Nationalism, civil religion and greed-based economics

Mar 30, 2017 by

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Among the ways the last book of our Bible is truly revelatory is in its portrayal of violence and harm as perpetrated by evil systems rather than simply by individual evildoers. It does so through a collage of dramatic images of the kind that we are used to seeing in political cartoons in our newspapers.

A triumvirate of evil, manifest in many forms throughout human history and inspired by the epitome of all evil, Satan, is represented in the Revelation as follows:

BABYLON
The Great Harlot (massive addiction to a greed-based economic system)

THE GREAT RED DRAGON
(SATAN)

THE FIRST BEAST
A Many-Headed Monster (massive oppression through an evil political system)

THE SECOND BEAST
A Lamb-like False Prophet (massive persuasion through a deceptive belief system)

Regardless of how one feels about the mystifying collage of images and metaphors found in the Apocalypse (which means “unveiling”), I find its symbolic portrayal of the nature of evil profound and insightful.

The Revelation doesn’t refute the view that sin and wrongdoing result from individuals yielding to personal temptations, but presents us with a much more comprehensive picture of evil as a force that controls the very systems that tend to hold all of us in their grip.

First-century believers, who lived under the most advanced and most oppressive empire of their time, understood this. They realized how much evil comes from simply going along with whatever have become the political, economic and religious norms of the day. In other words, we sin by simply doing what everyone is expected to do, by going along with the seemingly normal and acceptable status quo.

In this way, the Evil One, the Dragon, the Ruler of Darkness becomes much more efficient at perpetrating violence and other forms of evil, by infusing the world’s very systems and institutions with it, as follows:

THE FIRST (FEARSOME) BEAST (Revelation 13)
This is a symbol of political power become cruel and heartless. In the cartoon-like portrayal of this creature in Revelation 13, we see a fearful-looking creature with many heads and many horns. While the original readers of the Apocalypse would have clearly associated this with Rome, this “beast” is still at work wherever governments, ordained by God to preserve order and do justice, instead become agents of destruction, intimidation and oppression. This beastliness is everywhere, exists under many flags and is a part of many (if not all) forms of human government.

THE SECOND (FALSE PROPHET) BEAST (Revelation 13)
By contrast, this creature appears benign and harmless, and is portrayed as a lamb with two innocent looking horns. “Lamb” is, of course, the metaphor used most often for the slain but triumphant Christ in the Revelation, but this false imitation has “a voice like the Dragon” (Satan). In other words, it is like a devil in lamb’s clothing, and its primary purpose is to persuade the masses to give their full allegiance to the First Beast (above).

In the first century, this would have involved an actual cult of emperor worship, but in every age and in every place, oppressive regimes rely on various forms of false religious or secular belief systems for their support and validation. These includes, in our time, the nationalistic cult of civil religion, based on the myth of American exceptionalism and of our being a superior and indestructible nation. All “God and country”-based religion extols patriotism as one of its highest virtues, as do secular belief systems like socialism, fascism or communism. All serve one and the same purpose, to convince people that by serving the First Beast they are serving God or some other form of supreme good.

BABYLON (THE GREAT HARLOT) (Revelation 14-19)
This seductive woman sits royally astride the First Beast, the one with seven heads and 10 horns. She is the antithesis of the radiant woman in Revelation 12 who represents the holy people of God. Babylon is dressed in purple and scarlet and bedecked with gold and expensive jewelry of all kinds. She holds a seductively beautiful gold cup in her hands, but one that is filled with filth. All the kings of the earth commit adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth weep and wail when she finally collapses in ruin.

Babylon is the symbol of a greedy and self-indulgent global economic system that is in bed with political powers everywhere. So great is her grip on the wealthy and her ability to oppress the world’s poor and add to their misery that all heaven breaks loose with a chorus of praise when she collapses. (Interestingly, the words of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in his “Messiah” oratorio are from this section of the Apocalypse.)

This three-fold combination of the oppressive political power of world’s empires, the persuasive power of false belief systems that support such powers, and the seductive power of greed and wealth that is wedded to them, all results in evil being deeply entrenched in the institutions that govern our world.

Only the kind of alternative power available to the followers of the slain Lamb can keep us from being controlled by this triumvirate of evil.

“Ours is not a conflict with mere flesh and blood, but with the despotisms, the empires, the forces that control and govern this dark world — the spiritual hosts of evil arrayed against us…” (Eph. 6:12, Weymouth translation)

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this first appeared.


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  • Rainer Moeller

    Well, I don’t recommend (patriotism or) nationalism as a cult of the state. But nationalism as communitarianism is a deeply human way of life.
    As for “American exceptionalism”, this is a question of facts. In fact. the United States are today singled out by their First Amendment, which over the last decades has practically been outlawed in most Western countries. So yes, “America” becomes more and more exceptional, a beacon on a hill and a memory for the lost Western tradition.

    • Harvey Yoder

      How has freedom from having an established religion imposed on people “practically been outlawed in most Western countries”?

      • Rainer Moeller

        I’m speaking about the First Amendment as interpreted in constitutional law, at least since the days of Justices Holmes and Brandeis. Those ideas have been the pride of the Western world after 1945, until they got lost nearly everywhere. You can find the facts here:
        http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/12/us/12hate.html?hp=&pagewanted=all
        or in the essay by Prof. Schauer, quoted there, about “The exceptional First Amendment”.