Of all the books of the New Testament, the one that I least understood and treated as irrelevant to life in today’s world has been The Revelation of St John the Divine. My attitude has changed with the unfolding current economic crisis. What I find in that book, especially in its latter chapters, now speaks to me and fills me with conviction.
When St John wrote The Revelation, he was prescribing how Christians were supposed to understand themselves and live in the context of the ancient Roman Empire. Increasingly, they had defined themselves as a people who had their citizenship in what they believed was another kingdom, namely the Kingdom of God. They had come to see themselves as aliens in what they viewed more and more as a political system dominated by corrupted “principalities and powers.”
“Babylon” was the code word that St John used for the empire, so that whenever we read “Babylon” in the latter chapters of the Book of Revelation, we should substitute in our minds, “The Roman Empire.” Babylon, given this decoding, was a reference to the dominant political-economic social order in which first century Christians were required to live out what amounted to a counter-cultural lifestyle.
If we are to relate to what John wrote about his Babylon 2000 years ago to our own contemporary existential social situation, we should recognize that what he said about the Roman Empire is applicable to every and any societal system in which Christians are required to live out their witness. That means that if in France, then the French political-economic system is Babylon. If in Japan, then the Japanese system is Babylon. We, however, live in the United States and the United Kingdom, which means that our Babylons are our own political-economic social order. For us, what John had to say about his Babylon is relevant and reveals what is happening in our own countries, especially in the face of the present economic meltdown.
First of all, we can figure out from the eighteenth chapter of The Book of Revelation that our Babylon, like all Babylons, is doomed to fall. What is especially revealing is that the Babylon of which John wrote falls because its lifestyle is marked by a consumerism which exhausts the resources necessary for it to be sustained. Everything is for sale in Babylon – even the souls of men and women. John lists them in Revelation 18.12-13.
…gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives.
There is an obvious parallel in this to the American and British ‘Babylons’. Ours involve a consumerist lifestyle which requires the exploitation of the world’s resources. Our consumerism, like that of the Roman Empire, is bringing down our Babylon. Whether our political-economic system collapses in the immediate future as a result of our present crisis, or sometime in the future, is hard to predict. Frankly, it sure looks like now!
When our Babylons fall, there will be two reactions. The first will be the reaction of those whom the Bibles names as “the merchants.” We read that they wept...
…and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning, “What city was like the great city?” And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out, “Alas, alas, the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in one hour she has been laid waste.—Revelation 18.18-19
Reading such verses brings to mind those photos on the front page of the London Times which showed the brokers on the floor of the Stock Exchange, wringing their hands, others shaking their heads, as they watched the Dow Jones average drop as much as 500 points in one session. Like the merchants described in Revelation 18.11, they “weep and mourn, since no one buys their cargo anymore.” We can almost hear the CEOs of Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and Morris Garage wailing like the merchants described in the Bible, “People aren’t buying our cars anymore!” Those merchants in shopping centres, unable to move the stocks of consumer goods, join the chorus and are heard to bemoan that even with 70 percent off, they can not find the buyers they need to move their stock and stay in business.
But there is another reaction to the collapse of Babylon. It can be heard in the shouts of a great assembly. The shouts are coming from people who are committed to God and His Kingdom. With acclamations of praise they say:
“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God, for his judgments are true and just; he has judged the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication...—Revelation 19.1b-2a
Babylon is called a whore because, like a whore, it has seduced people. Those whose citizenship and commitments have been in Babylon have been seduced into a comfortable “dainty” lifestyle of consumerism and now are having to face the reality that this lifestyle has come to an end. They are being forced to realize:
“The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and all your dainties and your splendour are lost to you, never to be found again!” …and the sound of harpists and minstrels and of flutists and trumpeters will be heard in you no more; and an artisan of any trade will be found in you no more; and the sound of the millstone will be heard in you no more; and the light of a lamp will shine in you no more; and the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more; for your merchants were the magnates of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.—Revelation 18.14, 22-23
As the news of the collapse of Babylon spreads, the people of God are not dismayed. This is because they were never seduced by its allure in the first place. They were a people who had been “seeking, first and foremost, the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 6.33). These people of faith, following the instructions of their Lord, had not laid up for themselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, but had, instead, invested themselves in the Kingdom of God—a kingdom that will last forever (Matthew 6.19-20).
In the face of the collapse of our own Babylon, we have to ask how much we have been a people whose lives and resources have been invested in God’s Kingdom, so that the collapse of our political-economic system does not threaten us. In the context of the collapse, with whom will we stand? Will we be with the merchants, and weep because our lives and resources have been invested in Babylon? Or will we be able to join with those who shout “Hallelujah” because the seductive Babylon and all of the evils that go with her seduction are no more?
As our economic system collapses, I am coming to realise for the first time in my life that Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are the most sensible words ever spoken. He said:
No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.
I must confess that I had previously thought these words were for the likes of saints such as St Francis or Mother Theresa. As I read these words, I understood why Darbyites, with their Scofield Reference Bible, tried to assign this way of life to some future dispensation as not viable for this present age. But now, as my retirement funds evaporate while the Stock Market plummets, I wish I had taken Jesus’ words seriously and “taken no thought for the future” as to what I would eat and how I would live. Living more by faith and trusting less in Mammon now seems like the wisest course of action and the one I should have taken.
I increasingly feel a regretful kinship to that man I read about in the Bible, who built a barn and filled it with those things that would provide for his retirement (Luke 12.16-20). He then reflects, perhaps in light of inflation, that he ought to tear down that barn and build a bigger barn to provide even more security for his future. As he is about to launch into a life of leisure, the Lord says, “Thou fool.” Having worked hard to set up 401Ks and IRAs, I can hear the Lord saying the same thing to me as I watch these funds evaporating daily. Over the years, I thought I had been a generous giver to the poor. Now I wish I had given far more.
© Tony Campolo is a speaker, author, sociologist, pastor, social activist, and professor emeritus at Eastern University, Philadelphia, USA (http://www.eastern.edu/). His show ‘Across the Pond’ can be heard each weekend on Premier Christian Radio in the UK, and his most recent book is Red Letter Christians, A Citizen’s Guide to Faith and Politics (available here http://tinyurl.com/cywwct ). His website is: www.tonycampolo.org
The Scriptural passages in this article are reproduced, with grateful acknowledgment, from the New Revised Standard version of the Bible (USA).
Also on Ekklesia by Tony Campolo: ‘Red Letter Christians’ and progressive evangelicalism (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/9075).