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
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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 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?