Plaint and Praise

Egg by Elizabeth Brown; photograph (c) Katherine Brown

And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of the word of God and because of the witness which they had. And they cried out in a great voice saying, “Until when, O Master, holy and true, do you not judge and vindicate our blood on the ones dwelling upon the earth?” And it was given to them each a white robe, and it was said to them that they would rest yet a little time until they would be fulfilled also their fellow-servants and their brothers the ones who were about to be killed as even they.

Rev. 6:9-11 (my translation; NRSV linked)

The lectionary text is Rev. 7:9-17, but I’m sitting with 6:9-11. I’m cheating on the lectionary because there is something in me that wants to protest with the souls under the altar and is not yet ready to skip ahead to praise. Besides, notes from Rev. 6 resonate in Rev. 7: white robes (6:11; 7:9, 14), slaughter and tribulation (6:9; 7:14), a great-voiced cry (6:10; 7:9-10). In Rev. 7, the multitude cry praise; in Rev. 6, the souls cry plaint. The protest comes first. The text itself requires it. The fifth seal must be opened (6:9) before the sixth (6:12).

The first four seals have called out four horses, white and red and black and pale green, and death rides the pale green horse (6:1-8). No additional rider nor convulsion of earth or sky occurs when the fifth seal is opened. Instead, the opening discloses something that seems to be ongoing, ‘tas psuchas’ are already underneath the altar. Psuchē, here translated ‘soul,’ is a term that suggests life and animate existence. Yet these psuchēs have been ‘slaughtered’ for the ‘word of God’ and ‘witness they had’ (6:9)

What ‘witness’ did they have? What does it have to do with the arc of the action: the insistent demand, the reported response? And why is ‘witness’ — of all of the details in this tight-packed pericope — the note that calls me, when I had been so sure ‘protest’ was the summoning tone?

Witness is a significant motif throughout Revelation, as noun and as verb, ‘testimony’ and ‘testify.’ John declares he ‘witnessed to the word of God and the witness of Jesus (1:2). This word and witness is the reason John is on Patmos (1:9), though it’s unclear whether John is there because of John’s witness to Jesus or the faithful witness (1:5) Jesus’ own witness. It’s unclear whether the souls were slaughtered because they witnessed to Jesus or because they held Jesus’ faithful witness. Maybe these two possibilities are the same, a holding fast to the one who is ‘holy and true’ (6:10) with such sublime assurance of that one’s faithfulness that great protest can be cried. ‘Until when…!’ The souls have suffered the gulf between earth’s justice and the Lord’s, yet they have glimpsed God’s reign and cannot un-see it nor refrain from saying what they have seen. They cry out for vindication as if vindication of them is vindication of God. God’s faithfulness can be demanded because God is faithful.

‘Until when!’ It’s not a request for information but an insistence on response. Response is given: a white robe and the instruction to ‘rest yet a little time,’ an implicit promise not only of nearness but of purpose in the reference to unnumbered others still to be ‘fulfilled.’ That word resonates with implications of an expectation satisfied, an end accomplished. The one called ‘holy and true’ is also ‘faithful witness,’ seeing and hearing the souls whose witness led to their slaughter, and insisting on response, insisting in response that fulfillment is near. And it comes — at least in part — through the tenacity of this mutual witness work.

I came to this text identifying with protest because I am tired. Each hopeful turn in time seems uncurled by the next day’s news. I came to this text identifying with protest because protest seems the dominant note in every day’s news — yet protest defined in bullhorn-blared absolutes that brook no dissent on either side. I know the exact same urge to cry out. I need another model of demand. I came to this text identifying with protest, and I leave the text carrying its insistence on identity in relationship, reiterated cry and reply. Faithful witness as protest that speaks to the other in expectation of answer; faithful witness as heeding protest and giving reply (the white robe, the promise words); faithful witness as protest that receives that response and moves forward through it towards an end, holy and true.

I witness to God’s righteousness not by blaring it trumpet-loud at another but by living it with another. In discussion and dialogue and, yes, argument, so long as it’s argument with, not at. I witness to God’s righteousness by living it in relationship with God’s word and with my neighbors’ words, a conversation that calls all of us to account for how we occupy the spaces in-between and how we acknowledge all the in-between-ness of our inherently partial discernment of God’s absolute being.

I witness to God’s righteousness as I navigate the present gap between word and world in the way of the faithful witness, who was dead and is alive: seeing and hearing and knowing this world, suffering its brokenness, loving it dearly, speaking and working to lift it toward life.
‘Until when, O Master, holy and true…?

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