January 3, 2019

Babylon the Not-so-Great

We must “exorcise” the demons of Babylon from the church, said Scott Bessenecker, Director of Missions for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, lest our missionaries bring a “Babylon-tainted” Gospel to unreached peoples. He told attendees at the Urbana Student Missions Conference that if our Gospel is “laced with racism, hyper-individualism, patriarchy, environmental abuse, greed, consumerism,” then our evangelism will spread a plague as deadly as the smallpox blankets distributed to Native Americans. And it isn’t just the “bad Christians,” said Bessenecker. “We’re all mired in Babylon.”

In an effort to inspire a younger generation, this year’s conference chose Revelation as its theme. Bessenecker drew inspiration for his New Years’ Eve talk from Revelation 18, which prophesies the fall of “Babylon the Great.” He posited that this passage, although nestled between the seven bowls of God’s wrath and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, actually warns against our current political and economic system.

Bessenecker explained that Babylon was an “archetypal empire,” or a recurring literary representation of imperialism. As empires subjugate other peoples, he said, they establish order and amass wealth through violence, brutal repression, and slave labor. We can find similar examples of empire in Scripture, such as that of the good King Solomon, who established an empire—complete with violence and slave labor—with the blessing of God.

Rather than tying Babylon the Great to a particular empire, Bessenecker associated it with a general attitude of imperialism. This attitude expresses itself in white nationalism, the gender wage gap, turning away immigrants, and a capitalist exploitation of the global working class. The kings and merchants (or, as he noted, their modern equivalents, presidents and multinational CEOs) who are in bed with Babylon are actually in bed with this system, said Bessenecker. I hope in a future presentation he could exposit the meaning of kings and merchants watching Babylon’s destruction in horror from a distance if Babylon is not a literal empire of some sort. I’m not disparaging his interpretation (I really don’t know how to interpret Revelation 18), but I’m curious to hear him flesh it out a bit.

Bessenecker never stated outright that the U.S. is an imperialist power, be he seemed to imply that it commits some of the same sins. For instance, he spoke of Babylon’s lucrative markets, and how regimes commit atrocities just to do business with them. Specifically, he spoke of oil companies paying Syria and Sudan for drilling rights. He also suggested that “Babylon is protected” by policies that keep undesirable groups out of the country, in a likely reference to recent immigration disputes. However, I’m sure he also recognizes that U.S. troops more often act as defenders of freedom than as a violent occupying force. When the U.S. withdraws its troops from foreign soil, the locals don’t usually mark it Independence Day, but rather feel “betrayed.”

As a result, he focused primarily on the economic side of imperialism, noting that Babylon’s description seems a bit like America. She is the world’s top consumer, importing all kinds of luxury goods on ships from everywhere. She proudly declares she is too powerful to be harmed, and is adorned with imposing splendor. She exports her sexual immorality to the rest of the world. If God justly judges Babylon for her sins, will we escape? At the same time, America isn’t an exact parallel to Babylon the Great. For example, in the previous chapter, Babylon the Great is “drunk with the blood of the saints.” America still affords to Christians a large degree of religious freedom, and by no means martyrs them in a way that resembles Babylon.

Bessenecker does name several specific boogey-men, including the energy industry, international trade policy, and global banking practices. These institutions, he said, are built on conspicuous consumption, exploitation, and environmental plundering. He said that Babylon’s economic system employs an “economic magnet” that increases wealth inequality so that mass slave labor supports lavish luxury for a few. He admitted that he personally has been “the beneficiary of that slave labor,” pointing to his iPhone and his button-down shirt.

His use of the term “slave” is at best melodramatic and at worst insulting. “Slave labor” refers to work that is forced and uncompensated. In contrast, work that is both willing and compensated belongs in a free market. Bessenecker lamented that the world’s economic system that has “depressed wages to the lowest livable levels.” Thus, he said, we have rewarded a system supported by a slave labor force of “people willing to do just about anything for just about nothing.” In other words, Bessenecker called people who worked willingly for wages a “slave labor force.” Not only does that epithet mock the dignity of free men and women trying to raise themselves out of abject poverty through honest labor, but it also ignores the plight of an estimated more than 40 million people who do actually live in slavery.

Wages are low because alternatives are worse. As of January 2, an estimated 590 million people still live in extreme poverty (earning less than $1.90 per day, adjusted for cost-of-living). If a multinational corporation opened a new factory of an area of extreme poverty, with a view towards hiring locals at $10 a day, they would line up around the block for the change to quintuple their income, but wealthy Westerners would still see this as unjust exploitation. Such multinational corporations, in pursuit of their own profits, may also provide modern infrastructure improvements, such as better roads, water and power lines, and internet access, from which impoverished locals would benefit. Prevent the corporation from “exploiting” these poor people, and you have successfully pushed those same poor people off the first rung of the ladder out of poverty.

Back to Babylon, Bessenecker encouraged his audience to personally divest themselves from Babylon’s system of exploitation. For example, he told students, make sure your retirement portfolio does not include energy companies that fund genocide, or you will share in their bloodguilt. This argument is not new. A similar call to renounce sinful, worldly wealth inspired monastic orders to vow poverty and American fundamentalists to form a distinct subculture. If helping an evil entity turn a profit truly makes you guilty of their crimes, then in an economic system where every transaction involves mutual profit, to avoid guilt we would have to avoid all transactions with evil people. The Bible teaches that all mankind is evil. Withdrawing from the entire economic system would be a moral imperative if you shared the guilt of any party with whom you did business.

At some level, I think, Bessenecker recognized such withdrawal from economic life should be a non-starter for a committed follower of Christ. No sooner did he finish the argument than he contradicted it from the Bible and began a completely different point. Christians are called to be salt and light, he said. Jesus didn’t pray that his disciples be taken out of the world, but that they be protected from becoming like it. Instead, Bessenecker explained that when the angel commands the believers to “come out of” Babylon the Great, he meant they should cleanse their hearts of the demons of Babylon.

The verb used for “come out of” is the same with which Jesus summoned out demons, said Bessenecker, so we ought to “exorcise” Babylon from our hearts. However, the angel does not exorcise Babylon from believers; he exorcises believers from Babylon. The order is no more interchangeable than saying that “I come out of the house” means “the house comes out of me.”

Bessenecker closed with some examples of what it would look like for a Christian to turn his or her back on Babylon’s consumption-based economic system that supported the oppression and exploitation system of poor people around the world. “Exorcism, divestment, for me, involved painfully choosing a budget airline for my next international trip. I had to prove to myself I was free from Babylon’s grip.” Other examples of how you can exorcise Babylon like Bessenecker include forgoing an upgrade to the latest, coolest phone version when yours is still perfectly good, doubling your commute time by taking public transportation, uninstalling games on your phone that take up too much time, divesting from unscrupulous companies, and helping others who “don’t fit the Babylonian gender or race mold” obtain opportunities you could have taken for yourself.

When Bessenecker meets his converts from third-world slums in heaven, I imagine they will thank him for the personal sacrifices he made to “exorcise” his demons and lift them out of their Babylon-imposed poverty. What a Christ-like sacrifice it is to keep your iPhone 8 one more year! May we all fly coach to remove the Babylonian taint from our Gospel presentations.

5 Responses to Babylon the Not-so-Great

  1. Luke says:

    I think maybe my favorite part about these social justice types in their crusade on behalf of the poor and oppressed is that their prescriptions are unfailingly in lockstep with the national elite. They’d be applauded in New York, San Francisco, Hollywood, most corners of DC, university faculty lounges, and the like. The “Babylon” they take their shots at (aside from the easy target of Wall Street and capitalism generally) is the culturally and politically marginalized regions of the country.

    Points for chutzpah, I guess.

  2. Dan says:

    OK, so he’s a virtue signaling, guilt ridden, typical white liberal trying to “preach out the devil” from himself by elevating poverty as a inherent virtue and wealth as inherently sinful. He’s also biblically illiterate. The OT specifically says not to give partiality to the rich or to the poor, but to treat all with God’s love. And, he’s not going to achieve peace on earth by good works. He along with all of his fellow travelers is totally depraved as is the rest of humanity. I’m so sick of people like him and the press coverage they suck up. But, yes, we are to love him, and since he’s a fellow Christian we are to admonish and correct him.

  3. Loren Golden says:

    “She exports her sexual immorality to the rest of the world.”
    Well, I’m glad that sexual immorality at least made some appearance in his tirade.  However, he is completely ignoring the fact that sexual immorality—especially in the form of online pornography—is the greatest threat facing the Church of Jesus Christ and the spread of His Gospel today, and it is a global phenomenon, hardly limited to an export of the Evil Empire of America.  Large segments of the formerly Evangelical Church are increasingly capitulating to cultural pressure to teach that there are no sexually immoral acts, apart from sexual abuse (and they fail to recognize that sexual abuse stems from the same selfish desires as, and is the logical consequence of, treating human sexuality as if it should be freed from the sacred bonds of holy heterosexual matrimony), unwittingly following the mainline Protestant denominations in their capitulation of the same, which has resulted in half a century of unmitigated mainline decline—a fate that Evangelical Churches cannot hope to avoid, if they head down that path.  And as one writer at the Gospel Coalition recently published, pornography is sidelining missionaries (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/porn-sidelining-missionaries/).
    There is a reason that Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, included in at least one letter to nearly all the churches and individuals to whom he wrote his Epistles an admonition against sexual immorality.  The other things Bessenecker warned against, not so much.  This is not to say that these other issues are unimportant and do not need to be addressed, but they aren’t killing the American Church like sexual immorality is, and to focus on them to the near exclusion of the problem of sexual immorality in the Church today is like trying to exterminate all the mice in the room while ignoring the rampaging elephant.

  4. Keith Pavlischek says:

    “At the same time, America isn’t an exact parallel to Babylon the Great. For example, in the previous chapter, Babylon the Great is “drunk with the blood of the saints.” America still affords to Christians a large degree of religious freedom, and by no means martyrs them in a way that resembles Babylon.”
    Well, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

  5. David Shane says:

    No way to discredit yourself faster than to mention the “gender wage gap”, oy. We have a failure of critical thinking here as much as anything else.

    I have to join with Todd Friel and say – if you have something valuable to say on topics like this (and sometimes speakers do), find a way to say it without using the language of the world that is so loaded with non-Christian assumptions.

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