The one intriguing truism about the bible is that the story about our past is the story about our present and will be the story about our future. In many ways, it’s a classic case of “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And repeat it we do as human beings on planet earth.
In Wes Howard-Brook's book Unveiling Empire, it is put best, “In the Bible there is really only one story: that of a people struggling to leave empire behind and set out to follow God.” Or when Bono sings so eloquently in U2’s song 40, “I will sing, sing a new song,” he’s telling God of his desire to live in the New Jerusalem.
You know what’s interesting about that song? U2 will play it as the last song of their concert, but only if they feel “God is in the house.” I guess the same can be said about John who wrote Revelation. If God’s “in the house” the New Jerusalem is alive and well. If not, welcome to Babylon.
In Revelation, John is writing about the contrasting realities of Babylon and the New Jerusalem as experienced at the time of the Roman Empire. For John, the veil of imperial propaganda is lifted and he sees the “Roman Empire was ‘really’ Babylon.” Babylon’s myriad of evil ways are the status quo in the Empire of Rome (murder, whoring, illusion, sorcery, worship of idols, etc.), but Babylon could just as easily be the Empires of Egypt or Assyria or Greece or even Jerusalem trying to live into Empire in the ancient world or Israel today, or the British Empire at its height of power or United States today.
“Babylon stands in diametric contrast to the ways of God. “ In other words, Babylon is an empire of humanity and New Jerusalem is God's empire. When John talks about the fall of Babylon, he’s not talking about a future event (although Rome does fall eventually). He’s talking about the fall as then or now.
In Unveiling Empire, “Babylon exists wherever human society becomes empire, asserting its power over creation and usurping the privileges of God. New Jerusalem is found wherever human community resists the ways of empire and places God at the center of its shared live.”
All of this gives context to the meaning of the "fall of Babylon" in Revelation 17-18 and especially the often-times misunderstood term “the end of the world.” As I understand it, the "fall of Babylon" and “the end of the world” are whenever we walk away from empire and toward the New Jerusalem. “Come out!” John uses these words as encouragement to his people, but also as warning to members of the early Christian Church (or ekklesiai). The same warning still rings true for Church today.
How many of our parishioners worship the idol of the almighty U.S. dollar and give little back to the poor and marginalized in their communities? How many of our parishioners believe the illusion that America is the police force of the world? How many of our parishioners are supporters of the death penalty, but vehemently against abortion? Or against government spending for the poorest of the poor? The New Jerusalem calls us to “come out” of Empire and help build the Kingdom of God here and now.
The "fall of Babylon" repeats itself over and over again. If we chose to live apart from an empire reality that is all about profit or status or wealth, if we embrace what it means to be a member of the New Jerusalem as “Church,” our wealth is truly in heaven, our status is that of disciple of Jesus Christ and our profit is seeing to the needs of the poorest and most marginalized in our world. When I think of those who lived the New Jerusalem, I think of Mother Teresa or St. Francis of Assisi. They gave up everything Babylon has to offer to serve the Kingdom. And John’s Revelation is asking us to do the same and enter the New Jerusalem.
The most memorable thing said about the difference between Babylon and New Jerusalem is that “Babylon is the best that money can buy while New Jerusalem is what God gives away for free. Is life the best that money can buy or is life a gift?” Powerful food for thought and a powerful, life-giving way to exist as Church today or any day in the New Jerusalem.