Well, Friends, so many of us are feeling weighed down by recent political events! We can see so clearly that political = personal.
It’s hard to bear in mind that the challenges we are facing did not arise from the recent election, though in many ways the new government gives fresh nourishment for fear, anger, grief, discouragement. I do not wish to dwell there, however, nor do such emotions work well for long as motivation to right action — there is a place for them all, but they are not themselves safe dwellings, nor do they bring health if taken as a steady diet. They are real, and true, but they are not all the truth, nor the only things to see as real.
Moreover, with all these strong emotions activated, I am tempted focus on one specific crisis, outrage, enormity after another, and grow hyperalert to subtle indications of new bad things taking shape. I, at least, find that the multitude of things to perceive, evaluate, feel, and try to comprehend (much less act on) just exhausts me. I feel compelled to seek for some organizing principle, some root cause (or a few root causes), which can be wielded as a tool for understanding and focus. Better to see a castle (or windmill) to attack, than try to deal with a swarm of hornets.
On the other hand, I do not wish to be seduced into the fallacy of “nothing buttery,” and over-simplification Reduction of complicated things to their simple elements is a valuable investigative tool, but some truth is lost when you say “well, a bicycle is nothing but metal and rubber,” as you stand amidst the pile of spokes and gears. The pattern of the thing is true, too, and indeed for some questions, it’s the pattern that matters.
In this mood, I was struck recently by the following passage from Pennington (Works vol. 1, pg. 138): Babylon is the spiritual fabric of iniquity; the mystical great city of the great king of darkness; built in imitation of Sion, painted just like Sion, that it might be taken for Sion, and be worshipped there, instead of the true, eternal, ever-living God, and King of Sion.
Penington is of course here speaking of the Babylon of Revelations, which is a mythic embodiment of a corrupt, power-drunk, soul-devouring society.The phrases “spiritual fabric of iniquity,” and “imitation of Sion” are arresting and provocative: This seems like a powerful restatement of prophetic insight.
“Babylon” has been an important image in prophetic writing since Jeremiah at least. Sometimes, Babylon is portrayed as an unwitting instrument of punishment or judgment, for example ,”I have sent my face against the city [Jerusalem] for evil and not for good,:says the Lord, “and it shall be given into the hands of the king of Babylon and he shall burn it with fire.”(Jer 21:10)
Another layer of meaning underlies the Babylon of Revelations, drawing on the many denunciations of Israel’s “harlotry” that is, joining in idolatrous worship, with Babylon as a sort of capitol city of false idols. While the sexual element in pagan worship was shocking to outsiders (not only Israelites– (Herodotus describes Babylonian ritual sex with much distaste Bk 1 ¶ 199), the prophets saw clearly that the greatest evil at work here was the running after other gods– so much so that”harlotry” became a sort of kenning for “idolatry.” Moreover, Babylon, the big city full of heady, “earthly delights,” exerted its power through deceit — drawing the unwary, the un-watchful, away from their allegience to the true God.
In apocalyptic literature (already in Ezekiel and Daniel) Babylon further became a “type” of worldly power founded upon the exploitative wealth, human ingenuity secular learning, military prowess, all facilitated by a power-serving bureaucracy. We get its (ahem) apocalyptic apotheosis in the Book of Revelations,where Babylon is the greatest embodiment of worldly empire, only overcome by the Lamb that was slain.
In Quaker rhetoric, Babylon perhaps most often carried this connotation (and this was not only true of Quakers, see for example Bunyan’s The entire book of Antichrist and his ruin, alongside Stephen Crisp’s Short history of a long travel from Babylon to Bethel). Beyond this, though, Babylon is the personification of a union between church”in its unfaithful role as earthly ruler” and state power. (See Doug Gwyn’s Apocalypse of the Word, pg. 192 for a pithy accout of George Fox’s usage.) A threat to either is a threat to both, so when Friends (or others) rejected the established church, or choose to “obey God rather than man” and refuse oaths, hat honor, tithes, or war, both halves of the Babylonish power responded with persecution and rage. The “true church” was in captivity to this Babylonian world-view, and the idolatrous official religion was a principal agent of deceit (do we not know it in our own times?) — hence the fierce polemics against hireling clergy and the church as outward edifice.
One does not need to reach to Babylonish/Biblical imagery to feel how this same dynamic applies in our times, as I am not the first to note!! I have elsewhere written reflections on a view of Western culture in which there were historically three (more or less) balanced centers of power, based to an interesting extent on different moral values appropriate to each estate. These different “moral centers” have now largely collapsed or merged, leading to a hybrid morality that deploys the language and rhetoric of religion (or ethics) in the service of material power (both force and wealth). We are currently experiencing the judgment, that is, the natural consequences resulting from the emergence in our own times and terms of the Babylon of the idols.
Pennington’s phrase, ” spiritual fabric of iniquity,” speaks penetratingly about one aspect of this system: the deceitful fabric is woven of many threads, including economic patterns, systems of thought as justifying oppression, a high valuation of the rule force, and a redefinition of the individual as a citizen-consumer, whose “freedom” is primarily expressed as the ability to choose commodities. In this country, at least, the threads of state power, economic power, and a misunderstanding of the gospel are twisted into a triple–stranded cord of great strength.
Woven into this fabric, we can be cradled drowsy in it, and if we are awakened by some prompting from the Light, in our first awareness we feel how we are constrained — no exit! — and we mourn at the thought that, no matter how upright and careful we may be in our personal lives, we uphold and are upheld by, that cloth of iron and tears. Then we may come feel something of the clinging, hateful burden of sin.
William Dewsbury says, Friends, Babylon is within you and bewitches you through the abundance of her sorceries;…and the beast which all the world wanders after, is your wills, that makes war against the Lamb of God in you. And here is the essential pivot of the Lamb’s war: we are woven into the fabric of iniquity and it infuses us, intricately connecting to and drawing sustenance from our fears, compulsions, and wounds, as well as our natural desires for pleasure, relationship, meaning, safety. Yet this brings the “war” into our own scale and scope, where each of us in our measure can engage with it in terms we understand, with the strength and wisdom that we are given.
Knowing that we are engaged not with a mystical, super-human monster, but merely a pattern woven (over the centuries but renewed in every generation — there’s its Achilles’ heel!) by individual choices, by individual souls, we can discover what is our part in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, accepting that it is a part, accepting also the growth (in capacity, in sorrow, and in joy) that may come by our keeping low and close to the Guide. Just as the kingdom, freedom, and peace of God are within, so also is the captivity in Mystery Babylon within. The journey out of the captivity into the freedom begins as we look where the Light points, and live what we learn. It is only that apprenticeship, and precisely that, which enables us to bear our witness, and invite, provoke, challenge others to make the same journey.