A Tale of Two Cities
Warning and Promise in the Book of Revelation
(Commentary from the Revelation and the Justice of God course).
Revelation presents us with a choice. Do we choose good––by remaining faithful to God, or do we choose evil––by fornicating with Satan. John most boldly depicts this dualism by contrasting the whore of Babylon and the bride of the New Jerusalem. In this commentary, Nicola Mountfort will compare the two, mainly by discussing their aesthetics, and will discuss how Revelation’s warning and promise relate to the injustices of the contemporary textile trade. She will explain how her artefact (tablecloth) focusses on the hope-filled promise of the New Jerusalem, and suggest that this could bring hope to those who are subject to injustice through the textile trade, while also bringing both warning and promise to us in Aotearoa who have power to alleviate suffering for those people by resisting assimilation to empire.
Aesthetics of Revelation
Revelation is a book full of colour, noise, smells, tastes, horror, and beauty. It confuses and amazes. It is a feast for our senses, and Revelation’s aesthetical language invites us to participate.1 Pieter de Villiers critiques the predominance of heavy academic readings of scripture, suggesting they can result in technical “intellectual sophistry”, which may disenchant readers from recognising scripture as narrating “God’s surprising, powerful presence in a tired world.”2 Furthermore, he implores readers to read Revelation from an aesthetic framework which plunges us into a new world, illuminates Revelation’s role as a “living source of faith for communities,” and encourages human transformation and flourishing.3 For this reason my artefact is a tablecloth designed to go on the communion table, which presents the New Jerusalem as ultimate beauty, inviting our imaginations to be in awe of this hope-filled promise.
The Two Cities
John utilises an ancient tradition of representing nations and cities as women to personify Babylon and the New Jerusalem. Babylon––who is actually Rome––is the abominable mother of all whores, and is contrasted with her opposite, the beloved city of Jerusalem, the bride prepared for her groom.4 This is due, in part, to nations and cities being feminine nouns, however Lynn Huber suggests this is also because both women and cities can be viewed as containers. A woman’s womb could contain a foetus, while a city had gates which opened and shut.5 This metaphor plays on the idea that both can be penetrated.6 The reader is faced with a choice between the two, fornicating with Babylon or pledging fidelity for the pure new Jerusalem.
Babylon, the “great city” of Rome, was a whore clothed in fine linen, purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, jewels and pearls (18:16), however this finery comes not from any admirable qualities but from her prostitution (17:4).7 Rome’s economic trade boom seduced the kings of the earth into fornicating with her (17:2), however dealing with heartless Rome, who rides upon the beast of Satan––the inversion of the divine––inevitably corrupts (18:3; 19:2).8 God cries to his people to resist and turn away from colluding with Rome. “Come out of her, my people” being God’s cry to his people to flee from the oppressive power of Rome which is drunk on the blood of saints (17:6). The implicit sexual innuendo is not accidental.9 We have the choice. Do we choose faithful goodness, or fornicating with evil, which will one day be the source of its own destruction?
First century Rome was a place of wealth and luxury, but this opulence was built on the back of human souls and bodies (18:13). The rich benefitted, while the poor suffered and were stripped of their humanity. Today, the global environmental injustice of fast fashion similarly has a debilitating effect. The rampant consumerism of Rome is echoed by the West, with the shopping habits of Aotearoa being no exception.
Fast fashion is big business, with $1.2 trillion annually going into the global fashion industry’s coffers.10 However, fast fashion comes at immense global health costs. Dealing with the production and subsequent disposal of the 80 billion clothing items purchased each year causes problems.11 High-income countries have dealt with this by shifting the social costs of fashion offshore, wishful thinking that “out of sight is out of mind.” However, low and middle-income countries (LMICs) now bear the suffering, which effects low income, low-wage workers, many of whom are women or children.
The majority of textile production is hazardous. Ninety percent of clothing sold in the USA is made from cotton or polyester. Aotearoa would likely have similar statistics. Polyester is derived from oil, while cotton requires pesticides and large amounts of water to grow.12 Textile dyeing creates toxic wastewater which is often discharged into water supplies. The majority of garment assembly is undertaken by LMICs, with 40 million workers globally.13 These people often work in unsafe conditions and are subject to hazards which can result in respiratory disease, cancer, accidents, musculoskeletal injuries, adverse reproductive and fatal outcomes, or death.14
The fast fashion industry encourages customers to simply throw away their garments and buy more. Materialism is rampant in the 21st century just as it was in first-century Rome. This waste creates ongoing environmental injustice. For example, in the USA, discarded garments equate to 5% of the annual landfill space. Other clothing which is not suitable for second-hand sale in the USA is exported to LMICs, where it is graded and sold in their second hand markets. 500,000 tons of clothing makes this trip annually, with much of it ending up as solid waste, polluting waterways and endangering the health of people, flora and fauna.15 Textile workers in LMICs are experiencing grave injustice. Revelation’s picture of the whore may be indicative, to them, of the greedy consumeristic West. Ironically these workers are surrounded by the bright fabrics which will clothe others, while they suffer in the making of these unnecessary garments.
The church in Aotearoa have the power to alleviate suffering for LMICs who are suppressed by the textile trade. While we might not have the power to change trade policies, we can lobby government to make change, and we can choose how we spend our money. Reducing our consumption is fundamental, and we can choose to buy well-made ethical clothing made from sustainable fibres. Simple changes also include shopping second-hand and repairing what we already own. The church of Aotearoa can choose to resist assimilation to empire by changing our spending habits. We can choose the way of the Lamb, instead of assimilating to the evil of empire.
So while Revelation’s horrifying image of the whore of Babylon is a warning to humanity, so Revelation’s beautiful image of the New Jerusalem is one of hope and promise. It is this image which I have focussed on with my artefact.
The New Jerusalem
In contrast to the whore of Babylon, the New Jerusalem is the bride of the Lamb, personifying the faithful community of the Lamb.16 She is clothed with acts of justice(19:8), in contrast to Babylon’s injustice (18:5).17 Unlike the abominations of Babylon, the new Jerusalem contains nothing unclean (21:27). She is beautiful, remains faithful to the Lamb, and is faithfully preparing herself for the Lamb’s return.
Communion Tablecloth: The New Jerusalem
My communion tablecloth is made from mostly re-purposed fabrics. Some are from garments which I cut up, and some are old remnants that I already owned. It took me many hours to cut, arrange, glue and sew all the pieces, with a few drops of my blood ending up mingled into it due to pricking my finger with the needle. I sometimes wondered if my experience was a minuscule reflection of that of a textile worker in a LMIC, because my back and wrists often hurt, however my project was done by my choice and benefits me, while textile workers are underpaid and work in dangerous conditions. I chose to re-purpose the fabrics into something new, to indicate the emphatic newness––the kainos––which God is making all things.18 These fabrics now combine to form something new, an image of the new Jerusalem.
Whilst the new Jerusalem is a cube, indicative of the Holy of Holies utilising the dimensions of perfection (21:16), my tablecloth is a two-dimensional square. Earthly representations of the New Jerusalem cannot hope to present the glory of the eschatological reality, but I have tried to display some of the beauty of this wonder.
Babylon, the whore, wore fine linen, purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, jewels andpearls (18:16). These colours of royalty have been corrupted and defiled by evil. However, in the new Jerusalem, the bride of the Lamb is also adorned with jewels of all colours. The bride’s beauty is true, while Babylon’s beauty is fake. The pearls which had adorned Babylon have been redeemed and enhanced to become the 12 gates of Jerusalem. Around the tablecloth’s border I have sewn 12 pearls, indicating these pearl gates. Furthermore, the gaudy gold which was dripping from the whore is now redeemed. It is pure, and so abundant that the cardo itself is pure gold (21:21), although it is hidden under the river of life on the tablecloth.
My tablecloth is resplendent in bright colours, including the purple, scarlet and gold which had been corrupted by Babylon. Here, there are many colours––reminiscent of a rainbow––which are now pure, holy, and beautiful. They have been redeemed. Other than the tree, all other shapes are abstracted, indicating the metaphorical account of John’s vision. Are these shapes nations of all different colours? Are they aspects of the city? Elements in the garden of paradise? Maybe all three? It does not matter. The nature of Revelation is to awaken our imagination, not to prescribe exact details.
The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life from the garden of Eden is now here in the city of the New Jerusalem spanning the river (cf. Ezek 47:12). It is resplendent with fruit all year round. I have used gems reminiscent of those of the tribes of Israel to depict the fruit. The fruit is beautiful and there is abundance for all. In Genesis humanity was banned from accessing this tree, but here it is available for all. The curse is reversed. Paradise is redeemed.19
The tree’s leaves are for the healing of the nations. I chose to make the leaves from a Pacifica-style garment that I bought from the op-shop bargain bin. It has vibrant colours, not just green. This indicates the eschatological reality of reconciliation among peoples, when people from every tribe and tongue and nation gather as one harmonious people, their lives centred on the telos, on God.20
In contrast to the bleak darkness of Babylon, the new Jerusalem is full of light. The entire city is focussed around the central throne, that of God and of the Lamb (22:1,3). In colour theory, white is light, and black is the absence of light. In the New Jerusalem there is no darkness––no black––as the Lord God is light. I have placed a white circle at perfect centre of my tablecloth. Upon it sits a candle which is the source of light for the
piece. The candle is made from eco-friendly soy-wax, pointing to the importance of caring for our environment, and it has 3 wicks, indicating the triune nature of God––even despite the binarian depiction of God in Revelation. I fragranced the candle with frankincense and myrrh, as an allusion to the incarnation, as well as to the liturgical act of the prayers of the saints being as incense (5:8; 8:3-4).
The source of life for all is from the throne, from God (21:6). The life-giving water is a gift from God to satisfy the thirsty (cf. Isa 55:1; Jn 4-10-15). This water is not polluted, unlike the abominations of Babylon’s cup and of the waterways of LMIC’s, and akin to Ezekiel’s vision it flows from the temple which is now redeemed as the throne of God (cf.Jn 7:37-39). The river in my tablecloth flows from the throne, flowing diagonally across the cloth. This life-giving water nourishes the tree of life which in turn nourishes the nations. Let everyone who is thirsty come and drink deeply.
The Invitation to the Ultimate Communion
Communion is a time when the faithful do three main things. We gather communally to firstly look back and give thanks for Jesus’ sacrifice; secondly, we desire communion with Jesus now and with other saints; and thirdly we look forward to eternal union with God. In this way Communion is an anticipation of the marriage supper of the Lamb and ultimately of mutual dwelling in the New Jerusalem.21 To participate in this we must come to Jesus, we must come to the table. Here in Revelation there is an invitation and promise. While we––the faithful––are crying out to Jesus to come soon, Jesus is also inviting us to come to him.
Here at the climax of Revelation the invitation is for all who are weary and thirsty to come, to come and receive the replenishing gift of the water of life (22:17; cf. Matt
11:28-30; Jn 6:35). There is no need for an intermediary temple between God and humanity, as the temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb (21:22). While at present we can only see God through a mirror dimly (1 Cor 13:12), once we are the new Jerusalem there we will dwell face to face with God (Rev 21:3; 6; 22:12-17).22 The tablecloth is bordered with scarlet satin binding, to represent the uniting of the people of God by the blood of the Lamb.
Revelation presents us with a choice, and as we come to the communion table and look upon this tablecloth which represents the New Jerusalem may we be reminded that our everyday actions impact other people. May we be reminded––and warned––to makegood choices which alleviate the suffering for people in LMICs, and instead seek for transformation and flourishing of all humanity. May we see this hope-filled promise and be encouraged to be faithful to the Lamb, and may those suppressed by their work in the textile trade see this hope-filled image too and faithfully endure. May we choose to drink of the cup of Jesus’ blood at the Eucharist, and reject the cup of abominations of the whore. Let all who are thirsty, come. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
1 Pieter G.R. De Villiers, “Beauty in the Book of Revelation: On Biblical Spirituality and Aesthetics,” Spiritus 19 (2019): 5.
2 De Villiers, “Beauty in the Book of Revelation: On Biblical Spirituality and Aesthetics,” 1.
3 De Villiers, “Beauty in the Book of Revelation: On Biblical Spirituality and Aesthetics,” 5.
4 Lunn R. Huber, “The City-Women Babylon and New Jerusalem in Revelation,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Book of Revelation, ed. Craig R. Koester (Oxford University Press, 2018), 307.
5 Huber, “The City-Women Babylon and New Jerusalem in Revelation,” 310.
6 Huber, “The City-Women Babylon and New Jerusalem in Revelation,” 310.
7 Craig R. Koester, Revelation. TAYB (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 827-828.
8 Huber, “The City-Women Babylon and New Jerusalem in Revelation,” 315.
9 Huber, “The City-Women Babylon and New Jerusalem in Revelation,” 315.
10 Rachel Bick, Erika Halsey and Christine C. Ekenga, “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion,” Environmental Health (2018), 1.
11 Bick et al. “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion,” 1.
12 Bick et al. “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion,” 2.
13 Bick et al. “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion,” 2.
14 Bick et al. “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion,” 2.
15 Bick et al. “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion,” 2.
16 Koester, Revelation, 827-828.
17 Koester, Revelation, 738.
18 Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 497. BDAG states the deﬁnition of καινος: as being “in the sense that what is old has become obsolete, and should be replaced by what is new. In such a case the new is, as a rule, superior in kind to the old.”
19 Laurie Guy, Making Sense of the Book of Revelation (Oxford: Regents, 2009), 172.
20 Michael J. Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2011) 166. Michael Battle, Heaven on Earth, God’s Call to Community in the Book of Revelation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 181.
21 Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us (Illinois: IVP, 2015), 35.
22 Laurie Guy, Making Sense of the Book of Revelation (Oxford: Regents, 2009), 175.
Aune, David E. Revelation 17-22. Word. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998.
Battle, Michael. Heaven on Earth, God’s Call to Community in the Book of Revelation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.
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Bick, Rachel, Erika Halsey and Christine C. Ekenga. “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion.” Environmental Health (2018): 1-4.
Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. Illinois: IVP, 2015.
Danker, Frederick W., Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed.
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De Villiers, Pieter G.R. “Beauty in the Book of Revelation: On Biblical Spirituality and Aesthetics.” Spiritus 19 (2019): 1-20.
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Gorman, Michael J. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness Following the Lamb into the New Creation. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2011.
Guy, Laurie. Making Sense of the Book of Revelation. Oxford: Regents, 2009.
Huber, Lunn R. “The City-Women Babylon and New Jerusalem in Revelation.” Pages 308-324 in The Oxford Handbook of the Book of Revelation. Edited by Craig R. Koester. Oxford University
Koester, Craig R. Revelation and the End of All Things. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eedrmans, 2018.
Koester, Craig R. Revelation. TAYB. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
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