And he said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16And 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.” – Revelation 17:15-18
Beginning with the wine press in Chapter 16 going through to the binding of satan in 19, we are met with images of horrific violence. Perhaps more than any others, these passages are difficult for me to honor as scripture. Yet it is important that we wade through them; that we neither turn away, nor give into the temptation to merely skim them. Even though they are bitter we must drink deeply here, or risk missing one of the greatest lessons of Revelation.
When John first sees the woman, the whore Babylon, he is “amazed”. Earlier the same amazement led others to worship effigies of the beast. There is something attractive about this woman. She bears all the markings of wealth and trade, education and culture. She is all that is best in Roman civilization–all the art and accomplishment the security of empire makes possible–and there is something attractive about her.
But she rides upon the beast– upon power and force and corruption and deceit–on all the things that keep an empire going. That beast will inevitably turn on her; it will destroy her. John shows us that, all that is good and attractive in an empire will eventually be stripped and devoured by the violence that sustains it–that is empire at its heart.
Picaso knew this. He painted it. There is a great story about Guernica. When Picasso was living in Nazi occupied Paris, a German officer was inspecting his studio, as they did from time to time. On the table were post cards of what was by then his most famous painting–post cards of Guernica. The officer picked on up and thrust in Picaso’s face. “Did you do this?” he asked. “No,” said Picaso, “you did. Have one. As a souvenir.”
Guernica is Picaso’s remembrance for a Basque town massacred, at the request of Spanish Fascists, by a German air raid. It is not easy to look at, no it is utterly disturbing. But even though it is bitter, we should look on it and take it in deeply. It is Picaso’s echo of John’s warning: This is what violence does. It may sustain an empire for awhile, but all violence eventually destroys.
That is not to say that our only valid option is quitism. I’m sure even Picasso was quite thankful for the tanks that eventually liberated Paris. And One of the most violent figures in Chapter 19 is indeed Christ, but though an army gathers behind Him, only Christ is said to slay. Vengeance is mine saith the Lord. In this life, it is inevitable that there be world powers, we are one now, as Babylon and Rome, and Spain, and Turkey and England were before us. And it is perhaps inevitable that such powers are violent. But we must be careful. Where the empire becomes an object of worship, where violence is as much an end as a mean, where power and corruption run amuck…there is Guernica.