Thursday, March 14, 2013

"Avenge Our Blood": Martyrdom and Empire Building in Revelation 6:9-11

This paper was written for Dr. Moore's class on Revelation almost a year ago now. I was thinking back on it, hit by a wave of nostalgia for my academic days at the same time I have been reading up on nationalism and martyrdom again. So I decided to post it! 

"When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, 'Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?' They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed."
-Revelation 6:9-111
The year is 1389, the place is Kosovo, and Prince Lazar is leading his people against the forces of the Ottoman Empire to defend the independence of his people. He is killed, delivered into the hands of the enemy by one of his own and from then on, so the story goes, Serbs become a martyred people of sorts, people we see in Revelation 6:9-11 under the altar crying out, not for independence, but for vengeance. This was not always the story in Serbia, of course, but it is one that came into being in the nineteenth century, and so even today this defeat more than six hundred years ago, it is a battle that is remembered.2 During the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, war criminal and then-president of Republika Srpska within Bosnia, Radovan Karadžić, used to appear publicly with what were essentially bards who sang, “Serb brothers, wherever you are, with the help of Almighty God / For the sake of the Cross and the Christian Faith and our imperial fatherland / I call you to join the battle of Kosovo.”3 Within this one folk song, we see both the imperial imagination of Greater Serbia and the explicit call to join this 600-year old battle in the name of the suffering of the cross. Lynda E. Boose explains, “Not many nations celebrate a defeat as the cradle of their nationhood, but by doing so Serbs seal their history within a mythic imaginary in which the Serbs are forever victims, situated for perpetuity in the place of resentment and unassuaged revenge within a story that promises to confer heroism in the present only through return, repetition, and revenge.”4 In this paper I posit that Revelation also serves within a mythic imaginary to present Christians as forever victims in such a way that God's vengeance becomes more important than freedom in the construction of Christian identity just as revenge was more important in the construction of a Serb nation than independence. “Martyrdom was--- and continues to be---” as Elizabeth A. Castelli in her work on martyrdom and collective memory asserts, “such a critical building block of Christian culture.”5

I want to stress here that the relationship between Serbia and Yugoslavia is different than the colonial power of Rome, for example. Though there is a very strong sense of the process of empire building in the Serbia-Yugoslavia relationship, there is less an understanding of Serbia as a colonizing power during the conflicts in the 1990s. Yet I was intrigued by reading Revelation next to Serb nationalism because, to add yet another layer, I think this relationship will bring into focus the way that Revelation is used, particularly in more fundamentalist contexts, to negate the hegemonic power of Christianity in the USA and claim an oppressed experience.6 As Castelli points out, “The politically right-wing Christian Coalition mastered the use of the language of religious persecution and martyrdom to deflect and defuse virtually any critique lodged by any opponents of its theocratic political project.”7 This is, of course, a paper that merely wades into a much deeper, vastly more complex discussion, but I see it as an important process of connection to use as a tool to counter cries of “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?”

Revelation is written for and about martyrs; it is a textbook for martyrs.8 In Revelation 6:9-11 we see glorified slaughtered bodies and, as I have already suggested, are invited to ask for vengeance alongside these bodies. These verses are not the only ones that glorify martyrs, of course, for Jesus himself is the “Chief Martyr figure:” “The earliest description of Jesus in Revelation occurs in 1:5 when he is called 'the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings on earth'. These titles are especially appropriate in a work concerned with martyrdom.”9 Thus, the martyrs beneath the altar are following in the footsteps of Christ, sharing in Christ's work and purpose. So too, Serb nationalists using myths like the defeat at Kosovo and the novels of Ivo Andrić (1892-1975), portrayed themselves as Christ-like. There is a conflation of Serbian ethnicity and Christianity (specifically Serbian Orthodoxy) called Christoslavism, that stresses Serb Christian suffering at the hands of Muslims/Turks. Andrić, writing just before World War II, gave Serb nationalists an incredibly gory image of martyrdom in the fictional description of a Serb peasant being impaled by Ottoman authorities in his novel The Bridge on the Drina. This description is explicitly like Christ's crucifixion scene.10 Castelli writes of early Christian martyrs what could be written of Serb nationalists: “by aligning themselves with Jesus' own victimhood, they claimed as well the immediate divine vindication that Jesus himself, according to Christian teaching, enjoyed.”11 Thus, when John is glorifying the martyrs under the altar, he is putting into sequence a chain of events that not only links but begins to conflate the suffering of the martyrs with the suffering of Christ. Their deaths become part of the divine project. So too, by placing the impalement of a Serb alongside the crucifixion of Christ, Andrić has conflated Serb suffering with Christ's suffering, making their suffering divine. 

What is interesting is that despite real experiences of martyrdom, the two images of martyrdom I mentioned above, Revelation 6:9-11 and Andrić's The Bridge on the Drina, are fictional. Castelli reminds us, “Martyrdom as a product of discourse rather than of unmediated experience.”12 Martyrdom, then, does not have to be factual, but is constructed to create identity. It, as identity is, is imagined, but this imagined quality does not have a less real effect on bodies. Benedict Anderson in his work on nation writes that a nation is a fraternity of individuals, and “Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as to willingly die for such limited imaginings.”13 Anderson's phrase “limited imaginings” is in reference to the fact that a nation is inherently limited as nations are constructed in opposition to an Other; yet, limited imaginings in identity construction through martyrdom has another connotation as well, one in which identity is caught in a non-life-giving way. Martyrdom here offers not comfort in the face of or resistance to oppression but just death, an ideology of death.14 In the case of John's revelation, some of this limited imagination comes from the fact that John's paradoic mimicry of Rome has continued to such an extent that he cannot escape a vision that does not critique the structure, only replaces the Head. Stephen D. Moore explains, “Yet the difficulty of effectively exiting empire by attempting to turn imperial ideology against itself is regularly underestimated, it seems to me, by those who acclaim Revelation for decisively breaking the self-perpetuating cycle of empire. To my mind, Revelation is emblematic of the difficulty of using the emperor's tools to dismantle the emperor's palace.”15 John's mimicry is trapped within the cycle of empire, unable to imagine a new way to form identity, left only with an ideology of death.
So John's martyrs are dying for the same system that kills them, only Sovereign Lord, holy and true, is the tyrant Caesar now. In a similar way, Serb nationalism trades places with those they claim are the oppressors, Turks who impale innocent Serb peasants, by becoming génocidaires. The focus on vengeance that we see in the martyrs' cry seems to be one of the focal points of this failure in imagination, beautifully summed up in Moore's own questioning of the martyrs' lament of how long:

“But what does the cry for vengeance from under the altar, heard and heeded by the one seated on the throne, actually effect?...An eye for an eye? No, not an eye for an eye. What Revelation seems to be saying is this: If you gouge out the eye of one of God's witnesses, or even refuse to heed them, God will gouge out both of your eyes in return. And not only that but he will puncture your eardrums as well, and tear out your tongue, and sever your spine, and plunge you into a timeless torment. Or, what amounts to much the same thing, he will have you tortured for all eternity in the presence of his Son and his angels (14:9-11), the smoke of your torment ascending like incense...It's the 'forever and ever' that seems to make the punishment spectacularly incommensurate with the crime...”16

This is a cycle of a failure of imagination, a cycle of ever-more violence that can only end when all the Romans/Muslims are slaughtered. And perhaps then someone new to slaughter would be created; how else to maintain restrictive and totalitarian power? Mitchell G. Reddish uses Donald W. Riddle's work, to claim “that the functional purpose of both apocalyptic literature and martyrologies is social control of the group in a time of persecution.”17 We could lop “in a time of persecution” off of that sentence. Unfortunately, what has happened is that Revelation and the national myths of martyrdom have been used as forms of social control to accumulate more power in the hands of the oppressors rather than offer comfort the the oppressed. Returning to Castelli's critique of the Religious Right quoted at the beginning of this paper, tales of persecution and martyrdom serve to “deflect and defuse” real critique and real attempts at imagining new ways to relate together. 

Moore begins his own exploration of the “self-perpetuating cycle of empire” with a quotation from Eusebius' Life of Constantine in which “those ministers of God” supped with the Emperor in his innermost apartments, sharing with him at his own table.18 Here, the empire that John has written against becomes the empire for which he prays. Those martyrs had rested long enough, it seems, to see their blood avenged as their own took the seat of power and promptly began the Crusades, etc. as the firsts of many militarized horror fantasies to keep them in power.19 When Slobodan Milošević became president of Serbia in 1989, he announced Serbs no longer had to rest a little longer. In Kosovo on June 28, 1989, exactly six hundred years after Prince Lazar's defeat, the Patriarch of the Serb Orthodox Church lit candles to remember the martyrs and Lazar, who is often depicted as a Christ figure, was pictured in icons next to pictures of Milošević himself.20 What ensued was the vengeance the martyrs cried for; vengeance, not justice, not the pursuit of independence and freedom from dictatorships and Western Euopean-imposed boundaries, but vengeance that allowed Milošević to remain president until his arrest two genocides later in 2001. 

Of course, it gets a bit slippery to hold the threads of Serb Christoslavism with the false USAmerican fundamentalist sense of oppression with the martyrs of Revelation 6:9-11, and I do not want to give the impression that these three threads are the same, or to conflate the three. Rather, the parallels, the eerie echoes in these three diverse places, demonstrate that Revelation is a text of terror. Perhaps martyrdom is not always about the maintenance of power in the hands of the unimaginative; yet stories of martyrdom seem to be used very effectively not to counter empire but to build it. As Castelli admonishes, “One should worry about the staid, venerable, and ancient tradition that insists that death is a meaning-producing event, that truth and violence inexorably imply each other--- and that, indeed the first requires the second.”21 Again, it seems that to name Revelation as liberative is to sanitize its violence as redemptive without analyzing the horrific ways such violence has been realized historically and to subsume the cries of the oppressed beneath the so-called martyrs' cries for vengeance.
1Revelation 6:9-11, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006).
2See Michael A. Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (University of California Press, 1996); and Lynda E. Boose, “Crossing the River Drina: Bosnian Rape Camps, Turkish Impalement, and Serb Cultural Memory,” Signs 28.1 (Autumn 2002): 71-96.
3Sells, The Bridge Betrayed, 50.
4Boose, “Crossing the River Drina,” 80.
5Elizabeth A. Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 4.
6I am relying on personal experience here, though there has been work done on the ways in which Christians falsely understand themselves as victims. My partner grew up at a Southern Baptist mega church in conservative, rural Harford County Maryland, and every time I have attended his church I have heard at least once throughout the service something that indicated that Christians are oppressed by the broader USAmerican culture. Most recently, this sense of victimization has centered around issues of reproductive rights and marriage equality.
7Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory, 199.
8Mitchell G. Reddish, “Martyr Christology in the Apocalypse,” Journal For The Study Of The New Testament no. 33 (1 June 1988): 86.
10See Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina, trans. Lovett F. Edwards (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 37-52. Cited in both Boose and Sells.
11Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory, 51-52.
12Ibid., 173.
13Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, revised edition (New York Verso, 1991), 7.
14As Tina Pippin writes, “The ideology of death— that death and martyrdom are valued and valuable for citizenship in the city of God— is throughout the apocalyptic vision.” “Eros and the End: Reading for Gender in the Apocalypse of John,” Semeia, no. 59 (1 January 1992): 196.
15Stephen D. Moore, “'The World Empire Has Become the Empire of Our Lord and His Messiah': Representing Empire in Revelation,” Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Publishing, 2006), 114.
16Stephen D. Moore, “Revolting Revelations,” God's Beauty Parlor: And Other Queer Spaces in and around the Bible (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 198-199.
17Reddish, “Martyr Christology in the Apocalypse,” 91.
18Moore, “'The World Empire Has Become the Empire of Our Lord and His Messiah',” 97.
19As Moore writes, “The Crusades, the Inquisition, and even the Holocaust itself (the smoke rising day and night from the ovens of Auschwitz and Belsen) are but some of the more notable manifestations of the militarism that animates Revelation. Indeed, anyone of these campaigns might have claimed a warrant for its genocidal fantasies in the sinister logic of this most dangerous of biblical books.” Moore, “Revolting Revelations,” 188.
20Sells, The Bridge Betrayed, 68.
21Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory, 196.

Works Cited
Andrić, Ivo. The Bridge on the Drina. Trans. Lovett F. Edwards. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.
Boose, Lynda E. “Crossing the River Drina: Bosnian Rape Camps, Turkish Impalement, and Serb Cultural Memory.” Signs 28.1 (Autumn 2002): 71-96.
Castelli, Elizabeth A. Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.
Moore, Stephen D. “Revolting Revelations.” God's Beauty Parlor: And Other Queer Spaces in and around the Bible. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. 173-199.
---. “'The World Empire Has Become the Empire of Our Lord and His Messiah': Representing Empire in Revelation.” Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Publishing, 2006. 97-121.
Pippin, Tina. “Eros and the End: Reading for Gender in the Apocalypse of John.” Semeia, no. 59 (1 January 1992): 193-210.
Reddish, Mitchell G. “Martyr Christology in the Apocalypse.” Journal For The Study Of The New Testament no. 33 (1 June 1988): 85-95.
Sells, Michael A. The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia. University of California Press, 1996.

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