Title: Faithful witnesses
Date: September 19, 2010
Texts: Isa 43:6-12, Isa 62:1-3, Rev 2:12-17
Author: Isaac Villegas
“I know where you live—where Satan has his throne” (Rev 2:13). With those ominous words, Jesus addresses the church in Pergamum at the beginning of the book of Revelation. “I know where you live—where Satan has his throne.”
What are you supposed to do when you find out that Satan rules your neighborhood, or your city, or maybe even your country? Do you get out of town as quickly as possible? If so, where are you supposed to go? How do you know when you’ve come to a place that is outside of Satan’s control? Or maybe you stick around, and try to live the best you can, given the circumstances.
These kinds of questions have been important for a church I visited recently in Goessel, Kansas: Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church. They are a community of immigrants. In 1874 they moved their entire village in Russia to Kansas, and they have been trying to figure out how to live in America ever since.
They left Russia because the Czar began a national program of “Russification.” The inhabitants of Russia were not Russian enough, so the Czar implemented a process of assimilation to make everyone more patriotic. His slogan was, “One Czar, one religion, one language.” He wanted everyone to be unified through a common language, religion, and political loyalty. By 1871 he began talking about a universal military service act.
This was not going to work for the Alexanderwohl Mennonites who had recently settled in Russia. They had emigrated from Poland about 50 years earlier because that government decided to make military service mandatory. Although in both countries they were promised exemption from the military, the national leaders changed their minds. Governments have always been deceptive and fickle, always going back on their promises.
As a nonviolent community, the Mennonites of Alexanderwohl could not serve as soldiers in the Russian Czar’s army. Nor would they abandon their distinctive Christian convictions and become members of the nationalized religion. So they left. Sometimes leaving is the best way to remain faithful to God’s call. Sometimes the only thing you can do is withdraw and escape. (See David C. Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, p. 20)
But every new place comes with its own problems. Withdrawing from Russian life and resettling on the Western frontier in North America was not an escape into a perfect society. Life in the United States brought new problems. Soon a patriotic fever swept across the country during the first and second World Wars. The Alexanderwohl Mennonites had to figure out how to be faithful Christians in the midst of nationalism and militarism. They faced persecution, but they did not decide to leave the United States like they had left Russia before. For whatever reason, they decided to stay and be faithful witnesses to the gospel of peace in a country at war.
Sometimes the Christian thing to do is to leave, and sometimes the faithful thing to do is to stay. It’s hard to know which strategy is more faithful in different situations. The Mennonites of Alexanderwohl have tried both strategies. And who knows what might happen in the future. It may turn out to be the case that Christian faithfulness becomes impossible in the United States. Withdrawal and escape are always possibilities, even though history shows us that the powers of evil stretch across the earth.
How about where we live? What would it take for us to leave, for the sake of faithfulness?
“I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me” (Rev 2:13). That’s how Jesus opens up the letter he tells John the Seer to write to the church in Pergamum. The Christians live in a tough spot: right smack in the middle of Satan’s dominion. The control center for the powers of evil is in their backyard.
But the followers of Jesus in Pergamum have proven themselves faithful, even while living in the shadow of Satan’s headquarters. “You remain true to my name,” Jesus says to them.
Let me talk a little bit about what was going on in Pergamum, and the reasons why Satan may have had his throne there. The city was a regional powerhouse in Asia Minor, what is now the modern country of Turkey.
The city was a center of medicine and healing. Galen, the great physician of the ancient world, was born in Pergamum and completed his medical training there. The city was the main producer of parchment (the stuff people wrote on) for the whole Roman Empire. Pergamum also had an impressive library of more than 200,000 books, which made it a center of learning.
So, it was a city known for medicine, communication technology, and education. It seems to me that that could also be a description of the Triangle, with our universities and the research triangle park, not to mention the medical centers.
Despite the similarities, there is a striking difference between our lives here in North Carolina, and the lives of the people who lived in the ancient city of Pergamum. In the first century after Christ, the people of Pergamum were extremely grateful for the Roman Empire—so thankful, in fact, that they established the first Roman temple for worshiping the emperor. Caesar Augustus had established peace in the region through the force of his military. His reign was called the pax Romana, the age of Roman peace. While there were wars on distant frontiers, the Roman Empire purged the Mediterranean world of violence. Pirates no longer disrupted trade routes at sea. The highways were finally safe from the thieves. Roman power brought physical and economic freedom from the threat of terrorists of all kinds. (See J. Nelson Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse, p. 59)
As a sign of their gratitude, the people of Pergamum established a cult for “the divine Augustus and the goddess Roma” —that’s what it said on the main temple in the city (Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, p. 79). One of the columns in this temple had this inscription: “‘Greeks in the province of Asia’ [are grateful for the] ‘savior who put an end to war and established peace.’” Notice how they called Caesar Augustus a savior who brings peace. (See Kraybill, p. 60).
In the first century, the church did not have a monopoly on the language of peace. The Roman Empire justified its use of violence as a way to establish peace. The Romans talked about their soldiers as servants of peace. For the Romans, peace was so important that they worshiped a god of peace named Pax. The dominion of the Roman Empire was called the pax Romana, where wars were fought in the name of peace, who happened to be a god.
There was a coin in circulation in Asia Minor that gives us a decent picture of how society functioned for the people of Pergamum. On one side of the coin there was an image of Caesar Augustus, with an inscription that identified him as “the defender of liberty of the Roman people.” On the other side of the coin there was an image of Pax, the goddess of peace, who held in her hand the staff of Mercury, who was the god of economic trade (ibid). The coin linked together Augustus, peace, and the economy. Caesar Augustus was worthy of worship because the people enjoyed the commercial benefits of peace, even if it was established and sustained through war.
And in this context, Jesus says to the Christians in Pergamum, “I know where you live—where Satan has his throne.” The letter continues a few verses later with a warning: Jesus says, “I have a few things against you: you have some people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin” (v. 14).
Now, Balaam was a prophet of Israel who sold his prophetic services to an enemy of the people of Israel: Balak, the king of the Moabites. The prophet Balaam taught king Balak how to tempt the Israelites into worshiping foreign gods. He was successful, and soon enough the people of Israel were joining in the sacred meals and temple orgies of the gods of Moab. (You can read about this juicy episode in Israel’s history in the book of Numbers, chapters 25-31).
Apparently, the church in Pergamum had people who were acting like Balaam—people who thought it would be okay to join in the religious and economic life of the Roman Empire, which involved honoring Caesar and the gods. Economic life and religious life were inseparable. The coins used for buying and selling also gave glory to Caesar and the gods. Transactions in the marketplace were also acts of patriotism and religious devotion to gods like Pax, who established a peaceful Roman Empire through military violence.
“I know where you live—where Satan has his throne.” The church in Pergamum lived in a tough spot. But Jesus reminded the Christians of one from among them who resisted. Antipas, the faithful witness (v. 13). Legend has it that Antipas “was slowly roasted to death” for not burning incense in honor of the emperor (Mounce, p. 80). For this act of fidelity to God, Jesus calls him “my faithful witness.”
What would it mean for Jesus to look at our lives and call us faithful witnesses? I don’t know if the temptation to worship other gods is as clear for us as it was for the Christians in Pergamum in the first century. And I don’t know what it would mean for the United States to become an environment where it would be impossible to live out Christian faithfulness anymore, as it was for the Alexanderwohl community in Russia in the late 19th century.
While there is a lot I don’t know, I think it’s safe to say that, like the Christians of Pergamum, there are Christians in our churches who adhere to the teachings of Balaam. There are many among our sisters and brothers who believe in war for the sake of peace. Many Christians trust in US military power to make our lives safe for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
While we may adamantly disavow the violence of the military, and peace established through war, what does it mean that we are involved in an economy that is linked to guns and bombs? Our dollars would be worthless without our military, which secures our borders and protects our interests in foreign countries.
Just as we can look back at the church in Pergamum two thousand years ago and learn about their context from the inscriptions on their coins, what will Christians two thousand years from now see when they look back at our lives and the money in our pockets? We also carry around inscriptions that give glory to American gods: “In God we trust,” it says on our dollars and coins. Are these inscriptions any different than the gods represented on the ancient coins of Pergamum?