November 23, 2017

Civil Religion Series: The Nations as “Babylon”

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But the Bible is a profoundly political book in this fundamental sense: It describes a struggle between two kingdoms, the kingdom of God on the one hand and the nations on the other.

• Richard Hughes

• • •

Civil Religion, part three
The Nations as “Babylon”

Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these. We will look at material from three books, the first of which is Richard Hughes’s Christian America and the Kingdom of God.

Hughes thinks “the Kingdom of God” is the primary metaphor we must consider in scripture when thinking about the nations and their relationship to God’s rule on earth. He traces the continuity of this theme from the days of Samuel, the first prophet, under whose ministry Israel became a kingdom, to the prophets of Israel, through Jesus, Paul, and the book of Revelation. As he does, he makes several pertinent points:

…the biblical vision of the kingdom of God stands in radical opposition to the traditional understanding of Christian America. (p. 31)

The kingdom of God . . . and the nations of the earth . . . embody radically different values and reflect radically different orders of reality. The kingdom of God relies on the power of self-giving love while nations— even so-called “Christian” nations— rely on the power of coercion and the sword. For that reason, nations— even “Christian” nations— inevitably go to war against their enemies while the kingdom of God has no enemies at all. The kingdom of God is universal and those who promote that kingdom care deeply for every human being in every corner of the globe, regardless of race or nationality. But earthly nations— even so-called “Christian” nations— embrace values that are inevitably nationalistic and tribal, caring especially for the welfare of those within their borders. And while the kingdom of God exalts the poor, the disenfranchised, and the dispossessed, earthly nations inevitably exalt the rich and powerful and hold them up as models to be emulated. In fact, in the context of earthly nations— even so-called “Christian” nations— the poor seldom count for much at all. (p. 31)

As we begin to examine the biblical concept of the kingdom of God, we shall see time and again that it heralds a world marked by two primary attributes: (1) equity and justice for all human beings, especially the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed, and (2) a world governed by peace and goodwill for all human beings. (p. 32)

The biblical vision of the kingdom of God is a subversive and countercultural vision, standing in radical opposition to empires, kingdoms, and nations that build their wealth and power on the backs of the poor and maintain their standing in the world through violence, war, injustice, and oppression. (p. 32f)

The Hebrew prophets consistently portrayed the kingdom of God as a radical alternative to politics as usual— to peace and prosperity maintained through war, violence, and oppression. For the most part, they portrayed the kingdom of God as an alternative to conventional politics within their own nation. (p. 48)

At the beginning of Israel’s kingdom, Samuel warned the people that “having a king like all the other nations” would introduce values and practices contrary to the rule of God over them as a people.

So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1Sam. 8:10-18, ESV)

As Walter Brueggemann wrote about what developed under David and Solomon, “While the shift had no doubt begun and been encouraged by David, . . . the entire program of Solomon now appears to have been a self-serving achievement with its sole purpose the self-securing of king and dynasty.” Even the most benevolent of human governments must ultimately rule out of self-interest and by means of power and coercion.

In a section entitled, “The Kingdom of God in Scripture and Its Meaning for the United States,” Richard Hughes ends his biblical survey by taking us to the book of Revelation and suggesting that “its central theme simply extends and elaborates a motif that dominates the entire [Bible]— the struggle between empire and the kingdom of God, waged on behalf of the poor and oppressed of every nation and every age.”

He focuses on William Stringfellow’s interpretation of Revelation. Stringfellow was a most interesting fellow. He came through the liberal, social gospel tradition and was an activist with regard to civil rights and the Viet Nam War. But he was devoted to scripture as his source of truth and, to some, almost a fundamentalist when it came to his insistence that Christians must find their teachings and values in a plain sense reading and thoughtful application of the Bible. And he believed that Revelation was a thoroughly political book, written to describe the struggle between God’s Kingdom and the kingdoms of this world.

When looking through that lens, he understood “Babylon” as “a symbol for any and every nation that seeks to usurp the role and power of God and, in that way, seeks to determine who shall live and who shall die, and for what reasons.” (p. 99f) National loyalty becomes a citizen’s ultimate loyalty, and giving one’s life for the sake of the nation the ultimate sacrifice.

He also argued that “Babylon symbolizes nations that imagine that they alone control the course of human history.” (p. 100) Nations maintain a sense of moral arrogance by which they judge what is right and just in the world, and seek to control events so as to further those values. On earth, the nation holds the keys to life and death and uses them to advance its causes.

Stringfellow suggested, thirdly, that the practice of deceit is central to the metaphor of Babylon. Truth becomes “usurped and displaced by a self-serving version of events or facts, with whatever selectivity, distortion, falsehood, manipulation, exaggeration, evasion, [or] concoction necessary to maintain the image or enhance the survival or multiply the coercive capacities of the principality.” (p. 100f)

So here are my questions

Was William Stringfellow right?

Are even the best and most benevolent of nations subject to assuming the character of Babylon?

What about the United States of America? Is there something uniquely different about the U.S.A. (as, it seems, those who speak of “American exceptionalism” assume) that protects us from functioning with the ethos and tools of Babylon?

How is a Christian citizen with the opportunities that come in a democratic republic like the U.S. to think about all this and our responsibility to follow Jesus in our nation?

Comments

  1. My current feeling is that Christians should flee power and influence. That in any case seems to be Jesus’ example. And God in Jesus too: foregoing power, manipulation, domination, and instead seeking to woo us and tell us “do not be afraid”.

    How that can be reconciled with Christians getting involved in politics (which I am tentatively in favour of), I’m not sure.

    Maybe it’s something to do with Christians getting involved in politics, but not involving Jesus in their politics. Not invoking Jesus on ‘their side’. Politicians strutting their supposedly ‘Christian’ credentials is a disgusting spectacle which drags Jesus down into the mud.

    Not that Jesus was aloof from the ‘down-and-dirty’ of this world, but I think he had rather more time for the repentant and contrite than for the blustering and lying.

    Unfortunately there is nothing exceptional about American exceptionalism: many other nations (if not all) consider themselves to be exceptional too, or have done in the past. This is probably a natural outcome of any identifiable group, but again, let’s not drag God into it?

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Well said. I like this thought: “Maybe it’s something to do with Christians getting involved in politics, but not involving Jesus in their politics.”

  2. Is there something uniquely different about the U.S.A. (as, it seems, those who speak of “American exceptionalism” assume) that protects us from functioning with the ethos and tools of Babylon?

    If you have any doubts about the answer to this question, consult your nearest Native American reservation.

    • Robert F says:

      It’s so easy to forget about Native Americans when discussions like this one occur. I suppose that’s a testament to how ruthless and total was, and is, their defeat by the invading and conquering European Christians. How could the God revealed in Jesus Christ possibly be on the side of those responsible for such a ruthless conquest? How could the God revealed in Jesus Christ possibly be on the side of those responsible for the ruthless conquest of the Canaanites?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I suppose that’s a testament to how ruthless and total was, and is, their defeat by the invading and conquering European Christians.

        Whose first Anglo group in North America (the Massachusetts Puritans) had their own Christian Nation mythic narrative, LARPing the Books of Exodus & Joshua with themselves as the Chosen People, America as The Promised Land — and the natives already there as the Heathen Canaanites.

      • “How could the God revealed in Jesus Christ possibly be on the side of those responsible for the ruthless conquest of the Canaanites?”

        I know the typical Evangelical answer to that but I don’t buy it anymore. And, to answer your question, I don’t know but I’m starting to believe more and more that the Israelites misunderstood the character of God which has led me to reject inerrancy–but that’s a whole different subject.

        And along those lines, these verses from this morning’s Psalm 78 have always puzzled me:

        But before they had satisfied their craving,
        while the food was still in their mouths,
        31 the anger of God rose against them,
        and he killed the strongest of them
        and laid low the young men of Israel.
        32 In spite of all this, they still sinned;
        despite his wonders, they did not believe.
        33 So he made their days vanish like[c] a breath,[d]
        and their years in terror.
        34 When he killed them, they sought him;
        they repented and sought God earnestly.

        So, God killed the young men of Israel so they would earnestly seek Him? I’m a father–I don’t think terrorizing my children is going to make them want to seek me; quite the opposite.

        • Rick Ro. says:

          –> “And, to answer your question, I don’t know but I’m starting to believe more and more that the Israelites misunderstood the character of God which has led me to reject inerrancy–but that’s a whole different subject.”

          Yes. This is where I am these days, too.

          –> “So God killed the young men of Israel so they would earnestly seek Him? I’m a father-I don’t think terrorizing my children is going to make them want to seek me.”

          Yes. This is a reason I just can’t buy into Calvinism. As a father, am I going to automatically damn one of my children to hell just because I can, to prove my sovereignty and blah-blah-blah?! No!!!

          • turnsalso says:

            “Merry Christmas, my eldest daughter Bernice! I got you a pony.”
            “Yay!”
            “Merry Christmas, my middle daughter Chloe! I got you a pony.”
            “Yay!”
            “Merry Christmas, my youngest daughter Eunice. I got you nothing. Check out my majesty!”
            “…I want to live with Unitarian Mom.”
            –Lutheran Satire, extremely paraphrased, Calvinist Christmas

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Yes. This is a reason I just can’t buy into Calvinism. As a father, am I going to automatically damn one of my children to hell just because I can, to prove my sovereignty and blah-blah-blah?! No!!!

            Because a father who does that is an ABUSER.
            With a strong case of NPD.

  3. Paul writes in Romans 13 that human government was instituted by God and has a role to punish evildoers, and (I assume) to rescue victims. But yet the worst evildoers in history have been rulers.

    I think that the USA is badly flawed yet has also been significantly on the good side many times.

  4. Damaris says:

    I think it’s probably important to define the term “nation.” We all use it, and we see it in the Bible, but it’s a flexible concept. The Bible, and some scholars, use “nation” to refer to an ethnic or social group sharing a language, customs, religion, etc. In that way the nation of Israel or the nation of Poland could continue even when they had no land at all. The modern concept of a hard political and geographical boundary is then called a “state.” States, in our modern sense, are a new and likely fleeting social experiment — and yet that’s all we have in America. I don’t believe we are “American” in the same sense that Poles are Polish or Kurds are Kurdish. Our country is an abstraction, although a magnificent one in some ways, but within it where do our loyalties lie? And what does that mean about our corporate relationship with God? Perhaps God interacts with nations, but does he care at all about states? I suspect he doesn’t. That’s not to say we shouldn’t care about our state, but our duties toward it shouldn’t be a religious tenet, just a practical responsibility.

    (This all made sense to me at 6am. I hope it does to you all, too. 😉 )

    • It made perfect sense, Damaris.

      Thank you.

      It is interesting to me that the geopolitical intelligensia use the term ‘Westphalian state’ a good bit, showing that our concept of the modern state derives from understandings that emerged during the Thirty Years War, a conflict as bloody and as devastating in its time as was World War I in its time. The Thirty Years War made Western Europeans less amenable to slaughtering each other for religious reasons and put an end to the sacral state, The modern secular state exploded in western Europe after Westphalia.

      The idea of ‘nation’ as used in Matthew 28 always seemed to me to include homogeneity in DNA and language (language is a big part of identity), and that ‘discipling the nations’ would result in a situation roughly like that of the Orthodox Church, where the diverse nations of men would be brought into communion each nation wedded to its Church and each Church ensouling its nation, but then I’m Orthodox, so big surprise, right?

      But how to disciple a state?

      For better or for worse, in this hemisphere we have states rather than nations, although someone made the observation that there are three ‘nations’ in the Western Hemisphere; “EuroAmerica composed of the US, Canada, Argentina, Chile, and southern Brazil, AfroAmerica composed of the Caribbean basin, the southern US, and northern Brazil, and Indigenous America, composed of the cores of the ancient native American empires in Mexico, the Andes, and northern Central America. Having states instead of nations means no ‘Golden Dawns’ or Frentes Nationales’ in the political spectrum, but rather populist strongmen like Huey Long or Donald Trump in EuroAmerica on the right and Hugo Chavez, Juan Peron. and Evo Morales in Afro- and Ingineous America on the Left.

      • Robert F says:

        But the populist strongmen like Trump often appeal to the mythical national past, promising to revive it and make their nations strong again, often by purging it of elements considered not in keeping with the imagined and mythical national identity and history. Trump appeals to the national imagination, as does Putin; he promises to purify the nation of its weakness (i.e., decadence), and to restore it to its former glory, as does Putin. It is nationalism that these “populist” demagogues are riding to power; that it is a nationalism of the plebs rather than the patricians makes little difference to its tone, anger and potential violence.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Morning drive-time radio today explained Trump’s landslide as partially due to “He’s the only one who talks direct, often crude. Every other candidate talks in Politicalspeak.” (continued giving Hillary’s press conference — entirely to professional political reporters — as an example). Trump doesn’t run every word past spin doctors and focus groups, and people are reacting to that.

          Morning drive-time also went on to point out similarities between Trump and Andrew Jackson — both were in-your-face direct, populists with a frontier attitude in an era where politics was a matter of powdered-wig gentlemen. And both gave the Party Establishment strokes — the Whig Party was formed specifically as a “Stop Old Hickory Party” to prevent Jackson from getting elected. And they failed miserably and declined soon after. The dynamics are very similar.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Trump appeals to the national imagination, as does Putin; he promises to purify the nation of its weakness (i.e., decadence), and to restore it to its former glory, as does Putin.

          And Trump appeals to those who lost their jobs to India or China; those who see the US turning into Viva Mexico, those who are now on the outs.

          Afternoon drive-time on the same station has a shtick where they read government statements in an affected aristocratic scolding voice thick with pointy-headed intellectual buzzwords. The tone is that of a Righteous Scold, wagging their fingers at the stupid rabble who should be standing in awe of their Intellect and Political Correctness. “And Tommy ain’t a bloody fool — you bet that Tommy sees!”

          And like Obama in 2008 with a different constituency, The Trump promises to Set Things Right by Any Means Necessary.

    • Robert F says:

      The ascent of the modern individual, especially in the development of modern historical consciousness, confounds the old category of nation, and probably requires the new category of state. Since I am a fan (though not an unqualified one) of the development of the modern individual, I see the state as an advance over the nation in the realm of human affairs.

      But then I’m Episcopalian, so big surprise, right?

  5. Clay Crouch says:

    The obvious answer, at least to me, of Robert F’s question is that the God revealed in Jesus Christ never has been and never will be on the side of oppression. There’s the rub for those who consider the scriptures to be inerrant. It’s a frightening thing to consider what we as Americans have done and continue to do in the name of Christ to countless millions This is election cycle, like none before it, has me wondering how, or even if I am supposed to participate.

    • Robert F says:

      Clay, I agree that the God revealed in Jesus Christ never has been on the side of oppression. But a god who is on its side is right there in the founding narratives of our faith; not only does he condone such ruthless conquest, he also orders and requires it.

      The moral impulse that led many early Gnostics, and later ones also, to reinterpret and reduce the scriptures to excise this god is an understandable one; we become like the god we observe and worship, which, in respect to certain characteristics of the god depicted in the Old and New Testaments (see Revelation), can only mean that we give our own human tendency to violence the authority of the divine. The problem, from what I have seen, is that the true God and the false one travel so closely together in our scriptures that it seems impossible to edit out the one without also altering, and weakening, our understanding of the other. This was where the Gnostics made a mistake, and where many progressive-leaning Christians, like myself, are also prone to error. But I obviously don’t know what the solution to this moral conundrum is.

      I also wonder whether if it’s right for me to participate in our national politics.

      • Burro [Mule] says:

        I agree.

        Having a Bible that doesn’t offend our sensibilities would be a Bible too weak to tame us.

        I’ve been thinking a lot about violence recently. Two things that present themselves immediately to my contemplation, such as it is, is the description of John the Forerunner in the Gospels who was not a soft man and of whom it was said, or at least implied, that the violent carry away the Kingdom of God.

        The second is the Byzantine hymn that describes our Lord as ‘making war from the Cross, trampling down death by death, and taking captive the powers of this world.’ As horrible as human violence against human is, God did not exempt Himself from it.

        • Robert F says:

          One thing I about which I feel relatively and reasonably certain: Though I don’t believe the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ orders and condones, or ever ordered and condoned, let alone required, the ruthless conquest and/or annihilation of any nation or individual, our God is not “innocent” of the blood that has been shed down through the ages, both animal and human, by either intentional violence or the opaque and indifferent brutality of nature’s operations. He has been present at every violent and tormented death, and the suffering that led up to it, from the beginning of time, even when no one else but the sufferer was present. No matter how he may have suffered himself, even participated in, the suffering that has taken place in his omnipresence and that he has witnessed, he has also observed it and not stopped it. He let it be, he let it happen, though he had the power to stop it.

          For me, the only thing that even begins to make sense of the the affirmation of God’s goodness in the face of so much evidence against him is that he hung as and with Jesus Christ on the cross at Golgotha. As Barth said somewhere, the cross is the place where God earns his right to be God to a world full of suffering, death and evil. That’s a scandalous thing to say, and Barth was aware of that, but then that is part of the scandal of the cross.

          The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ rules solely by forgiveness, reconciliation and the new life that issues from them. His continuing silence in the face of suffering, death and evil is still inexplicable, but the radiance of his love in the crucified, risen, forgiving and reconciling Christ points the way to the kingdom that he is making in our midst, and with our participation if we choose. Nothing will ever quench this radiance, because it burns in the very center of the heart of God, the heart of Jesus.

        • Robert F says:

          Keep in mind, theological liberals are perfectly capable of underwriting the Babylonian theological option in service to their nation. It was the nearly across the board support of German militarization that his liberal theology professors gave to their nation on theological grounds before and during WWI that disillusioned Barth with their theological method, and caused him to resort to dialectical biblical theology as an answer to their ethical and theological compromises and celebration of the German state. Men he had loved and admired, thoughtful and seemingly humane men who had been his university teachers from whom he had learned so much, joined and supported the jingoistic nationalism and war-mongering without missing a theological breath. And so was born Neo-orthodoxy.

      • dennisb says:

        I wonder if the level of evil incarnated has something to do with it. Can people groups give themselves over so completely that tehy destroy their conscience & have no inclination to good left ? God started again with Noah but wasn’t too impressed with Israel in the desert. So maybe in comparison, the other nations were like “the spawn of Satan”. God chose to work with Israel possibly because they were the least corrupted in that region. Not sure how to finish this train of thought…

        • Last night I read that when Joseph was in Egypt, he sold the Egyptians into slavery to Pharoah as they were starving. The next Pharoah applied this back to the Hebrews. Josephs own family wanted to murder him. So it seems that the peoples of that time were quite brutal. Looking back from our “armchairs”, we don’t really understand what these cultures were like. God who knows hearts, is probably justified in wanting to dislocate peoples who had no qualms practising socialevils. At least he had some willing response from the hebrews. He also allows other people, like the Ninevites, in on salvation. So, I expect that some cultures were too far gone in that time of history to warrant a “hall pass” out of judgement.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      This election cycle, like none before it, has me wondering how, or even if I am supposed to participate.

      Well, the Official Fundagelical response is “WHO IS LIKE UNTO THE TRUMP? WHO CAN STAND AGAINST HIM?”, redefining Trump as THE Christian Candidate. Even Jerry Falwell Jr makes pilgrimage to The Trump to deliver the Anointing!

    • Robert F says:

      Regarding principled Christian non-participation in our national politics: I always have to remind myself when considering this option that, as sociologist Peter Berger has said, personal purity is cheap; what is costly is determining as best we can how we may best serve our neighbor, and following where this leads, even at cost to our sense of personal purity.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Personal Purity gives you The Church Lady.

        And a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation results in Personal Purity and ONLY Personal Purity. (Cue Church Lady Superiority Dance…)

  6. Christiane says:

    there is so much of the feel of oppression and coercion in the politics of the far right that I wonder why a whole segment of Christians have embraced this as a political ‘answer’ to what they oppose socially in our country . . .

    I have thought for a long time that a concerted ‘Christian’ response to social difficulties involved much more of what Richard Hughes proposes here: “(1) equity and justice for all human beings, especially the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed, and (2) a world governed by peace and goodwill for all human beings”

    the CONTRAST between the two viewpoints makes me think that the far right is too fearful to engage social problems effectively without using severe exclusion, penalties, political punishments, and open contempt . . .

    I think ‘fear’ is what drives the Christian far-right in our country to opt for political power and punishment in social issues rather than the much harder effort involved in living out ‘Caritas Christi urget nos’ as it is portrayed in Hughes’ words: “kingdom of God relies on the power of self-giving love”

  7. The arrival of Pope Francis on the world scene and his example of fraternizing with the lowly wherever he travels gives pause to the power urge and perhaps refocuses what is exceptional, and unexceptional, from a Christ centric point of view.

  8. Randy Thompson says:

    Thank you, Chaplain Mike, for your use of William Stringfellow here.
    His “An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land” made a lasting impact on me. The title of that book alone is worth meditating and praying on.

  9. Babylon?

    Here’s another perspective.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SFXXDO4LHA

  10. I’m still stuck on this quote:
    <>

    Am I taking out of context, or does he literally believe that God’s kingdom has NO enemies – no Adversary?

    • The quote dropped out when posting. It was:

      For that reason, nations— even “Christian” nations— inevitably go to war against their enemies while the kingdom of God has no enemies at all.

    • Christiane says:

      I was thinking about ‘the adversary’ also when I read that quote, but then I thought that among ‘Kingdom’ people, there is the command of Our Lord to ‘love’ our enemies, do good to them that hurt you . . . etc. and on into eternity. Among ‘Kingdom’ people, you don’t find a Christian taking personal offense because he or she feels ‘slighted’ or ‘persecuted’ . . . the truth is that ‘Kingdom’ people expect persecution but do not reciprocate in kind, no.
      Christian people today in our country sometimes can seem HIGHLY offended, and it doesn’t take much to offend them either. In the light of the teachings of sacred Scripture, this absence of equanimity and calm presents observors with a very poor witness to the faith.

      This is from an early Christian writing concerning ‘the behavior of Christians’:
      ” They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. (2 Corinthians 10:3) They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. (Philippians 3:20) They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. (2 Corinthians 6:9) They are poor, yet make many rich; (2 Corinthians 6:10) they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; (2 Corinthians 4:12) they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.”
      Excerpt from a Letter from Mathetes to Diognetus (circa 130 A.D.)

      • I’ve read that letter several times and others like it and, like you, I’m struck by the discordant note it strikes with how so many who profess Christ are viewed. Honestly, it makes me ashamed.

        But let us not forget that there are thousands, no millions, of Christians around the world who live just as those first believers described by Mathetes. They don’t take offense, they don’t protest, they don’t litigate, they don’t take to the airwaves or take out ads. They just quietly live their lives, love their neighbors, and live peaceably with all. May their number increase and may God’s kingdom increase through their faith working itself out in love.

      • Robert F says:

        But, in the meantime, the Church continued to pray for the Emperor, and even for his victory against enemies; and as soon as an Emperor, Constantine, appeared on the scene who took their side, and made them the favored religion of the Empire, all of a sudden the Church was ready to give its approval to the exercise of coercive governing power on its behalf. The Church was meek and mild as long as it was excluded from influence and power, but stopped being so meek and mild as soon as influence and power were available to it.

        I no longer look uncritically to the early Church as a model for what the Church should be now. It had many faults, probably as many as we have.

        • >>I no longer look uncritically to the early Church as a model for what the Church should be now.

          Robert, I’m working off a different model of the early Church, ante-Nicene to be specific. A lot happened right around that time that set the Western Church into forms we only now are maybe beginning to get free of. It’s not that the Church was perfect before then, and there was a gradual development of formalism that led up to Nicene, but still there is a distinct difference ante and post Nicene.

          I would point to the so called desert fathers and mothers along with Origen to show what the early Church was capable of, and which you can still find in the Eastern Church. At the time of Nicene, which went on for some time, there was a concerted effort in the Latin Church to destroy the reputation of Origen and to move the Church from a mystical to an intellectual basis. We are only now beginning to recover from that.

          • Robert F says:

            Charles,
            The desert fathers (there weren’t really many mothers) fled early Christian civilization in the third and fourth centuries, after pagan Rome had fallen and the Church had become the favored religion of the Empire and the darling of the Emperors. They were almost all non-clergy, they went to the desert where they lived away from the intrigues and moral ambiguity of Christian society, and they did not participate in the worship and liturgies of the Church, or receive regular Holy Communion; after all, they were not priests, and they lived far away from the cities where the liturgies took place and the priests held sway. In the beginning, they were a reaction against early Christian civilization; over the centuries, their original energy, which was one of spiritual rebellion, was institutionalized and to a large degree co-opted by the Church. You can see this happening in our own day, with the domestication of the deceased Dorothy Day; the firebrand is being papered over, and replaced with an obedient and meek daughter of the Church, perfect for beatification and then canonization. It’s happened down through the Christian centuries.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            I would point to the so called desert fathers and mothers along with Origen to show what the early Church was capable of, and which you can still find in the Eastern Church. At the time of Nicene, which went on for some time, there was a concerted effort in the Latin Church to destroy the reputation of Origen…

            Your contrast of the “Eastern Church” (good!) with the “Latin Church” (baaaad!) sounds very Net Orthodox…

            And didn’t Origen castrate himself in the name of Personal Sexual Purity? If so, that doesn’t sound like the most stable individual.

        • “The Church was meek and mild as long as it was excluded from influence and power, but stopped being so meek and mild as soon as influence and power were available to it.”

          Oh, there’s no doubt about that and through the centuries used that power in incredibly harsh and brutal ways at times. And, as in your post above, therein lies the conundrum: if God orders all events then He must bear some responsibility for His church acting in ways that are antithetical to how we see His character displayed in Jesus.

          You said it so well earlier, “His continuing silence in the face of suffering, death and evil is still inexplicable, but the radiance of his love in the crucified, risen, forgiving and reconciling Christ points the way to the kingdom that he is making in our midst, and with our participation if we choose. Nothing will ever quench this radiance, because it burns in the very center of the heart of God, the heart of Jesus.”

          It is what we must believe, isn’t it? And, as perplexing and frustrating as it is at times, I do believe. Lord have mercy.

          • Robert F says:

            I believe it, too, Scott, at least in my better, more hopeful moments. But I don’t look to the early Church as the comprehensive model for the way Church should live its life out in our time; there are things that the early Church can model for us, and others that it can’t, that it did badly. Its nonresistance to violence and avoidance of conflict were as much a matter of impotence as Christ-likeness; its glorification of martyrdom, its seeking after martyrdom, was often that of a cult in the embrace of fanatical, psychologically unbalanced and life-negating beliefs To idealize the early Church is to go down the wrong path in search of a calling that comes to us today, in the present, where we are now. We may learn what we can from the early Church, and avoid the rest, rather than look back in pining toward a golden age that never actually existed.

          • dennisb says:

            Well, He knew Israel would fall time & again but chose to bring His Supreme Revelation through them. His church failed Him starting at GETHSEMANE. He chooses to dwell with failure & sinners. He was dragged through the Sanhedrin, He faced Pilate. He knows the sufferin g of each abomination eminating from a fallen church. Why does He allow the abuse come from within Christianity ? Its just an awful reality that Babylon sometimes dwells in the walls of the church.

            His Kingdom dwells there too. Just as as Israel needed the surrounding nations to “chastise” them, so the church is now being chastised by secular society.

  11. “Was William Stringfellow right?”

    It’s possible he was right about Revelation being a political book, that it describes the struggle between God’s kingdom and those of this world. It’s an interesting approach and one worth considering. In the context of this essay, however, I have some questions of my own.

    You write that Stringfellow understands “Babylon” as “a symbol for any and every nation that seeks to usurp the role and power of God and, in that way, seeks to determine who shall live and who shall die, and for what reasons.” How are nations (or, as Damaris points out, more correctly “states”) supposed to govern themselves without taking unto themselves the power of coercion? Should not nation-states provide justice and protect the weak from those who would do them harm? Call that “usurping the power of God” if you will but is that not a proper use of the state’s power?

    He also argues, ““Babylon symbolizes nations that imagine that they alone control the course of human history.” This seems a very simplistic view of what motivates nation-states. Just as there are instances of nations-states imposing their will on others with a view to tyranny and oppression, there are, without doubt, instances of nations judging “what is right and just in the world” and pursuing courses of action to affect those ends that have had positive effects for millions; Great Britain seeking to halt the slave trade, nations working (through WHO) to eradicate smallpox and similar fights against polio and other diseases and, in our own nation, the progress (however imperfectly) of civil rights for all people so that we may finally live up to our founding principles: “that all men are created equal.”

    From the few excerpts you’ve pointed to here, Stringfellow writes as if nations were some monolithic entity, and an inherently evil entity at that. I would argue that nations are made up of individuals and, as such, take on the characteristics of their people; just as individuals are a complex mixture of competing motivations, selfish and self-sacrificing, thoughtless and thoughtful, cruel and kind, evil and good, so are nations.

  12. Jesus talked about entering the strong man’s house, binding the strong man, and plundering his goods. Then he says “whoever is not for me is against me.” Matt 12:30. I note in that context he is casting out demons.

    When Jesus is talking about humans, he says the exact opposite: “whoever is not against me is for me”. Mark 9:40.

  13. The change in the meaning of the words “evangelical” and “Christian” in this country seems to have accelerated greatly in the past few years. In common use, the two seem to have become somewhat interchangeable, and they both have taken on mostly a far-right political tone above all else.

    I don’t think I noticed how much it had affected me personally until yesterday, when I read a magazine article about a church that had rallied around a man who was dying of cancer, supporting him and his wife and children in all sorts of tangible ways in his last months. The man, shortly before his death, said that now he finally knew what it was like to have friends who cared, and a community surrounding him.

    I was shocked to learn, at the end of the article, that the church was an evangelical church. Then I was shocked, and ashamed, that I had been so taken by surprise… imagine, a story about an evangelical congregation actually doing Christ’s work, not a story about where they stood politically.

    This is forcing me to reflect on how co-opted the meaning of “Christian” recently has become in this country, and how it has personally affected me. It will take a while to sort it out.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      imagine, a story about an evangelical congregation actually doing Christ’s work, not a story about where they stood politically.

      And not just “stood politically”, “Stood Politically AGAINST Something”.

    • “This is forcing me to reflect on how co-opted the meaning of “Christian” recently has become in this country, and how it has personally affected me. It will take a while to sort it out.”

      Just think about all the changes in meaning that the term “Christian” has undergone over the past two-thousand years. Starting out as what was initially viewed as a strange new sect of Judaism, it quickly started drifting away from its parent religion and became a suspicious and reviled cult in the gentile world, then growing into an outlawed and systematically persecuted underground religious/social movement. With Constantine, it gained legal and favored status as the new Roman fashion in religion. A century later, it was the exclusive religion of the Greco-Roman world. And then a century later, it was the religious arm of the state in the East and a struggling island in a flood of pagan barbarism in the West. It then became the evangelizer, conqueror, and civilizer of those barbarian hordes. At its high point in the Middle Ages, it was the very order of society itself and a strictly enforced prerequisite for existence (except for Jews, depending on time and place) throughout Christian Europe. The Reformation brought a diversity of faces and meanings — some tied to state governments and some not. The rise of secular states and denominationalism delegated it to voluntary membership in one of a multitude of religious institutions. It now seems to be degenerating to a mere term of self-identification that can mean just about anything the individual wants it to mean.
      So what does the future hold for the word “Christian”? I don’t claim to know, but if things keep going like they are, I suspect these identifying, politically charged adjectives we’re now placing in front of the word — like conservative, liberal, evangelical, social, etc — will eventually become separate and distinct religious/political movements that will swallow up the remnants of denominationalism and maybe even divide the Catholic world into different camps.

  14. I always get my hopes up when anyone starts speaking of the Kingdom of God as a central concept in the Bible. It certainly was in the ministry of Jesus, even if we are still struggling to understand it nearly two thousand years later. But I get nervous when people start speaking of the Kingdom of God in connection with government. This has given us Saul, the Maccabees, the Zealots, the Spanish Inquisition, and today’s Islamic State amongst others. Some are actively seeking positions of control in the run up to the USA presidential election. This is scary stuff.

    The two primary attributes of the Kingdom of God given by Hughes, equity and justice, peace and goodwill, are not exclusively Christian values by any means. Many religions would agree as would many secular philosophies including humanism in general. As to how this works out in practice, the proof is in the pudding, and so far Christians are not all that far ahead in the game,

    I would say that in my lifetime, the American president best exemplifying those primary attributes was Jimmy Carter, and he was probably the least effective executive. I’m quite willing to have leaders who recognize this so called nation is an empire, not a church, hopefully with restraint and recognition of Hughes’ attributes as a worthy goal. In the meantime I am trying to establish the Kingdom of God within, which is where Jesus said it was to be found, self-governance if you will, and voting against anyone anywhere near theocratic government. Jesus, save us from your followers!

  15. I seem to recall Jesus saying something about giving Ceasar what belongs to Ceasar and God what belongs to God. Maybe we as the church should actually try to adopt that as our policy and philosophy. Too often we’ve embraced rulers as God’s right-hand men — or rejected them as antichrists when we feel threatened. Truth be told, people in power have very rarely ever been completely one or the other. Meglomaniac tyrants sometimes inadvertantly do good as a by-product of seeking their own interests, and well-intentioned, idealistic leaders sometimes screw things all to hell by failing to address practical realities.
    A stable and predictable environment, financial prosperity, and a dominant voice in the larger culture — that’s what we American Christians want. And if we get all that, then we might do something about widows and orphans here and there — as long as we can pay someone else to do it without dipping into the building fund. Is that the Kingdom of God? Some would have us think so. As for myself, I’m gonna hold out for that city not made by human hands — though I don’t really expect to see anything but occassional glimpses of it on this side of death.