In her work, Revelation and Aztlan: Scriptures, Utopias, and The Chicano Movement, Jackie Hidalgo places the Book of Revelation in conversation with various texts from the Chicano movement. Hidalgo draws from Vincent L. Wimbush’s notion of scripturalizations as a “semiosphere, within which a structure of reality is created that produces and legitimates and maintains media of knowing and discourse and the corresponding power relations.” Hidalgo sees scriptures as a locus for the “making and remaking of social power,” where people may imagine, create, and contest themselves (Hidalgo, 5). From this transgressive methodology that crosses the boundaries of genres and historical contexts, Hidalgo proceeds to make the case that scriptures may function as utopian homing devices for peoples with historical memories of displacement and oppression (Hidalgo, 5). Indeed, Revelation in Aztlan is not interested in mining what the texts mean or meant, but rather how they are used as tools for social power. Hence, throughout her engaging and theoretically sophisticated work Hidalgo seeks to demonstrate “how scriptures, as human endeavors, are utopian practices bound up with social dreaming and the making of people in place and the making of place for people” (Hidalgo, 5).
While each of the six chapters of Revelation in Aztlan neatly aligns to persuade the reader, I am particularly enthused with chapter three, where Hidalgo uses “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan” to explore the Book of Revelation’s representation of the New Jerusalem. Situating Revelation circa 95 C.E. and in the context of Jewish Diaspora communities in Asia Minor, decades after the destruction of Jerusalem and its sacred temple, Hidalgo surmises that John of Patmos scripturalized the New Jerusalem to construct a utopia of sorts that functions as a homing device. According to Hidalgo, this scripturalization of the New Jerusalem enables Jewish diaspora communities to reorient themselves not in reference to a particular geographical space, now destroyed, but in fact to a textualized and mobile center. In this manner, the sacred city is neither here nor there but now dwells within the community or, as Hidalgo intimates, may even be seen as representing the community of conquering ones that John of Patmos envisions.
Problematizing the ways in which John’s dualistic view divides the people of the world in terms of conquering ones and idolatrous human beings, Hidalgo notes that, “Revelation seems to set up dualism that put Rome on the wrong side of God, and reversals that lift up those seemingly peripheralized at present, dualisms that seem to even turn on others within Revelation’s shared periphery when these others do not turn away from the imperial ‘center’ sufficiently” (Hidalgo, 96). In this manner, Revelation in Aztlan queues us to search for the silenced voices within the Book of Revelation.
Thus, in my view, one the most significant contributions of Revelation in Aztlan emerges in the questions it generates about the rhetorical situation of the New Testament Book of Revelation, and the ways it adumbrates the link between the New Jerusalem and the messages to the Seven assemblies. If, as Hidalgo proposes, the scripturalizing of the New Jerusalem functions not only as a homing but also as an unhoming device, how would we imagine these scripturalizations not through the lenses of John and those who agree with him (e.g. the conquering ones), but rather through the lenses of the dissident voices, that is of those who are left out of the New Jerusalem, and whom John frames as idolatrous, immoral, and cowardly? I propose that mapping John’s rhetorical construction of the New Jerusalem as a walled city or exclusive utopian space that is accessible only to those “who conquer” may be an interesting way of addressing these questions and raising questions for the role of the New Jerusalem as utopia. Before doing so, I turn to some brief remarks on the important contribution of Revelation in Aztlan to the rhetorical situation of the Book of Revelation.
The Rhetorical Situation
One important contribution of Revelation in Aztlan is the way its argument adumbrates the rhetorical situation of Revelation that is ‘revealed” in the messages to the seven assemblies. Indeed, Hidalgo observes that “When Revelation 21-22 is read in relationship to the letters of Revelation 2-3, letters that challenge those who are deemed inadequate, or improper in their faith, it seems as if the excluded may actually be among those whom the vision is addressed” (Hidalgo, 101). By rhetorical situation, I refer to the problem or set of exigencies that elicit and frame John’s response. From the various issues he describes in these passages, the main exigency seems to be the presence of teachers and prophets who are promoting what the author refers to as food sacrificed to idols (εἰδωλόθυτα, eidōlothuta) and fornication (πορνεία,porneia), or the so-called teaching of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:14, 20). As Hidalgo observes, the audience’s positioning in reference to these issues determines their access to or exclusion from the New Jerusalem. On the one hand, John praises those who abstain and maintain his idea of proper moral and ritual boundaries using terms such as conquering ones or faithful witnesses, and promises them unrestricted access to the health and wealth of sacred polis. On the other hand, John interpolates the teachers/prophets in Pergamum and Thyatira, whom he charges with promoting εἰδωλόθυτα (eidōlothuta) and πορνεία (porneia), using names of ignominious figures in the history of Israel. Whereas he accuses those in Pergamum of having the teaching of Balaam, the immoral and corrupt prophet described in Numbers 22-25, he addresses the prophetess of Thyatira as Jezebel, the idolatrous and foreign wife of King Ahab mentioned in 1 Kings. Clearly, John makes abstinence from εἰδωλόθυτα (eidōlothuta) and πορνεία (porneia) key boundaries for defining the community’s identity as people of God, as conquering ones who are set to enter the New Jerusalem. For Hidalgo, the usage of the verb “to conquer” (nikao) invokes a mythic past that not only evokes memories of suffering under previous empires, but also “can provide a sense of power over history by writing a version of history that has been denied by a dominating power” (Hidalgo, 91). This supports her argument that Revelation’s representation of the New Jerusalem as a polytemoral and polyspatial utopia functions as a homing device, as a borderland imaginary, “as a city whose coming down from heaven” (21:2), means it is always caught in between heaven and earth, an “elsewhere” blurring the boundaries and existing within an entretiempo, a between space/time that cannot be “straightened.” (Hidalgo, 91). Could the ambivalence of Revelation’s borderland nature be also used to destabilize John’s apparently fixed boundaries between insiders and outsiders?
While the sustained use of Gloria Anzaldúa’s notion of borderlands throughout Revelation in Aztlan certainly helps to show how John disrupts the Rome-centered narrative of the world and empowers marginalized diaspora communities by using the New Jerusalem as a homing device, it could prove even more powerful if, as I have proposed, it was used to read the rhetorical situation of Revelation as a borderlands situation itself. For Anzaldúa, a border is not only a “dividing line” that serves to delineate safe and unsafe spaces, or to distinguish “us” versus “them.” Rather, it may be seen as “a vague and undetermined space created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.” This insight could help problematize and destabilize John’s use of εἰδωλόθυτα (eidōlothuta) and πορνεία (porneia) as fixed identity and access boundaries. Most importantly, a borderland reading may in fact challenge us to view the representation of the New Jerusalem not only from the point of view of the inscribed author, but also from the point of view of his “others,” that is Jezebel, Balaamites, and even the so-called synagogue of Satan. Reflecting not only on the fixity and fluidity of the US-Mexico border, but also on the imperial violence that created it, Anzaldúa proceeds to define a borderland as “an herida abierta” (an open wound), as a place where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds.” It is this grating that creates a third culture, a borderlands culture. This insight then pushes us to further analyze how the grating between the doomed center (Rome), and the new rising center (the New Jerusalem), impinge on the inscribed communities of Revelation and the fixed boundaries John seeks to enforce. Indeed, a borderland reading shifts the view of participation in what John terms food sacrifice to idols (εἰδωλόθυτα, eidōlothuta) from an immoral crossing of identity and ritual purity boundaries that exclude others, to a form of negotiating the borderlands created by the grating between the New Jerusalem and Babylon (Rome). Most important, reading the rhetorical situation as a borderlands situation helps us come full circle to interrogate the function of the New Jerusalem as homing device, particularly when it is represented as a city with walls that, while exceedingly glamorous, seems to exclude John’s “Others.”
The New Jerusalem
One major argument of Revelation in Aztlan in chapter 3 is that the New Jerusalem functions as a homing device that becomes a textualized or mobile center for the community of conquering ones in Revelation. Given the strategic role of the sacred polis as a utopian center not so dissimilar from El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan, an apocalyptic and utopian text embraced by the Chicano movement, Hidalgo is very attentive to John’s rhetorical representation of the city in Revelation. In Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem emerges as a “bride adorned for her husband” (v.3) and as the “home of God among mortals.” Among potential incentives to seek “citizenship” in it, one finds the eradication of death, suffering, and the old-world order, as well as access to the health and wealth that the city embodies (v.4). However, as Hidalgo observes, the benefits of the golden city are hardly universal; rather, they are reserved for those who conquer, that is those who keep the moral and purity boundaries John expects. While these find a home, the rest are insulted and threatened with punishments: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place is the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, that is the second death” (21:8). In her assessment of John’s description of the sacred polis, Hidalgo is also to be commended for being attentive to the textuality of Revelation and its use of material from the Hebrew Bible, particularly John’s use of Ezekiel and its vision of the measurement of the temple (Hidalgo, 88). Nevertheless, one interesting point to consider is the ways in which the representation of the New Jerusalem as walled space turns John’s ritual boundaries into physical and heavily guarded borders.
The Walls of the New Jerusalem
The representations of the New Jerusalem as an overly wealthy and healthy city may obfuscate the fact it is surrounded by walls that exclude John’s “Others.” Indeed, the idea of a city made of pure gold may be so overwhelming that one could easily bypass exploring the function of its walls. That these are made of jasper only contributes to overlooking their exclusionary function. So as to keep readers in awe of such magnificent place, John makes sure to give us the measurements of both the wall and the city. A perfect cube, the city’s length, breadth, and height are equal, each measuring something over 1200 miles, a dimension exceeding all human imagination. On the other hand, the height of the walls, as Jürgen Roloff notes, is 144 cubits, or about 200 feet. The description of the New Jerusalem as a city with walls creates a particular conundrum for scholars eager to identify the City as an ideal place. In his well-known commentary on the Book of Revelation, Robert H. Mounce states that the reference to a wall, does not suggest the need for security precautions, nor does it imply that Christians are a separated people. In order to calm the already skeptic reader, Mounce states, “The wall is simply part of the description of an ideal city, just as it was conceived by people in antiquity who were used to the strong protection that external walls provided.” On the other hand, in his exposition on the New Jerusalem in the Comentario Bíblico Latinoamericano, Ricardo Foulkes points out that the gates of the city area always opened, and thereby moves to underscore the inclusivity, ethnic diversity, and great wealth of the city.
Walls as Borders
From the outset, Hidalgo rightly establishes a link between those outside the walls of the city with those referenced earlier in the messages to the seven assemblies. One is justified then in mapping the relationship between the ritual and moral borders in the messages to the seven assemblies and the function of the walls of the New Jerusalem. In short, one may ask, how does the presence of physical boundaries around the New Jerusalem reinforce the moral and purity boundaries that John sets up around participation of εἰδωλόθυτα (eidolothuta)? In my view, these serve to (1) exclude the so-called dissident voices, (2) coerce the inscribed audience to embrace John’s vision of the world; (3) and ultimately to legitimate the marginalization of the Others. Although scholars have obfuscated the exclusionary role of walls of the New Jerusalem, in part because they unwittingly embrace John’s view, his separation of believers into conquering ones and cowardly, idolatrous ones makes this evident. While the former is set to inherit and inhabit the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:7), the latter are not only outside the walls, but also set to burn in the lake of fire, which the author frames as a second death (Rev. 21:8). Although some scholars seek to uphold the inclusive nature of city by pointing out the city walls have gates that never close, one can hardly miss that each of the twelve gates is heavily guarded by an Angel, a way in which John anticipates border patrolling the city. This leads to a few questions on the function of the New Jerusalem as utopia; namely, how would it change if we were to see it from the view of those John excludes? Perhaps, given the dualistic nature of apocalyptic utopias such as the New Jerusalem, it is part of their nature to be exclusive spaces in order to remain an ideal for a select few? If one answers positively to this question, however, that would ultimately blur the distinction between the New Jerusalem and Babylon.
Secondly, the walls of the New Jerusalem and the exclusion they signify may constitute an attempt at persuading or coercing John’s “Others” to self-exclude from the structures of the Roman Empire, or the socio-economic and political participation in it that eidōlothuta and porneia signify. To achieve his goals, John deploys shaming and fear as rhetorical strategies of persuasion. However, shaming his opponent’s idolatrous figures in the history of Israel (e.g. Jezebel and Balaam), or as cowardly and faithless beings outside the walls of the New Jerusalem, is only a first step and premonition of worst things to come. Indeed, John resorts to threats of exclusion from the wealth, health and status that access to the New Jerusalem signified, on the one hand, and to threats of punishments that range from perishing in the eschatological war between the hosts of heaven and the beast, to sharing the fate of Satan and the false prophet in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15). The author presents the New Jerusalem, with its concomitant blessings and curses, as an imminent reality and asks the assemblies to act upon it. To exclude oneself from the structures of empire seems to become a de facto way of entering the New Jerusalem and avoiding the threats of punishment, while becoming entitled to its benefits. Asking already marginalized communities, particularly in Smyrna and Philadelphia, to self-exclude raises questions about the potentially oppressive dimensions of utopias for those that embrace them, and certainly for those that do not see themselves reflected in them or fail to see any appeal in what utopias promise. Most importantly, it would bring to the forefront the ways in which John borrows the imperial imagery and rhetoric of power from Babylon.
Thirdly, the walls of the New Jerusalem serve to reinforce the portrait of others as Other and thereby legitimate their exclusion. As Anzaldúa points out, those in power usually refer to those inhabiting the borderlands as Atravesados, that is “Squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulatto, the half-breed, and the half dead: in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the normal.” This representation, in turn, creates what Albert Memmi refers to as a portrait of wretchedness, that is the representation of the other as lazy, immoral, sick, and primitive. Such a portrait not only serves to legitimate their exclusion as “bad hombres,” but also to justify the privileged position of those in power. As Pamela Thimmes notes, by casting the Thyatiran prophetess as “Jezebel,” the foreign, promiscuous, and idolatrous wife of King Ahab, John positions himself to play the role of the persecuted prophet Elijah, which in turn enables him to set himself up as a model of faithful witnessing before the community. If Los Atravesados seem to be conformable negotiating the borderlands between Rome and the New Jerusalem, how would this shift our understanding of the latter as representing a type of resistance literature? To assume this view is to embrace John’s view and his construction of the rhetorical situation. It appears, instead, that even utopias remain contested spaces and ideals that merit interrogation from multiple angles; including those of the marginalized voices. As one is attentive to how John constructs a desirable center, it becomes evident that the New Jerusalem is set up to replace Babylon’s wealth and might, but also to create its own “Others” in order to legitimate its rise as a new power center. This is something that Hidalgo seems to recognize when she notes that, while Revelation casts itself “as a font of alternative knowledge, its titling as ‘a revelation,’ an ‘unveiling’ incorporates facets of the power/knowledge structures of Rome” (Hidalgo, 102).
In conclusion, Revelation in Aztlan stands to make an important contribution to Revelation studies and, in particular, to our understanding of the rhetorical function of the New Jerusalem and its walls. The idea that a scripturalized New Jerusalem becomes a mobile center for the community that embodies the desires of the community is innovative. Similarly, Hidalgo’s application of Anzaldúa’s notion of borderlands to illustrate the entretiempo situation of the sacred polis, caught between heaven and earth, already a reality but only in part, constituted a sophisticated way of framing the polytemoral traits ascribed to the New Jerusalem. Simultaneously, this Anzaldúa borderlands theory raises further questions for the rhetorical function of sacred polis as a homing device for the inscribed audience addressed in the messages to the seven assemblies. While those who abstain from εἰδωλόθυτα, eidōlothuta emerge as faithful and conquering believers, those who partake of it, and the Roman socio-economic and political structures the practice represents, emerge as idolatrous, pagan, and immoral beings. As I have suggested, the walls of the New Jerusalem become the physical representation of the moral and ritual purity boundaries John sets up between insiders and outsiders. I have also endeavored to show that these walls/borders function rhetorically to (1) exclude the so-called dissident voices, (2) coerce the inscribed audience to embrace John’s vision of the world; and (3) ultimately to legitimate the marginalization of the Others. Overall, Jacqueline Hidalgo’s Revelation in Aztlan contributes significantly to imagining new and informed ways of thinking with and about the Book of Revelation as site for the contestation of identities and belonging.