Monday, December 08, 2008

Babylon Revisited

Has anyone noticed how the morning newspaper has turned into a morality play?

Greed, a top economist noted last week, is the cause of the economic crisis. Greed! All my life I've been told that capitalism had tamed greed, turned it into a hardworking domestic animal, rather like the horse used to be. And now greed has suddenly bared its teeth at us. There's something distinctly old-fashioned about this, the realization that the origin of all social ills is something as quaintly Victorian as the sinful human heart.

Today's newspaper featured a new kind of real-estate agent: a scruffy housebreaker who matches people-less houses to homeless people. The police look politely aside, commenting only that it's up to homeowners to protect their property. In the accompanying photo, a woman and her baby inspect the tile floors of the vacant dwelling they're claiming as their own. There is something apocalyptic about this shift: the first will be last and the last shall be first.

I've been haunted, these silent weeks, by the book of Revelation. In the eighteenth chapter the mighty city of Babylon has fallen and the incense of her destruction rises to heaven. But meanwhile the city's inhabitants mourn. "What is like this great city?" they ask. Where once there was the sound of harpists, flutists and trumpeters, there is now only silence. At one time, any man with a ship could become wealthy at her rich seaports, but in an hour she has been made desolate:

And the merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her, for no one buys their merchandise anymore: merchandise of gold and silver, precious stones and pearls, fine linen and purple, silk and scarlet, every kind of citron wood, every kind of object of ivory, every kind of object of most precious wood, bronze, iron, and marble; and cinnamon and incense, fragrant oil and frankincense, wine and oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and bodies and souls of men.

Economic collapse is what this passage describes - the downfall of an immensely productive economy that has created not only wealth but also an unparalleled flowering of music, art, and culture, and has done so on the backs of other nations.

All my life I've been told that Babylon was communist Russia, or the Roman Catholic church, or the ancient Roman Empire. But in the whole book of Revelation I find myself most sympathetic to the bewildered citizens of fallen Babylon. Angels fly over the city in the hours before her ruin, calling "Come out of her, my people - Babylon the great is fallen!" But where can we go?

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

No doubt the masses affected by the massive recession in the 1870's felt the same apocalyptic tremors, as did those who lived through the great depression.

That we feel this must be the "true" end of days is just further proof that we have been spoiled for a very long time by the relative ease of our lives compared to those before us. We did not felt true gratitude for all that we have (or had).

Now is the time to be grateful that this recession is no where near the disaster that occurred in 1929 and that we are the beneficiaries of all the social protections now in place as a result of past disasters. This is not the end....but a new beginning. And it is a chance to prove that we can rise up just as our grandparents, and theirs did over and over again.

Bea said...

Anon - I'm not actually convinced that the book of Revelation is about the end of days, much less that we are presently in or approaching the end times. Almost everything in that book occurs recurrently throughout history - what is more disconcerting to me is the way "us" and "them" have suddenly switched places: I've read many interpretations of what the Whore of Babylon refers to, but never before have I read those passages feeling that I'm looking in a (large cultural) mirror.

Beck said...

I had a very nice Jehovahs' Witness lady get very, very upset with her when I disagreed with her about this being the end of time - I really don't think so - earlier this week.
Still, there's something so haunting in it, thinking about the end of times, the emptiness.

Beck said...

And I'm back with another thought. A few people I know are filled with hand-rubbing glee at the idea of "rich" people losing their stuff, or of middle class people standing bewildered and homeless.
Happy. It's been bothering me a lot.

PamalaLauren said...

The world apparently was supposed to end when Henry VIII was King of England. I often think too that it's not about so much the end of times, but new beginnings.

Emmie (Better Make It A Double) said...

Interesting thoughts. And Beck --I'm certainly not gleeful about anyone losing their house, rich or not. However. I must say it's nice running into neighbors at the thrift stores I've been shopping at for years, to see the libraries and free neighborhood fairs be so well attended, and to see the relative absence of gas-guzzling Hummers on the streets. It's nice to not be the only one in the family begging to please just scale back the Christmas giving a little. It's nice not having vegetable gardening be the stuff of old men and commune-dwellers (and I remember when it was). It's nice to be moving out of a culture and economy of greed, consumerism and just plain excess, even if the ride is a lot bumpier than we'd all like. We need a new economy, and a new world. Such changes are bound to be seismic, but what we had before had its problems too.

Veronica Mitchell said...

Your post reminds me of Augustine's City of God, where he addresses the crisis of faith many Christians had when Rome fell. How could God still be God if Rome was no longer the prosperous center of civilization? What was left to believe in?

One of the things that charmed me about my husband when I met him was his love of Revelation. He is not very emotive about his faith, but he loves this book dearly. He reads it in the amillenialist tradition: as a description of the battle for good and evil that occurs in every human soul, and in every age of the world.

Your ending question reminds me of the words of Peter when Jesus asks if he will leave him, too: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." Babylon died, but the new Jerusalem three chapters later is eternal.

Anonymous said...

Bea - I have no opinion concerning the Book of Revelation and its meaning. But when people start turning to that book to search for the meaning of this economic downturn, it suggests to an apocalyptic mentality at worst or a pessimistic attitude at best.

My simple point is that what is going on now is so so much milder than what has happened so many times in the past and people perservered. We should face it with gratitude...with grace...and with optimism.

This downturn has been a long time coming and there is so much good that will come with it. All of us "rich" people can look at life through a better lens and see what is really important in life...what really makes us rich...and how can we help ourselves and others through this as our forebears did. Is our generation up for this? I have a lot of hope that we are and 3 years from now we will say that our lives are better than they were before.

Mimi said...

It's purely academic for us at this point: hasn't touched us a bit, but we watch, agog, as the world seems to fall apart around us. In a way, the world makes sense to me again: I never ever understood how the economy of the past seven or eight years was in any way rational. And it wasn't, so I'm not crazy, at least.

Mad said...

I feel so sheltered from it all here even though the rest of my siblings are in tough. I find that I watch the news with a detached disbelief.

Bea said...

Veronica - I've just been through a study of Revelation at my church which, though not explicitly amillennialist, was at least amillennialist-friendly - and it's amazing how much it meaning opens up in that book when we detach ourselves from the assumption that it's all about the future.

Swistle said...

You know what's weird, is that I'm up because I thought I heard a HORSE gallop down our road! I didn't get to the window in time to see if there was a horseman, but definitely there was only ONE.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I'm astonished that people can say with a straight face that greed has brought the world to its (economic) knees. As if Pandora had just opened her box!

Just to balance out your commenters: The company I work for laid off 150 people last month. Not me, but only by a hair's breadth. My husband gets paid on commission (partially), and given the cancellation of orders over this last month, we know absolutely for certain that his take-home next year will be cut by 1/4. I expect 2009 to be, er, challenging.

painted maypole said...

i've never taken an economics class in my life, but "Greed, a top economist noted last week, is the cause of the economic crisis. " seems like the most obvious statement I've heard in a really long time.

painted maypole said...

about revelation... I'm not familiar with the term amillenialist, but that's how I read Revelation, as well. And although it does have resonance for people through all the ages, it was written very much for the people of that time, and the references in it, when you are familiar with the culture and world happenings, become so much clearer

ewe are here said...

It's amazing what 'greed' can bring with it... I just hope the current economic downturn makes society take a long hard look at how we got here.

Mary G said...

I'm a member of the so called 'Quiet Generation' -- we were brought up by parents who had weathered the 30's, somehow or other. Courage, perserverence, hard work, duty -- these are the qualities I saw in my parents, along with great caution in spending, taking risks, hoping. They learned to be this way through the uncertainty of their youth and the subsequent World War.

A 'great flowering', I think, is always achieved on the back of someone. The gap between rich and poor in North America and between even the 'poor' of North America and the masses of Africa and Asia has been growing through most of my adult life. I haven't much liked the 'Boomer' run world.

Where do we go from here? There's a Scottish ballad that's running in my mind -- something like 'I will lay me down and weep a while and then I'll rise and fight again.' I don't think we have another decent option.

Bea said...

Mary G - Yes, thank you. Yes.

No Mother Earth said...

Is it old-fashioned, though? Want is the basis of everything. When approaching a character, the first (or most important) question that and actor should ask herself is not "who am I?", but rather "what do I want?". What you want forms what you are. Therefore, want and it's next of kin greed are natural suspects for the cause of all kinds of evil. Or good.

Nora Bee said...

I enjoyed reading this, and also choose to believe, for a moment, that it is indeed a new beginning, a necessary "correction." But ask me in two minutes, I'll be right there with you.

Concerned Mom said...

A lot of bad and crazy things happened lately and I do agree that times have changed. I remain hopeful that we can turn this thing around so we can give our children a better future. If only I can shield them from all the greed, hatred, corruption, etc. But it's still part of reality and I guess instilling the right values is important very early on.