Behold, three ways I’m tempted to read and misread today’s lectionary selection from Revelation, which begins with an angel calling out:
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!Rev 18:2-3
It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
a haunt of every foul bird,
a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.
For all the nations have drunk
of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.”
1. It’s about Babylon.
Before anything else, I read these verses and think of today’s alternative Old Testament reading from the Book of Daniel. Even if God had chosen not to deliver Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the furnace, they wanted Nebuchadnezzar to know “that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (3:18). So Revelation 18 is at least a history lesson, a reminder to God’s people exiled under another earthly kingdom that they should “not take part in her sins” (Rev 18:4).
Except that Revelation is an apocalyptic text, not a history. Babylon here clearly means something more than that particular state in a distant past.
2. It’s about Rome — or America
If early Christians did want to condemn the state whose agents and citizens periodically persecuted them — the government that subjected the martyrs to “the great ordeal” (Rev 9:14), then Babylon could be a code word for Rome.
After all, few empires in history could claim to have such far-reaching power that “all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,” her reach encompassing “the kings” and “the merchants of the earth” (v 3). So Revelation 18 is at least an oracle of judgment against that “great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth!” (v 19).
And if we want — as many Christians have always wanted — to read Revelation as a portent of the future they inhabit, then what contemporary empire is more Rome-like than America’s? Could we not read Revelation on one screen and our news feed on another and fear that our country’s “sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (v 5)? As I wrote last week about a different scripture, “perhaps it’s not inappropriate to wonder how stiff-neckedly idolatrous my wealthy, powerful nation would have to be for God to abandon it. Not to the eternal fate our sin deserves, but to the political and cultural collapse that have been the fates of kingdoms far larger and more powerful than ancient Israel.”
Except that Revelation is framed by a different kind of judgment. As Virginia Stem Owens points out in her commentary for the Renovaré Bible I’m using for this series, “it begins with a reckoning of the righteous. In John’s opening vision (1:9-3:22), the glorified Christ judges not the Roman emperor or his minions, but the seven churches of Asia themselves.”
3. It’s about us
In her comment on this chapter, Owens says that Revelation 18 “pictures the ultimate collapse of all human institutions given over to the lust for power or greed.” But human institutions depend on humans, Christians included, and “the more we entwine our identities with [these institutions], the more we will suffer at their disintegration.”
Especially at this time of this year, that seems like the most straightforward implication of a scripture that is anything but straightforward.