This is the text of a talk I gave to an ecumenical group of ministers from a wide variety of church traditions in Birmingham in 2016, which was followed by lively discussion. Most of the pastors were from churches in deprived inner city or other urban areas. It is just as relevant today.
Whose discipleship are we reflecting on today? Our own, or that of our church members, or our neighbours? I am not a pastor of a particular church, although I have recently been getting more involved with my local Catholic parishes in Sparkhill, Digbeth and Balsall Heath. I have been celebrating the Eucharist with them, and preaching, so I have to reflect on this question too. Of course we have to reflect on our overall context to also reflect on our place within that, and that of our neighbours and church members.
I want to mention in passing two issues that we can come back to later:
One, it is easy for those of us, including myself, who have an education and apparently comfortable background, to speak to those in deprived inner city communities, and tell them they should be in solidarity with each other and the poorest, and therefore should not be upwardly mobile: is this just a new way to keep the poor poor, and in their place?
Two: it is easy to speak as if we have a large or strong or thriving church community. Maybe some do, maybe some don’t. Overall, I think its still true we are a shrinking community, perhaps bolstered by immigration. Given the wealth of the society we live in, despite the varying experiences of that prosperity, we should perhaps not be surprised. For Jesus did not say “blessed are the rich”. Also, and there may be some debate about this, but according to some, those who do remain are generally becoming more active corporately at least, in some of the ways I will speak of later, in witnessing to the Gospel as a faith with counter-imperial values.
Our theme today is Discipleship in a Babylonian context.
Babylon was an imperial city: that is, it was the centre of power and wealth in its empire, where that power was used to oppress and extract wealth from the peoples it had subjugated through violence, war and the threat of these.
Babylon has a central historical and also mythical role in the Biblical history. The leadership of Israel was deported there. A central theme of the Old Testament was of the struggle to remain faithful in the face of its threat, and in the reality of exile, whether that was oppressive or alluring and seductive, or both. All the prophets spoke about how God’s people should relate to the threat or reality of imperial domination, with Babylon as the ‘great city’ which was the model of all the others. This was transposed into the New Testament, in the book of Revelations, onto the Roman Empire.
So, to say ‘Babylon’ in this context is to talk about Empire. Empire is a constant reality in our world: centres of power and wealth, that use that power to extract wealth from others through the reality and threat of violence, war, propaganda systems, and the control and sense of inevitability that these enable. Empires use propaganda systems to promote false values and their false gods.
We know from our Biblical tradition that Empires come and go: they have a limited lifespan: “a time, two times, and half a time” (Daniel 12:7 and cf Revelation 11:3 and Daniel 7:25)
In more recent times the big world Empires have been the European empires, the largest of which was the British Empire. The UK was ‘number one nation’ globally probably for about two hundred years. Next came the American Empire, although not claimed as such by that country. Now, we all live in the ‘global capitalist empire’, where global corporations struggle with nation states for power and wealth. At least 50 of the 100 largest economic entities in the world are corporations, with no democracy, and no provision within their structures for the poor, or those left outside. Many of them are headquartered in the UK, others elsewhere in Europe or the USA. Their leaders and owners are among the 1% of the 1%, and many of them live in the UK, mostly in London and the surrounding areas.
So we live at or near the heart of Empire in our time. At the same time, physical proximity to the centre is not the same as being the beneficiaries, as the working class and peasants of England from the 16th century onwards knew. However, certainly since 1945 and we can go back probably to 1900, a large proportion of people in these islands have been at the very least collaborators with this empire, perhaps like Peter at the fire in the palace courtyard, ‘warming our hands by the fire of minor privileges’, while of off-stage we can hear the screams of those being tortured, in preparation for crucifixion.
So where are we in this, and our neighbours and church members? I would think that pretty much all of us in this room are from the class who benefit secondarily from Empire. We are expected to be its functionaries, to help it keep moving along, smoothing out the dissatisfactions, the dysfunctions and the contradictions. We have received an education and probably certain material privileges so that we are able to do this, and see things from the perspective of those invested in the status quo.
Our neighbours and church members may be in a similar position, or they may be among those who are also exploited to keep the system running, or even among those who are left over and simply discarded. I would think that most of our neighbours and church members do not think of themselves as beneficiaries of Empire, even if some or many are, to varying degrees.
What are we to do? First of all, acknowledge the reality of Babylon, of Empire. Secondly, analyse what our place in it is. Thirdly, make sure we are in solidarity with those who are exploited or left over, near or far. If we are among the exploited, then that means solidarity among those like us: otherwise, we either have made, or have to make, a shift, make a move, in our thinking and priorities, away from what our heritage and background expects of us.
For all of us, we have to be able to ‘see through the veil’: the veil that Imperial propaganda creates around us, and the veil between time and eternity. This is what the writer of the book of Revelation was trying to do for the people of his time. Being marginalised on a prison island was a good place to see through Imperial pretensions, and to see them from the perspective of Eternity, from the ‘heavenly realm’. It was for him what the Irish call a ‘thin’ place. This is why the book by Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther about Revelation is called ‘Unveiling Empire’.
To see through the veil we need to clear our heads of the propaganda: the advertising, the media line, the cultural icons. We need to be careful what we watch, what we see, what we read. Adblocker is a good idea at the very least, in this internet age. We need to read and study the Bible and its stories of struggle and resistance to Empire. But we need to read it through the eyes of Jesus. How did Jesus read and interpret the Jewish scriptures? Which parts did he focus on, and which parts did he ignore?
There appear to be at least two main traditions in the Bible, or at least the Old Testament [ cf ‘Come Out My People, by Wes Howard-Brook]. There is the tradition that affirms the place of kings and temples and hierarchical social structures. And there is that which critiques them and opposes them, and emphasises the Reign or Kingship of God alone.
There is one tradition that says , in the words of the psalms, “God blesses the righteous, riches and wealth are in his house” (Psalm 112) , the implication of which is that the wicked will suffer and be punished (cf Proverbs 11) and so that those who are poor must have sinned!: The other tradition is that which says “God is close to the poor and the broken hearted” (cf Isaiah 61) and “blessed are the poor” (Matthew 5:3, Luk3 6:4), while it is the rich who are wicked ( Luke 16: parable of the rich man and Lazarus : Job 21 : Jeremiah 12 : – as opposed to Ecclesiastes 8)
It is clear which of these traditions Jesus affirms. “blessed are the anawim”, the rich man is in hades, and the rich young man must give up his wealth and privileges in order to follow Jesus.
Discipleship in Babylon requires a disciplined approach so as not to get swamped by the incredibly powerful propaganda machines of our ages. It requires a focus on the stories in our scriptures and traditions of resistant churches, communities and individuals. It also requires a life aimed at maintaining our sense of dignity and simplicity, and it also requires action. Not to get caught up in what our society tells us is necessary for a ‘good life’, but to focus on what is essential. To try to build communities of resistant values in our churches and church communities.
To do this we also need to worship and pray with confidence, assertively. One suggestion is that the European tradition of quiet and reflective prayer and worship is not enough, at least on its own. Public liturgy on the streets, worship and prayer, confronting the centres of power and injustice, can also help us to clarify where we stand, and for others too.
Action could be many things: for example, involvement in tenants and residents associations, or trade unions. We can affirm the right trade union membership at work, and the duty of Christians to support the unions where we work – with the focus on those among the low paid, and insecure work and conditions, and on justice, not merely on self-interest and private gain.
It could be supporting living wage campaigns and community organising. It could be benefits unions. It could be international solidarity in finances or activism etc… supporting inclusion and anti-racist attitudes: supporting families trying to bring up their children with different values and experiences, bring them up to see the difference between discipleship and keeping up with the ’image race’… It could be prayer and protest about climate change, international injustices, wars, … and bringing these things to our communities from a faith filled and scriptural perspective. We need to remember that our Mother and Sister Earth is also our neighbour, and one of the main victims of Empire in our times, (as always, but on a bigger scale) and look to defending future generations too.
In the Book of Revelation, there are passages of violent and threatening language from God, threatening retribution and disaster for the evil and the exploitation of Babylon, of Empire. These passages also say that thousands from the ‘twelve tribes of Israel’ will be saved. But these words are not effective, nothing changes. It is when ‘the lamb that was slain’ – but who is still alive – comes on the scene that things change: and “people from all languages, peoples and nations” are united in worship before the throne of God. It is the unconditional, non-violent, sacrificial presence, solidarity and love of God revealed in Jesus that makes the difference.
The lesson here for us, it seems to me, is that we have to model what we want to achieve. We have to live it in our own lives if we want to inspire others with our words. If we who have at least some privileges are not able or willing to make sacrifices, and sacrifices that really look like sacrifices to those among the exploited and left- out among our neighbours and church members, then we will not be seen to have an authentic voice of Christ, the lamb that was slain, was sacrificed and rose again.