When it was being decided what to call this movement to reform American Unitarianism, one of the more evocative phrases considered was The Reformed Unitarian Church Of The Apocalyptic Saints.
Certain to be a conversation starter, this title refers to the saints who struggle against the Beast in the Apocalypse of John, otherwise known as The Book Of Revelation. However, it is not meant to be sensationalist, but rather an accurate description of AUR moral and political theology: standing neither on the left nor the right, but valuing the roles that both play in the moral dramas of political life.
The Revelation contains one of the most striking illustrations of the dynamic between corrupted virtues, of the ultimate victory of reconciled virtues, and of evil not as an independent force in Creation but derived from denial of the conditional nature of individual goods.
Beast vs. Babylon
The saints are not described very extensively in the Apocalypse, but the Beast and Babylon are. The Beast is clearly described as an authoritarian evil and a false god. Babylon, on the other hand, is described as a licentious evil, more of a hodge-podge of unorganized factions (“people, crowds, ethnicities, and languages” as it says in Apocalypse 17:15) than a genuine civic entity, and therefore a false city.
The Saints, in contrast to these two conflicting evils, are from a true City, New Jerusalem, of the true God.
The two figures of Beast and Babylon are recognized (by serious biblical scholars, anyway) as symbols of Rome and her Empire, but this proximate historical expression of universal spiritual forces should not lead us to dismiss the Apocalypse as simply a 1st Century political screed. The conflicting moralities that gave rise to the social conditions in John’s day are at work throughout human society and human history. Wherever human beings interact, Bestial authoritarianism and Babylonian licentiousness will play out their spiritual drama.
Despite representing the same sort of complementary characters that form the basis of holiness when reconciled—Lion and Lamb, Law and Wisdom, Serpent and Dove—these two are evils when unreconciled. The authoritarian Beast hates the licentious Babylon who rides him, and rather than reconciling he destroys her. Babylon expresses her unreconciled nature by proudly claiming, “I am no widow,” thus denying the need for a complement.
Beast and Babylon represent two aspects of the deadliest of sins, Pride, which is the narcissistic belief that one’s value is incontingent of others, the very opposite of Agape (or Love, in translation), that highest yet humblest of virtues in which the other is loved as one’s self. Pride denies that good is derived from the Logos—from which all things came and in which all things are reconciled—and usurps ultimate morality for itself, claiming to speak for the Good or ignoring that there is such a thing.
Thus, Beast and Babylon represent two ways to reject reconciliation and contingency: Bestial Pride seeks to prove its incontingency by destroying others who will not submit, while Babylonian Pride expresses its feelings of incontingency by indulging with no consideration for consequence.
Just as good can be seen as the convergence and reconciliation of complementary virtues, the sin of Pride diverges into the tyrannous Rage of the Beast and the libertine Lust of Babylon. And, as Pride is the rejection of Agape, its complements are rejections and corruptions of the other theological virtues: the zeal of Rage is the corruption of the fidelity of Faith in rejecting the open-mindedness of Hope, while the aimlessness of Lust is the corruption of open-minded Hope in the rejection of Faith.
From Biblical Idiom To Daily Life
Although Beast and Babylon correspond to Deadly Sins, these two poles also play out in society and psychology where we might not be so quick to think in terms of sin and virtue. The political extremes of tyranny and anarchy are a good example. Whereas in the idiom of religion we might talk of Rage and Lust, in politics we talk of right and left, conservative and liberal, and here it is easier to understand how the dual offspring of Pride can tempt us as if they were the virtues of loyal Faith and open-minded Hope.
Speaking in Apocalyptic terms: the denizens of Babylon and the foot-soldiers of the Beast both think of themselves as the moral center. The Babylonians see anyone to their right as dangerously authoritarian, and the Bestials see anyone to their left as wantonly libertine. To prove that they are not extremists, both will invoke “worse” authoritarians or libertines to make themselves appear moderate. Upon closer investigation, however, these examples typically prove imaginary, historical, foreign (and therefore part of some other society’s Beast-Babylon dynamic), or members of a vanishingly small fringe minority.
And, given that both Rage and Lust are sins, it is quite possible for those on both sides to be in the wrong, insofar as they deny the contingency of their positions and reject the possibility of reconciliation.
The larger lesson from applying these spiritual types to our everyday lives, however, is that the Apocalypse is not a historical, physical one-time event for AUR the way it is for churches that indulge in materialist exegesis, but a spiritual event in action in our world at all times. The Apocalypse is not on its way, it is at hand. It always has been, and it always will be.
Whither Then The Saints?
The true mark of an Apocalyptic Saint is not that the armies of the Beast are on his right and Babylon is on his left. After all, both vices can play that game to “prove” they are in the virtuous middle. The true mark is that he loves both Beast and Babylon, and sees them as unfortunate corruptions of virtues, that each is a bloated demonization of the virtue the other lacks. The Saint wishes them reconciled to the universality of the Logos, even if they themselves do not.
While the Apocalypse speaks of the war between the Saints and the Beast, forced by the obstinate violence of Rage, it is mum on the relationship of the Saints to Babylon because the city is destroyed by the Beast. However, the differing approaches of the Saints to these two paradigms of sin can be inferred by the differing attitudes of Jesus toward sinners of the two types.
In the famous incident with the adulterous woman (the Pericope Adulterae) Jesus is clearly interacting with people given both to Rage, in the angry crowd, and Lust, in the woman herself—assuming she is guilty of the sexual infidelity with which she is charged.
Faced with the self-righteous violence of the mob, Jesus humbled it by asserting that the one without sin should throw the first stone. Though full of Pride and Rage, they were clearly not so lost to reason that they would claim to be sinless.
Faced with the already humiliated adulteress, whose Prideful neglect of consequence had been shattered by the threat of stoning, Jesus first stilled her self-disdain by telling her that even he did not condemn her; after all, what good is “love your neighbor as yourself” if you hate yourself? Secondly, addressing her Lust, he told her to go and “sin no more.”
The denizens of Babylon, intending no harm and being caught up in desires, are brought right through ministerial outreach. The followers of the Beast who are open to discourse can be humbled through artful moral reasoning.
The Militant Duty Of The Saint
But what of those foot-soldiers of the Beast who—unlike the Pericope Adulterae mob— are beyond reasoning, either through inarticulate rage or stubborn conviction? The Apocalypse has the Saints battling it out with the Beast, but doesn’t Jesus advise us to turn the other cheek when someone does violence against us?
“Turn the other cheek” is one piece of advice in a series of teachings from the Sermon on the Mount, a series which have as their common theme the internal, psychological origin of sin. It is not the act of murder, Jesus teaches us, but the angry impulse that is the sin. It is not the act of adultery, but the lustful impulse that is the sin. The act of swearing does not make you honest, only sincerity does. Some would argue that it is in this spirit that Jesus teaches us to “walk the extra mile,” to give a shirt-thief your coat, and to turn the other cheek: do not react out of retaliation.
How, then, do we reconcile this with Jesus’ reaction when faced with the money-changers exploiting the poor in the Temple? Jesus did not turn the other cheek or offer them his coat. The Gospel of John tells us (2:15) that, “making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the Temple.”
The only way to reconcile the Sermon on the Mount with the Expulsion of the Money-Changers is to reject both impotent pacifism and violence in anger. On the one hand, one’s motivation should not be one of vengeance or rage; one should be ready to turn the other cheek. On the other hand, we do not have the right to turn someone else’s cheek when we see them struck, or hand over someone else’s coat when we see their shirt stolen.
When faced with sins of violence, abuse, and exploitation—when faced with the unremitting Beast—the Saint must not give in to the spirit of vengeance or self-interest, but the Saint must still fight.