Revelation 19:11: “Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True—and he judges and makes war with justice.”
Not long ago, while reading for a class, I stumbled across this verse, and its final phrase—“makes war with justice”—sunk its claws into me, holding me down and preventing my mind from moving on.
Any other day, my eyes would have scanned over the biblical words without any hesitation, but some lyrical power in the phrase “makes war with justice” wouldn’t allow it.
In context, the rider in verse 11 is Christ, described as the King of kings coming at the fall of Babylon to finally destroy the enemies of God. In the scope of Revelation, the emergence of the rider on the white horse is a climactic scene. He charges into the narrative, ready to strike down the nations. And so trapped in that place, I considered the words, the claim that God enacts justified violence.
More than once, I have written on my struggles with pacifism, non-violence, and justice. Though my mind changes weekly, I have most recently been doubting the idealism of pacifism. And I think this verse reinforces those doubts. While we most often imagine Jesus as a lamb (also from Revelation), at the end of this story he is most fully envisioned as a warrior and conqueror.
Some may be tempted to dismiss this imagery as spiritual and irrelevant to physical conflicts. But a responsible reading of Revelation does not allow such an easy escape. Revelation, while concerned with eschatological and spiritual events, is most concerned with the fate of God’s people in God’s created world. Revelation seems to put forward a God enabling violence.
However, just a couple verses down, the author nuances this rider on a white horse. We are told that “he is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.” The allusion here to the crucifixion is clear. The revelator forces us to hold in tandem both our savior’s bloodlust and his sacrifice. The one who took on death is the same that charges into battle upon his warhorse.
This rider with a robe dipped in blood is hard to conceive. I think, though, that this striking image challenges the idea of Christ as a mounted warrior, destroying the enemies of God. Though I’m not sure, perhaps it suggests that, yes, God is a god of violence—but it is a self-inflicted violence. God does not seek the blood of those who curse him or persecute his children, but he seeks his own blood, his own life, to redeem and save his children—and his enemies. Is that, possibly, the only violence our God seeks?