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.