The book of Revelation is much misunderstood. Duh! It's the nature of that misunderstanding we must get hold of. We westerners think linearly. So we expect Revelation to be telling us history (present or future). Let's call it calendarizing.
The genre of Revelation's vision is apocalyptic. That's why it has all the weird imagery and bizarre characters. As strange as this is to us it was familiar to its first readers. Though apocalyptic literature does sketch the broad path of history at times, its most vital function is not calendarizing but characterizing. More like a x-ray apocalyptic unveils was is at the heart of what is going on.
The Roman Empire is clearly the "bad" guy in Revelation, the beast who is persecuting and oppressing the church. Yet an ordinary citizen of the empire would not have seen it that way. Yes, the empire was authoritarian and could be brutal to those who stepped out line. But think of all the benefits: the wonderful system of roads that made travel in the empire ever so much easier, the pax Romana, its laws and order, its wealth, worldwide trade, beauty, durable political institutions, and the like. Was this not the pinnacle of human civilization to that point? Yes, no doubt.
John the Seer, however, paints the empire as a beast, dragon-spawn, a terror to God's people. It's lurid portrayal displays nothing good about this abominable creature. That's because John's x-ray like vision cuts beneath all the political and cultural "goods" of the empire to lay bare its heart. And at heart, this empire, any human empire, is beastly. Its pretentions of grandeur, its unsatisfiable grasp to bring all things under its sway, to impose its way of life on other nations and peoples, to promote its own goodness, to set itself up as a deity, are among empire's "beastly" marks. Like the apple that is red, shiny, and delicious-looking on the outside but rotten at the core, Revelation enables us to see the core of empire and respond appropriately, faithfully.
And that response is to have nothing to do with the empire at that level. However wonderful or beneficial some aspects of the empire might be, there can be nothing acceptable about it at the level of sharing its intentions, worldview, self-idolization, will to power, greed and the like. In short, the animating center of the empire, all empires, is to make itself pre-eminent in all things to all people for all time (remember the thousand-year Reich). All its actions are driven by this idolatrous ambition. And that idolatry is what Revelation finds characterizing the empire. And at this level the church can only respond in total and complete rejection and move to "reveal" the lusts and lies that attempt to justify and extend empire's reach.
Not everything an empire does is necessarily bad or evil. Paul asserted his Roman citizenship to get himself out of trouble. Free Christians used and enjoyed the various benefits the empire offered its citizens to live and spread the gospel. They learned valuable truths from it. Yet, at the end of the day, they completely rejected the ideology and intentions that drove the empire to do what it did. And sometimes they got persecuted for their failure to completely capitulate to Rome and cry out "Caesar is Lord" along with the rest of the populace.
Revelation's great value for us today is its relentless insistence that we today never forget this truth above all other truths - only God is king, his kingdom is the only true empire, it is marked by merciful love, welcome, provision, and protection for all its members, demands or total allegiance, and makes it members lords of all by becoming servants of all.
Usually elections in America are choices between candidates and policies that we believe will make a more or less difference in the quality of our lives and fortunes of our country. But in 2016 we had an election that unveiled the heart, the character of our empire, in bold relief. But not in a simple one-sided way. Two faces of empire were laid bare for us to see. Neoliberal globalistic imperialism, on the one hand, and a vulgar nativistic, racist, militaristic imperialism on the other. Both faces showed themselves in so nakedly in this election because the empire is in trouble. And when empire's are in trouble they always default to basics. Elite basics were Clinton's bottom line, Trump's the basics of those alienated and disempowered. Neither basics are acceptable to Christians. Choices in this kind of election are never fundamentally between the lesser of evils or gradations of good. I submit this election for Christians was about discerning the apocalyptic "signs of the times" and rejecting the twin idolatries on offer. Maybe that meant a third party vote, a write-in, or a refusal to vote. But John's revelatory word to us this year was to behold our empire reduced to its basic drives and intentions and to refuse to participate on those terms, to reaffirm our rejection of these terms, proclaim Jesus as Lord, and redouble our "lordly" servanthood to the poor and the needy, the last and the least.
We misunderstand John's message if we think it is about a partisan choice. This year it was about God's kingdom vs. the American empire. It was about recognizing and affirming, with Tony Campolo, that though America may be the best Babylon we've ever seen, it is still a Babylon. And that's what the election was about for the church - not a slightly less brutal and unjust Clinton administration or a grotesque parody of the "best" of America in a Trump administration. No, it was about recognizing and rejecting "Babylon" in both its faces and choosing God's kingdom over either.
This is my mea culpa in some respects. I voted for Clinton at the end of the day, forgetting John's word to me, misreading myself the "signs of the times." This is my confession. Forgive me.