Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the judgement of the great whore who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.’ So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.’ And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.
When I saw her, I was greatly amazed. But the angel said to me, ‘Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.
‘This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain for only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.’
And he said to me, ‘The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.’
In recent years there has been more understanding of our imperial legacy. From drinking tea (served in China), civic wealth based on slavery and tobacco, and our health problems with sugar (more slavery) it is clear that imperial legacies hide in plain sight.
What is normal isn’t seen as evil. Until last Summer’s protests, statues of slave traders and imperial despots on our streets or public squares were barely noticed by most white people. Public hostility to immigration hid the fact that for much of the 20th Century the British gave citizenship (and the right to live and work here) to our subject peoples though, of course, we didn’t refer to them as such! A generation of people brought up with tales of Britain ruling the waves and singing patriotic songs with jolly good tunes helped hide imperial reality. Given Britain’s original identity as a Christian, Protestant, nation this is all rather strange given the strong things Revelation has to say about empire.
Today’s passage shows the writer’s horror of empire – the image of a prostitute is troubling to our values but could also be translated as “idolatress.” The writer understood the reality of an imperial system which conquered and subjugated nations. The brutality of empire led puppet kings astray blunting any national resistance. The fall of Jerusalem would have underlined the terrible brutality of Rome.
The purpose of this part of the vision was to make the Seer aware, to understand things as they really were, to place the situation he found himself into a wider context of world politics, and to offer a religious understanding of imperial evil.
Passages like this should make us reflect on empires – past and present – and the part our nations played in the brutality of empire, the ways in which we justified it, and the poisonous imperial legacies that are reflected in racism and power even now. The first step towards repentance is seeing things as they really are.
Open our eyes, O God, to see the world as it really is and see the systems that rule our world; that we may resist evil and wait with eagerness for the coming of Your Kingdom, where there will be no more tears, no more pain, no more mourning, and where all the oppressed will run free. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston works with four URC congregations in and around Glasgow.