29 August 2021

What Is The Mark Of The Beast?

It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.

The Mark of the Beast is perhaps the most frequently reference image from the Book of Revelation, the last book in the Christian Bible and the source of many of the Christian religions eschatological traditions. Yet in many ways it is also the most obscure--what is the "Mark of the Beast"?

Biblical scholarship is replete with theories about the significance of the mark, and the nature of the mark. Historians and theologians alike have myriad theories about what John of Patmos ("John the Revelator") meant when he described the mark.

Yet to my mind, such scholarly musings miss an essential point of sacred text: the question is never so much what did the author mean, or what did God mean, but what do the words mean to us? When John speaks of a mark, how do we conceptualize that mark?

As with all my Biblical ponderings, I have no grand theological or historical insights into the verse. I write as one ordinary man, grappling with a most extraordinary verse.

The Bible As Myth And Metaphor

To my mind, the Bible is best read as myth, and best understood as a metaphor. In saying the Bible should be read as myth, I use the term as the Greeks used its etymological root mythos
Myths are "stories about divine beings, generally arranged in a coherent system; they are revered as true and sacred; they are endorsed by rulers and priests; and closely linked to religion. Once this link is broken, and the actors in the story are not regarded as gods but as human heroes, giants or fairies, it is no longer a myth but a folktale. Where the central actor is divine but the story is trivial ... the result is religious legend, not myth."
Myth, therefore, is religious story informing a religious truth. Whether the historicity is precise is irrelevant in such a construction, in the same manner that the ancient Greeks were unconcerned with the historical accuracy of the Iliad, and greatly concerned with that work's capacity to teach the essential heroic virtues of ancient Greek society.

In like manner, the Bible's enduring legacy it its capacity to teach the essential virtues of Judeo-Christian religion and culture.

If we read the Bible as myth, we must approach the Mark of the Beast as a metaphor. It does not need to be a literal mark, or even something imprinted on a particular body part. It need only be something that can stand as a label.

What Is The Metaphor Of The Mark?

Thus apprehended, what metaphor can we find in the Mark of the Beast?

The text gives us a few clues. It describes the mark as something on either the right hand or on the forehead--something that is visible and palpable. It describes the mark as an essential prerequisite to commerce--one cannot move through society without it.

Such a mark, however, carries ramifications and consequences that go far beyond the mere transaction of business. The mark's meaning goes far beyond simple commerce. Consider: if a man can neither buy nor sell, not only has he no way to make a living, but he has no way to procure the essentials of life itself. 

If a man must wear a certain mark to buy, without the mark he cannot buy food, cannot eat in a restaurant, cannot rent a room or an apartment, cannot ride public transport, cannot buy private transport--in short, he cannot function in society at all.

If a man must wear a certain mark to sell, and must only sell to other wearers of that mark, without the mark he cannot sell goods, cannot operate a business, cannot hold a job or provide services of any kind--in short, he cannot function in society at all.

With such strictures, in wearing such a mark, in participating in such a society, a man surrenders his capacity to choose to whom he will sell and from whom he will buy. Such choices are made for him by the "beast" claiming to rule over all.

If we accept such a mark, we are not merely surrendering political and economic allegiance. We are not simply "bending the knee." We are surrendering our own moral agency, our capacity to choose right from wrong, and to act on that choice.

Caesar Is Never God

One teaching is emphatic throughout the Bible: we are all accountable for our own moral choices. This is made explicit in the Gospels when Jesus resolves the question of paying the imperial tax (Matthew 22:15-22):
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” 
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” 
“Caesar’s,” they replied. 
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
In every faith, in every tradition, the duty of moral right is a duty that we undeniably give to God. It is never a duty that we give to Caesar. Our obligation to do what is right is not a right administered to or ever claimed by the State.

Yet is not that the claim made by the "Beast" in Revelation, and is not the Beast unquestionably a manifestation of the administrative State within a nation? The depiction of the "Beast" as having many heads is at the very least an apt description of government bureaucracy!

If we consent to wear such a mark, are we not turning Gospel on its head, and giving all to Caesar, including that which properly should be given to God?

Force: We Surrender Or We Perish

Revelation says people are forced to wear the mark. Yet let us be clear on what the nature of such force is. In all cases, "force" is itself but a choice: we surrender to that which would force us, or we perish.

Surrender or die--that is the choice of force.

Let us be clear, therefore, that even when force is applied, we remain responsible for the choices we make. If we choose surrender, we own the consequences of that surrender. If we choose to perish, we accept destruction as the price for our freedom.

If we choose to wear the mark, even under threat of force, we are still choosing to abandon moral agency and surrender moral autonomy. We are choosing to give to Caesar the moral duty we should give to God. Whether the choice is "fair" or "just" is immaterial. If we choose the mark we are choosing evil over good.

Let us be clear, also, that when the choice is to surrender to evil or to perish, Revelation makes clear what the good choice is: perish. We are told the direct consequence of surrender--of accepting the mark (Revelation 14:9-11):
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
We are also told the direct consequence of choosing to perish rather than surrender (Revelation 14:13)
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”
The State As Moral Arbiter Is The Essence Of The Mark

Thus to my mind the "Mark of the Beast" is whenever government intrudes into the moral sphere, and seeks to compromise individual moral agency. When government presumes to tell us moral right from moral wrong, and presumes to regulate on such basis, the papers and documents of government become the Mark of the Beast. 

If we accept, on that basis, the demand of government to carry such papers, or to be tagged with whatever technological device government deems fitting, we are accepting onto ourselves that Mark of the Beast. Whether it is on the right hand or not, forehead or not, if we accept such assertion of power by a government, we are choosing to wear the mark of the beast, metaphorically even if not literally.

If we ever accept the Mark of the Beast we are choosing evil over good, by definition.

As the Mark of the Beast brought God's fury upon people in Revelation, the assertion of such power by the State invariably brings incomprehensible suffering on us when we choose to accept the State as moral arbiter. We need only look at the grotesque humanitarian calamities wrought by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century--the Soviet Union and its satellites, Communist China, Nazi Germany--to see there is more than a little truth in this warning.

Do not wear the Mark of the Beast. Not for any reason. It will never end well.

15 August 2021

Inheriting Blessings

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

Repay evil with blessing, so that I might inherit a blessing.

This is a challenging verse, and a troubling one, at least for me. When I am insulted, when I am attacked, when I am met with evil, the urge to respond in kind, in force, it not only tempting, but very nearly overwhelming.  When I am hit, I want to hit back, and I want to hit back hard.

Is that so wrong?

Repay evil with blessing, so that I might inherit a blessing. Why?

Do Blessings Matter?

What blessing can one possibly offer up to an evildoer? Surely he who is willing to attack me cares little if at all for my feelings towards him. Were my thoughts meaningful to him, surely he would not be attacking in the first place. Were I of importance to him, there would be care and consideration, not anger and ill will. He who does evil has no use and almost certainly no desire for any blessing I might give, and so giving it surely is futile and pointless.

Is this not so?

Repay evil with blessing, so that I might inherit a blessing.

If by giving blessings we inherit blessings, do we then inherit evil by giving evil?  That seems not unreasonable. The one is merely the obverse of the other, and so if we accept the one premise we must necessarily accept the second. We inherit blessings by giving blessings, we inherit evil by giving evil.

No one wishes evil upon himself. No one rationally chooses or hopes for undesirable outcomes. We want good things--regardless of whether we have made good choices, we desire good results. This is the essence of self-interest. 

Blessings Do Matter

To repay evil with blessing--to good in the face of evil--is thus no more and no less than our own self-interest. To achieve good results, we must make good choices, and we must take good actions. That others make bad choices and take bad actions is irrelevant. Our inheritance is ours and ours alone.

In the face of evil, what counts as the good choice? We are told this--the choice that arises from sympathy, from love, from care and compassion. The choice that is humble and humane, that is the good choice.

Yet good is the opposite of evil--and thus it is in opposition to evil. If we are called to make good choices, if we are summoned to do that which is good in the face of evil, we are also called to oppose evil. There is no compromise between good and evil--if we choose that which is good we choose to reject that which is evil. There can be no alternate choice in this.

Moreover, repayment is action, and in particular deliberate, intentional action; it is ever and always thus. Thus we are further counseled not to be passive in the face of evil. Rather we are expected to act, and to confront evil by increasing the good in the world. People around us may choose evil--will choose evil; we are well advised to confront that evil with a good choice, with a blessing, that we might obtain for ourselves blessings.

The Good Choice Is The Right Choice

The good choice is not necessarily an easy choice. It is merely the right choice. It is the right choice regardless of what choices others make.

To inherit blessings in all cases, we must give blessings in all situations. As there is no good to be found in evil, there can be no justification for evil. 

Repay evil with blessing, so that I might inherit a blessing. Truly, this is the order of things.

01 August 2021

Saying "Yes" And Saying "No"

And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one

I came to appreciate the subtlety of this verse a few years ago, as I was grappling with the challenge of defining my particular job and role with my employer. As often happens within technical professions, the evolution of my work team had resulted in some job expectations and responsibilities which in some ways tended to contradict each other. Ultimately, resolving those conflicts came down to this: saying "yes" and saying "no".

Yes vs No

"Yes" and "No" are binary terms. They are exclusive terms. There is no overlap between "yes" and "no". One can embrace a thing, and say "yes" to that thing, or one can reject that same thing, and say "no". There is no situation where one can say both "yes" and "no."

Yet within each affirmation is still a negation. To say "yes" to anything means saying "no" to whatever other options may exist. Similarly, saying "no" to one option means saying "yes" to the possibility of other options--and where there is but one other option it means saying "yes" to that option. 

When I said "yes" to the offer of a job, I said "no" to being what I had been for many years, an independent consultant. When I said "yes" to marriage I said "no" to other intimate relationships. Such is the nature of binary terms, and of binary choosing. When choices are exclusive, accepting one option is the rejection of the other.

In every choice we make, in every "yes" we utter, we embrace all that follows from that choice. Set a foot upon a path, and invariably one must encounter all that lies along that path. Only by choosing a different path can one evade any part of that. 

To say "yes" to the salary of a job is to say "yes" to all the responsibilities and difficulties within that job. 

To say "yes" to a marriage is to say "yes" to all the struggles and challenges of making a life with another person. 

One cannot say "yes" only to the pleasant outcomes of a choice; one MUST say "yes" to all outcomes of the choice, the good and the bad. All that is not on the path, all that does not follow from the choice, can never be embraced, for the simple reason it lies on a different path, on the path to which one has said "no."

Whatever is on a path is on that path; whatever is not on that path is on another path. Whatever comes from saying "yes" can only be avoided by saying "no." So it is that there never is any mitigation, any watering down of consequences good or bad. There is no "but" to follow the "yes" or the "no." 

If we say more than "yes", if we include the "but", we are of necessity choosing a different path than the one we seemingly embrace with the "yes"; adding to the "yes" or the "no" alters the choice; it alters the path. By adding to the "yes" or the "no", we deceive ourselves, as well as others, and from such errant choosing we inevitably find ourselves in a strange and unexpected place. Wander down a road thinking it is another and invariably one becomes lost and disoriented; the one must find the way back to a known place from which to choose anew. There is a discernible evil, a pernicious deception, that comes from corrupting a "yes" or a "no" with "but."

Say "Yes", Then Do "Yes"

There is also discernible evil in saying "yes" but doing "no."  This, of course, is the essence of a lie.  To say "yes" yet do "no" is a path of deception. Moreover, by saying "yes" and doing "no" puts us among the deceived, for again we are ultimately choosing a path different from the one we think we are on, and inevitably we will wind up in that strange and unexpected place.

Moreover, anything beyond the saying of "yes" or "no" is ultimately superfluous and irrelevant.  There is no emphasis to be added to "yes" or to "no", no extra word or syllable or sound which will alter in any way the nature of the choice being made. The choice is bound up in the "yes" or the "no", and it is the choice that leads to the consequence, and nothing else. It is the choice that sets one's foot upon a particular path, and it is that choice that leads one to whatever that path holds, be it good or bad, easy or hard. Say "yes", or say "no", choose this, or choose that, but recognize the choice being made, and recognize the consequences that will arise--not "may" arise, but "will" arise--from that choice. To say more than "yes", to say more than "no", is ultimately a distraction, a deception, leading to confusion.

The Challenge: Choosing

Our challenge is to choose deliberately, to choose consciously, and most of all to choose carefully. Our challenge is also, having chosen, to be committed to that choice. 

Place  your foot upon this path or that, but having placed your foot upon a path, walk that path. Say "yes", or say "no", but make the saying of "yes" or "no" the complete decision. Say "yes" to all that lies along the path, or say "no". 

Let the word be simple, let the choice be simple, and simply say, simply choose--and then simply do.  As no less a thinker than Einstein advises, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler"; complexity is confusion, simplicity is certainty.

In the work challenges I mentioned at the start of this meditation, the simplicity of "yes" and "no" led to a choosing of priorities--by myself and by others. Being committed to the "yes" or the "no" also meant developing trust that others would likewise choose, setting their priorities and performing whatever choices they had made. It meant embracing certain responsibilities, and claiming certain rights, while rejecting other responsibilities and relinquishing other rights. 

Saying "yes" and saying "no" did not avoid or preclude certain frustrations, merely allowed those frustrations to be seen as the consequences they are, and to either embrace those consequences or let them be the catalyst for new choices, with new paths and new understandings to follow.

One word. One syllable. Say "yes", or say "no."  Anything more than that is a mistake.