One of the characteristics of classical comedy, as I have noted before, is the presence of “ridiculous suffering.” Over-the-top violence that is more playful than realistic. Like “The Three Stooges.” Or a pie fight.
Whether the assault be preposterously over- or under-whelming, the message it sends, I believe, is that aggression of any sort, even in the midst of great chaos and fear, is not only less-than-honorable, it’s rather silly. Violence does not have the last word, or the last laugh.
I believe this explains a lot of the “significant” violence that you’ll find in scripture. Sure, the Bible is very violent…and maybe it’s supposed to be experienced, and even enjoyed, like a Monty Python sketch! ?? Much more on this is to be said in future posts.
I want to focus here on another example of ridiculous suffering - the kind we unendingly witness in Road Runner-Wile E. Coyote cartoons.
Here we see the predator antagonist really getting his comeuppance in spades…and pretty much wholly by his own hand! Road-Runner has to but “beep beep” and the supposedly “wily” manages to punish himself in most extraordinary fashion!
This is the kind of comedy we witness, I believe, in that portion of the Book of Revelation that describes the exploits of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” found at 6:1-8.
As I have discussed previously, John of Patmos’ apocalyptic vision is not so much a terrifying “Recipe of the EndTime” as it is a satire of the Evil Empire of John’s Day: Rome. The Revelation mocks Rome as well as other apocalyptic literature of John’s day that insisted a big, violent battle would soon ensue to once-and-for-all defeat the Bad Guys. The Revelation reminds Christians the Kingdom they are called to serve is always about self-giving love and engaged pacifism. This is what Jesus taught, and this remains the way God’s New World will come about.
In the story, these Four Horsemen are called by God to gallop out of the heavens and heap destruction on the earth in four particular ways. They are usually presented as ominous and scary…of course they are, they’re coming to bring destruction to the world in four particular ways!
A closer look suggests they may be a little more Road Runner than Road Warrior….
As I discussed in my previous blog, Horseman #1, is commanded to destroy the Empire through “Conquering” and is given a bow to fulfill his mission. This could very well be a sly nod to the one army that the mighty, seemingly invincible Roman legions could not seem to defeat: the much smaller Parthian one. Armed only with a lot of courage, cleverness and agility with the bow and arrow — a much simpler and humbler weapon than the fancy intimidating arsenal that Rome used to intimidate and overwhelm their opponents — the Parthian army was the proverbial mouse that felled the elephant.
If this is the kind of thing the First Horseman has been called to do to conquer Rome, his task is going to be swift, light and surprisingly breezy. Beep Beep!
Now onto Horseman #2, wielding a sword and commanded to “take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another.” Wow, that doesn’t sound like something a peaceful God would command!
But maybe what this Horseman will be taking away is not peace, but rather Rome’s highly touted “Pax Romana.” This was Rome’s promise to nearby nations troubled with internecine warfare: “We’ll bring you our effective ‘peacekeeping forces’ that will not only end the feuding but allow us to establish roads and vastly improve your flow of commerce. What a deal!”
It was great, for the Roman elite at least, who always greatly benefitted from the expansion of Empire. For those under Roman occupation, the Pax was a nightmare. It meant paying incredibly high taxes as well as having to live in constant fear you’d be crucified if you were caught criticizing your captors. (Treason was reason #1 for having to go to the cross.)
As we know from reading our gospels, there was all sorts of anger fomenting against Rome, her occupying force and their own brethren with different ideas of how to crush this enemy. The “Pax” was really nothing but an unwanted band-aid constraining major festering wounds that would go haywire once the adhesive was removed.
To provoke slaughter as commanded, Horseman #2 just has to remove that band-aid. Rome’s backfiring “Pax” policy would do the rest, inciting more violence toward neighbor - and Empire - than ever before. Sort of like the way Coyote only gains momentum as he gets whacked from rock to rock.
Horseman #3 is typically understood as the one bringing the scourge of “Starvation” to the earth. He carries a set of weighing scales and brings the rather strange mantra, “A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!” Apparently, his mission was about causing the staples of the ancient diet - barley and wheat - to become very expensive, while the more luxury items remain reasonably priced.
What is being satirically enthusiastically announced here is the grossly unjust economic practice of “latifunda” (extensive estates), something increasingly embraced during Roman times.
As described by Wes Howard-Brook and Antony Gwyther in their book, "Understanding Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now”, latifundia…
Sounds like starvation is assured as the market allows the rich to get fatter and the poor…. Again, it looks like the Horseman has little he needs to do here except praise Roman economic policy. It is acme!
Finally, we have the Fourth Horseman — DEATH.
Now we have a heavenly messenger who is empowered to inflict what the Empire cannot. Death is wholly in God’s domain. And we’re told God gives this Horseman all sorts of "accoutrements" to assist in carrying out his grave mission: sword, famine, pestilence, and wild animals. That Horseman is fully loaded for success!
What I find most ironic (and dryly funny) is the fact that we’re told Death “is given authority over a fourth of the earth” to do his thing. Why only a fourth? You’d think Death always has free range over everything everywhere, whether we like it or not.
However, in the context of this satire, maybe Death only gets a fourth of the action…because Rome has done such a great job, through foolishness and hubris, in annihilating the rest!
With that kind of aptitude, Death can almost take a holiday! (And what a pity, because he was so well-armed to perform his duties spectacularly….)
I guess you could say one of the messages of this text, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, is that God destroys those who destroy themselves. !!
What makes this section of Revelation especially searing, I think, is the way it could serve as a satire of American Empire today. As I mentioned in my earlier blog, the simplicity and ease with which this nation (and the Western world, really) was brought down on 9/11 with but a few flying lessons and some box cutters is both horrifying and ridiculous. Our overblown militaristic response has only made matters worse, and more dangerous. Including our “peacekeeping efforts” in those regions we assumed would be so easy to control and “Americanize.”
Evidence of economic injustice is everywhere, too, as we continue to promote and export cheap processed food that makes obesity an alarming new problem throughout the globe and especially amongst the poor. That, and what our incessant need for the production of more stuff to befit the American Way of Life is doing to vastly contribute to global warming and hence water availability and crop production everywhere, especially amongst the most vulnerable.
If Four Horseman came today, Death could pretty much take a holiday, too. And if anyone starts pointing fingers at all the terrible people out there who are driving God to instigate FINALLY the End of the World, it’s probably really helpful to remind them that there remain three fingers pointing back at us.