An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: Chapter 1, America as Babylon

Chapter 1 of William Stringfellow's book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land is entitled "The Relevance of Babylon."

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...

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.
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."

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...

...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.
Link to Chapter 2

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9 thoughts on “An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land: Chapter 1, America as Babylon”

  1. I'm seeing this manifested in our day in the debates over minimum wages. When the idea of raising them is suggested, "the powers" immediately announce all the barriers prohibiting such a move. The barriers disappear however, when salaries and bonuses for "the powers" are considered.

    There's something more sinister than this fact though: "the powers" don't even recognize that there's even a problem; there's no one even saying something like "our society isn't creating a sufficient means for people at the "bottom" to make a properly human life for themselves. This is a problem we need to solve somehow!"

    Instead there's a retreat into Free Market Fundamentalism with a roar of strength as if the powers are in command and control of ultimate reality. In this "reality" which is their make-believe, the human power of creativity and making lives together, is held hostage by their greed.

    Greed, I would say, is the idolatrous form of Love: both are in the business of wanting; greed subsumes the Other though, while Love upholds the Other.

  2. By and large we, as a wealthy people, are drugged. Doped up on money and political fights and wars on terror and american exceptionalism, celebrities dresses, purses, boats, bling, booze, bombs and golf. We hear a lot from politicians about "family values" but you don't hear a lot of references from supposedly Christian politicians of Scripture that says "woe to you who are rich " or "go, sell all you have" or "the first will be last," or "he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me" or "he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword" because it offends our american sensibilities and pulls at our fearful grip on our possessions and positions. We are willing to kill en masse by the push of a button so long as it is in the name of american freedom; how are we as american christians so quick to call out homosexuality but so slow to call out our leaders for waging war?

  3. Where do these "Powers" and the mob intersect? I just finished the Civil Rights unit with my 8th graders. What really stood out to me this year is how people in the south reacted differently as individuals than when in a mob.

  4. I keep wanting to add or question something here but am having trouble verbalizing it. I do think systems help blind us to evil. But not always, and identifying with a system is often not a passive thing. There was a recent series of essays and letters in the New York Review of books interrogating Arendt. Basically, both her critics and advocates agree that there was little banality in Eichmann- he was an ardent Nazi, he knew what he was doing and he did it with zeal. Some criticize Arendt for apparently misrepresenting this and some claim that on the contrary, she recognized it and her critics are misreading her.

    Challenging systems, I think, is most effective if we underestimate neither ourselves nor others by assuming unconscious passivity. I think most people are well aware of the content of the systems they form part of. Those who are oppressed are probably both conscious and engaging either in anger, resistance, or resignation; those who benefit often enthusiastically endorse the system's principles. Perhaps Nazism was so successful within Germany not because people were passive but because many of them benefited so obviously from it (by believing they were racially superior, by seeing their country become a world power again, by gaining the property of their denounced neighbors...). And they were reluctant to let go of the system after the war- I am reading Tony Judt's Postwar right now, and the number of people who believed that Nazi policy was right years after the war was extraordinarily high. Not to mention the heartbreaking numbers of Jews who were, for example, killed upon returning home from the camps in places like Poland.

    In the end I think I am not saying anything all that different from the post- and I can see how Stringfellow was reacting against the emphasis on the individual (too strong in conservative thought today as well). But I suppose I would phrase it a bit differently. Systems offer us the opportunity for power, and I think almost everyone has trouble resisting power. But the desire for power is not a passive but an active desire, and it is not created by the system, it is in us. And I think people usually know when they are pursuing it. Yes, they justify it to themselves ("this is not about me wanting power, this is about me having what I deserve"), often in the moral terms of the larger system from which they are benefiting (empire, Nazism, capitalism, slavery, etc), but this justification is also an active process (all of my friends have extensively thought-out reasons for their political and social views, though not always at the level of academic argument).

    So rather than disruption vaguely phrased being my goal, I would like to be able to show any given person how a system brings them power, how they benefit (their privilege, I suppose?) and ask them why they deserve it.

  5. The "something more sinister" you write about above may be what Jesus was addressing when he said "...if then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" Once a human being has come to believe that darkness is light, there is hell to pay. Interestingly, the very next thing Jesus said is "No one can server two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You can't serve God and wealth." I think we have come to believe that we can love both God and the power he refers to as wealth. That we are capable of navigating it somehow. Jesus says we are wrong, and gives us tactics that seem absurd until we realize they are tactics that set us free from bondage to the power "wealth" and bring us deeper into the kingdom.

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