Babylonian Economics

From my work on Revelation 17-18:

Since at least the time of Tertullian, in the late second century, the church has grappled with which vocations might be inappropriate for Christians, even idolatrous. Tertullian raised questions about a host of occupations, including teaching (for promoting secular values and polytheism, or idolatry) and the military (for engaging in idolatry and violence). Touched by God’s amazing grace, John Newton (1725-1807) knew he had to stop buying and selling slaves. But apart perhaps from prostitution and drug-dealing, the church today seldom discourages any career path considered by young people or undertaken by adults. In my own United Methodist denomination, for example, a video on “vocation” for youth mentions a career in the military in the same breath as vocations in social work, medicine, the church, etc.

While few Christians today would question the appropriateness of teaching in secular schools as a vocation, perhaps, at the very least, Christian teachers should question and “come out” from some of the values and practices inscribed in many secular—and even Christian—forms of education. I am thinking here, not of topics like evolution, but of even larger worldview issues, such as nationalism and consumerism, to name just two. As for the military, many Christians cannot even imagine a reason why a career in the military might be anything less than an honorable Christian vocation, much less engage in a discussion about it. But this is a topic in need of discussion, especially for those who live in or near Babylon. There is something amiss when a Christian youth can go to summer camp one week and sing “Kumbaya,” and then go to Marine boot camp the next and chant “We can kill.” But it happens—all the time.

It would be easy to assume that most careers and day-to-day practices are exempt from critique, but Revelation will not allow us to be so naïve. If it involves buying or selling goods, Revelation puts a question mark on it. It this a business that directly or indirectly promotes the rich and exploits the poor? Does it harm the earth or other human beings? If so, then Revelation 18 has something to say about it. Churches, too, need to consider carefully the sources and means of their income, whether local “fundraising” techniques, such as flea markets or silent auctions or fashion shows, or larger issues such as investing.

How do we begin this conversation in the churches?

10 Responses to “Babylonian Economics”

  1. Nate Dawson says:

    This is good, Mike. These thoughts are provocative in the best sense of the word. You’re right on, I think, in saying that these are conversations we must have as Christians engaged in the dominant culture. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, I find it quite difficult to engage these questions becasue one is expected to ‘just work hard’ no matter what it is one does. I’m all for working hard, but you bring up some great points regarding discipleship and integrity.

    It seems that maybe our understanding, dare I say, the very presumptions we have of the term “work,” needs to be reconsidered. It seems that the place to begin shaping and being shaped by a different story is by telling ‘alternative stories of imagination.’ Maybe that is the very thing the writer of Revelation is trying to do, re-shape our imaginations and our worldviews. Just a thought.

  2. MJG says:

    Good to hear from you, Nate. “Re-shape our imaginations and our worldviews” is “spot on.”

  3. Michael N. says:

    Michael,

    I am really looking forward to your book and appreciate your working out the theology of Revelation in our own context (or at least asking the tough questions). I have just finished Steven Friesen’s “Imperial Cults…” and believe that there is SO much that Revelation has to say to us today, especially as it relates to the testimony of the Lamb and our participation in his work.

    After allowing Revelation to speak to our context, I would also like to have the conversation (e.g. our occupations or what we actually DO) broadened canonically to include other scripture that shows other aspects of a “theology of creation” such as Jer. 29:4-7.

    “..build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce…seek the welfare of the city…”

    James Davison Hunter’s book “To Change the World” has me thinking about truth, goodness, and beauty in the world and how our work in the world has an affect on that. This of course in the context of being the church through the power of the cross and not through worldly power.

  4. Sam says:

    Good questions. I have struggled to have conversations with people. Especially when it comes to the military, once people know where you stand, they just do not want to talk to you about it. Our present day church leaders at large are of no help either.

  5. Sam,

    I feel your pain, but as someone who works at a church I’m both implicated and a little suspicious of the statement, “Our present day church leaders at large are of no help.”

    I think I know what you mean by that. Surely, on a large scale church leadership has bought into the bad theology that being significant means aligning oneself with power-groups. I get that, I’m not for the Christian-right by any stretch. Also, I know as a church leader I have a responsibility to speak to these issues. I’m probably not doing it enough at this point.

    On the other hand, your comment grains against me because I know so many church leaders who are doing all they can and often at great personal expense. I know that people think I’m a naive young fool to think that being about the non-violent way of Jesus is actually a way to live. It has cost me relationships with friends and churches who just “don’t want to hear it.” I have close friends who have been censured for “speaking up” about such issues. In personal experience, then, it is churches without the character to ask difficult questions and not leaders who ignore the issues.

    I think I probably agree with the sentiment of what you’re trying to get at. We need leaders willing to speak up, but we also need people with the character to repent and to leave churches where leaders embrace violence.

    Lastly, we have to recognize that this is a difficult issue. While I firmly believe that pacifism is a part of following Jesus, I sure wish it was a little easier to point to a specific text and say, “Look Jesus wants you to be a pacifist.” I’ve had people tell me, “Well the Bible is just not that clear on the issue.” I usually point to Revelation 13 or Matthew 5 or Philippians 2 and say, “What else would the Bible have to say?” Unfortunately, such tactics are less than convincing for most. Simply put, this is a difficult issue especially for folks who do live in Babylon, as MJG already mentioned. My only caution, or encouragement rather, would be to help paid church leaders speak to these issues through example and prayer.

  6. MJG says:

    Michael,

    Hunter and I went to college together, so I need to read his new book more carefully. (I think I skimmed it.) I think there is a new-creational missional theology implied in Revelation, and I argue for this in the book as well.

    Sam and Tyler,

    Your frustration is understandable, Sam, but I think you, Tyler, are speaking from the trenches (pardon the martial metaphor). I, too, have seen taking a stand for the way of Jesus cost pastors and other preachers/church leaders. I’m convinced that there needs to be a multi-pronged approach, from the top down, from the bottom up, in Sunday School classes, from the pulpit, etc. Sometimes this will require bold, daring, risky moves, and sometimes—perhaps more often–it will necessitate baby steps.

  7. Scott Kohler says:

    Thanks for this post, Michael. I’ve been enjoying your blog (and books) lately.

    Some personal notes:
    As a pastor of a Baptist church in rural New Brunswick (Canada) I have seen how tricky this issue is to address in a culture where the military is considered not only a respectable “vocation” but one of our noblest callings.

    My first Remembrance Day (the November 11 holiday in Canada) I was informed that I would have the veterans visiting the church (it was our “turn” that year) and I prepared what seemed to me an appropriate message. Despite having considered pacifism briefly under the influence of a teacher at seminary I came up with a (sadly) typical message about the sacrifice of the soldiers and then pointed to another and greater Sacrifice, etc. Over the next year, through readings of John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, a study on the book of Revelation in our church Bible study, I realized how blasphemous the previous year’s message now seemed to me, and how easily influenced I was by the presence of a respected community group at our worship time. The following Remembrance Day I preached a sermon highlighting the message of peace the whole way through the New Testament, and pretty much repented of my comments the year before.

    After that message I got some pretty heavy push-back from a couple of people (one being a father who was living away and told me that he had serious questions about whether he wanted someone like me to be influencing his children), and started getting questioned about my thoughts on the military.

    In the years since, I have pulled away from everything that would take for granted the military’s proper place in the church’s heart and mind, and have actually had people leave the church over it. I have tried to be respectful as I deal with it and sympathetic when dealing with those who have lost family members through military service; still, those who aren’t angry seem utterly unchanged in their point-of-view. They see pacifism as a quirk held by their idealistic young pastor rather than something central to Christian identity.

    Seminary teaching is probably the key, since without a widespread shift in the clergy’s views on peace and violence the congregations will stick with what they assume. There won’t be an overnight change, for sure.

    Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead offers an interesting portrait of the different ways pastors approach war as its three generations of pastors in the Ames family work out their calling during the civil war, the first World War, and the second World War.

  8. Ian Packer says:

    Thanks for this post, Mike. Vocation is the fundamental way we should be addressing Christian ethics rather than lame appeals ‘biblical principles’ or, God forbid, ‘values’. (I say that ‘cos that’s my PhD topic so I’m hardly unbiased here.) ;-)

  9. MJG says:

    Scott,

    Your experience is moving, troubling, inspiring, disconcerting—and common for people of conviction and conscience. I certainly hope seminary teaching can begin to make a difference. Thanks four your comment, your ministry, and your recommendation of Gilead.

    PS I had someone say that about their child nearly 30 years ago as a seminarian. That man’s (other) son just called to thank me for my faithfulness with him over the years, however.

    Ian—yes, absolutely: vocation. Thanks.

  10. Trey Palmisano says:

    This is a particular issue I’ve struggled with mightily, coming from an evangelical, non-denominational background. I’ve been to churches on 4th of July where the leadership has taken full advantage of the military message. Flags are prominently raised next to the cross. At some point in the service, the pastor breaks with the message and the huge television screen shows photos of military men and women holding their children and tearful reunions on bases. We’re called to pray for our soldiers, oftentimes with little direction for what we’re praying for. Of course, what is not shown is suspiciously absent, but nonetheless speaks to the Americanizing (as you put it) of the gospel message. I have been disgusted on a number of occasions when soldiers have been brought in to share something of their experience in an attempt at shameless self-promotion. Unfortunately, I am entirely in the minority in my church as evangelicals, and fundamentalists with which I’ve spent most of my life, consider military duty, law enforcement, and firefighting to be endowed with the kind of holy calling one calls to mind when taking about the clergy.

    Working for government, I’ve also grappled with my own moral responsibility. Is there a tacit institutional sin underlying the operation of our government so that by serving government I’m guilty of cooperating in the use of the technology provided by my company even though I’m removed from the decisionmaking process? You must wonder how far you are removed in any profession from the moral consequences of your decisions. How do your decisions directly or indirectly affect the lives of others? It’s a thorny question.

    Shifting gears to another example, I’m also struck by the pugilism that is passed off as professional fighting and is directly challenged by 1 Timothy 3:3. There seems to me no small amount of irony with professional fighters who claim a relationship with Christ. Is it acceptable to bash an opponent’s brains in so long as there is no malice of forethought? It’s interesting you mention Tertullian who was passionately opposed to the gladiatorial contests of the day and questioned how one’s attendance at such events could be squared up with the gospel.

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