As with many of Stringfellow's books he selects a book of the bible to be an inspiration and guide. In An Ethic that book is Revelation. And if Revelation is anything it is a prophetic judgment upon Babylon.
As we read in Revelation Babylon is a demon-infested city, ruled by an ethic of death. Babylon in Revelation is, according to Stringfellow, a moral parable and description of every nation, principality and power. But the focus of An Ethic is "the specific relevance of Babylon for the contemporary American experience." An Ethic reads America as Babylon.
In what way does Babylon describe America?
Stringfellow begins by saying that it's not just that wicked men rule in high places (incidentally Richard Nixon was in office when An Ethic was published). The problem is that America is characterized by a generalized moral incapacity--a hardness of heart, a lack of conscience that is rooted in how our moral lives have been taken captive by organizational and institutional idolatry:
God knows America has wicked men in high places...but that is not the issue immediately raised in emphasizing the nation's moral poverty...What Stringfellow describes here is what Hannah Arendt has called "the banality of evil" in her analysis of the mind of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. The evil here is the moral apathy and obliviousness--the "thoughtlessness" and "mindlessness" described by Arendt--produced by institutional traditions, policies, procedures, culture, expectations and routines. This is the moral sleepiness induced by "just doing my job." According to Stringfellow, Americans have "become captive and immobilized as human beings" by our "habitual obeisance to institutions or other principalities as idols."
If there be evildoers in the Pentagon or on Wall Street or in prosecutors' offices or among university trustees and administrators or in the CIA or on Madison Avenue or in the FBI or in the ecclesiastical hierarchies or in the cabinet (it would be utterly astonishing if there where not), that is not as morally significant as the occupation of these same and similar premises by men who have become captive and immobilized as human beings by their habitual obeisance to institutions or other principalities as idols. These are persons who have become so entrapped in tradition, or, often, mere routine, who are so fascinated by institutional machinations, who are so much in bondage to the cause of preserving the principality oblivious to the consequences and cost either for other human beings or themselves that they have been thwarted in their moral development.
In the language of Ephesians our battle is not a battle against flesh and blood--against the "wicked men in high places''--but against the moral apathy and oblivion produced by how the America public is enslaved by idolatry to the principalities and powers. As Stringfellow observes, "the American institutional and ideological ethos incubates a profound apathy toward human life." We have become "stupefied as human beings, individually and as a class of persons." We have lost our "moral sanity" which "results in a strange and terrible quitting as human beings."
It should come as no surprise, then, that Stringellow finds moral vitality and freedom among those...
...who are in conflict with the established order--those who are opponents of the status quo, those in rebellion against the system, those who are prisoners, resisters, fugitives, and victims.Consequently, our movement into freedom and moral vitality involves being set free from idolatrous bondage to the principalities and powers of American life.
Finally, keeping with the theme of a demon-haunted Babylon Stringfellow describes the idolatry of the principalities and powers as a form of demon possession and moral liberation akin to exorcism:
The failure of conscience in American society among its reputed leaders, the deep-seated contempt for human life among the managers of society, the moral deprivation of so-called middle Americans resembles, as has been observed, the estate described biblically as "hardness of the heart." The same condition, afflicting both individuals and institutions (including nations) is otherwise designated in the Bible as a form of demonic possession...Link to Chapter 2
...demonic refers to death comprehended as a moral reality. Hence, for a man to be "possessed of a demon" means concretely that he is a captive of the power of death in one or another of its manifestations which death assumes in history...
...the moral impairment of a person (as where conscience has been retarded or intimidated) is an instance of demonic possession, too. In a somewhat similar way, a nation, or any other principality, may be such a dehumanizing influence with respect to human life in society, may be of such antihuman purpose and policy, may pursue such a course which so demeans human life and so profits death that is must be said, analytically as well as metaphorically, that that nation or other principality is in truth governed by the power of death...
My concern is for the exorcism of that vain spirit.