"Is Revelation the only book that anyone reads?" my husband sarcastically remarked the other day. Recent events have Christians opening their Bibles to the last book, claiming that it has all the explanatory answers to Middle Eastern affairs. Revelation has long been looked at as a crystal ball that reveals "end time" events in chronological fashion if we just look hard enough (actually, in reality, reading Revelation in such a way is a very recent interpretation that first became popular when the idea of a "rapture" was penned in the late 1860's... But that's a different topic!). Reading Revelation in this way, however, does violence to its historical and theological content. Instead of looking for theological answers about the Jasmine Revolution at the end of the Bible, I propose that we look for answers at the beginning.
Let me first say that I think that a theological understanding of the recent Jasmine Revolution has little to do with dictatorship vs. democracy. Functioning out of my subjective, biased American experience, I would have to say that out of these two options I am in favor of democracy. The deeper issue of this problem, however, is deeper than governmental identity. These people who are crying out in retaliation are longing for something that not even democracy in all its "glory" can deliver.
It is apparent early on in the Old Testament that God takes pain very seriously. From the very beginning God has heard the cries of the afflicted. When Cain murders Abel, his blood is said to have cried out to God from the grave (Gen. 4:10). He hears when the Israelites are in bondage in Egypt and mourns over their oppression. His sensitivity is not limited to the Israelites, either; in the prophetic books God frequently accuses the Israelites of doing the very same things to other nations that Egypt did to them.
According to OT scholar Walter Breuggemann, grieving is a strong critique against injustices. When we grieve, we are emphatically saying that something is not the way it should be. We long for a sense of justice that no governmental structure can give us.
The problem, then, is not that people are being denied democracy but that they are being denied the ability to express their grievances. The oppressed and marginalized are being silenced. If God takes the cries of the afflicted seriously, imagine how seriously he takes it when those very cries are being stifled.
The regimes of the day are right in thinking that their very structures are being challenged when marginalized people cry out. Such a critique is the beginning of the dismantling process. Whether dictatorship or democracy, they want to keep their totalitarian hold and will try to convince people that the world is as it should be. As I have already written, the issue is not so much about the choice between government systems.
This now brings us to the last book of the Bible. Here, the early Christians cry out because they are being persecuted and they resist to the point of death (Rev. 12:11). They do not inflict violence but overcome their situation by the shedding of their own blood. Even the Lamb is not marked by the blood of his opponents but by his own blood (Rev. 5:6-10). In their mourning, they paint a picture of reality that is completely contrary to their own. They seek and articulate with symbols an already/not quite yet Regime that will deliver them from injustice. The Roman Empire could not offer this hope. Neither could the "Christian" Constantine Empire nor a "Christian" democratic republic years later.
During these revolutions, may we grieve and pray for a different reality that neither dictatorship nor democracy can promise. May we articulate in words and symbol an imagination that is quite unlike anything the world has ever seen. It is not a question of choosing between reality and imagination; rather, it is a question of choosing which imagination we will choose to perceive.