WHEN A GROUP of refugees from Burma who attend my church in Melbourne, Australia, asked me to co-lead a study of the book of Revelation last year, at first I was apprehensive. After all, the book is strange and confusing. Many, including Martin Luther, have asked whether it’s even necessary to include it in the New Testament. But, as our group plunged into Revelation’s mysterious depths, I was to learn that, unlike Western Christians, praying refugees readily see its lessons about the powers of evil—social, political, spiritual, and personal—and the decisive struggle that the Son of God mounts against them.
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The 18 young women and men in the study, who ranged from 16-to- 24-years old, were members of the Karen ethnic group. The civil war in their home region of Burma has, over decades, resulted in massive displacement and suffering. In recent years thousands of Karen people have resettled in the U.S. and other countries, including Australia. (Although current political developments in Burma raise cautious hope of eventual peace, at present fighting continues in Karen State and other areas inhabited by ethnic minorities.)
Leading the study of Revelation with me was Thara Nonoe, a Karen man in his mid-50s highly esteemed in the community for his skills in imparting knowledge and writing poetry. (“Thara,” which means “teacher,” is a Karen title of respect.) The young always listen to him keenly. Our six-part study was a segment of a two-year series of lay religious education. As I prepared, I was haunted by Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost: “In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17). Pentecost signifies that the last days have arrived, in fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel. In my mind, these words have particular reference to oppressed believers such as Christian refugees.
From the outset of the study, members pondered with quiet fascination the fact that Revelation’s writer, John, can be seen as a refugee. To escape persecution, he has fled to the island of Patmos, probably from Ephesus, one of the seven churches to whom he writes. Was he joined at Patmos by other Christians? Did he live with others in a camp of vulnerable, temporary dwellings and in severe poverty—like refugees today? Like the Karen people who have lived for decades in camps along the Thai-Burmese border, where, as in their home villages, they were still exposed to possible attack? Like the young people in our study group, many of whom were born in those camps? “This book must be especially for us,” one of them commented.
THE GROUP HAD asked for a study on Revelation in order to respond to various temptations to misread the book. An ironic plus of refugee camp life is that young Christians have time to become familiar with much of the Bible; some religious groups among the Karen have come to emphasize a literal interpretation of the numbers in Revelation. They believe, for example, that only 144,000 people will be saved. Also, some young Karen in Australia had recently seen the movie 2012 and were disturbed and confused by its graphic images of an end time. As Thara Nonoe and I emphasized that Revelation is a dream—a vision John saw and wrote down—the young people in our study, initially preoccupied with whether to take the book’s numbers literally, were freed to see them as symbolic of present and future truths.
Nonoe and I began the study by simplifying. The book is meant to be read out loud in one sitting, we reminded the group: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it” (1:3). For the persecuted church members to whom Revelation was addressed, John paints a picture, wild and determined, of the final conflict between God and the massive forces of evil that persist on the Earth. We urged the group not to get stuck among all the swirling images, but to imagine a child sitting with a group of adults and, after hearing the whole drama of the book, exclaiming, “Isn’t it wonderful that the Lamb defeated the Beast!” The group quickly adopted this remark as a kind of refrain, which they repeated with vigor to commence each of the following sessions.
With the One seated on the throne, chapters four and five proclaim, Christ the Lamb is to be worshipped. Young Karen Christians know this truth in their bones—Christian refugees cling to and revel in corporate praise, the only thing that cannot be taken away from them. Reading these passages of Revelation, group members began to feel clarity about why worship is so deeply important to them: In worship, they stand by promise on the threshold of the fulfilled Kingdom. As oppressed communities sing “holy, holy, holy” while celebrating the Eucharist, they resonate with the angels around the heavenly throne.
Like the seven churches addressed in the first three chapters of Revelation, Christian refugees also face the colossus of radical evil. Many of our group members had been affected by acts of sheer violence, either directly or in the telling of family members. One study participant, when he was only 7 years old, had seen family members gunned down when the Burmese military suddenly entered his village.
Refugees too, like the writer of Revelation, sometimes have visions of the risen Christ, mercifully given in times of imprisonment and torture. One of the Karen church leaders gave his witness to us by describing how, when he was 19 years old, he was falsely accused of being “a troublemaker,” tied to a tree for 15 days, and mocked at gunpoint. During this torment he had a vision of Christ appearing to him in the jungle, as total reassurance that his life was in God’s hands.
APOCALYPTIC REASSURANCE, in the face of violence and even death, moves to the heart of the gospel message that Christ is present with his suffering people. Thousands of Karen people have died untimely and cruel deaths due to oppression.
Nonoe reminded the group that Karen church tradition teaches that, when we die, we “rest in Jesus” in paradise, awaiting the new heaven and new earth. The departed are in the company of the martyrs who, under God’s altar, pray for the continuing struggle of faith and witness of those still on earth (6:9). We have a bond with those who have died, Nonoe commented: We will all enter the fulfilled kingdom together after the journey of shared faith and costly witness. We go in the crowd.
How thoroughly biblical this description is, I thought. Here there is none of the glib, sweetened message, presented in most Western churches, of Christian souls one by one entering a heaven above at the point of their death.
Symbolically, John uses the number seven to depict the completeness of the end times now begun: seven seals, seven trumpeters, seven bowls. The conflict involves a process of judgment and an end. John also writes about the Beast, the seemingly invincible creature who is allowed to make war on God’s people (13:4-7). The temptation to lose courage in the face of the Beast’s power is countered by the repeated vision of the peacemaking, victorious Lamb: “Isn’t it wonderful,” as we reminded ourselves, “that the Lamb defeated the Beast!”
The group was now prepared to get a handle on the violence described in later chapters. Although all the young people had either directly experienced violence or were affected by family stories, they could only rarely speak of these experiences. Reassurance and a renewal of faith in the face of violence were critically important for them. It surprised us to note, with the help of commentaries such as M. Eugene Boring’s Revelation, that this kind of reassurance can be found, with a right reading, even in Revelation’s most cataclysmic passages. The images of earthquakes, plagues, and other disasters, far from presenting indiscriminate, large-scale devastation by a vengeful God, actually point to the rock-like firmness of God’s victory in saving the world.
The Lamb, and all who follow him, witness to God’s triumph. Corrupt economic systems, war-mongering, and the principalities and powers will all fall. Faithful Christians may faint and even be martyred, but the Lamb will reinvigorate them for the spiritual fight for justice, as the martyrs now in paradise cry “how long?” (6:10).
THE GROUP ALSO considered the idea that John’s vision calls Western Christians to be in solidarity with oppressed peoples and to learn from them. In chapters 21 and 22, the glory of God shines like a beacon, encouraging all faithful communities who are struggling. We need to hold on to the vision of the new heaven and new earth, when peace and harmony will be manifested throughout creation and the redeemed will be gathered in: There is “the healing of the nations.” In the present time, the vision grants hope to sustain those who struggle. Western Christians can learn this way of hope vividly from the witness of refugees.
Early on in the study, the question arose: How should Karen refugees now in Australia live “in a strange land”? While the young people’s faith and worship are strong, they are also tested by living in a Western country. As one girl in the group put it, “We live with material privilege we didn’t imagine before. We have all the food we want, good clothes, and many of us even own a car that we are slowly paying off. Is this what freedom is all about? We can become a bit indifferent about our religion and start to forget the suffering of our people. What helps us is to get together and remember our own people. They are still in danger, in Burma and in the camp. Not long ago we were like birds in a cage too.”
Clearly, following the Lamb means living by the Beatitudes. It means not being afraid. And it also means recognizing in Australia the marks of the Beast and of the Lamb.
At this point the group embarked on an exercise: Members took recent newspaper clippings and indicated whether their stories belonged to the Beast or to the Lamb. “Beast!” they shouted loudly when they saw images of excessive wealth, models in extravagant clothes, and read about the excessively long detention of asylum seekers. “The Lamb!” they declared firmly and tenderly of clippings depicting welcome of strangers, answered prayer, educational opportunities, and daily acts of kindness. The exercise was a form of both exorcism and loving prayer.
Every meeting concluded with singing: “Thank you God our Father / For giving us your Son / And sending forth your Spirit / Till our work on earth is done.” I have been a fellow traveler with the Karen community for many years, but the study greatly deepened my appreciation of the Karen people’s plight and dignity and of God’s power in weakness.
Ron Browning, an Australian Anglican priest, has been ministering among Karen people from Burma for the past 10 years. He works both in refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border and with those resettled in Australia.