Wednesday, 23 October 2019

The bottom-trawling-fishing-net kingdom

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
20 October 2019

Habakkuk 1.1-2, 14-17
  The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
 2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?
14 You have made people like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler.
 15 The enemy brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net, he gathers them in his seine; so he rejoices and exults.
 16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his seine; for by them his portion is lavish, and his food is rich.
 17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net, and destroying nations without mercy?

Matthew 13.47-51
  "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;  48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.
 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous  50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
 51 "Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes."

"Have you understood all this?" Jesus asked
            They answered, "Yes."
By which I really hope they meant, ‘No, not at all’!

This is not easy stuff to understand,
            and we have to give it time and thought
if we are to get to grips with what Jesus was doing
            with these deceptively simple sayings
            that we call the parables of the kingdom.

I’d like to start our reflection on the parable of the drag-net by asking a question,
            and the question is this:
‘By what criteria do you think we can judge things as good or evil?’

This isn’t a straightforward question, of course,
            because it touches on so many areas of our life together,
            both as a church and more widely as a society.

The definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ have shifted over time,
            and still differ from place to place.
You don’t have to go back very far in history,
            or travel very far in terms of geography,
to find people who believe that the death penalty is a good thing;
            whereas most of those who live here in London
                        would probably be of the opinion
                        that the abolition of the death penalty was a good thing.

Or, if you had travelled with our church group to Palestine this time last year,
            you would have seen first-hand the complex and tragic outworking
            of the old adage that ‘one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.’

And within church life, you will find some Christians who condemn, for example,
            women in ministry or same sex marriage,
and others such as ourselves who celebrate both of these
            as the good gifts of God.

Sometimes, it seems, the call on what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil’
            is just a function of where you’re standing when you make the call…

So, are ‘good’ and ‘evil’ relative?
            Are there any absolutes here?
‘By what criteria do you think we can judge things as good or evil?’

This is not a new question,
            although the issues around which it coalesces
            change from generation to generation.

Humans have, it seems, always tried to work out
            what constitutes good, and what constitutes evil,
and one of the ways they have done this
            is through the telling of stories,
exploring in narrative the complexities of the problem.

The ancient Babylonians told a story
            that the world was created in violence;
and in their myth known as the Enuma Elish,
            which you can go and see recorded on a clay tablet
            just round the corner from here in the Biritish Museum,
they told of how the great god Marduk killed Tiamat, the goddess of the oceans,
            splitting her carcass to spread it over the heavens
            to keep the waters above from falling to the earth.

By the Babylonian worldview, violence was not evil,
            it was the will of the gods and woven into the fabric of creation.

However, the ancient Jews, exiled in Babylon, told a different story,
            which said that the world was created in goodness and love,
            and that violence entered the world a result of wrongdoing.

So, from a Jewish perspective, violence was evil,
            something to be resisted and avoided.

The reading we had earlier from the prophet Habakkuk
            comes from precisely this time of the Israelite exile to Babylon,
and he is distressed that God appears to have abandoned the people of Israel
            to the violence of the Babylonians.

Habakkuk is concerned that the violent worldview of the Babylonian gods
            is going to triumph over that of the Israelite God
                        who calls the created world good rather than evil.

If you go back to your Bibles afterwards
            and read the first chapter of Habakkuk,
you’ll find it’s actually a dialogue between the prophet and God,
            with the prophet raising his concerns and God answering back.

In our reading today,
            we just heard a small part of the prophet’s side of the conversation,
in which he gives voice to the theological problem that has vexed the ages
            - that question of why it is that God seems to allow evil to prosper,
            and doesn’t intervene to rescue victims from their oppressors.

From Habakkuk’s perspective, Israel has been praying faithfully
            for release, for an end to their suffering,
but God appears to be allowing evil to prosper over good.

Habakkuk uses the image of a fishing net to make his point,
            and complains that God has reduced humans to the level of fish,
                        caught in the Babylonian drag-net of violence,
                        with no opportunity of escape.

In Habakkuk’s image, the drag-net is a symbol of punishment,
            of violence, of hopelessness, and of evil.
And this idea of a fishing net as a symbol of God’s judgment
            surely lies behind Jesus’ parable from Matthew chapter 13.

We’ve been looking at these so-called ‘parables of the kingdom’
            from Matthew’s gospel in our communion services this year,
and we’ve discovered over and again
            that they are rarely quite what they seem.

Consistently, the way Jesus tells these short stories
            has subverted the way in which the Pharisees of his time
                        were making use of traditional images from the Hebrew tradition
                        to justify their version of nationalistic pride and religious intolerance.

So, the parable of the mustard seed undermined their desire
            for Jerusalem to tower over the nations of the world like a mighty cedar.
The parable of the yeast undermined their desire
            for Israel to become so ritually pure
            that all other people were excluded from God’s love.
The parable of the treasure undermined their desire
            to make following God about duty rather than joy.

We have even had a go at writing some contemporary versions of Jesus’ parables
            to see if we could do similar in our world,
undermining those values that tend towards exclusion and nationalism.

And here, in today’s parable of the drag-net,
            we meet a similarly subversive parable;
which goes head-to-head with the Pharisees’ understanding of judgment,
            undermining their desire to declare themselves and those like them as ‘good’
            and everyone else as ‘evil’.

A contemporary version of this parable might go something like this:

‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like a bottom-trawling fishing boat with fine-holed nets.
            It scrapes and scoops everything in its path without distinction,
            and the ecosystems it disrupts are never the same again.’

It’s fairly shocking, isn’t it?

I mean, we hear on the news that bottom-trawling fishing is indiscriminate,
            and highly destructive to the environment.
To compare this to the kingdom of heaven feels counter-intuitive.

And yet, this is a similar effect that that which Jesus achieved
            in his parable of the drag-net.
‘The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea
            and caught fish of every kind;
when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down,
            and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.’

I think it helps us understand what Jesus was doing
            when we realise that he was basing his parable
                        on our passage from the book of Habakkuk,
            which described the people of Israel as fish,
                        victimised by the Babylonians
                        and crying to God for release from their evil net of violence.

The Pharisees would have been very familiar
            with the us-and-them mentality of Habakkuk.

‘We’re right, and they’re wrong;
            we’re the victims, and they’re the oppressors!’

This would have been the repeated cry
            of the nationalistic Pharisees of Jesus’ day,
as they constructed their narrative of victimhood,
            rehearsing all the enemies of God’s people,
                        from the Egyptians, to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians,
                        to the Greeks, to the Romans of their own time
            - all the gentile nations
                        who had sought the destruction of Israel down the centuries.

But Jesus turns this on its head.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not a narrative of victimhood
            leading to policies of exclusion.
It’s not a story of us-and-them.
            It’s not a story of us being good, and them being evil.
Rather, it is a story of inclusion,
            of radical and disruptive intervention in the global ecosystems of violence.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not the few faithful fish caught in someone else’s net;
            it is the net itself, trawling the world and gathering everything in its path.

As I said, this is a disconcerting image….

From a contemporary perspective,
            I think we can sometimes tend towards an idolisation of the created order.
Any good marketing executive knows that ‘natural’ is ‘good’,
            and that ‘natural’ sells.
I certainly have no wish here to undermine
            a properly Christian concern for the environment:
we are a registered eco-church,
            and we flew an Extinction Rebellion banner for a couple of days last week
            in solidarity with those who are wanting to preserve our planet.

But nature is not always fuzzy and cuddly,
            and we do it a disservice if we idolise it as such.
It can be violent and dangerous.

Tennyson’s famous line that nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’,
            has frequently been used to characterise Darwin’s theory
                        of evolution by natural selection;
perhaps unconsciously echoing the Babylonian mythological perspective
            that creation was born from an act of violence.

In nature, the fish caught in the bottom-trawling drag-net,
            have no knowledge of good and evil.
That distinction is something that is reserved for humans,
            and humans alone, to make.
The fish don’t call the destruction of their habitat as evil,
            they just know elemental moments of pleasure and pain,
                        contentment and fear,
                        the joy of killing and the fear of being killed.

To call these ‘evil’ or ‘good’ is beyond any created being except ourselves.

And this, surely, is the point of the Jewish creation story
            which took shape in exile in Babylon.
Only the symbolic descendants of those
            who have eaten the fruit of the tree
                        of the knowledge of good and evil
            can make such distinctions.

And we humans have become so very efficient
            at imposing our categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ onto the world;
we do it all the time,
            and always according to criteria of our own devising.

For the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, the world was very binary
            - you were either ‘good’ or you were ‘evil’,
            and for them ‘good’ was defined in terms of purity.

Now I don’t know if you’ve spent much time reading the book of Leviticus,
            but it is an astonishing treatise on purity legislation,
labelling the created order ‘good’ and ‘evil’
            in terms of ‘pure’ and ‘un-pure’, ‘clean’ and ‘un-clean’.

Here are a few examples for you:

·        Clean: Animals with divided hoofs that chew the cud
·        Unclean: The camel, the rock badger, the hare and the pig.

·        Clean: Birds
·        Except: Buzzards, kites, ravens, ostriches, night-hawks,
            seagulls, hawks, owls, storks, or herons of any kind;
            plus bats.
such as the locust, the cricket and the grasshopper - you can eat these if you want.
the land crocodile, and the chamaeleon.

·        Unclean: All insects that walk on the ground
·        Except: those that have jointed legs for leaping

·        Unclean: The weasel, the mouse, the gecko,

And so it goes on, and on, and on,
            with regulations as to what to do
                        if you accidentally eat something you shouldn’t,
                        or touch something you shouldn’t,
                        or touch something that has touched something it shouldn’t…

And then we come to the fish:

Leviticus 11.9-12
These you may eat, of all that are in the waters. Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the streams-- such you may eat.
 10 But anything in the seas or the streams that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and among all the other living creatures that are in the waters-- they are detestable to you 11 and detestable they shall remain. Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall regard as detestable.
 12 Everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable to you.

So, picture the scene:

You’re a fisherman on the sea of Galilee.
You might even work for James and John,
            fishing partners incorporated 23AD.
Your boat has been drag-net fishing,
            and has come back with a good catch,
            but now it’s time to sort.
Into one pile goes all the fish with fins and scales,
            and that pile goes to market.
Into the other pile goes the rest,
            declared detestable according to the purity laws of Leviticus,
            despite the fact that it may well be perfectly edible,
                        and possibly even delicious.
The second pile gets burned.

Picture another scene.

You’re a fisherman working a trawler in the north sea in the twenty-first century,
            and you come back with bottom-trawling drag net full of fish,
            and now it’s time to sort.
The criteria for what goes to market
            is no longer the book of Leviticus,
it’s the cold hard economic decisions
            of what can be sold, and what can’t.

It’s a decision based on the cost of processing and marketability.
            Of course, that which is discarded as unwanted is not necessarily of no value
                         - the corals and urchins and turtles and so on -
                        have great value in terms of beauty and biodiversity,
            but no economic value,
                        and so they go in the pile to be incinerated.

In both ancient and modern contexts,
            catch that are ‘good’ by one criteria:
                        good to eat, but with the wrong scales;
                        or good for the environment, but not profitable to process,
            are called ‘bad’ and discarded and burned.

As I said, humans are so very good
            at destructively and divisively naming creation ‘good’ or ‘bad’
            according to our own arbitrary criteria.

If you were here last week,
            we heard Karen challenging us that the eternal sin
                        is calling that which is good, bad;
            and she observed that we do this all the time.

Well, here, in Jesus’ parable of the drag net,
            I suggest we hear him challenging the criteria of judgment that humans use.

Jesus takes the narrative of the Pharisees,
            that the people of God are the eternal victims
                        forever prey to the violent nets
                        of the unclean, impure, evil gentile nations;
and he subverts this with an image of judgment
            where all creatures, clean and unclean,
            are gathered in the great net of the Kingdom of Heaven.

From this perspective,
            the disruptive judgment of the drag-net is a good thing,
because the social, ethical, and political ecosystems of our world
            are fallen, corrupt, and corrupting.,
            and it is right that they should be challenged.

But when it comes to the sorting of the catch,
            the criteria are not those devised by human minds.
It’s not, in the end, the human fishermen who decide:
            the Pharisees don’t get to write the sorting script.
It’s not done according to purity regulations,
            or the rules of the free market economy,
            or any other basis on which humans try to divide people one-from-another.

The angels sort the catch
            according to righteousness and unrighteousness.
Jesus takes the power away from the Pharisees and those like them,
            who delight in saying who’s in, and who’s out,
and instead moves the basis of judgment from ritual to ethics.

The point is, that it is evil itself which is excluded from God’s kingdom,
            not those whom others have called evil.
The basis of the sorting is not ritual cleanness
            or indeed any other external feature or measure.
Rather, the basis on which judgment is passed is ethical.

As Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s gospel,
            in the sayings on judgment in chapter 7 (v.20),
“You will know them by their fruits.”

It seems that a Jesus-ethic of judgment
            is very different from that which the world normally operates.
And those who have found themselves on the receiving end of the world’s judgment,
            will find liberation, and good news, and acceptance
                        in the judgment of Jesus.

However, the universal picture of the kingdom of Heaven here
            must never be taken as an excuse for avoiding judgment.

We need judgment - I need it, and you need it.
            Without judgment there is no need for salvation,
            and a person who cannot critically assess their own behaviour
                        is a person with deep psychological damage
                        who will inevitably hurt themselves and others.

Here at Bloomsbury, in our little corner of the kingdom,
            we have our own decisions to make about good and evil,
            and what we are going to take our stand on.

In our prayer, as we seek God’s will for our lives and our community,
            we will need to be open to the whisper of the Spirit
who tells us time and again of the love of God,
            that subverts our assumptions
            and keeps us open to God’s mercy.

We will need one another, to keep each other accountable,
            and to share in the task of discernment
            of good and evil in our time, and in our place.

We will need the wisdom of the angels,
            if we are to rightly discriminate good from evil,
            in this complex world of ours.

And we will need the wisdom of the angels,
            if we are to rightly call the world to account
                        for the evil we do to one another and to creation.

And we will need the wisdom of the angels,
            if we are to rightly proclaim the love and mercy of God
                        to all that has been made.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Heaven’s perspective on economics

Preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 1.9.19

Revelation 17:1-7, 15-17
Revelation 18:1-8, 11-13, 21

Last weekend, a number of us from Bloomsbury
            were at Greenbelt Arts Festival.

In addition to discovering some new bands,
            we went to a number of really good seminar.

The big discovery for me was Danny Dorling,
            the Social Geographer from Oxford University.

He was talking about Brexit,
            and the way in which the ‘market’ is held up
            as a precision tool for solving all of society’s problems.

The prevailing view is that we have now evolved economically to the point
            where the freedom of the market, if it is given enough freedom to correct itself,
            will be the thing that solves all of our problems.

He was critical of that perspective,
            and gave good reasons why,
            largely relating to people who live in poverty.

Particularly, the threat of a ‘no deal’ Brexit,
            will have a severe impact on the poorest of the poor.
And he was looking at different regions around the country,
            and the way in which people will be impacted
            at the lower levels of income.

I was also a signatory to a letter to Boris recently,
            written by the Baptists, Methodists and URC,
highlighting our concerns about the poorest of the poor
            in the event of a no deal Brexit.

I want to set aside the macro-economic arguments
            about decoupling ourselves from the Eurozone,
            and the long term possibilities for good that may exist
            for our country if the Euro collapses.
And I want us to focus on the fact that people are going to die,
            and they are going to die because of economics.

And I wonder what heaven’s perspective on this is?

And in that reading that Duncan read for us just now,
            did you hear that list of all the benefits of empire?
The horses, and the spices, and the olive oil, and slaves, and human lives.

And I just wonder if heaven’s perspective on economics
            is that it has the capacity to kill
            as well as the capacity to enrich.

And therefore it needs to be handled carefully.

This morning, I’d like to introduce you to three women and a beast:
            The women,
                        like the ancient Greek ideal of the Three Graces
                        personified as the three daughters of Helios
            are beautiful, noble, pure and virginal

            The beast, we will come to later…

Like the Three Graces
            the women I want to introduce you to are not real:
            they are symbolic, representations of a greater reality

1.        The first woman is Britannia
                        the noble and beautiful warrior queen
                        who symbolised the British Empire in its heyday

This image of Britannia, the woman wearing a helmet,
and carrying a shield and trident
is a symbol that blends the concepts of empire,
militarism and economics.

2.        The second woman is the Lady Liberty
whose most famous representation is the Statue of Liberty in America
As she speaks of the nobility and purity of the American Empire
                        the land of the free, the land of liberty and justice

3.         The third woman is much older, but just as beautiful
And she dates from Roman times

On street corners
            throughout the Roman empire
            there would have been a statue of the goddess Roma

She was for the Romans, what Britannia and Liberty are for us:
            a beautiful, pure woman
                        depicted in statue form
            offering a stunning personification
                        of the civilisation of Rome

She was often carved holding an elaborate bowl or patera in her hands
            And the wine it contained
                        was symbolic of the richness and glory
                        of being part of the Roman empire

For many of those who lived throughout the empire
            their experience of Roma and all that she stood for
            was a positive one

And so the Goddess Roma was worshipped
            in temples throughout the empire

The citizens of Rome enjoyed the benefits of her existence
            and drank deeply from the wine-cup in her hands

And it is this image which John had in mind
            when he was writing to the churches of Asia Minor
            in the letter of Revelation which we read earlier

He pictures in his mind the Goddess Roma
            that pure, virginal, beautiful, lovely symbol
            of the Roman civilisation

But the way John sees her
            she is a Roman temple prostitute,
            she is the whore of Babylon,
            a spreader of disease,
            and a corruptor of any who climb into her bed.

And it turns out that she isn’t fussy,
She will share her bed with anyone who is interested
Corrupting all who buy into her

She is seen by John inviting everyone,
            from the kings of the earth
                        to the common people of Rome
            to participate in her pleasures
                        and to buy into her corruption.

And by giving his churches in Asia Minor
            this alternative picture
            of the Goddess Roma

John is doing what he does all the way through
            his visionary work of Revelation

He is giving his readers
            the heavenly perspective on their earthly situation
He is showing them their contemporary context
            as heaven sees it, rather than as they see it

And in doing so
            he is seeking to prepare and equip them
            to live as Christians
                        in the midst of a world
                        which he understands as being fundamentally anti-Christian.

You see, the temptation for those living under the thrall of Rome
            was to buy into its ideology
            to believe its propaganda
            to unquestioningly accept its benefits
                        and to not ask anything about the costs involved

The temptation for those living in close proximity to Roma
            was to buy into her seductive luxuries
            and to not question the cost

Well, John turns that temptation on its head
            with his re-working of the Goddess Roma
            as the great whore

The way John sees her
            she symbolises the economic structures
            of the Roman empire

And instead of being a beneficial and noble system
            symbolised by a noble and beautiful woman
he sees Roman imperial economics as a corrupt and corrupting system
            best symbolised by a prostitute.

John is asking his readers, through using this imagery
            to perceive something of Rome’s true character.

He is showing them the moral corruption
            which lies behind the beautiful and attractive exterior
            of the empire in which they are so thoroughly enmeshed.

And in giving his readers this insight
            he is presenting them with a stark choice:

they either buy into Rome’s ideology
            accepting the view of the empire
promoted by Roman propaganda
            and symbolised by the Goddess Roma

Or they see Rome from the perspective of heaven
            and understand it for the corrupt institution it really is

But in addition to the women, I promised you a beast!

And so we turn to the image of the scarlet beast with seven heads
which for John, symbolises the corrupt and violent
military and political power of Imperial Rome
            the city of seven hills

The book of Revelation
            portrays Rome as a system of violent oppression
                        founded on conquest
            and perpetuated by a system of slavery

And the way John sees it, the economic prosperity
            which the statues of Roma signified
            and which the citizens of Rome enjoyed
had been bought at the expense of other people’s oppression and poverty

In John’s vision, the whore and the beast are intimately related
            The whore is pictured riding the beast
– with all the sexual connotations that this phrase brings with it
            they are in bed together
                        soul-mates in corruption

Do you see what is going on here?

John is providing his readers
with a searing political and economic critique
            of the mighty empire of Rome

The city of Rome, when it is seen from heaven’s perspective
            becomes Babylon – the ancient enemy of God’s people

the military might and political power of Rome
            is seen as a terrifying beast, destroying and oppressing
            all who do not accept its ideology

The economic success of Rome
            is seen as a temple prostitute
            corrupting all those who buy into her system

And this economic success exists
            only because of the military might that sustains it

the prosperity of Rome
            is bought at the expense of others
And the corrupting influence of that prosperity
            is achieved and maintained
            by the imperial armies

But John knows that not everyone can see Rome the way he can
            not everyone sees Babylon, and the beast, and the whore
            they still see Rome as Rome wants to be seen
                        pure, noble, good, and righteous

Although John can see the empire as a system
            of tyranny, oppression, and exploitation
He is entirely aware that it was not resisted
            or opposed by most of its subjects

The way John sees it, the citizens of Rome
have climbed into bed with the whore

They are enjoying their high standards of living
            they are enjoying the economic prosperity of their time
And they are not seeing that it is corrupt and corrupting
            because it is prosperity bought at the cost of others’ oppression

The citizens of Rome are drinking deeply from the golden cup
            that the Goddess Roma holds out to them
                        from an outstretched arm on every street corner

And they do not realise that they are actually drinking
            from a poisoned chalice

Rome is offering them participation
            in the Pax Romana
            the gift of peace, security, and prosperity
                        that the Roman empire gave to those
                        who accepted her ideology

The Pax Romana, the peace of Rome
            was her gift to the world
            and the world either took the gift or paid the price

Rome, the self-proclaimed eternal city
            offered security to her subjects
and her own dazzling wealth
            seemed like a prosperity in which all her subjects could share

But Revelation portrays this ideology as a deceitful illusion

Rome is simply getting the nations of the world
            drunk on the wine of her success
            so they are too stupefied to notice
the price that that success demands

The wine of Roman rule
            is offered in a cup whose exterior may be golden
            but which contains abominations

The goddess Roma may appear beautiful and attractive
            but she is nothing more than a corrupting whore
            who is in bed with the beast of political and military oppression

So what is John’s advice to those in his churches?

We see it in 18:4
He says to his congregations
“Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins”

John offers an image that the people of his churches
            are climbing into bed with the whore
            and buying her services for their own pleasure
            and that they are blind to the cost
                        their prosperity is demanding

John sees the people of his churches
            unthinkingly accepting the economic prosperity of Rome
            without giving a passing thought
                        to those who were living in oppression and misery
                        to maintain their high standard of living

And so John says to these early Christians
            that they must come out.
They must withdraw
            they must leave the bed of the prostitute
                        and resist participating in her corrupt economic systems

They are to resist participating in the political and military machine
            which oppresses and destroys
And they are to withdraw from the economic system
            which corrupts and defiles

Do you see what John is doing here?
            he is exposing the lies of the empire for what they are
            so that his congregations can see their world
                        as heaven sees it
            and can then act accordingly.

He is giving them heaven’s perspective on their earthly situation
            so they can identify the beast of political and military oppression
            so they can spot the whore of economic corruption
And he wants his congregations to act on this knowledge
            and resist the beast and come out from the prostitute

John’s vision of the destruction of the great whore
            therefore represents divine judgement on the economic systems of Rome.

What is significant, though, is the manner of her devastation
            since the whore is ultimately destroyed not by direct divine action,
but by the feeding frenzy of the kings of the earth
            who had previously been her lovers (17.16–17; 18.3).

This is in accord with John’s overall presentation
            of the satanic empire as a self-destructive entity
that brings upon itself the fitting judgement for its idolatrous activities.[1]

However, there is one aspect of the imagery that John employs for the great whore
            that deserves some particular attention before we’re finished.

Through Chapter 18, John uses the image of fire
            to describe the burning of the great city,
            evoking the picture of a city being put to the torch (18.8, 9, 18).

However, he also describes the ‘burning’ of the great whore in the following terms:
            ‘And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore;
                        they will make her desolate and naked;
            they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire’ (17.16).

This description of the stripping, rape,
            cannibalistic consumption and burning of the body of the great whore
is as deeply shocking to modern readers
            as it would have been to John’s first audience.

It’s worth our noting that John is consciously employing such powerful imagery
            to deconstruct the worldview of those living under the Roman Empire
            in the seven churches of Asia Minor.

He is not seeking to describe an actual physical and sexual assault;
            rather he is using the language of such a violation
            as an image to describe the downfall of the idolatrous satanic empire.

There is a very real question here
            as to the effect such imagery has on modern readers,
and also of the effect that it has had
            down through the centuries since it was first written.

John’s association of the female form, laid vulnerable and violated,
            as an image for God’s fitting judgement on evil in the world,
has doubtless played its part in promoting
            negative and exploitative views of women.

Artistic representations of this scene
            have fed the male desire to see women dominated and abused,
            even lending divine authorization to such imagery.

Whilst this may not have been John’s original intent in constructing this image,
            nonetheless it must be recognized
            that this is part of the effect that it has had and continues to have.

In terms of the way in which John’s economic critique of empire
            is read in the contemporary world,
care also needs to be taken not to draw overly-simplistic direct parallels
            between John’s engagement with ancient Rome
            and present-day critique of any specific nation or institution.

There have been many down through the centuries
            who have sought to equate John’s description
                        of the judgement of the great whore
            with imperial power in their own time.

Examples include the Roman Catholic Church,
            Turkish Islam, Mary Queen of Scots,
            The Anglican Church, London, and America.

Nonetheless, this is not to say
            that the critique of empire offered by John
has no relevance beyond the first century.

Richard Bauckham provocatively suggests:

In view of the prominence of the economic theme in Revelation 18, it is hard to avoid seeing a modern parallel in the economic relations between the so-called First and Third Worlds. It is easy, from our cultural distance, to recognize the decadence of a culture in which party guests were served with pearls dissolved in wine – thousands of pounds consumed in a few mouthfuls. But the affluent West of today has equally absurd forms of extravagant consumption.[2]

It is to this end that Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther 
              suggest the ideology of global capitalism 
as a contemporary expression of the economic empire 
        about which John is so scathing. 

They comment:

When empire was embodied in clearly defined entities like nation-states, it was relatively easy to trace the contours of imperial power. Global capital, however, is a more elusive reality. Nonetheless, it may be startling to see how precisely the reality of global capital matches both that of the Roman Empire in particular and Revelation’s wider critique of empire generally.[3]

We live in a world of contemporary market forces, globalization,
            multi- and trans-national corporations,
            and international trade and financial institutions.

The merchants of the contemporary world grow rich
            from participation in the system of global capital,
with those at the centre of the first-world
            benefitting from generally high standards of living
while those on the margins in the third-world
            are held in economic slavery and poverty
            to service the demand for luxury, convenience and entertainment
            at the heart of the empire.

This is not to suggest that Revelation was written
            as a critique of twenty-first century global economics;
            in fact quite the opposite.

John’s critique of Rome’s satanic economic systems
            is in the initial instance targeted specifically within the first century,
but it also becomes applicable whenever a system arises within human history
            that perpetrates the corrupt economic ideals of ancient Rome.

So as John uses imagery of Babylon to convey his critique of Rome,
            we might use imagery of Rome to gain a critical perspective
            on the contemporary economic system of global capital.

In this way, we might notice unsustainable levels of growth and consumption,
            and we might echo for the twenty-first century
            John’s first-century proclamation that empire is fallen (cf. 14.8; 18.2).

To this end we might need to hear the prophetic critique
            offered by the American billionaire financier George Soros:

‘I cannot see the global system surviving …
we have entered a period of global disintegration only we are not yet aware of it.’

It may be that the contemporary system of global capital
            has already sown the seeds of its own destruction
through its oppressive, exploitative and unsustainable levels of consumption.

Just as within John’s vision
            the great whore receives her due judgement
            at the hands of her former lovers (17.16–17),
so a comparable judgement is due
            wherever the satanic empire is re-invented within human history.

The economic systems of the modern west
            bear frightening similarities to those of Rome
            about which John is so scathing

We in the west drink the cup of our economic prosperity
            as we live in relative security
under the military protection
            of the Pax Americana, or the Pax Britannia

It’s not for nothing that we continue to spend money
            on aircraft carriers and a nuclear deterrent.

And all the while we enjoy our freedom
to oppress those whose existence is defined by their working
            to perpetuate our prosperity

John’s vision and challenge is, I think, as relevant today as it ever was.
            The question before us, individually and as a congregation,
            is can we hear that challenge,
            and what are we going to do about it?

And I’m afraid I’m going to leave the challenge hanging,
            because there are no easy answers here.

We’re all caught up in this,
            and I can’t just say that we should do this, that, or the other, and then we’re off.

I wish I could.

But I can say that we cannot stop asking this question.

Because if we don’t, people are going to keep dying.

[1] The words of Paul could equally be applied to John’s understanding of Rome and the church: ‘Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.’ (Gal. 6.7–8).
[2] Bauckham, The Bible in Politics, p. 101.
[3] Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling Empire, pp. 237–8. cf. John M. Court, 1997, ‘Reading the Book 6. The Book of Revelation’, The Expository Times: 164-6.