Babylon

From the Archives: April 1992

VIOLENCE is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. What is generally overlooked is that violence is accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience-unto-death.

Its followers are not aware that the devotion they pay to violence is a form of religious piety, however. Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not appear to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. It is embraced with equal alacrity by people on the Left and the Right, by religious liberals as well as religious conservatives.

The threat of violence, it is believed, is alone able to deter aggressors. It secured us 45 years of a balance of terror. We learned to trust the bomb to grant us peace.

The roots of this devotion to violence are deep, and we will be well rewarded if we trace them to their source. When we do, we will discover that the religion of Babylon—one of the world’s oldest continuously surviving world religions—is thriving as never before in every segment of contemporary American life, even our synagogues and churches. It, and not Christianity, is the real religion of America. 

Walter Wink was professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City when this article appeared.

Image: From the ruins, Hyena Reality / Shutterstock.com

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The Church of the Long Haul

WHICH SCRIPTURES WILL our biases tempt us to sidestep this month? Perhaps 2 Timothy? Not usually the favorite of radicals. Whether actually written by Paul just before his death or worked up later by followers, the letter has a certain poignancy, suggesting the waning of Christianity’s pioneer phase. The church is in for the long haul. Its faith needs to find forms that can be transmitted across generations. It needs patient leadership that will be consistent in the face of inauthentic mutations of the gospel, religious imposters, and the distraction of futile controversies—hence the emphasis on sound teaching, the internalized treasure of the creed.

Let’s honor this recognition within scripture itself that the gospel needs institutions. The church must even risk banality in some of its teaching practices. A great interpreter of the Christian mystical tradition, Friedrich von Hügel, invites us to respect the way radical teachings have to be given forms that can be handled by regular folks, not geniuses. “Is there not a pathetic instruction in watching the insertion of the copper alloy into the pure gold ... that is, a metal sufficiently resistant to the clumsy handling of the multitude to be able to persist in the transmission of a value, and indeed a precise value, even though it be not the highest. There is surely a pathos here most thoroughly characteristic of the abiding limitations and homely needs of our poor humanity.”

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest, author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ October 6 ]
Faith Increased, Faith Infectious
Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 37:1-9; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

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What's in a Name?

Our current practice in the U.S. actually reflects the earlier legal reality of coverture: In the process of the "two becoming one flesh," the wife lost her rights to property, legal representation in court, and even her public identity as her husband became the sole representative for the family. This combination of identities (or, rather, the wife becoming lost in her husband's identity) led to wives taking their husbands' last names. For me, losing my surname would have represented silent assent to this oppressive practice.

Why I Love Fire, Pentecost, and the Beloved Community

This past weekend, Christians around the world celebrated one of our holiest holi-days: Pentecost. Pentecost, which means "50 days," is celebrated seven weeks after Easter (hence the 50), and marks the birthday of the Church, when the Holy Spirit is said to have fallen on the early Christian community like fire from the heavens. (For this reason, lots of Christians wear red and decorate in pyro-colors. This day is also where the fiery Pentecostal movement draws its name).

But what does Pentecost Sunday have to do with just another manic Monday?

What does a religious event a couple of thousand years old have to offer the contemporary, pluralistic, post-Christian world we live in? I'd say a whole lot. Here's why:

Let me start by confessing my bias. Not only am I a Christian, but I am a Christian who likes fire. I went to circus school and became a fire-swallowing, fire-breathing, torch-juggling-pyro-maniac as you'll see here. So naturally, I like Pentecost.

Learning from Iraqi Good Samaritans

Just a few days ago, I returned from a short trip into Iraq with a small group of Christian peacemakers. Most of us had been to the country before, but under varying circumstances: I was on a combat deployment in 2004; Greg Barrett, our organizer, went as a journalist in the run-up to the invasion in 2003; and four were part of a peace team protesting the bombing campaign during that same period.

Shane Claiborne, Cliff Kindy, Weldon Nisly, and Peggy Gish were leaving Iraq in March 2003 when one of their vehicles was involved in an accident, leaving Cliff and Weldon with life-threatening injuries. Had it not been for a few Iraqi Good Samaritans, they may have never made it out alive.

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