The Course of Empire

“Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea, and said: ‘With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down….Your merchants were the world’s great men. By your magic spell all the nations were led astray….'”–Rev. 18:21,23

Regarding such a strange book as Revelation, there is no shortage of interpretations. Yet, whether one takes a strictly preterist view (that the book speaks of events fulfilled in the 1st century), a futurist view (that it speaks only of the future), a historicist view (that it speaks of various stages within church history), an idealist view (which looks for no specific fulfillment but recurrent themes within history), or a historical-critical view (which attempts to set the book within the 1st century and the literary context of apocalyptic), it is clear that Revelation describes an empire doomed to destruction. Whether a specific empire is in mind (such as the Roman or some later worldwide empire) or the entire corrupt world system controlled by Satan, scholars have rarely agreed.

If we assume, however, that the author, who identifies himself merely as John, certainly had something to say to his own as well as to later generations, we may wish at least initially to identify Babylon as a cypher for Rome, the hub of an evil empire. In ch. 17 Rome is described as a prostitute dressed in purple and scarlet and seated upon a scarlet beast, colors here associated with wealth and imperial power. The seven heads of the beast represent seven hills on which she sits (the famous Seven Hills of Rome?) as well as the seven emperors who had reigned up to that time (vv. 9,10). This prostitute is portrayed as drunk on the blood of the Lord’s saints and prophets, for indeed when the book was written, Christians in the province of Asia (to whom Revelation is addressed) were experiencing a harrowing persecution.

Yet the author sets this macabre image against the backdrop of coming judgment and the even wider context of the end of this present evil age and God’s ultimate justice. For in the next chapter we see that the empire’s doom is indeed sealed. Though written in the last decade of the 1st century, the prophecy here looks ahead to a time when the power and terror wielded by such an evil system would dissolve “in a day” (19:8). The author did not know when this demise would take place; like all prophets he saw from mountain top to mountain top, without the valleys in between, and so time for him was telescoped. Doubtless he felt the day of wrath very near indeed.

In reality it was not until three centuries later that Rome began to receive her Tarkingtonian comeuppance, when in AD 410 the Visigoths sacked the city. By that time the empire had been “baptized” and Christianity become her official religion. But that did not deter the Almighty from judging her for her sins. For though she was now a Christian empire, her armies carrying Christ as their standard instead of the former blasphemous images, she was still an empire. And as Gertrude Stein might have written, “An empire is an empire is an empire.” There are no good empires anymore than there are good witches. The myth of the “benevolent empire” is indeed an oxymoron.

As political scientist and historian Michael Parenti notes emphatically, “…Imperialism is what empires do. And by imperialism I do not mean the process of extending power and dominion without regard to material and financial interests.” Instead, he defines imperialism as “…the process whereby the dominant investor interests in one country bring to bear their economic and military power upon another nation or region in order to expropriate its land, labor, natural resources, capital, and markets-in such a manner as to enrich the investor interests. In a word, empires do not just pursue ‘power for power’s sake.’ There are real and enormous material interests at stake, fortunes to be made many times over.”

These are the very material and economic interests that John so fiercely condemns: her arrogance, her luxury and consumer mentality, and a contempt for the suffering of others.

“The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more— cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men” (18:11-13).

When news spread throughout the empire of the Visigoth’s sack of Rome, it seemed like the end of the world. People wandered the streets in a daze or sat stupefied. Even St. Jerome commented on the event, “My voice sticks in my throat; and, as I dictate, sobs choke my utterance. The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken.” And “Who would believe that Rome, built up by the conquest of the whole world, had collapsed, that the mother of nations had become also their tomb.” It was as if “the bright light of all the world was put out” and “the whole world perished in one city.” Roma Invicta, unconquered Rome, had fallen. Yet the city was rebuilt and over the ensuing decades regained some of her wealth, only to be sacked again in 455 and 546 by other Germanic tribes. From these she never recovered. Nevertheless, though the empire in the West had crumbled, in the East Rome continued to hold on for another thousand years, until, having shrunk to a mere toe-hold of land, it fell prey to the Ottomans. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Constantinople, too, was built on seven hills.

It may be no accident that the most popular interpretative view of Revelation in this country is the futurist. And why not? It spares us looking at ourselves. This is the view beloved of most of my fellow conservative evangelicals, who tend to see almost any other nation as Babylon except our own. This works well as they goad America’s imperial and militaristic appetites, turning Jesus into a capitalist mascot or a hood ornament for their Humvees. (They already have him inscribed on their rifle sights.)

“Then I heard another voice from heaven say: ‘Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues…'” (18:4). Here John employs a common prophetic warning reminiscent of the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Only here the exhortation refers perhaps more to a spiritual than a geographical separation. God’s saints are to refrain from participation in the sins of an evil empire and to consecrate themselves to the Lord alone, lest they become ensnared and share its doom.

It is a tragedy that we spend so much energy trying to identify the antichrist with whichever leader we currently hold in contempt or using the prophecy of Revelation as a survivalist guide for the end times, while remaining stone deaf to the book’s true message.

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