[This is the fourteenth in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly for about two years.]
Shalom Mennonite—March 17, 2013—Revelation 18:1-24
When I started this series of sermons on Revelation, back in the mists of time, I talked about it as sermons on 21st century America according to the book of Revelation. As the series has unfolded, I’ve had a lot more to say about Revelation than the 21st century. But today I want to focus a little more on our present world.
I think Revelation, chapter 18, might speak more obviously to the 21st century than anything else we have considered thus far. This chapter focuses on a critique of the great city, called here Babylon—probably with Rome in mind, but also most other imperial capital cities ever since. John challenges his first readers with how they think about the empire they are part of. As such, I think Revelation, chapter 18 works as a good challenge for us today to think about how we feel about our empire.
Reading Revelation 18 as Americans
So, let’s start with an exercise. As I read Revelation, chapter 18, let the imagery stimulate you to reflect on how you feel about being part of our nation. What here maybe rings a bell or triggers a thought? What parallels between ancient Rome and present-day America are suggested by this vision?
I saw an angel from heaven, who with great authority, called in mighty voice: “Fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, every foul bird, every foul and hateful beast.All the nations have drunkof the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the powerof her luxury.”
Then I heard another voice from heaven, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and do not share in her plagues; her sins are heaped high as heaven. God has remembered her iniquities, to render to her as she has rendered. To mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed. As she glorified herself, so give her a like measure of torment and grief. In her heart she says, ‘I rule as a queen; I am no widow, and I will never see grief,’ but her plagues will come in a single day—pestilence, mourning, famine—she will be burned with fire; mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”
The kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail when they see her burning; they will stand far off, fearing her torment, and say, “Alas, alas, Babylon, the mighty city! In one hour your judgment came.” The merchants of the earth weep and mourn, since no one buys their cargo anymore, gold, silver, jewels, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, scented wood, ivory, 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.
“The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and your splendor is lost, never to be found again!” The merchants will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud, “Alas, alas, the great city, clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!” Shipmasters and seafarers, whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning, “What city was like the great city?” They threw dust on their heads, 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.”
But rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets! For God has given judgment for you against her. A mighty angel took up a great millstone and threw it into the sea, “With such violence Babylon the great city will be thrown down, and will be found no more. The sound of harpists, minstrels, flutists and trumpeters will be heard in you no more; artisans will be found in you no more; the sound of the millstone will be heard in you no more; the light of a lamp will shine in you no more; the voice of bride and groom will be heard in you no more; for your merchants were the magnates of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery. And in youwas found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.” (18:1-24)
So, what came to mind as you listened? What here reminds you of America? What feelings do these reminders evoke?
Growing up inside the empire
I was born in May 1954 on the ninth anniversary of V-E Day—“victory in Europe,” when America defeated the Nazis. My parents were both proud veterans of that good war, the war to end Nazi tyranny and the tyranny of the Japanese Empire. I wouldn’t say they gloried in that war or that they were rabid patriots. But I grew up with very positive assumptions about America.
We Americans were a force for good in the world—maybe the greatest force for good ever. We cared for the wellbeing of the world’s suffering masses, we were unalterably opposed to tyranny and Communism. We wanted peace and only reluctantly entered into conflict against the bad guys. And we were winners. Our victories spread goodness—democracy, economic growth, freedom, the Christian faith. We only went to war when we had no choice—and then we would make sure to win. We always won. And always for the good of others.
I have vivid memories of play times that reinforced the sense of the goodness of our military actions. “Bombs over Tokyo!” we would cry out in joy as we played war. Now I have learned what our actual bombs over Tokyo did. They killed upwards to 100,000 defenseless people in just one long night due to intentionally created firestorms that, in the words of the commander of the attack in March 1945 resulted in people who were “scorched and boiled and baked to death.” Knowing what those bombs over Tokyo did, I now shudder in horror and shame at our games.
I was in junior and senior high school during the Vietnam War years. Again, I only assumed the best. I learned by heart the number one hit of 1966, “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” I sang it with my friends during gym class over and over. I actually still know most of the words though I doubt I have heard the song in over 40 years.
This America-the-good message was simply part of the air I breathed as I grew up. I can’t imagine that I ever heard “a discouraging word.” So, as I approached draft age, I expected to go and fight for my country. I didn’t really want to risk my life, but I certainly didn’t question whether I would—or should.
Questioning imperialist assumptions
But then when I went to college I began to hear stories. I think especially of the summer of 1974. Instead of going home for the summer, I stayed at college. I worked with a recently returned Vietnam War vet and played on a softball team mostly made up of vets. Their accounts of the horrors they saw and even took part in shook me up a lot.
Ironically, the main factor that slowed my disillusionment with the American empire was what I continued to hear in my Baptist church—a message of America as God’s chosen vessel in this sinful world. But my view was soon to change. My faith was shaken up when I learned a different way to understand the Bible and Jesus—the crazy idea that Jesus’ call to love our enemies might actually apply to how we think about war and empire.
When, you could say, I met Jesus again for the first time, I looked at everything related to war and empire and America through new lenses. I learned about some of the things that had happened around the time of my birth that caused me to see my country in a different light. How the CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran and backed the vicious dictatorship of the Shah so our oil companies could get richer. How, with the success of that coup the CIA moved again to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala with a similar result—decades of an even more vicious dictatorship. How, despite the pleas of most of the scientists who had created it, the American government committed itself to building what turned out to be hundreds and hundreds of hydrogen bombs, each one many, many times more powerful than the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe worst of all, I learned how this allegedly noble effort in Vietnam could have been averted back in the year of my birth, 1954, when the Vietnamese defeated the French colonists. Had the U.S. recognized the victors there—in the same way the French, British, and Soviets did—the war would never have happened.
Then I started to study the book of Revelation. And I was amazed. Earlier I had been taught that Revelation predicted the bad guys who would be linked with the Antichrist, that is, the Russians and the Chinese. Now I looked at Babylon in a new light. First of all, I understood Revelation to be concerned with the first century, not the 20th century. Babylon was indeed a symbol—but not for a future one-world government led by the Antichrist but for the Roman Empire. And as I learned about the Roman Empire as critiqued in Revelation, I began to see discomforting parallels with my own country.
What’s wrong with Babylon?
Focusing on Revelation 18, what does it say is wrong with Babylon/Rome? Well, Babylon may seem all powerful, full of greatness and things to inspire awe and respect, a beacon to the world of the good life, the world’s one superpower, the renowned bringer of order to the world (the Pax Romana—the “peace of Rome”), the creator of great wealth. But the vision in Revelation states that Babylon is home for demons, every foul spirit, bird, and hateful beast.
Now, it wasn’t obvious to everyone that Rome was disgusting and foul. This is not an objective statement of clear sociological fact. It’s more a kind of moral or theological interpretation. Babylon/Rome in actuality, beneath the smoke and mirrors of imperial power and splendor, was corrupt—and corrupting. It was not a place of genuine life-enhancing beauty, but the opposite, the haunt of death.
Babylon/Rome did like all imperial centers did and do—it demanded and, by and large received, loyalty. People believed in it, trusted in it, gave it their consent to dominate. Babylon gives wine to the nations that makes them drunk. And it “commits fornication” with the “kings of the earth.” And it makes the “merchants of the earth” rich. The problem is not literally alcohol and sex. The problem is that by trusting in Babylon, the nations, the kings, and the merchants join in Babylon’s injustice, Babylon’s exploitation, Babylon’s dehumanization, Babylon’s violence.
Revelation 18 twice details in subtle but powerful ways the dynamics of empire that Babylon follows. First, the chapter portrays the economic dynamics of empire. The merchants of the earth grow wealthy almost beyond measure due to their collaboration with Babylon. They profit from trade of all sorts of things, according to a long list: 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.
We would only have to revise this list slightly to apply to today’s merchants of the earth who collude with our great empire—fine iPads, costly garments of silk and wool, warplanes, precious metals such as coltan and uranium, Nike and Adidas shoes.
Would our list conclude in the same way John’s did? At the end of all the cargo comes this, stated as just one more item: “slaves—and human lives.” This is what’s wrong with Babylon. The commerce may benefit many people, but the great wealth it generates for the merchants and Babylon ultimately comes off the backs of the poor, the vulnerable, the defenseless—and makes their lives worse.
At the end of the chapter we have another list, even more poignant. Babylon will be judged, Babylon will go down. This is the message of chapter 18, following the same message we saw last month in chapter 17. The merchants mourn the loss of their wealth. And there is more mourning, which is really at the lose of the humane-ness, the day to day living, that characterized this city.
The grief is that these humane activities will not be found in Babylon any more: harpists and minstrels, flutists and trumpeters, artisans and millers, the light of a lamp, and the voices of bride and groom. But this is why they won’t be found, because of what was found in Babylon: “The blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.”
Babylon is not only beastly
Babylon the great—all-powerful, it may seem; beacon of peace and order, it may seem. But actually the home of every foul and hateful beast, trafficker in slaves, killer of prophets and saints. Is this America, too? Well, even with the most negative reading of America, it is not only beastly. Mennonites, of all people, have good reasons to appreciate the American traditions of freedom of religion and free speech. And we know other ways in which this country has not been and is not beastly. But then, Rome was not only beastly either.
However, it is precisely the reality that Rome was not only beastly that makes John feel like he must make his points so dramatically. He writes to people in his churches who find Rome attractive—too attractive, John believes. John’s rhetoric and imagery might be a bit overheated. But I think it would be a mistake to ignore his point—American Christians too have found our empire too attractive, too benign. We do well to listen to John sympathetically. We do well to allow his visions to challenge us. Our nation has trafficked in human lives and shed the blood of prophets, saints, and all too many others—it still does.
Since the 1970s, I have continued to learn more about the Vietnam War. I just finished a new book by a journalist named Nick Turse called Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam that chronicles in excruciating detail the systemic war crimes and atrocities that our military visited upon the people of Southeast Asia. This is just one example, though perhaps the most extensive but hardly alone, of willful slaughter in the name of national self-interest. I think reading Revelation can help makes us less gullible in relation to ways the American empire has acted in our names.
John’s constructive agenda
But what is John’s actual agenda? I have tried in these sermons to argue that he has a positive agenda. He’s not mainly about criticism and condemnation. He’s not mainly about pointing fingers. In fact, he’s not mainly about worrying about what empires, including Babylon/Rome, do. He is mainly about encouraging healing; he is mainly about encouraging redemption. So what is redemptive in this vision in Revelation 18—and how might this vision help us find redemptive elements in our own setting?
First, we remember that John points ahead to the New Jerusalem. Notice that in chapter 18, we have two different kinds of people. The kings, merchants, and shipmasters on the one hand. They are the ones complicit with Babylon’s exploitive ways. They are the ones who get riches and power from the ways the global economy work. They weep and mourn. “Alas, alas, for this great city that will be no more.”
The other kind of people are those who welcome Babylon’s fall. “Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints, you apostles, you prophets!” These are the ones who in the very next vision celebrate the wedding supper of the Lamb. These are the ones who will welcome and be at home in the New Jerusalem. John wants to encourage his readers—when Babylon goes down, it is true there will not be “the voice of groom and bride,” in Babylon. But in fact there will be a wedding celebration with countless participants. The Lamb and those who follow his way.
But let’s think about this contrast between these two kinds of people. The fact that the kings and merchants and shipmasters mourn Babylon’s fall tells us what about their relationship with Babylon? Well, they are linked closely enough to grieve, bitterly. But, we are told, they all “stood far off.” They don’t go down with Babylon themselves.
In 18:20, the call to rejoice at Babylon’s fall, states, “God has given judgment for you [saints and prophets] against her.” Judgment because Babylon is where the blood of saints and prophets is found. These images link back to chapter 6 when the witnesses under the altar (surely the same as chapter 18’s saints and prophets) cry out for vengeance. That cry is now being answered.
But there is a subtle yet crucial difference between what the witnesses ask for in chapter 6 and what they are given in chapter 18. In chapter 6, they ask for vengeance against “the inhabitants of the earth” (that is, against the kings and merchants and shipmasters). But in chapter 18, they are told that God’s judgment is against Babylon. Babylon goes down like a large millstone being thrown into the sea—but the human allies of Babylon stand far off and watch.
In the end, God’s justice works differently than simple punitive vengeance focused on the inhabitants of the earth. What Revelation portrays is destruction of the systems of evil. It is the human city insofar as it is organized for injustice that goes down. But with what consequence for the human kings of the earth? The consequence for the kings of the earth is that they are healed. They themselves are welcomed into the New Jerusalem—as, too, is the glory of the nations, the glory of the human city (insofar as the human city is humane).
John wants his readers to know two things: both of which will give us hope and courage, both of which will strengthen us to give our allegiance to the New Jerusalem and not to Babylon.
The one is this—be confident that the celebration of the New Jerusalem is our fate. It is real. It is the deepest truth of creation. It is the truth of the maker of the universe. And the second is this—be confident that our own acts of compassion, our own acts of resistance, our own acts of solidarity—all of these play a role, a crucial role, in the entry of the New Jerusalem. All of these play a role, a crucial role, in God’s healing work.