Why I’m a generous pluralist, not a pluralist by pragmatism (or a pragmatist), and why we should be ready for a diet of worms

Nobody likes me everybody hates me
I think I’ll go eat worms
Long ones, short ones, fat ones skinny ones,
Ones that squiggle and squirm
Bite their heads off suck their guts out throw their skins away
Nobody knows that I eat worms, 3 times a day — A song I used to sing as a kid


Image: WWE’s old worm-eating character, The Boogeyman

 

Stephen McAlpine is always worth reading even though he’s a little older, grumpier and more pessimistic than I am. I like him a lot. In his most recent post asking where the progressive Christian voices speaking about religious freedom are he has a dig at those who write blog posts spruiking ‘a confident pluralism’… I’m reasonably sure he’s not talking about me. But just in case others are drawing a link, I thought I’d spell out what my motivations for generous pluralism are; that it’s not that I expect (necessarily) we’ll get a better deal from those who disagree with us, but rather that it is the right position for us to adopt.

“I read blog posts which predict a confident pluralism in Australia which will only target extreme homophobia, as if the recent brittle pluralism on this matter (Coopers anyone?) is merely an anomaly, a blip on the radar that will magically correct itself with the objective is achieved.”

Just to be clear this is not my prediction; but also to be clear, my diagnosis of most conservative Christian responses to same sex marriage here and abroad is that the loudest voices have not practiced a confident pluralism but a zero sum game (and to be charitable to John Inazu who coined the ‘confident’ qualifier for pluralism, or at least trademarked it, his confidence, like Stephen McAlpine’s is largely eschatological and theological, not political).

The snowball that started the Stephen McAlpine internet juggernaut; of which I am a fan; was his series of posts on life in exile. He concluded we’re not in Athens but Babylon, my response was to suggest that the distinction between Athens, Babylon, and Rome is probably not one that Revelation makes — we’re still in Rome, and the question is ‘how should the church operate when in Rome?’ We should consider ourselves operating in the world that crucified Jesus, despite thousands of years of the church influencing western culture.

My paradigm is not one of navigating the easiest road for the church in these times; but making sure we’re being crucified for following Jesus (doing the right thing), rather than for using ‘the sword’ to try to make other people follow Jesus (the culture wars/modern crusades/wrong thing). If you’re seeing something other than cruciformity driving my agenda I’d invite you to first try to understand my words through that lens, and if you still can’t see it, to call me out.

The Babylonian metaphor Stephen often uses (most recently in his cracking post on Israel Folau) is a useful one, provided we see Babylonian exile as involving powerful counter-narratives about humanity that go a long way beyond sex, and sexual ethics as the last thing the church is being called to give up, not the first. Like Stephen, and others, I see Daniel as a powerful motiff or model for how to respond to life in Babylon, but I see Jesus operating in the Roman empire as a subversive alternative (and victorious) king who wins through crucifixion as an even better model (and Daniel as a ‘type’ of Jesus). Like Stephen my confidence is eschatological, not political. Like Stephen, my solution to this diagnosis is that the church should be the church; and so when I pursue a confident pluralism and generously engage with some of the more aggressive members of the homosexual campaign against religious freedom being exercised I’m not doing it to silence the Christians they are silencing (though I do wish those Christians would practice pluralism), I’m not doing it to secure an easier run from the world, I’m doing it to model an alternative — that I’m ultimately not confident will be politically effective, but I am confident is effectively the right thing to do. I’m trying to practice a political ethic derived from the Golden Rule, operating not just as an approach we take in our relationships as individuals, but corporately.

For the record I think it’s highly likely that it’s going to feel like we’re eating worms, or being fed to them, as Christians in Australia if we don’t radically change our approach (and even if we do). And this might be good for us. It might be deserved. But it might also be the cost of following Jesus.

Why not pragmatism?

Once upon a time, I was reminded the other day, I called myself a ‘Gospel utilitarian’ — I thought the best thing to do was the pragmatic thing to do that secured the best results for Gospel proclamation. I wrote about this. I was convinced. And then I went to Bible college and thought more about how important ethos is for our proclaiming of the Gospel (logos), how you can’t just be about results but first have to cultivate virtue, and this virtue then amplifies what we have to say; the ethos of the Gospel of the crucified king is cruciformity. This is why Paul both consistently appeals to the example of Jesus (and his own example) but also retells how the example of Jesus has caused him to be beaten and bruised for the Gospel (2 Corinthians 10-11, Galatians 6).

The pragmatic approach described by John Stackhouse in his ABC piece (quoted yesterday), at least as I understand it, calculates a political strategy based on achievable results; it’s is essentially utilitarian, seeing politics as requiring dirty hands or compromise (which it absolutely does), but seeing the potential results as worth it. I can understand people landing on this position, though much of what is good about it you also get with pluralism (which is why I think David Brooks only identified two categories of political engagement in his piece I quoted yesterday). I’m not a pluralism as a ‘dirty hands’ option, but because I think it’s how you best keep ‘clean hands’ in a dirty world (for more on the hands metaphor see this piece). I understand and appreciate pragmatism, having held what I think is a fairly similar position, but I think pluralism (which looks like dirty hands to the idealist) is its own expression of virtue ethics; it says ‘as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’ and requires us to set about building our own virtue forming institutions (especially the church), or rather it allows the Spirit to go about God’s business of transforming us into the image of Christ, as God’s handiwork — created in him to do good works, but allows other people the freedom to pursue their own handiwork. This is the best way, I believe for us to be able to proclaim the Gospel, and seek to persuade others to join our communities, or adopt our (true) monotheism.

Why then pluralism? How the Golden rule is different from ‘treat others as they’re going to treat you’

As I articulated in yesterday’s post about pluralism being preferable to idealism, there are many ways one might approach the fractured world we live in where we do face an aggressive polytheism that wants to eradicate a (perceived as aggressive or oppressive) monotheism (this polytheism is especially the secular idolatry of sex and individual liberty, so long as that liberty conforms to the collective mores). I don’t think we can totally blame the other at this point; the church (institutionally) has earned a reputation for trying to make people outside the church conform to our own patterns via politics, and being too slow to let go of that chokehold as our culture has become more diverse. This is where I believe pluralism is the right thing to do, but also why I don’t believe pluralism will achieve a desirable outcome for us politically, because mostly the people who follow the Golden Rule, are those who follow the golden ruler, Jesus, not ‘golden statues’. The golden rule is a subversive ethic because our default isn’t to treat people as we would have them treat us, but treat them as they’ve treated us (or as we’ve perceived it) or as they might treat us in the future. The self-seeking default is to hold on to power and play the zero sum game of ‘I win/they lose’ for as long as possible. Christians still playing this game have not realised that we lost the numbers a long time ago and now we’re systemically losing the sympathy of our neighbours and reinforcing the ‘oppressor’ narrative; so we shouldn’t be surprised when we become oppressed. My concern is that we get oppressed for the right stuff — faithfully proclaiming Jesus. Not the wrong stuff — being political oppressors, no matter how well intentioned, of those who do not worship Jesus.

Pluralism is where I think you  land if you take a communitarian approach to life in this world, and want the freedom for the church to be the church (religious freedom), seeing that as a good thing. Personally, I am ok with the church being the church without religious freedom, that’s been how the church has operated in many other times and places (still); and God will still freely be God even if those proclaiming the Gospel are in chains; his word, as the book of Acts finishes, will continue unhindered.

Pluralism is what it looks like to say “I want our community to have the freedom to define ourselves and live according to our vision of the good, so I will treat other communities built around different visions of the good with the same freedom.”  The government in a secular nation has a responsibility to not have a state religion, the government in a liberal democracy has a responsibility to uphold the freedoms of its citizens but to balance those freedoms with the freedoms of others; this is a politically coherent position in our framework, but building an ethic around what works politically is another form of pragmatism. For me, pluralism isn’t primarily a politically smart or socially defendable position, it is those things because it seems to me to be the right thing to do when you have many communities formed around many religions, and people with no religious affiliation forming their identity around other visions of a good life; pluralism is the right thing to do (as opposed to aggressive/oppressive monotheism or polytheism) because it is what I would have people who disagree with me offer me. It’s the right thing to do even when they don’t or won’t. And let me be clear, I don’t expect them to, ultimately, because I believe pluralism is only really something you can offer from a position of absolute confidence and certainty, or from genuine epistemic humility. You either have to be so confident that your view will ultimately be vindicated (in the Christian case ‘by God’, in other cases ‘by history’ or their gods) that you are able to operate with charity to those you disagree with, a sort of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ approach; or so genuinely humble about the views that you hold and open to being persuaded that you want to afford the opportunity for people to persuade you to every other group, a sort of ‘it’s possible I only know this by God’s grace, or I might actually be wrong about everything’ approach. It’s possible to be both (which is where I think generosity kicks in over confidence as a qualifier for pluralism). I don’t think modern secular ideologies have either the confidence (built from thousands of years of tradition and a coherent and compelling story) or the humility to play this game. There are certainly good reasons why oppressed minorities don’t feel this confidence based on how they’ve been wrongly treated, so I’m not condemning the passion of those who are fighting hard against their perceptions of an oppressive reality, that’s not my point; my point is that Christians have every reason to be confident, charitable, humble and generous in offering this sort of pluralism even to those who would crucify us, and even if thye do, because our confidence is not in earthly politics and human recognition and affirmation, but in God. I really love this quote I found in a book somewhere a long time ago. I come back to it regularly:

Incarnation means that God enables divinity to embody humanity.  Christians, like Jesus, are God’s incarnations, God’s temples, tabernacling in human flesh (John 1:14; Phil. 2:3-8).  Christians, spiritually transformed into the image of God, carry out God’s ministry in God’s way. Frequently incarnationalists relate to seekers from other world religions personally and empathetically (as Jesus taught Nicodemus).  Sometimes, however, they declare God’s social concerns by shaking up the status quo and “cleaning out the temple.”  The end result of incarnation in a non-Christian world is always some form of crucifixion.” — Gailyn Van Rheenen, Engaging Trends in Missions, 2004

We can confidently engage with others personally and empathetically — seeking to persuade but not restrict those who hold to other views — and even be crucified, because of the God we believe is at work in and through us.

The Daniel “Diet of Worms” Diet

One of my favourite recent posts from Stephen McAlpine was his ‘four Ds’ look at what it means to be a church shaped by Daniel’s life in Babylon; where the church defies, declares, dies and is delivered. I’ve always found the idea of a ‘Daniel Diet’ (popularised in some books in your local Christian book retailer) a relatively bizarre take on Daniel, but there is a certain sort of ‘diet’ Daniel anticipates for Christians (by first anticipating it for Jesus). I think Stephen nails it. There’s also a certain sort of optimistic mocking of worldly power in the light of who God is and his hand being at work in the world, I like the scholarly view that the Book of Daniel is a satirical critique of human empires and worldly power.

One of the better books I’ve read on political theology and strategy in the secular age is How To Survive The Apocalypse, authors Alissa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra have a slightly different take on the Babylon motiff; they point out that in our modern age we don’t have a Nebuchadnezzar; our individualism means we’ve thrown down any institutional authority and replaced it with all of us clamouring to be king; a sort of anarchy where different communities or tribes (or individuals) are at war, just like in The Hunger Games (an example they cite). This war certainly profits some ‘king like’ sectors of the corporate realm — we’ve replaced politics with the market, or politics now serves the market).

“The question for politics today is how to build Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar has been dragged through the streets and hung at the gates.” — How To Survive The Apocalypse

They’re not pessimistic though, following Charles Taylor they suggest that change always moves simultaneously in a bunch of directions and our modern storytelling reveals a dissatisfaction with this sort of world; there might be a hope that we can patch things back together and that the church might be a part of this. But that will require a sort of uncompromised willingness to compromise; or a ‘faithful compromise’; we need to learn from Daniel, and perhaps, more recently Martin Luther, who has his own ‘diet’ where he pursued faithful monotheism within the confines of the church. We need to be both ‘faithful’ in our own community, and pluralist or compromising in the community at large. Both confident and humble. It is possible. Here’s Luther’s ‘Diet of Worms’ diet for faithfulness (ok, I know this is a bad pun).

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen. — Martin Luther, Diet of Worms (like most historians, I don’t believe he actually said “here I stand”… which is a shame).

We need to have Luther’s preparedness to stand for what we believe, and be crucified, but Daniel’s readiness to be part of the world that was happy to throw him to the lions, committed to its good (and optimistic in such a way that it fosters generosity). Here’s Wilkinson and Joustra:

“This may sound a bit unsatisfying, but it’s also the context for the hard work of making culture. It is a call to proximate and slow justice, to work among the ruins of a Secular age because it is our age, and we are responsible to find, restore, and build on the best of its motivating ideals. That’s Chief Astrologer Daniel kind of territory: making faithful compromise, resisting what needs resisting, changing where change can be made, building where the best is already present. Maybe the often-repeated Jeremiah invocation to “seek the welfare of the city” is just a good Hebrew summary of Taylor’s argument to find and build on the best of the motivating ideals of our Secular age. Nobody argues Babylon is or will be the City of God. But it can be better than it is now, and we can be part of that work…”

They touch on pluralism, identifying a sort of listless and historically radical pluralism operating in our world that defaults to ‘no religion’ and the destruction of institutions, but suggesting the answer to a world that probably won’t give us the pluralism we might desire is, counter-intuitively (or golden rule shaped) more pluralism, not less.

“… the better answer to the fear that accompanies a Secular age is to refocus the work of politics to finding common cause; locating, building, and maintaining overlapping consensus among our many and multiple modernities. There is no turning the clock back to pre-apocalypse times. There is only identifying and building a renewed consensus. This is what Taylor describes as a project worthy of any society deserving of the name “secular.” He argues that we need a radical redefinition of the secular. What should be called secular, he says, is not the inverse of the religious, but the (proper) response of the political community (the state) to diversity…

It calls for more, not less, pluralism in the public sphere. It calls for that understanding and those practices to be tested in dialogue to find areas of overlapping concern and agreement.”

This will hurt. It’ll probably be incredibly costly for many of us; but it’s the right thing to do and our confidence is not in the politics of this world, but the polis of the next. Not the cities of our age, but the city of God. But this is both our diet (in the trial sense) and our diet (in the suck it up sense). Here we stand, we can do none else.

 

The _____ captivity of the church

Sometimes I think we Christians after Christendom think we’re William Wallace. That we’re in front of a shield wall firing people up for the battle we face… when, actually, we’re already not just prisoners of the enemy, but serving the empire we think we’re standing against. We talk about the world now being ‘Babylon’ and don’t always confront how much Babylon already infects our hearts. Here’s a piece, in part, inspired by Martin Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity Of The Church

“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” — William Wallace in Braveheart

Freedom.

Religious freedom.

Freedom of speech.

It seems we Christians are a bit obsessed with questions of freedom at the moment. We’re positioning ourselves like an army of Scots ready to fight to maintain our independence from the empire. We’ve got thought leaders who are bracing us for impact, telling us that we’re in the middle of a battle that will decide our future; the battle for our freedom. These freedoms. Hard won freedoms. Freedom from the tyranny of Babylon. Freedom from bending the knee to Caesar and his rainbow sash.

The problem is we talk about religious freedom and how important it is, while we the church are captives in Babylon; and if we think freedom looks like Babylon-lite we’re in big trouble. If we think freedom is simply the ability to maintain a distinct sexual ethic we don’t realise just how much we’ve already been captivated by a world that is an entirely different kingdom to the one we live for if we follow king Jesus. We’re so focused on sex, that we fail to realise that we, mostly, already belong to ‘Babylon’.

We’re captives.

We’re political captives.

We’re economic captives.

We’re captivated by a counter-Gospel. We’re narrative captives, enthralled by Babylon and its shiny promises and explanations about who we are, and what we’re for; blinkered so that we don’t often look beyond our defaults; the status quo of our immediate context and culture.

We’re captivated in our hearts, and our minds, in our desires and in our imaginations.

But still. We picture ourselves as William Wallace, just without the face paint (and so we end up looking a whole lot like Mel Gibson, it’s ok to be a raving lunatic if you’re in character, elsewise, not so much).

We think our freedom is at stake; that it is under attack.

Apparently our real enemies; the ones who will decide our fate, are those who’ve risen up from the margins of the empire who now threaten to take control of everything, or at least to wield disproportionate influence as they capitalise on our collective guilt and shame at how our culture has treated those who are different. We don’t feel guilt, or shame, not in any way that manifests itself in sitting down at the table to make reparations and to reconcile, anyway. We might have changed some of our practices so we don’t do conversion therapy any more or kick out our same sex attracted children (hopefully); we celebrate celibacy for those in our community who are same sex attracted, sure, but we’re not particularly on the front foot explaining to same sex attracted folk outside our community how Jesus is the best possible news for them, and better than any desire for earthly things, including sex, we’re not particularly interested in how life in a contested, pluralist world might be safe for them. It’s not just Christians, or the last vestige of christendom/Old Testament morality that cause bullying, or discrimination, or the world to be unsafe for those who statistically, are not normal. It’s the human heart. It’s the beastly part of the human heart. We’re like chicks, who turn our beaks on the little bird in the clutch who is different, and peck at them until we feel secure, and they are broken beyond recognition.

Well. Now these marginalised folks are at the head of an army; they’ve rounded up the forces of Babylon, both the politicians, and the market forces — corporations — and they’ve brought that army to our shield wall.

“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.” 

We get these bracing call to arms type blog posts on all the big Christian platforms. We get books trying to chart a strategy for the church going forward in a hostile world where our freedom is under threat.

Freedom.

Religious freedom. That’s our shtick; and partly because we so value it for ourselves, it’s one of those things, those common goods, that we want to fight for for everyone else. We tend to see ourselves as the warriors fighting the good fight for freedom on the frontline. William Wallace in a battle raging against the ‘secular’  empire. And by secular this is the sort of hard secularism that sees no place for worship, rather than secularism as ‘no religion is favoured’ pluralistic secularism.

“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.” 

Only we can’t really say that. Or rather, we can’t really say that and mean it. Because our freedom is already gone. We’re already captives. When it comes to Babylon, they’re not at the gate banging on the doors using the new sexual revolution to break down the walls. We’re already captives, and have been for a long time. This stuff on sexual difference is just, perhaps, the last defence to fall before we capitulate, bend the knee to Caesar and kiss the ring. And that we don’t realise we’re already captives makes our resistance pretty pathetic and futile.

We think we’re fighting the good fight here on same sex marriage and safe schools. But the truth is, we’re already captives to Babylon in so many ways that this resistance is pathetic, and unless it leads us to seek freedom in a whole bunch of other areas where ‘Babylon’ has infiltrated, we’re in a bit of trouble.

But the other truth is that Babylon in the Bible isn’t just judgment from God (as we’ll see below); it’s opportunity. It’s an opportunity to reach people outside Israel, and outside the church. Babylon is our mission field, and always has been. And the thing that keeps us focused on the main thing — joining with God in bringing dead people to life through the Gospel — is realising that we’re in Babylon, not Israel, that our neighbours are facing death for rejecting God, and that we’ll be part of God inviting them out of Babylon into a new kind of citizenship.

If we really want to resist Babylon in order to be part of winsomely calling people from death to life, there’s a whole lot of stuff we might need to free ourselves from first. We have to figure out how we’re distinct from Babylon (or should be) in order to reach Babylon with the Gospel (oh, and we need to remember that because we’re not Jews, we’re actually converts from Babylon, Babylonians who’ve decided to follow a different king, that our job isn’t first to identify with Israel and its story, but to appreciate that because of the one faithful exile, Jesus, we are brought home to God and made citizens of something new); we also need to be clear about what ‘Babylon’ means as a metaphor in a Biblical sense (beyond the exile).

There is a sense that God’s people being scattered into Babylon is both vital for his mission to see his image bearers spread over the face of the earth (Genesis 1), and judgment for failing to do the job of being his image bearers in the world; a case of God achieving his purposes through judgment. There’s also a sense in which exile into Babylon is judgment giving people a taste of what it seems they desire — to not live like his people; it’s a purifying thing. This is where his judgment in response to the impulse at Babel — where a bunch of people didn’t scatter, but instead stayed together to build a big, central, tower — probably an ancient ‘ziggurat’ (a staircase into the heavens to make themselves gods) — fits in with his plans for the world. These people rejected his call to go into the world, they built a tower for their own name to make themselves gods ascending to the heavens, and were scattered as a result. It’s this moment, in the Biblical narrative, that creates nations like Babylon, and there’s some pretty interesting historical ties between Babel and Babylon, so that in the first century, the historian, Josephus, says:

“The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion”

The Babylonian captivity of Israel

When Israel was carted off into exile in Babylon the first time around, what got them there, what got them in trouble, was they were already Babylonian at heart before the armies arrived. They were captivated by Babylon before they were captives in Babylon.

They’d already rejected God, and what should have been their distinctives as his people, and they’d turned to idols instead.

They’d signed up with their hearts, and exile was a case of them becoming what they loved. In the book of Ezekiel we get an explanation read by people in Exile about why they’re in exile in the form of the words of the prophet who warned them what was coming.

There’s this scene where a group of Israel’s leaders rock up to Ezekiel to ask him what God says, and it turns out they’re in trouble because they’ve ‘set up idols in their hearts’ — abominations one might say… it turns out they’ve already deserted God. They’re already captives in this sense, even if the physical takeover is not yet complete (though it is for the first readers of Ezekiel)…

 When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet, I the Lord will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’ — Ezekiel 14:4-5

The heart reality, the ‘Babylonian captivity’, is going to become the real deal though.

“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because you people have brought to mind your guilt by your open rebellion, revealing your sins in all that you do—because you have done this, you will be taken captive.

“‘You profane and wicked prince of Israel, whose day has come, whose time of punishment has reached its climax, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Take off the turban, remove the crown. It will not be as it was: The lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low. A ruin! A ruin! I will make it a ruin! The crown will not be restored until he to whom it rightfully belongs shall come; to him I will give it.’ — Ezekiel 21:24-27

Exile is a judgment from God on those whose hearts have already gone from him; those who are already captives. The end of this Babylonian exile, according to Ezekiel, is the restoration of the crown to a rightful king of Israel. That’s Jesus. This restoration would also include a restoration of the heart, and a return from exile.

 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” — Ezekiel 36:25-28

The first Babylonian captivity of the Church

The ‘Babylon’ of Revelation is, first, Rome. It’s the Babylon Israel are still enthralled by; to the extent that when Jesus came, they joined the Romans in executing him. Israel is still in exile, they don’t have new hearts, and they haven’t recognised God’s king. They’re part of this Babylonian kingdom. It’s a picture of a beastly kingdom that has set itself up in total opposition to the kingdom of God. The kingdom we see launched by the death and resurrection of King Jesus. It’s a kingdom whose values are both the opposite of Jesus’ values, and that are so totalising, coherent, and integrated, that once you let just one bit creep into your heart, it’s a trojan horse that lowers your ability to fight the rest. When John starts describing ‘Babylon’ in Revelation he paints this vivid picture of a powerful and beautiful woman who rides a beast, and seductively takes people away from God:

The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

Babylon the great

the mother of prostitutes

and of the abominations of the earth.

I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. — Revelation 17:4-6

This isn’t some mystery where we need a decoder ring, or to get in touch with our inner Nostradamus…

“The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” — Revelation 17:18

For John, in his day, this is a description of Rome. Rome who loomed large as the totalising persecutor of Christians, but also as a compelling, integrated and coherent picture of civilisation; where order was kept and maintained and the seduction of beauty and power was never far away from the stick of its military. The carrot and stick of Rome were the threat to Christians aiming to maintain their distinction as citizens of heaven who bow the knee to Jesus, not Caesar, so we have a little exchange between governor Pliny and Emperor Trajan where Pliny is trying to figure out what to do with the Christians, and Trajan says “if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.” And this lure, which caught Israel, also threatens the church — when John opens Revelation by directly speaking to the churches who first read this apocalyptic (revealing) text; that showed the real lay of the land, he warns the churches ‘not to forsake their first love’, not to be lured by Jezebels and the promises of false worship, not to become ‘lukewarm’ because of their own economic might within the empire… people in the church are in danger of forsaking Jesus and ending up in judgment, in Babylon.Everyone is an exile — you’re just either exiled from God, or from the beastly Babylon. Whatever happens their lives are lived in the physical reality of Babylon. They’re not home. And they’re treated like exiles too, by the world. The church is facing persecution for not bending the knee to Caesar.

Escaping persecution was so simple. You just had to sign up, totally, to the empire. To give in to Rome; to the empire; to Babylon; was to become an abomination; to become “children of the mother of the abominations of the earth.” Now this is pretty strong language, and for a long time the church has got itself in a spot of bother by using versions of the Bible that seem to single out sexual sin as the only sort of ‘abomination’ and abomination as a particularly insidious different type of sin. All sin is fundamentally an abomination to God. Stuff we might give a hall pass to out there in the public square — like greed — but also stuff we’re thoroughly conscripted into and captivated by as Christians — like lust, gluttony, and, umm, greed.

An ‘abomination’ was something put in the place reserved for God — in the Temple, at the altar, but also, fundamentally, in our hearts. An abomination is anything you replace God with. It’s the thing that turns us, as it conscripts us and deforms our behaviours (and so the image we bear in the world), in such a way that we become more like Frankenstein than human. We become vaguely human, in terms of what God’s kingdom looks like. The whole Roman enterprise — though much of it looked beautiful, ordered, and admirable — was built on an abominable rejection of God as God and Jesus as king.

When the Maccabees revolted against the Seleucid Empire (a hellenic kingdom), they were motivated, in part, by that empire fulfilling what they thought were Daniel’s prophecies about the abomination that causes desolation. It was all about God’s temple, and the altar, and the purity of whole-hearted worship that Israel was able to offer to God. So 1 Maccabees describes this abominable moment:

Now on the fifteenth day of [the month] Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah — 1 Maccabees 1:54

This sacrilege is later described as an abomination.

… that they had torn down the abomination that he had erected on the altar in Jerusalem; and that they had surrounded the sanctuary with high walls as before, and also Beth-zur, his town. — 1 Maccabees 6:7 

The Romans, when they destroy Jerusalem in 70AD, build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Temple. And some believe this is what the ultimate abomination Rome is going to carry out looks like. It’s abominable, no doubt.

But I think the ultimate abomination was what Rome — and ‘captive’ Israel — did to God’s ultimate temple. They executed him; utterly rejecting his rule; holding up a mirror to what the beastly kingdom looks like against the face of God’s king. The great irony is that this is where king Jesus is enthroned and his kingdom begins — the kingdom that would ultimately be the undoing of Roman rule and the downfall of the Caesars (if you take the long term view, and of course, the eternal view). We repeat the abomination that causes desolation whenever we put anything but God in the place of supremacy in our hearts — we were made to bear the image of God; to be walking ‘temples’ for whatever it is we worship (the things we love and serve).

The church’s job, according to Revelation, is to bear faithful witness in Babylon as people distinct from Babylon because we bend the knee to a different king — the king described in Revelation 1 who brings the kingdom described in Revelation 21-22, after Babylon is destroyed. In the meantime we’re to be faithful witnesses (see the letters to the churches at the start of Revelation), who call Babylon to repent; who speak truth to power; even to the point of sharing in Babylon’s treatment of our king. Or, as Revelation 11 puts it, when talking about the faithful ‘lampstands’ (which is what the churches are depicted at in the start of the book):

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them,and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on. — Revelation 11:7-12

Avoiding ‘Babylonian Captivity’ in the early church

Avoiding Babylonian Captivity after Jesus is a matter of right worship; it’s a matter of being part of the return from exile promised in Ezekiel (and because we’re not Jews, most of us, a return from the exile where we’re humanity was kicked out of Eden). It’s a matter of participation in God’s kingdom, the church, following his king, Jesus, and having him rule our hearts via the Spirit; a removing of the ‘abomination’ of false gods that rule our hearts.

The point is — it’s not sexual sin per say that is the ‘abomination’ (it’s a form of it), it’s idolatry. It’s the participation in worship of things other than God, through undifferentiated participation in kingdoms that are not God’s. It’s captivity. And the thing about Babylon, ‘the mother of abominations’ is that it’s not just sex that captivates us and so makes us captive; it’s not just the ‘sexual revolution’ that aims to restrict our freedom… there’s politics (power), and economics (money), and philosophy/wisdom (education and a vision of the good life) in the mix too.

Early Christians, knowing what was at stake, were more William Wallace like in their ability to avoid this sort of captivity. They refused. They maintained a distinction that included sexual fidelity, and an approach to marriage that was counter cultural in the Roman world, but it included much more than this. Here’s a passage from a second century document called the Letter to Diognetus. It’s about how the Christians avoid being caught up in the trappings of Babylon.

Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.

They share a common table, but not a common bed.

They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing 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.

They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead.

The writer of this letter says some other stuff too, including this passage on the stupidity of the idolatry of ‘Babylon’ from earlier in the piece…

“Are they not all deaf? Are they not all blind? Are they not without life? Are they not destitute of feeling? Are they not incapable of motion? Are they not all liable to rot? Are they not all perishable?

You call these things gods! You serve them! You worship them! And you become exactly like them.

It’s for this reason you hate the Christians, because they do not consider these to be gods.”

This is what it looks like to really fight for freedom — to be poor and make many rich, to be lowly, dishonoured, without power, marginalised, but to bless, honour, and do good. To be sexually distinct, to share a common table, to be living a different story because we follow a different king.

Getting out of Babylon now (or getting Babylon out of the church)

I look at how we play politics as the church and feel like there’s not a huge amount of difference to how politics get played by other ‘religious’ groups. The politics of power, of zero sum games where it’s our way or nothing. The politics of picking the people who best represent our views, rather than the people most qualified for the job. We try to play politics with everyone else, we’re just not very good at it (bizarrely, perhaps, because other people have cottoned on quicker that we’re more shaped by our loves than by ‘knowing the facts’, and so they tell better stories).

I look at how I approach money, and career, and security, and experience, and toys, and I think that there’s not much difference in my approach to consuming and my pursuit of luxury, than anyone else in my life (except perhaps that I earn slightly less because of career choices, but this just means I crave slightly more in an unrequited way).

It’s not just about sexual difference, this Babylon thing — though that is important, and our marriages should be rich testimonies to the love of Jesus, and we should love and nurture our kids. And we should fight the temptation to sexual immorality and the corrupting of our imaginations by a ‘sexular society’… but there has to be much more than that in our kit bag.

If we want to be people who aren’t captives, people who live as though ‘every land is like a homeland’ and a ‘land of strangers’ we need to be people who are so caught up in the vision of a kingdom greater than Babylon and a sense of certainty that our future is greater than the present, and the past. That the picture of life in Revelation 21-22 doesn’t just surpass Babylon, or Rome, but Eden.

This will mean a totally different approach to politics that is not wedded to a sort of conservatism where we’re trying to restore paradise lost (and end up building Rome)but a progressivism that shoots for the kingdom of heaven — the kingdom we are citizens of even now.

This will mean, in some corners of the world, divorcing ourselves from worldly political establishments (and not shooting for a wedding with any particular political party here in Australia).

This will mean we don’t seek to be at the centre of the empire culturally, or politically, or economically — to be at the centre would require the ’empire’ being at the centre of our hearts — an ‘abomination’ and a form of captivity… like Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. We won’t seek to be at the centre, but nor will we seek to be at the margins to the extent that we don’t participate in life with our neighbours. But we do need to be close enough to those at the margins to bless the people there, hear the people there, and be champions for the bringing about of change for the benefit of those Babylon treads on. Our distinctives on these fronts are to be prophetic and the noticeable and part of our appeal (think Daniel in Babylon).

This will mean listening to voices from the global church, from marginalised communities (from people who aren’t white blokes with multiple university degrees).

This will mean a totally different approach to economics. When John describes the downfall of Babylon he describes it with reference to its material prosperity — its luxury — and in terms of the downfall of a worldly economy built on the powerful controlling the goods of this world for their own benefit (and at the expense of other people — like those sold as slaves (Revelation 18:11-13) — and of the world itself which John says is “corrupted by her adulteries” (Revelation 19:2-3). The Babylon lost when God judges is not just built on sexual excess (though that is part of the picture), but on economic and political excess — a beastly and abominable approach to God’s world created by the worship of these things in the place of God. This sort of idol worship is totalising

This will mean a different approach to arts, and culture, and storytelling. The appeal of Babylon, in any form, rests in its counter-gospel and the way its gods are dressed up as appealing counterfeits to the real God. It’s no coincidence that even the word Gospel is ‘Babylonian’ (in the Roman sense); the proclamation of the marvellous victories of king Caesar. We need to be people who proclaim a different king in ways that call people to worship the one who ends our exile from God; the one who brings us out of captivity.

This will mean a different approach to personhood, discipleship, and education, that doesn’t see us just as solitary brains to be educated towards sanctification, but worshippers whose worship is cultivated in the ‘heart’, by practices, by stories, and in community where we follow our king by imitating him together, and show and reinforce our distinctive ‘story’ together.

This will mean a different approach to being the church. One that is not defensive or inwards looking, but that cultivates hearts that in looking to the king, and his way of life, joyfully and hopefully look to the lost sheep in our world; those crushed by worldly kingdoms, and offer them good news. Our practices and disciplines and the rhythms of our life together should, like the church from the Letter to Diognetus, be aimed at ‘making many rich’…  There are plenty of people at the margins of our society where the gospels of our ‘Babylons’ are exclusionary. Get an education; get a job; buy a house; collect experiences; be ‘free’… there are people for whom this vision of the good life is a millstone pulling them into depths of despair, not a picture of freedom at all. These are the people the freedom of the Gospel is for, and yet we spend our time hand wringing because the ‘elites’ don’t like us.

Babylon is a totalising system that aims for all of us — our desires, imaginations, beliefs, belonging, and actions… much as the Kingdom of God is a totalising system in a totally counter-Babylon, counter-Rome, way. These are where some of my misgivings about Christendom as an enterprise historically are located… we like to think the church civilised the barbarian empire… and in many ways we did… but we’re not so aware of the ways that this also allowed the empire to barbarianise the Church… and this was part of what Luther was getting at, in the Reformation he launched of the ‘Roman Church’ in a text like The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This is the scale of the challenges we’re facing as the church now, and it might not be the Benedict Option that gets us to where we need to be, but we don’t really have the option of not changing if we’re already captivated by the trinkets and baubles of Babylon and just waiting for the last little bit of resistance to crumble while we fight for ‘religious freedom’… we need to fight for religious freedom, certainly, but more than that we need to fight to be free from abominable religions that pull our hearts from God.

When Luther described his task of pulling the church out of what he perceived to be a Babylonian captivity, he recognised how hard this would be because the captivity was so entrenched by the traditions of the church…

“I am entering on an arduous task, and it may perhaps be impossible to uproot an abuse which, strengthened by the practice of so many ages, and approved by universal consent, has fixed itself so firmly among us, that the greater part of the books which have influence at the present day must needs be done away with, and almost the entire aspect of the churches be changed, and a totally different kind of ceremonies be brought in, or rather, brought back. But my Christ lives, and we must take heed to the word of God with greater care, than to all the intellects of men and angels. I will perform my part, will bring forth the subject into the light, and will impart the truth freely and ungrudgingly as I have received it.” — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

Like many things, Luther saw the corruption of the way church was happening — removed from truths of the Gospel — as the work of Satan, work achieved through idolatry (any worship without Jesus); he says where we lose our centre — faith in Christ — we end up in judgment,  “removed from our own land, as into bondage at Babylon, and all that was dear to us has been taken from us.”

In this our misery Satan so works among us that, while he has left nothing of the mass to the Church, he yet takes care that every corner of the earth shall be full of masses, that is, of abuses and mockeries of the testament of God; and that the world shall be more and more heavily loaded with the gravest sins of idolatry, to increase its greater damnation. For what more grievous sin of idolatry can there be, than to abuse the promises of God by our perverse notions, and either neglect or extinguish all faith in them. — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

We need to be prepared to change; we, the church, need to acknowledge where we are captives, and we need to be prepared to reform. It’s a big deal, and it’s about much more than what goes on in our bedrooms.

“But you will say: “What? will you ever overthrow the practices and opinions which, for so many centuries, have rooted themselves in all the churches and monasteries; and all that superstructure of anniversaries, suffrages, applications, and communications, which they have established upon the mass, and from which they have drawn the amplest revenues?” I reply: It is this which has compelled me to write concerning the bondage of the Church. For the venerable testament of God has been brought into a profane servitude to gain, through the opinions and traditions of impious men, who have passed over the Word of God, and have set before us the imaginations of their own hearts, and thus have led the world astray. What have I to do with the number or the greatness of those who are in error?”