The Common Good

Numbers That Mark the Beast

I wrote a book recently with a friend of mine that stirred some conversation. In it we try to retell the story of the Bible in the context of the American empire. Not surprisingly, some readers have taken issue with the whole premise. The feedback has led me to conclude that arguments about whether America is an empire aren't likely to produce much light. Sparks, perhaps. Heat maybe. But not much light.

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Permit me to present a different angle, one that might come with a whole new set of sparks.

The Bible isn't concerned with empire. The Bible takes empire for granted. Humans gather, accumulate, and seek security for themselves and their group. The Bible's intro (Genesis 1-11) culminates with humans securing a name for themselves. This is the Bible's way of saying that people will build empires.

The biblical question isn't if empires should arise but how to manage them once they have. Do they uphold justice or do they preserve privilege at the expense of the weak? Are they built on the backs of the poor or do they distribute blessings abroad?

When enough power is secured that sovereignty can't be challenged and justice for the weak is denied, the Bible doesn't call that empire. In biblical language, such a distortion of human community is called a Beast.

And the Bible has special numbers for Beasts.

When the apostle John wrote Revelation, there was such a Beast. Kings prostituted themselves to it and merchants traded all precious things with it, including the bodies and souls of men and women.

The number of the Beast, 666, permitted buying and selling (Revelation 13:18). John borrowed this number from another Beast, the nation of Israel under Solomon.

Scripture says that "The weight of the gold that Solomon received yearly was 666 talents" (1 Kings 10:13).

God used 666 as an economic indicator to judge Solomon, who should not have been amassing slaves, trading in weapons, and prostituting his heart to a foreign woman. See for yourself in 1 Kings 9-11.

John used the same indicator to make sense of the Roman Empire. He assured those suffering under its tyranny that Rome would be judged for its merciless acquisition of wealth and its brutal use of power. See for yourself in Revelation 17 and 18.

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Instead of arguing about empire, we should be talking about Beasts because history has a new one, and it's not America.

The force that accepts no boundaries to its acquisition of wealth, whose disregard for the poor is matched only by its betrayal of the wealthy, is not a political state at all. The power that rules planet earth in our age is the unrestrained force of raw capitalism. Ours is an economic Beast and it comes with a new number. Two numbers actually.

The American taxpayer will pay $700 billion to buy troubled mortgages.

$700 billion.

And the second number puts the first in context.

Total global giving to Africa since the end of the colonial period in 1960 is $600 billion.

$600 billion.

$700 billion.

In these numbers the disregard for humanity at the heart of our economic system is revealed. For a generation now, rich nations have judged Africa for its failure to use foreign aid to pull itself out of poverty. Africa, after all, is the bottomless pit of financial need.

But the challenges of Africa are inextricably linked to capitalism. For more than 100 years powerful nations built their empires, in part, on the backs of African bodies and through pillaging African resources. When white men fabricated modern Africa at a conference in Berlin in 1884, their interests were 100 percent economic. When the great powers left in the early 1960s, Africa was divided and conquered. And over the next 40 years, those same powers, having acquired a mountain of untold wealth, returned $600 billion in aid.

I used to think that was a lot.

Raw capitalism, functioning without social contract, ignores the poor; that much is clear. But the degree to which it betrays even its most committed beneficiaries is a revelation. It's not only the left throwing stones at capitalism these days.

How many wealthy Americans have lost their life's savings over the past months? 500,000 lost their jobs in November alone.

In the Bible, the number 666 is an economic indicator of spiritual truth. When gross amounts of gold pile up, it inevitably comes crashing down. A gross preoccupation with wealth accumulation is, in every age, a spiritual abomination.

Revelation and the numbers that mark the Beast confirm the biblical perspective that people will create empires; that humans will gather, accumulate, and seek security.

America is not an empire like Rome; it's a nation contingent upon a Beast of its own creation. And scripture is clear that God is the God who liberates humans from the Beasts they create.

$600 billion to help the poor.

$700 billion to protect the rich.

Perhaps a greater investment in human need will keep us from the costs of human greed. Perhaps it's time to give away more of what America is struggling to keep. Instead of arguing for or against America as empire, the followers of Jesus, instructed by the wisdom of scripture, have a chance to lead the way.

A world of need remains. Africa's need remains. America still has untold wealth and, apparently, the ability to create billions more by acts of Congress. Christians should be concerned about the just and right use of our wealth.

Let's use it for good before we lose it for good.

Don Golden is senior vice president of church engagement at World Relief, and the author, with Rob Bell, of Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile.

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