“Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances” by Catherine Keller

Let us first recall why Keller has chosen to “dreamread” John of Patmos’ Book of Revelation. As a process theologian, it is no surprise that she would be interested in a Biblical text. But her purpose is not merely to read John’s missive back into its 1st century CE historical context. Nor is her intent to read it as a literal prediction of a divinely determined future. Her aim, rather, is to unveil the eternal patterns of history that reverberate through John’s day into our own. Keller is dreamreading the “ancient future” of humanity, imperiled by imperial excesses and injustices then as now. She turns to Revelation as a polysemic source of dis-closure, that is, as a reminder that the future remains open-ended, its promise or peril awaiting our response to the signs of the times. Keller reads the book’s many internal contradictions as a call to liberate ourselves, through the work of shared mourning and collective uplift, from any sense of scripts already written so that we may arrive fully in the potent present, capable of facing what MLK, Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now.” The book she dreamreads remains relevant to our situation today because, with both oppressive and progressive effects, it has inspired martyrs, emperors, and enslaved alike to shape and reshape the course of civilization for millennia. 

In Chapter 5, Keller interprets John’s misogynistic vision of the luxuriously adorned “Whore of Babylon” astride a seven-headed, ten-horned scarlet beast as a metaphor (or “metaforce”) expressive of the unholy matrimony of imperial power and global economy. The beast is said to turn on the “Mother of Whores,” just as imperial superpowers have been known to contradict themselves by “devouring the very flesh, resources, [and] labor, [they] live from” (111). John details the commodities that the “merchants of the earth” of his day buy and sell along their Mediterranean sea routes. These include not only wine, pearls, silk, and spices, but “human bodies and souls” (Rev. 18:11-13). Keller reminds us that “Rome two thousand years ago operated the largest market in chattel slaves on the planet,” adding the disturbing facts that “civilization as we know it is based upon the labor of unthinkable numbers of slaves,” and, even today, long after the institution has been outlawed in most nations, tens of millions of mostly women and children remain in chains, with billions more stuck in what amounts to wage slavery (114). 

Keller then turns to a critique, informed by Revelation, of our insatiable neoliberal/neo-imperial capitalist political economy. In our day, as in John’s, the power of unchecked consumerism does not simply fulfill desires, it produces them—or in terms of John’s pornographic metaforce, it “seduces”: “the graphic of the great whore signifies a commodification of self, body and soul, on the part of imperial subjectsnot just their objects” (117). In other words, the power of capitalism is not simply “out there,” imposed upon us as the will of an imperial army may be. The truly insidious thing about an economy of greed is how it infects our very selves, our sense of self-worth and well-being. The engine of our economy depends upon knowing no limits, on the feeling of lack, the constant need of more income, more land, more labor, more stuff. The political representatives elected to protect our democratic rights and assure social stability by checking the power of transnational corporations have failed to fulfill their duties. Under the neoliberal order which has held sway since the 1970s (when declining growth, growing inequality, and rising debt put an end to the post-war alliance between capital and democracy), the role of the state has been coopted, so that it now “[offers] political support, tax benefits, police and military backing for the economy, which in return rewards the politicians it rides” (121). Capital cannot help itself, it commodifies everything: land, labor, politicians, and like John’s Porn Queen, even itself, undermining its own conditions of continuance. 

Building on the German economic sociologist Wolfgang Streek, Keller introduces the situation in present day Western democracies as a struggle between two constituencies, the “nation state people” and the “international market people” (122). Tensions are rising as inequality reaches levels not seen since ancient Rome (Keller cites studies showing that, within the US, the ratio between the richest 100 households and the bottom 90% is about 108,000 to 1, roughly equivalent to that between a senator and a slave at the height of the Roman empire). The rise of Trump and other demagogues around the world is symptomatic of income inequality and a growing rift between “nationalists” (who are mostly white and often rural) and “globalists” (often urban and somewhat more diverse). Rather than demonize the supporters of Trump (many of whom are evangelical Christians inspired by their own, albeit more spurious readings of Revelation), Keller acknowledges the ambiguities and contradictions of our times. Trump’s presidency was itself an outcome, and perhaps signals also the ending, of American neoliberalism (126). The anger that helped lift him into office stemmed from racist animosity but also the complete lack of concern shown by (neo)liberals for many working class people as the post-war industrial economy was dismantled and its jobs sent over seas. Keller admits that John’s visions are indeed suggestive of a great battle against the global elites who profit from such outsourcing. But the contradictions intensify, as Republicans blame wildfires in the Western US on environmentalists instead of climate change, while Democrats blame Trump’s election on Russian memes instead of acknowledging the impact of global trade on the lives of those Hillary Clinton dismissed as “deplorables.” Keller also warns against conflating jet-setting cosmopolitan neoliberalism with the radically intersectional cosmopolitics that resists with equal vigor both the “aspirational fascism” of nationalists and the insatiable extractivism of globalists (124). 

In the end, Keller returns to the beginning, to the “dominion” clause in the Genesis creation narrative that has stirred so much debate among environmentalists and religious scholars. It is becoming increasingly clear to anyone paying attention that “the matter of the earth will not neatly reduce to the stuff of dollar signs…Matter Strikes Back” (130). In other words, all of humanity is beginning to experience the blowback from centuries of unchecked extraction and pollution. Witness “Gaia’s Revenge,” as James Lovelock put it. All of humanity suffers from this blowback, the conspicuously consuming and technologically insulated wealthy Western peoples as well as the Global South, where billions of people are eager for justice to be restored despite being first in line to face rising sea levels and changing climates.

The drive to dominate the Earth among the Biblical peoples has deep roots in a perhaps partial reading of the story of creation: “What a beastly irony: somehow human-godlikeness got taken as ‘go for it, godly world masters: use up the earth, waste its creatures” (131). Keller closes chapter five by offering a re-reading of the first book, reminding that Elohim creates not from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) but from “the deep” (creatio ex profundis). Further, God says that every creature, and creation itself, is good, indicating to Keller that we who are made in God’s image “are called to emulate that love of the material universe” (131). (For more on Keller’s theopoetic reading of Genesis, be sure to check out her book Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming). 

In Chapter 6, Keller explores the “poetics of Hebrew hope” that shaped John’s 1st century religious context and that have continued to reverberate through the millennia. The earliest Christian communities suffered disappointment after their messiah was crucified by the empire they so despised. They waited for a second coming, but Keller points out that no such “coming again” is mentioned in the Bible. Rather, despite the persistence of imperial rule and the increasingly violent persecution of his followers, Christ is signaled as “present” (parousia) rather than still to come (135). Keller goes on to chronicle the uses and abuses of Revelation. In the 2nd century CE, the African theologian Tertullian, emboldened by John’s text, attempted to create some breathing room between politics and religion by calling upon Rome to protect religious freedom (144). Eventually, Emperor Constantine would answer this call, but only at the cost of the imperialization of Christianity. The anti-imperialist egalitarian community Jesus had inspired thus transformed into the official religion of Rome. Still, Tertullian’s call would ring true thousands of years later, inspiring the liberation of slaves in the Americas. In the 11th century CE, Pope Urban II’s holy crusades, inspired by the bloody battles of John’s visions, unified a war torn Europe against a common Muslim enemy. A century later, European Christendom would face internal dissensions again, as heterodox communities perceived the growing wealth of the Vatican through the lens of John’s Great Whore (149). The monk Joachim of Fiore declared the coming “Age of Spirit” when the Church hierarchy would be dissolved, all property would be held in common, and everyone would have direct access to the divine. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg, thus initiating the Protestant revolt against the excesses of the Catholic Church. Luther memed scenes from John’s Revelation by portraying the Pope as the Whore of Babylon. Included in his German translation of the Bible was a drawing of the Mother of Whores wearing the papal tiara (151). The Thirty Years War to follow was the bloodiest in European history. 

Colored version of the Whore of Babylon illustration from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible

Keller chronicles these events to make clear that “the history of collective resistance to oppression is no less an effect of the Apocalypse than is the oppression itself” (155). Indeed, Jewish messianism leaves its traces in all modern progressive movements on behalf of justice. Keller says that the progressive left must grieve the “totalitarian traumatisms” and “messianic disappointment” of 20th century state communism, turning elsewhere for its (more intersectional, more cosmopolitical and multispecies) political projects (158). While the right appears more unified, and thus more poised to take power, it is “precisely because of its pluralist and planetary proclivities [that] the progressive spectrum is more vulnerable than the right to contradictions between its ever-apocalyptic priorities” (161). She councils our “cosmically entangled, dangerously gifted, achingly diverse” species to take time for griefwork, to mourn all that has been and is being lost. And she warns us to remain ever vigilant against the temptation to allow the rage that arises in us to forego its righteousness by collapsing into a vengeful “we-good, you-bad” dichotomy. The split between good and evil people only fuels more cycles of revenge. If God is love (as the other John said in his gospel), and if justice is what love looks like in public (as Cornel West puts it), then only our love of each other (enemies included) and of all creation can hold open the possibility of a future worth living in. What kind of future will that be? In the final chapters of her book, Keller offers some possibilities… 

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