Empires: Not as Permenant as They Look

no parking with empire sticker
Photo credit: Mánchate

Revelation 18:1-8

Then I saw another certified messenger descending from heaven, shining so brightly that the whole world was lit. With a deafening voice he announced:

Babylon is utterly destroyed!
It is now the home for demons,
haunted by all the warped spirits,
haunted by all the angry birds,
haunted by all the demented and disfigured beasts.

All the nations have drunk her grog of anger and lust,
and all the nations’ rulers have had sex with her,
and all the corporations have indulged in her.

But then came another voice from heaven, saying:

Leave her now, my people,
so you won’t be part of her misdeeds,
nor suffer the consequences for which she is fated.
For her misdeeds are piled sky-high,
and God has kept track of each one.
Now she will get back twice as much as what she has done to others,
and the grog she mixed will be mixed double for her.

As glorious and luxuriously as she lived it up,
she will writhe in pain and agony.
She thinks to herself: “I’m the invincible queen. I’ll never be left alone and destitute!”
But her comeuppance will only take a day:
rot and grief and starvation,
and she will burn to the ground
by the power of God’s verdict.

Babylon is empire. Forget all the Bible Prophesy Institutes and radio preachers who want to tell you it’s Rome, or Nazi Germany, or the Papacy. It’s empire. Whatever empire happens to be the current one. That’s what it is.

In 2011, it happens to be the US. And China. And the EU. And the imperial regime wherever you’re living. It’s the global free trade system.

Revelation’s point is that as all-powerful and invincible as they seem, they’re not permanent. And when they fall, they go down with spectacular speed.

It was called the Iron Curtain because it seemed for years like a permanent world fixture. But in the late 80s, we were all shocked at how quickly the whole Soviet system fell apart. The dictatorships that toppled all over the middle east earlier this year fell in days. Even the longest one, in Libya, took only months to be dismantled.

But here’s the key to bringing them down: Their power only lasts as long as people believe in them and stay in their system. So long as everyone is convinced that the imperial grog is the only grog, that the imperial economy is the only economy, that the imperial story is the only story, the empire is indeed invincible. But the moment the people leave (“Come out of her, my people”), the whole house of cards implodes.

And here’s the corollary truth: The verdict of God is always carried out by the people.

A Look in the Mirror

Lebowski in the mirrorMatthew 22:15-22

Then the Tea Party leaders got together, conspiring to entrap Jesus on the record. So they sent in some of their representatives along with a few Senators.

They said, “Professor, we know how sincere and godly and truthful you are, and how you tell it like it is, and how impartial you are with people. So, tell us what you think about this: Is the federal income tax constitutional, or not?”

Jesus knew they were up to no good. He said, “Why are you pestering me with this, you hypocrites? Show me a dollar bill.” So they showed him a dollar bill. And he said, “Whose picture is on this? Who does it say that is there?”

“Washington,” they said.

“Give to Washington what belongs to Washington, and to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this they were dumbfounded. So they left him and went away.

Rarely does the original context mirror the modern one so perfectly. Even to the point that people who confuse church and state for the same thing continue to be dumfounded by Jesus telling them, then and now, that they are worlds apart.

Empires Come and Go

Fall of Jerusalem2 Kings 25:8-12

On August 14, 586 B.C.E (which was the 19th year of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon), Nebuzaradan, the commander of the king’s crack troops came to Jerusalem. He burned the temple, the palace, and the rest of the city. He burned the whole thing to the ground. And the whole army tore down the walls around the city. General Nebuzaradan took everyone who was left away into exile. Even the turncoats who had supported Babylon were taken. The only people left were the poorest of the poor, the nobodies. They were left to work the vineyards and farms.

Here’s the real-life story behind Jesus’ so-called parable of the evil vineyard tenants.

The thing to remember about empires is that as powerful as they are, and as many people as they affect. They’re built solely on hubris. Advancing technology, economic theory, not even God, has ever saved a single one of them.

The empire surrounding Jerusalem falls to Babylon.
Which falls to Persia.
Which falls to Medea.
Which falls to Greece.
Which falls to Rome.
Which falls to the Goths.
Which falls to Charlemagne.
Which falls to Spain.
Which falls to France.
Which falls to England.
Which falls to America.
Which falls to …

You get the picture. Hubris.

Lesson? Don’t bother to build an empire. And certainly don’t expect God to bless, or save, your empire. Better to find a way to help all the people who are falling off the imperial wall.

How Empires Are Undone

Exodus 14:19-31

The Red Sea Parting
Frame from The Ten Commandments, 1956

God’s avatar, a great dark pillar of cloud, moved from the front of Israel’s camp to interpose itself behind them, between the Israelites and the pursuing Egyptian armies. The cloud remained there separating the two camps through the night, so dark that even the night seemed bright.

Moses stretched his hand over the sea, and God drove the sea back by the power of the east wind, splitting the water until dry land appeared. The Israelites walked through the sea, a great sea-wall on either side. The Egyptians, in hot pursuit, went in after them with everything they had – crack troops, tanks, artillery. As morning approached, God looked down on the Egyptians from the top of the storm cloud and threw them into panic. God caused their equipment to fail, so they were stuck. The Egyptians said, “We’ve got to get out of here. God is on their side against us.

Then God said to Moses, “Stretch your hand over the sea to close the water over the Egyptians, their weapons and their troops. So Moses stretched his hand over the sea. As the morning broke, the sea-walls closed over the Egyptians. As they fled, the Egyptians were drowned. Not one of them who had followed the Israelites into the sea passage, neither man nor machine, survived. But the Israelites all made it through between the sea-walls, without even getting their feet wet.

That was the day God freed the Israelites from the Egyptians. Seeing the Egyptians’ dead bodies washing up on the shore, they were amazed that God’s power had outmatched the world’s most powerful fighting forces. They stood in awe. In that moment, they believed what Moses had told them about God.

For all its hokey technicolor naivete, the Charlton Heston movie really does get the image right with the wall of water thing. It’s exactly the picture the story gives. Scholars debate whether there is a plausible natural explanation: it was actually a shallow “sea of reeds” near the Nile delta, not the red sea; there were tidal forces at work. Back and forth over whether it could have really happened. On it goes.

But the whole point is that there is not and cannot be any plausible natural explanation for it. The point of the story (and it’s a story) is that God orchestrated a miraculous escape, that the laws of nature were suspended to allow an oppressed people to be free and to deal an invincible empire catastrophic and unmitigated defeat.

Drawing from ancient mythic traditions, this passage came into its current form during the Hebrews’ captivity in Babylon. It was the story that enabled them to hang on until, for reasons quite beyond themselves, the empire fell and they were set free. The story is the wish-dream of every oppressed people for a miraculous escape and for the defeat of their oppressors. As such, it speaks to the imagination, not to the history books. And it’s purpose is to inspire hope, not debate. Particularly, it gives hope to those for whom the capacity to free themselves is impossibly out of reach.

One might think that a story like this, bringing hope to the hopeless, is a cruel kind of trick, a sham. But in fact, it is vindicated by the fact that sooner or later, for reasons that are entirely unforeseen, empires fall. It was so with Egypt, Babylon, China, Greece, Rome, Spain, England, Japan, Germany. And it’s no less true of today’s empires. Hang on long enough, and eventually it will fall. Call it the hand of God if you like.

But to hang on long enough people need hope against the humanly impossible. That’s what this story is about. Every empire is doomed to destruction by its own hubris when it thinks that its tanks, artillery and crack troops can solve all its problems.