God Won't Bless America
The God of the bible isn't as keen on America-like countries as we might hope
I like to think of the Bible as an intricate tapestry, glimpses of God from different perspectives sewn together to form a beautiful mosaic of love and fear and sin and redemption and so much more. We each (naturally) have favorite details and segments that stand out to us, but the whole thing can unravel when we exclude entire threads that we don't personally like.
One thread we sometimes don't like to talk about as much is the fiery rage of the prophets. The prophets are often cited for their predictions of the future (particularly their cryptic glimpses of the coming of Jesus), but their primary role in Israelite society was to function as social critics of a sort, afflicting the comfortable with denunciations of idolatry (failure to worship God) and injustice (failure to take care of those experiencing poverty or oppression), while bringing hope to the suffering and the marginalized. Prophets like Isaiah and Amos go as far as to say that God "despises" our attempts to worship him if they're not paired with justice and mercy (in the biblical sense of "sharing food with the hungry" and "treating those who work for you fairly", not merely "making sure our community's laws are followed.)
"All prophetic critique" is too big a topic for one blog post (or even a book!), so I want to focus on something that's stood out to me recently: John's "Babylon" imagery in Revelation 18. I'm going to use "America" to refer to a modern target of John's critique, but it's really about a system of power more than a specific country, so perhaps a better (but longer) word choice would be "Western capitalism" or "the continued shadow of colonialism," since the system in question certainly extends back before 1776. I'm not certain that "biblical exposition with lots of citations" is a good vector for the terror and anger and conviction I've felt reading these passages, so maybe eventually there'll be a more poetic version of how I'm feeling, but I wanted to write this version first because if I said "the Bible is anti-American" with no citations to back it up you might understandably think I was completely insane.
The book of Revelation (or "Apocalypse", if you're Catholic) is traditionally attributed to the Apostle John, and recounts a series of apocalyptic visions with relevance to both John's own time and the end of the world. It's somewhat notorious for being the inspiration for some of the weirder doomsday theology in Evangelical circles, but I've come to love it in the last few years, not least because of John's uncanny ability to weave complex and sometimes contradictory Old Testament imagery into powerful and even beautiful metaphors with lasting importance.
In this post, we're going to look at Revelation 18, which occurs near the end of the book and after a couple of chapters in which God condemns and punishes various people for various reasons. John has by this point established "Babylon", an ancient and since-fallen empire known in Jewish scriptures for its near-total power and oppressive behavior, as a symbol of the then-current Roman Empire. As we will see shortly, he's going to spend this chapter combining various Old Testament critiques of Babylon to argue that God will judge the current Roman world order just as severely as he did Babylon's.
I think we, as citizens of a similarly powerful and hegemonic nation, ought to be very worried about this, and so my goal in the rest of this post is to point out these parallels. This doesn't mean that 100% of Rome's sins will apply to the United States, any more than 100% of Babylon's sins applied to Rome. (For instance, John calls Rome out in Revelation 17 for its policy of intentionally persecuting Christians. This is unlikely to be an issue in the US anytime soon, but many of those hurt by US violence and economic oppression (e.g. in Latin America) have been Christians, so I don't think the parallel is entirely unfair either, especially since Rome's prophesied downfall didn't come about until after the Roman Empire was explicitly Christian.) But I do think the parallels are strong enough that this is worth our attention, and more importantly worth thinking through what it might looks like for us to "come out of Babylon" in our present context.
After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted:
"‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’
She has become a dwelling for demons
and a haunt for every impure spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.
For all the nations have drunk
the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”
Revelation 18: 1 - 3
The text makes us privy to a scene unfolding after the fall of the global system we're calling Babylon. This isn't an incrementalist sort of "we figured out how to make Babylon better" or even a "we found a better system to replace Babylon." Instead, the entire system has collapsed and all that's left is the demons that once fueled it, weakened and exposed for what they truly are.
Importantly, all the nations and the kings and the merchants are guilty of partaking in the rotten system. We can't reduce the evils of the system to a couple of bad apples -- it seems like everybody with any sort of authority has been, to some extent or another, ensnared by the promise of luxury and power.
Then I heard another voice from heaven say:
"‘Come out of her, my people,’
so that you will not share in her sins,
so that you will not receive any of her plagues;
for her sins are piled up to heaven,
and God has remembered her crimes.
Give back to her as she has given;
pay her back double for what she has done.
Pour her a double portion from her own cup.
Give her as much torment and grief
as the glory and luxury she gave herself.
In her heart she boasts,
‘I sit enthroned as queen.
I am not a widow;
I will never mourn.’
Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her:
death, mourning and famine.
She will be consumed by fire,
for mighty is the Lord God who judges her."
Revelation 18: 4 - 8
It's clear that God's people are to avoid Babylon's sin, so it's worth pausing to work out what exactly the sins of Babylon are. The text makes two major allusions to Old Testament prophets, referencing Isaiah 47 and Jeremiah 51, and examining these will clarify what exactly John is claiming about Rome.
Jeremiah 50-51 is the source of John's "sins piling up to heaven" and "getting the nations drunk" imagery, as well as an early plea for God's people to "Flee from Babylon!" so as not to "be destroyed because of her sins".
What are these sins? Babylon has "opposed the Lord" and "defied the Lord", at least in part by holding the people of Israel and Judah captive as slaves. Babylon is "the arrogant one" who "destroy[s] the whole world", and who "must fall because of Israel's slain, just as the slain in all the earth have fallen because of Babylon."
As enlightened Westerners, we know that slavery is wrong. But we're still okay with outsourcing it to other countries, and with economic systems that make wage slavery and sweatshops the more palatable option. (The relative poverty of developing nations being of course linked to the history of rich countries plundering them and enforcing their economic desires through violence, and the relative wealth of rich countries coming from a history of slavery and genocide. This is so unbelievably widespread that I don't know which pieces to link, but this story of an American-led massacre for cheaper bananas of all things is not unusual.) We're also okay with fighting wars that kill millions of people to maintain our "credibility" as a superpower and conveniently ignore the absolutely horrifying things done in our name. To be completely honest, the more I learn about American history, the closer and closer to Babylon it feels like we are.
Isaiah 47 depicts Babylon as a queen convinced she will "continue forever", mistaking her tiny role in God's plan for eternal security and a justification for any evil she might take part in.
A main focus for Isaiah, and the part John references most explicitly, is Babylon's self-assurance. She "loung[es] in [her] security", twice saying "I am, and there is none besides me". She believes her own knowledge and proficiency with magic will save her, but "disaster will come upon [her], and [she] will not know how to conjure it away".
Nowadays we might smirk at Babylon because "magic isn't real", but this is to miss the entire point. Isaiah doesn't argue that Babylon's magic isn't real: he even concedes that "perhaps" her magic spells "will succeed" or "cause terror". This makes sense historically: Babylon was famous for its skills in magic and prophecy, which were believed at the time to be part of the reason for its complete economic dominance. The text isn't arguing that spells are fake -- it argues that when God comes to judge you, the most powerful tools in the world won't be enough to stop him.
America (and more generally the West) has placed itself at the top of the global economy and power structure to the point that we tend to think of this as "normal" or "how things should be", as opposed to the result of a set of circumstances in history that could be different. Much like Rome once did, we enforce an international peace by complete economic and military dominance. Critical scholars have done a lot of work rooting out "white normativity" -- our view of Western, white (and typically male) experiences and culture as "normal" or "objective" in ways that prove spiritually and physically devastating to those who are different.
Where Babylon once monopolized magic, we have an edge on technology (e.g. our absurd levels of "defense" spending, our incredible scientific advancements, or insanely successful tech industry.) This comparison isn't meant to imply that technology is bad -- Babylon's magic included perfectly decent things like spells to heal infants and toothaches. But it is a terrifying reminder that the things we trust in are temporary, and that all the RCTs in the world won't save us if God decides it's time for the American empire to end.
While Jeremiah accuses Babylon of oppressing nearby countries, and Isaiah emphasizes the sin of arrogantly normalizing our position on top, John adds a tinge of class rhetoric to the mix. Babylon's punishment is to be in proportion to her "glory and luxury," both of which seem to be presumed to be sins. John begs us, as readers and as Christians, to flee lest we "share in her sins."
None of these are easy to disentangle ourselves from -- I have absolutely no idea what to do as an individual with regards to the first, while separating ourselves from white supremacy (not to mention classism, sexism, etc.) is a lifelong process, and so much of the American experience is wrapped up in calling luxury "normal" that it can be hard to know where to even start.
But the alternative isn't great.
“When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry:
“‘Woe! Woe to you, great city,
you mighty city of Babylon!
In one hour your doom has come!’
“The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore— cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.
“They will say, ‘The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your luxury and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.’ The merchants who sold these things and gained their wealth from her will stand far off, terrified at her torment. They will weep and mourn and cry out:
“‘Woe! Woe to you, great city,
dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet,
and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls!
In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!’
“Every sea captain, and all who travel by ship, the sailors, and all who earn their living from the sea, will stand far off. When they see the smoke of her burning, they will exclaim, ‘Was there ever a city like this great city?’ They will throw dust on their heads, and with weeping and mourning cry out:
“‘Woe! Woe to you, great city,
where all who had ships on the sea
became rich through her wealth!
In one hour she has been brought to ruin!’
“Rejoice over her, you heavens!
Rejoice, you people of God!
Rejoice, apostles and prophets!
For God has judged her
with the judgment she imposed on you.”
Revelation 18: 9 - 20
In an extended reference to Ezekiel 27, John depicts two reactions to the collapse of the Babylonian system. The comfortable -- particularly those with political and economic power -- find themselves in despair. The kings are terrified of facing a similar downfall, and the sea captains mourn the loss of perhaps the most beautiful city they'd ever seen.
But the most outspoken are the merchants, who've lost their economic security and their livelihoods. The Babylonian system, much like ours, overflows with luxury. For Babylon, this takes the form of gold, linens, wood, spices, animals, and even slaves. For us, or perhaps more poignantly for me, this takes the form of delicious food, piles of books, comfy blankets, electronics, and air conditioning. I don't see any way at all to read a list that includes "fine flour" and "cinnamon" as opulent and somehow exclude myself from those who "give themselves glory and luxury."
Perhaps if I would be crushed and terrified to have the standard of living and economic security most of the world experiences, that should teach me something about my attachment to luxury and my empathy for other people.
It seems clear that part of "fleeing from Babylon" in our context has to include a simpler life in favor of giving more to those we currently bar from any sort of luxury. But I don't see how I could possibly work my way completely out of Babylon's snare, so it seems like part of the lesson of the text is that when eventually God does destroy the current world system, people like me are going to be legitimately sad and I just need to come to terms with that. (Jesus had something to say about this.)
The sadness of those whose system has been judged is only outweighed by the sheer joy of those by God's side, "heaven" and the "saints and apostles and prophets". The reason is simple "God has judged her for the way she treated you".
I think as Western Christians we sometimes read passages like that as evidence that God will judge our enemies. But in this passage, it really looks like God is judging us for the systems by which we've directly and indirectly caused so much suffering. And heaven is rejoicing at the judgment!
(The prophet Amos noticed a similar dynamic among the wealthy in Israel c. 760 BCE, asking "Why do you long for the day of the Lord?" to those who thought that their relationship with God meant God would be on their side when he acted. Instead, many of them were killed and the rest were sent into exile, in part because of their failure to "let justice roll on like a river" for the poor and marginalized.)
I don't see any response for us to give besides humbling ourselves, repenting (hence pursuing justice) and begging God to have mercy on us.
Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea, and said:
“With such violence
the great city of Babylon will be thrown down,
never to be found again.
The music of harpists and musicians, pipers and trumpeters,
will never be heard in you again.
No worker of any trade
will ever be found in you again.
The sound of a millstone
will never be heard in you again.
The light of a lamp
will never shine in you again.
The voice of bridegroom and bride
will never be heard in you again.
Your merchants were the world’s important people.
By your magic spell all the nations were led astray.
In her was found the blood of prophets and of God’s holy people,
of all who have been slaughtered on the earth.”
After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:
Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
for true and just are his judgments.
He has condemned the great prostitute
who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.
He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”
And again they shouted:
"Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever."
Revelation 18:21 - 9:3
John doesn't minimize the enormity of what's happened.
Babylon is gone.
The music of Babylon is gone.
The workers of Babylon are gone.
The technology and the people and the romance are gone.
This once-great economic system, this world that people were born into and died in, that entire lifetimes were spent navigating, is gone.
This empire that killed people, not only Christians (most of whom aren't American!) but "all who have been killed on the earth", is gone.
There is no longer such a thing as Babylon
There is no longer such a thing as Tyre
There is no longer such a thing as the Roman Empire
Someday, there will no longer be such a thing as the United States.
And God will rejoice.
And if we're to survive in heaven, we'll have to learn to rejoice as well.