16. God's Gendered Empire: Performing Butler with the Book of Revelation
Critical Theory and Early Christianity - Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, and Judith Butler - Matthew G. Whitlock
Patrick McCullough [+]
University of California Los Angeles
In recent decades, many interpreters have found within John’s Apocalypse an authentic early Christian voice of anti-imperialism, even non-violent anti-imperialism. John’s voice is thus valorized in a larger project valorizing the origins of Christianity. Valorization then becomes a means by which we authorize our own voices. These interpreters purportedly rescue John’s revolutionary voice from previous readers who misinterpreted John’s radicality. John is not an end-times fundamentalist, a mere crazed sectarian, but a marginalized voice crying out against the injustices of imperial rule. In this way, many scholars suggest, John taps into a rediscovered sense in which nearly all early Christian texts represent radical anti-imperialism. Such positions may be critiqued from a wide variety of angles, but this chapter offers a critique that pivots on John’s subjectivity as author—one who textualizes the unveiling of divine reality—and interrogates John’s gendered performativity as he constructs God’s superior empire in contrast to the “whore” that is the Roman Empire. We see John masculinizing the elect of the Lamb and feminizing the authority of the empire. John’s use of gender here is not “fluid” (contra Stephen Moore), but decisively participates in accepted performative norms in ancient Mediterranean discourses. John’s textual product does not represent an authentic essence of Christian origins, however, but rather an attempt to construct a vision of God’s imperial rule bolstering his own place of authority and constructing communities as themselves representations of that divine empire. Reading today, interpreters struggle to resist the allure of John’s authorial voice. Lynn Huber writes about her ambivalence to John’s image of the whore, “On one hand, I find some satisfaction in the destruction of empire. On the other hand, I am troubled by the image of violence because of my sense of identification with the Whore.” For Huber, Revelation is a warning not to “become drawn into the false promises of empire and its fantasies of power” (“Gazing at the Whore,” 317). The very image of the whore’s destruction, however, is itself an imperial fantasy of power. The destruction of the whore is not the destruction of “empire,” but the discursive dismantling of Roman authority in order to claim such (violent, misogynistic) authority for the divine empire of the Lamb. Rather than reify John’s authority as writer of essential truths, choosing which (revolutionary) truths still count as authentic, our inquiry benefits from viewing this text as a product of Butlerian performativity. The representation of John’s voice as we read it today preserves no inherent, essential Christian challenge to empire but performatively constructs empire.