
When we join together as a church in worship, communion, sharing what we have with one another freely, joined together in the Spirit of the slaughtered, yet risen Lamb, we are in community with all victims of empire in Jesus.
Later in Revelation 7, there is an image of the the multitude, a community of all those represented in the world who follow this slaughtered lamb. In that image, at the very center of the scene with the Lamb are those who have been victims of empire as well. Whether we call it the multitude, the Freedom Church of the Poor, or by another name, communities that gather in the name of Jesus who was himself a poor worker exploited by imperial power must continue to center all those who today find themselves in the same situations. As our dear friend, Aaron Scott says, “Same Sin, Different Day
The Freedom Church must continue to reject and expose evacuation theology and other distorted moral theologies of empire that lead us to ignore, feel numb towards, or worse leave behind those struggling. Instead, we see that the Lamb that was slaughtered was himself a victim of empire who leads us into resistance and solidarity with all those crushed by the powers and principalities. Instead of silencing their pain, we seek to stand with those suffering and take responsibility for the creation of a new world.
As Aaron Scott says:
Poor people are not the problem. A society that allows poverty to exist is the problem.