“As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free.” – Morpheus
In the year 1999, the most influential action movie of the generation—groundbreaking and innovative in its special effects and cinematography—hit the big screen and the world of film was never the same. From that point forward, movie history could be divided into two chapters. The world before this motion picture and the world after it. And if you are a 90s kid like me then you already know what movie I’m talking about: The Matrix.
For those who have not seen the film, the basic plot goes something like this: Humanity was losing a war with the robotic AI’s it had created. In a last desperate attempt to defeat the machines, the military attempted to disable the robot’s main power source—the sun. By destroying the atmosphere, which resulted in a permanent canopy of thick black clouds that blocked the sunlight, humanity thought they could finally gain the upper hand on the technocracy that was winning the struggle for power. But they were wrong. The robots found another power source: humans. By harvesting humans and using them as batteries, the robots could power themselves without the sun and continue functioning. But of course, in order to succeed the robots had to create a false world for the humans to live in while they unconsciously served as batteries for their automaton overlords. So, when a human was born, he or she was retrofitted with bio-techno inputs that would allow their mind/consciousness to be uploaded into this false world known as the Matrix. The Matrix looked just like earth before the war. And in the Matrix, people went about their business living life with no inkling that anything was wrong. One of the films main protagonists, Morpheus, explains it this way:
The Matrix is a system… That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.
Don’t miss the main point here. The Matrix is a system that is designed to keep people oppressed while making them feel free and independent. It is an illusion—what fiction writer William Gibson referred to as a “mass consensual hallucination”—that keeps people content so that the robots can use them as batteries with little to no resistance.
The plot of the Matrix trilogy is truthfully far more complex than what I have just described. But this basic understanding is enough to make my overall point. According to the Matrix films, humanity exists within a hallucination cleverly orchestrated by a non-human entity whose only objective is power and for whom people serve as nothing more than a means to a supposed higher end. Everything about our lives is fake, synthetic, and illusory. We do not exist in the real world but in a false construction that keeps us content in order for the true mastermind—the architect of the entire unjust system—to maintain his control. This is why Morpheus insists that “As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free.”
Interestingly, the Bible presents a very similar storyline. Satan emerges as a cosmic architect who, through deception, has engineered an illusion that enslaves humanity while making them feel free. This illusion is ultimately at war with God, and humans are mere objects used in that struggle—almost like guinea pigs in the rebel’s melee against the supremacy of Christ. So long as Satan keeps humanity distracted within the illusion, they will defend it despite the fact that it enslaves them. This structure—or illusion—in scripture is the illusion of “empire” (more commonly known as “Babylon”) which operates for its own self-perpetuation at the expense of the vulnerable and suffering. And no matter how many times the architect hits reset on his experiment, no matter how many empires come and go, the pattern is always the same. They rise to the apex of power and luxury, they benefit the elite and the mighty, and then they collapse and are replaced by another who, while promising a better world, ultimately manifests the same world. This is because empire is an illusion, power is a hallucination, and control is a mirage through which Satan bankrolls his anti-God agenda.
In the midst of this unfolding drama, God calls a man named Abraham through whom he will birth a nation of priests—a unique people who will live according to a different rhythm. The purpose of this nation is to show the other nations what it looks like to live in harmony with the heart of God (his law) and how this harmonious interconnectivity, in turn, nurtures a society of justice, equality, and prosperity. As the nations pass through Israel and see the health and vibrancy of the entire community, they are to be impacted by the notion that this society—defined by relational integrity instead of political subterfuge—is unique precisely because its way of governance flows from the divine heart and has taken root within the systems, structures, conventions and—most importantly—hearts of each individual member of the Israelite civilization. Idolatry—the worship of false gods whose natures and hearts are mere reflections of human selfishness—is expressly forbidden not merely for religious reasons but for social ones. Wherever idolatry is present, social injustice follows. The nation of Israel is to be distinct, defined by the rhythms of love rather than the impulse of self.
But Israel turns its back on God. Driven by its own lust for power and self-advancement, it begins to imitate the nations that surround it until it reaches a state of social and political depravity. And it is in this state that the story of Scripture explodes with prophets and prophetic utterances. Hosea, Micah, and Elijah are among the minor prophets who call Israel to repent not only in a religious sense but in a social one. Major prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah do likewise with Isaiah declaring, “How the faithful city has become a prostitute, She who was full of justice! Righteousness once dwelt in her, But now murderers.” (Isaiah 1:22) After expressing his disgust at Israel’s religious festivals, Sabbaths and sacrifices God unequivocally proclaims the true desire of his heart. “Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor, Obtain justice for the orphan, Plead for the widow’s case.” (Isaiah 1:17)
It is clear then that the prophetic voice of scripture is a social voice, not just a religious one. That is, it does not concern itself merely with religio-centric issues but with civic ones as well. In fact, the two are interlaced and cannot be parted. Prophecy is protest. Protest of religious and political injustice, oppression, and exploitation. But more to the point, the prophet is an anomaly within the matrix’s carefully designed system of oppression. For the prophet does not fit into the system, but rather disrupts it. He or she is like a glitch. The conveyor belt of empire failed to indoctrinate them into its image and thus, the rules that govern empire malfunction before the prophet’s influence. He or she transcends those rules, breaks those rules, mocks those rules, and leads others to resist those rules. Therefore, the prophet emerges in scripture in a similar vein to Neo’s character (the main protagonist) in the Matrix trilogy: as an aberration, an outlier, a divergent. But worse than this, the prophet multiplies his peculiarity by calling others to faithful alignment with the way of heaven thus “defecting” more and more minds toward the counter-cultural, anti-conformal rhythms that are out of tempo with the beastly impulse of self.
Revelation 18 brings this protest to afore by a detailed outlining of Babylon’s sins. Babylon here represents all systems of oppression, all governments that thrive on injustice and exploitation. In this vision, the prophet John writes the sins of Babylon in painful detail: political corruption, violation of human rights, economic indulgence, abuse of power, resource control, environmental and commercial crimes, human trafficking, slavery, and the murder of innocents. The visions call all those who are allied to the way of Jesus to leave Babylon—that is to abandon its system, its construal, and philosophies—because God is about to annihilate her and bring her to eternal ruin. This is not merely a city or a nation that God is destroying. City here is a metaphor for the entire matrix of human empire. The illusion has been judged and marked for destruction. Therefore, God calls his people to an awakening followed by complete renunciation of the illusion and the substrates that make it what it is.
And it is this awakening, this liberation from the illusion of empire, this enlightenment that reveals the cosmic lies of the dragon that the prophet is called to proclaim. Thus, the prophet’s assignment is that of a spiritual revolutionary, an agent of liberation, and one who exposes the systems of corruption for what they are even when the corruption is buried in layers of religious tradition and theological rhetoric (Daniel 7-8). He wanders the system as a divine insurgent who demolishes, not with violence and hatred, but with a call to justice and love. Is it no wonder that prophets have always been stoned, killed, and rejected by the very society that they are called to liberate? Is it no wonder that they are never welcome in their own hometown? As Morpheus said to Neo, “You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”
Nevertheless, the role of the prophet continues. And at the end of time, the Bible points us to an amplification of the prophetic gift. Sons and daughters, young men and old men (Acts 2:17), and a prophetic movement whom an angel from heaven commands to “prophesy again” (Rev. 10:11). And if this movement is to occupy its place as a divine-anarchic underground, then it will only do so to the degree that its prophetic utterances and postures confront the structures of both religious and social oppression. And perhaps the greatest tragedy of Adventism as a “prophetic movement” is its repeated failure to manifest this very pattern. The early pioneers certainly set the foundation. Their prophetic message moved them to actively oppose and fight against slavery, run underground railroads, condemn the false American religious/ revival experience marked by emotion but bereft of true, social transformation and break federal laws that conflicted with the heart of God. Early Adventists also fought against the political interests that kept alcohol flowing freely into poor communities that could hardly recover from its intoxicating effects (abuse of women and children, economic collapse, legacies of poverty) with Ellen White even suggesting Adventists vote for prohibition on the Sabbath if necessary. But as the church entered the 20th century and the prophet was laid to rest, it appears the prophetic movement lost its prophetic voice. In America, Adventism mimicked and complied with the racist policies of Jim Crow, perpetuated white supremacy within its schools, hospitals, sanitariums, and conferences. Local churches were not exempt. And its social construction of what a faithful Adventist looks like, promoted in its channels and publications, always favored an Anglo-European flavor of worship and expression thus perpetuating the notions that undergird white primacy. In Germany, the Adventist church complied with the Third Reich and became a participant in anti-Semitic rhetoric and practice. In South Africa, the church complied with apartheid. In Rwanda, Adventists murdered Adventists during the genocide of 94. The first criminal to be tried for murder in Rwanda was an ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister who lured members of the opposition to their deaths.
In all this, I ask, where was Adventism’s prophetic voice? We continued to preach the Sunday Law, the little-horn, and the anti-Christ with as much vigor as ever before. But our prophetic message had been divorced from the social and become a mere exercise in religious ideological warfare. In doing so, we did not see that like Israel of old, we had become participants in the very matrix we were called to expose and reject. No longer outliers in the system, we became a part of it as we perpetuated the sexism, racism, and selfish impulses of empire. The illusion had absorbed us. We ceased to be divergent.
For decades now, ultra-conservative Adventists have been condemning the church for its embrace of culture. They have been calling us “Babylon” and “worldly” because some of us wear jewelry or because many of us are abandoning the fundamentalist restrictions grounded in authoritarianism and coercion. I do not share their voice for one moment. On the contrary, I see such voices as mere victims of the illusion who think they have found the way out, not realizing that the more they rail against such superficialities the deeper they are sucked into the vortex of Satan’s mirage. Because the truth is, our church is not becoming worldly because women wear pants. The church has always been worldly because for decades now, we have become complicit with the hallucination of power and control, empire, and coercion. We have perpetuated the injustices of human dynasty and covered them in a veneer of theological jargon but the thing about injustice is that the voices of the suffering eventually rise to a decibel that cannot be ignored. And today, as I survey the landscape of this prophetic movement, I tremble at our mass consensual hallucination—a deception that allows us to toss Bible verses like grenades at each other white various inequalities continue to plague and define our identity.
So where do we go from here? I don’t think there is a single solution. There is a lot of work to be done in dismantling unjust systems and assumptions that underlie our church’s identity and function. There is also a lot of work to be done in our societies and cities on behalf of the marginalized and suffering. The conversation is enormous, but it is not one that a prophetic movement has the option to ignore or neglect. To do so is to manifest a way of being in contradiction with our ontology and the life of contradiction, that is the incongruent life, is a recipe for irrelevance and disaster. But worse than this, to do so is to consent to being absorbed by the hallucination and becoming a tool of its oppression. This would be the greatest tragedy of all for as Morpheus so aptly declared, “As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free.” The call out of Babylon then is fundamentally a call to liberation in both belief (forehead) and practice (hand) – a call that the prophet is entrusted with above all others. Our response to this invitation then must echo the words of the prophets Samuel and Isaiah. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (2 Sam. 3:10); and “Here am I, send me.” (Isa. 6:8)
There is also a work to be done at the individual level and here I would invite the reader to take a first step by re-visiting the prophetic narrative of scripture with the dual-lens of religious and social consciousness. We need to see the heart of God entwined in both so that we do not walk away assuming God only cares about accurate theology or proper religious expression. On the contrary, God in scripture is primarily interested in interpersonal harmony at both the individual and collective level. If we begin to recover this vision in the prophets, to see the illusion for what it is and the prophetic utterance as a liberation from the illusion, then in time our proclamation of Daniel and Revelation can move beyond the superficial scripts we have reduced it to and reclaim its place as a counter-cultural protest of empire and the substrates that define it. The collateral effect of this will be a new generation of believers who engineer new churches that do more than talk but act on behalf of the suffering. Then and only then will we find ourselves obedient to the command, “prophesy again”.