And when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony they had upheld. And they cried out in a loud voice, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?”
Embedded in the book of Revelation during the opening of the seven seals, amidst warfare and plagues, among beasts and the turning of the moon into blood, there is a simultaneously intimate and dramatic scene that centers the message of the apocalyptic book—it is the plea from the souls of the martyrs.
The opening of the fifth seal comes immediately after the scourge of the four horseman, specifically the rider on the pale horse followed by death and Hades, and the brief lament is promptly followed by the shaking of the earth by a great earthquake and the sun being made dark as if covered by sackcloth. In the middle of this suffering, our human author watches as fleeing men and women hide from the destruction. John, our narrator, hears the oppressed souls cry from beneath the altar of God, “How long, O Lord?”
The fifth seal acts as a sort of thesis for the Book of Revelation, not by its location or intent but by its encapsulation the themes over the breadth of the epistle. Revelation, for all its mythology and grand imagery, is a simple for a simple question. As the Christians of Asia Minor are persecuted, they long to know when their suffering will subside, when God will rescue them and judge those who have oppressed them. For that reason, they cry out, “How long?”
However, many Christians over the centuries have not lionized the fifth seal as the center of Revelation and have even seen it as scandalous. The late church father, St. Augustine is one of many who criticized the martyrs presented in the fifth seal as not demonstrating true Christian virtue. For him, their cries represent a refusal to truly love their enemies.
The last few years have seen a spike in public discourse on the subject of race and police brutality. The Black Lives Matter movement, specifically, has brought to the forefront of the conversation the excessive violence often waged against black citizens. And while some would contend that there is no injustice in these incidents, for most, on both sides of the political spectrum, the wrong is evident and they stand by their oppressed brothers and sisters—except they don’t.
Even among those who lament the tragedy of police brutality, there is a stark difference in expectation. For many, while they acknowledge the wrongdoing in the deaths of Tamir Rice or Eric Garner, they condemn the outraged reactions of black citizens, including their protests and especially their riots. They expect the oppressed to react by turning the other cheek. They look to the Civil Rights movement, and ask why the oppressed can’t act like that? They ought to be like the fabled MLK, not resisting, ready to take any abuse hurled at them with passive dignity. And while undoubtedly turning the other cheek may be the more righteous thing to do, maybe even more efficient,† this expectation has skipped a crucial step: empathy.
For as noble as pacifism and sit-ins may be, we cannot ask anyone but ourselves to act in such a way. We are instead called to empathize and acknowledge the justice of their cry. We acknowledge that screaming and breaking windows and rioting is a natural outflow of oppression and great loss. In understanding pain, we can simultaneously know that rioting may have its vices and we understand that damaged property cannot measure up to a murdered child.
After the West Nickel Mines school shooting, the whole nation esteemed the radical forgiveness displayed by that community, yet in no one’s mind would they have been at fault had they cried out for retribution. Crying out is part of life, of being human. The martyrs cried out, and God heard their plea. Others will continue to cry out, and we pray that God will continue to hear their pleas.
†Though one might point out that the Civil Rights movement was only successful because the authorities reacted violently to their peaceful protests, something not likely to happen today.