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?