Postcards From Babylon


Postcards From Babylon
Brian Zahnd

At the end of Peter’s first epistle — a letter to believers living in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire — the apostle cryptically says, “She who is in Babylon greets you.” What does Peter mean by that enigmatic phrase? Why does Peter end his letter by referring to some mysterious woman living in the once great but now insignificant city of Babylon? The answer to this question has to do with the long and bloody history of empire and the new kind of empire that had just began to emerge in the world, a new empire in which Peter plays an important role.

In the Hebrew scriptures Babylon is the prophetic icon of empire. Empires are rich and powerful nations that, in their arrogant assumption of a divine right to rule the nations and in their conceited claim of possessing a manifest destiny to shape history, intrude upon the sovereignty of God. Peter sees Rome as the contemporary equivalent to Babylon — the latest economic-military superpower deifying itself and asserting a sovereignty belonging only to God. “She” in “Babylon” is the bride of Christ, the church, the community of those who through faith and baptism have renounced the idolatrous belief that Rome is the savior of the world and that Caesar is Lord, who now boldly confess that it is Jesus who is the world’s true Lord and Savior. This is an audacious claim to say the least! It’s this controversial and dangerous claim that periodically landed Christians in prison and the Coliseum. That is, until the church in the era of Constantine found a way to compromise with the empire and make the convoluted claim that somehow both Christ and Caesar were Lord — one in heaven and the other on earth. Goodbye early Christianity, hello Christendom.

At the end of Peter’s letter the church located in the capital city sends greetings to the other outposts of the kingdom of Christ scattered throughout the eastern provinces. Peter is writing postcards from Babylon. And the main point of his postcard epistles is to remind the Christian citizens of Rome that they are no longer truly citizens of the empire, but citizens of the kingdom of Christ, and thus exiles within the empire. To live as a political citizen of the Roman Empire but as an actual citizen of the kingdom of Christ was tricky business. Making it through day-to-day life in the empire while maintaining absolute fidelity to Christ required tough decision making and inevitably led to some suffering — which is why faithfulness amidst suffering is the prevailing theme of Peter’s postcard. That’s the history lesson. But history, because it’s merely the memory of what has already happened, is safe. History is benign, history is academic. We can know history, but we can’t live history. Yet we Christians serve a living Lord. And our Lord makes the same demands upon us as he placed upon the Christians of the catacombs. The demands of Christian fidelity are never negotiable, but they are often dangerous. As C.S. Lewis taught us through the Christ-figure of Aslan, Jesus is good, but he’s not safe.

So I’m writing my postcards from Babylon calling on Christians tangled up in red, white, and blue to renounce the idolatry of American civil religion. America is not an object of reverence — it’s just the latest in a long line of here-today, gone-tomorrow empires. I can love America like I love hamburgers and rock ‘n’ roll, but I can’t love America like I love Jesus. America as my residence within this world is fine, but America as the savior of the world is heresy. The gospel of the American dream is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are antithetical to one another. It’s either the story of Jesus that gives meaning to life or the story of America that gives meaning to life, but it’s not both. Lincoln, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and all the rest can claim America is the “last best hope of earth,” but it’s not true. That’s just the sort of thing that empires say; but it’s also the sort of thing Christians must never say.

America is many things. It’s a country, a culture, an empire, and a religion. As a country and culture America can often be respected, admired, and celebrated. But as an empire and religion, America is a rival to Christ. One of the reasons that Christian discipleship is so difficult in America is that we are trying to make disciples of people who are already thoroughly discipled into a rival religion. You can either operate under a governing philosophy of America first or you can seek first the kingdom of God, but you can’t do both. To claim otherwise is to either tacitly or explicitly claim that Christ is a servant of the American cause. But as Karl Barth (who knew a thing or two about the dangers of Christian nationalism) taught us, Christ cannot serve some other cause, Christ can only rule.

So when Peter writes his postcards from Babylon he refers to the Christian citizens of the Roman empire as “exiles.” That’s exactly how the intentional Christian who is an accidental citizen of America must think of herself — an exile on main street. (Or like the final track on The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street album — a “Soul Survivor.”) Like Daniel and his pals Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, we have to figure out when to be willing to serve and when to refuse to bow. Sometimes we can serve with pride and pleasure, but other times we have to brave lion’s dens and fiery furnaces for the sake of fidelity to God.

From birth every American has been formed by the dominant script that Walter Brueggemann identifies as “technological therapeutic military consumerism.” But Christians are those who have embraced the subversive counter-script of the cross. It’s not the task of the church to “make America great again.” The contemporary task of the church is to make Christianity countercultural again. Once we untether Jesus from the interests of empire, we begin to see just how countercultural and radical Jesus’ ideas actually are:

Enemies? Love them.
Violence? Renounce it.
Money? Share it.
Foreigners? Welcome them.
Sinners? Forgive them.

These are the kind of radical ideas that will always be opposed by the principalities and powers, but which the followers of Jesus are called to embrace, announce, and enact. The degree to which the church is faithful to Jesus and his radical ideas is the degree to which the church embodies a faith that is truly countercultural.

This is my postcard from Babylon.


(The artwork is Entry of Alexander into Babylon by Charles LeBrun, 1665)