Babylon and New Jerusalem: A Polemic against Hybridity (Part IV)

Part II: A Polemic against Hybridity

Introduction

Using the Babylon and New Jerusalem symbolism, John has presented the reader with a black-and-white critique of the Roman Empire, a key function of which is to describe the exploitative economics of the Roman Empire. This dualism reaches its pinnacle in the appearance of New Jerusalem. Outside of the walls of New Jerusalem is everything associated with imperialism and empire, but within the walls there is none of this (Rev. 21:27). There is no spectrum; immediately outside the walls of New Jerusalem, complete alterity commences.

In John’s perspective, the Roman culture of imperialism and the Christian culture must be kept absolutely separate. In order to maintain the rhetorical vigor of this picture that he paints, the distinction between the Roman Empire and the ekklēsiai must be stressed to the absolute. Thus, any appearance of assimilation to Rome needs to be decisively countered. Evidently the imperial system of Rome had made inroads in some of the ekklēsiai of Asia Minor and so John constructs a thorough condemnation aimed at the Rome through the cities of Babylon and New Jerusalem, showing that by associating with the Roman imperial system, one is unavoidably mired in the imperial endeavors of the empire: its violence, opulence, idolatry, and economy. So while Revelation is appropriately viewed as resistance literature, it is also offensive literature aimed at excising any hybridity.

Hybridity in the Ekklēsiai

Postcolonial theory provides several concepts that described how in a colonized society there is a contentious integration of cultures that the colonized must navigate. Homi Bhabha, one of the pioneering figures of postcolonial thought, says that the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized is best understood as one of mimicry, a concept closely connected with hybridity.[1] This idea behind mimicry is that when the colonizer’s culture is imposed upon the colonized, the latter will internalize and replicate it. Yet this replication is not a perfect carbon copy, but rather results in a hybrid mixture that, as Bhabha puts it, is “almost the same but not quite.”[2] This is known as hybridity. Essentially, Bhabha’s postcolonial theory cuts against the notion of a complete dichotomization between the colonizer and colonized. He contends that the attitude of the colonized vis-à-vis the colonizer is not one of unequivocal hostility, but one of ambivalence where resistance and collusion are both simultaneously apparent in the colonized subjects.

Mimicry is prevalent in Revelation.[3] In many ways, the Roman imperial order is parodied by John and parody is essentially mimicry with the intent of mockery. Robert Royalty has argued that John, by utilizing wealth imagery in his description of New Jerusalem, is simply reinscribing Rome’s ideology of wealth rather than being critical of it.[4] However, applying Bhabha’s insights on mimicry would suggest that Royalty misconstrues how John has altered the wealth imagery through his use of mockery and irony. Reading John’s narrative of Babylon and New Jerusalem with Bhabha’s concepts of mimicry and hybridity in mind shows that John indirectly represents the economic situation of his day, while mocking the entrenched assumptions about wealth, money, and power that underlie imperial economics.

Footnotes

[1] For Bhabha’s thoughts on mimicry and hybridity, see, e.g., Homi K. Bhabha, “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817”, in Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (2nd edn; London: Routledge 1994), pp. 102–22.

[2] Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse”, in Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (2nd edn; London: Routledge 1994), pp. 85–92 (p. 86).

[3] The fact that Revelation co-opts Roman ideology and language is nothing new. For a thorough examination of the status quaestionis of the Roman imperial cult in Revelation, see Michael Naylor, “The Roman Imperial Cult and Revelation”, Currents in Biblical Research 8 (2010), pp. 207–39. See also Steven J. Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[4] Robert Royalty, The Streets of Heaven: The Ideology of Wealth in the Apocalypse of John (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998).

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