One of the primary messages of the book of Revelation is to flee Babylon (18:4), which, in part, stood for the cultural zeitgeists of greed and idolatry. In the last few posts, I have sought to show that, though specifics are different, the same broad features that defined the Roman Empire are present with us today in the western world, namely, economic exploitation and military domination. It is from this two-pronged tongue of the dragon that followers of the Lamb are called to flee. But how can we, as Christian’s in the west, follow the Lamb, who is supremely against unjust financial dealings and military tyranny? Though a comprehensive answer would be multifaceted, I want to limit my reflections to the formation of the alternative community.
Just as allegiance to America, or any country for that matter, includes the telling of stories, the singing of anthems, the reciting of pledges, and the deep sense of destiny, so it is with Christian alternative communities. These communities live by a different story, chant different songs, and follow a different leader. At the heart of Christian identity is trust in Jesus as Israel’s messiah, who was the embodiment of YHWH, and the new world He promised. This trust in God and the world He is creating is fostered and nurtured by worship of this God and the meditation and reflection on the story of God, which has been preserved in scripture. If Christianity demands “an all-encompassing change of loyalty, from a given culture with its gods to the God of all cultures,” then that change of loyalty, from the former to the latter, must come the way the initial loyalty was wrought, namely, through songs, stories, and symbols. This change of loyalty within these alternative communities betrays the fact that there is a reality more important than one’s own culture, tradition, and family.
It is from these communities, which center on the worship of Jesus and the grand story of God, that the economic injustice of the empire is subverted and shown for what it is, namely, exploitative greed. Destabilizing unjust economic practices that envelopes a culture cannot be relegated to only those on the top, or the big dogs. The early church became a vehicle of welfare for the sick and hurting empire wide, and this was done primarily on a grass roots level. No longer did they let the Roman Empire dictate which story their little societies lived from. The story these seven churches lived from, encapsulated in the overarching narrative of the book of Revelation, was one that was open and free where the Harlot no longer had a say in how history moved forward. Today, these alternative communities follow a story that contradicts the story of American big business, where the bottom line is the law and the investors are gods to be appeased.
A major issue in the West is the compulsion to live above ones means. In fact, the American economy centers on spending money that one does not have. This is the idea of credit (which is Latin for “faith”). Living above ones means (or living on credit), is to be empty in terms of compassion. Busy people do not have the time for welfare. Indebted people do not have the money for welfare. Self-absorbed people do not have the emotional capacity for welfare. Our culture tells us to be busy buying individuals. This is the story they have given us and this is the story in which we have lived. But this story doesn’t permit freedom, movement, or compassion. This narrative keeps the slaves in Pharaoh’s brickyard and the dead in their graves. This story fills our heads with television jingles laced with consumerism ideologies predicated on control rather than the free and life-giving worship of YHWH.
America has given its citizens both stories and songs. But these melodies and tales often fly in the face of a God that will neither hum our hymns nor recite our pledges, who sees history from the perspective of the marginalized and has promised to exalt the humiliated. But it is from YHWH’s alternative communities, otherwise known as the church, where justice is preferred over the bottom line and compassion is administered over-and-against the private consumption of the American masses. To “flee Babylon” today, is not so much to retreat spacialy from one temporal location to another, but to move from one ideological strong hold to the next. The function of money for followers of the slain Lamb, rather than a vehicle to create comfort for oneself, must radically change to be a means for alleviating the present suffering in our local neighborhoods and ghettos. Being “crucified with Christ” is not a mere spiritual reality, but must follow us down every avenue of life, whether relationally, spiritually, or economically. It is within this “crucifixion economy” (a term borrowed from Brian Walsch), where you “earn all you can, save all you can, and give you we can,” that the slain Lamb finds a resting place within His alternative community.