The "empirical integrity of the biblical witness" from the title of Chapter 2 continues to highlight Stringfellow's contention that the focus of the bible is this world at this time. Stringfellow describes this as an "incarnational theology" that produces a "sacramental ethics." In places Stringfellow is very aggressive about the this-worldly focus of the bible:
In [the biblical] story, there is no other place actually known to human beings, except this world as it is--the place where life is at once being lived; there are no other places for which to search or yearn or hope--no utopia, no paradise, no otherworldly afterlife; and no limbo either.His take home point:
In this history, in this time, Eden and the Fall, Jerusalem and Babylon, Eschaton and Apocalypse converge here and now.
[T]he Bible deals with the sanctification of the actual history of nations and of human beings in his world as it is while that history is being lived.For Stringfellow, biblical life is life wrestling with history as it happening right here and right now. Any other temporal focus, according to Stringfellow, is un-biblical.
And what we are wrestling with in history, as Stringfellow continues to use the imagery of Revelation, is the antagonism between Babylon and Jerusalem.
Again, according to Stringfellow, Babylon names empirical political realities in history:
Babylon in Revelation is a disclosure and description of an estate or condition which corresponds to the empirical reality of each and every city--of all societies--in history. The Babylon of Revelation is archetypical of all nations...This Babylon is allegorical of the condition of death reigning in each and every nation or similar principality.In contrast to Babylon is Jerusalem. Stringfellow describes both as "events" rather than as physical locations:
What Babylon means theologically and, hence, existentially for all nations or other principalities in the dimensions of fallenness, doom, and death, Jerusalem means to each nation or power in the terms of holiness, redemption, and life. Babylon describes the apocalyptic while Jerusalem embodies the eschatological as these two realities become recognizable in the present, common history of the world.This contrast--the experience of Babylon versus Jerusalem in present history--is central to Stringfellow's thinking. At root, Babylon is the location where death currently reigns and Jerusalem is the location where life and resurrection is experienced.
We become enslaved to death, according to Stringfellow, when be buy into the idolatry of Babylon. The great sin of Babylon isn't hedonic excess or lasciviousness. The great sin of Babylon is idolatry, and our use of the principality and power as a means for moral justification and life significance:
The awful ambiguity of Babylon's fallenness is expressed consummately in Babylon's delusion that she is, or is becoming, Jerusalem. This is the same moral confusion which all principalities suffer in one way or another...This is the vanity of every principality--and notably for a nation--that the principality is sovereign in history; which is to say, that it presumes it is the power in relation to which the moral significance of everything and everyone is determined...Babylon's fall is not particularly a punishment for her greed or vice or aggrandizement, despite what some preachers allege. Babylon's futility is her idolatry--her boast of justifying significance or moral ultimacy in her destiny, her reputation, her capabilities, her authority, her glory as a nation. The moral pretenses of Imperial Rome, the millennial claims of Nazism, the arrogance of Marxist dogma, the anxious insistence that America be "number one" among nations are all versions of Babylon's idolatry. All share in this grandiose view of the nation by which the principality assumes the image of God.The connection of this idolatry with death will be the subject of the next two chapters in the book.
Having described the idolatry of death that characterizes Babylon, Stringfellow goes on to describe Jerusalem as living "within and outside the nations, alongside and over against the nations, coincident with but set apart from the nations." Jerusalem is in the "peculiar posture of simultaneous involvement and disassociation" with the principalities and powers. Jerusalem is an eschatological "pioneer community" existing in the midst of the Fall.
And where is Jerusalem located? Again, for Stringfellow, Jerusalem is more of an event than a location. Consequently, Jerusalem--the experience of a reconciled humanity--is fragile and transitory in nature. Jerusalem exists in time rather than in space:
Jerusalem means the emancipation of human life in society from the rule of death and breaks through time, transcends time, anticipates within time the abolition of time. Thus the integrity or authenticity of the Jerusalem event in common history is always beheld as if it were a singular or momentary or unique happening. To be more concrete about it, if a congregation somewhere comes to life as Jerusalem at some hour, that carries no necessary implications for either the past or the future of that congregation. The Jerusalem occurrence is sufficient unto itself. There is--then and there--a transfiguration in which the momentary coincides with the eternal, the innocuous becomes momentous and the great is recognized as trivial, the end of history is revealed as the fulfillment of life here and now, and the whole of creation is beheld as sanctified.Jerusalem is experienced in those elusive, fleeting but very real moments when we experience the Kingdom of God "on earth as it is in heaven." Think back over your life when you've thought, "Right here and right now, I wish the whole world could be just like this." That's the experience of Jerusalem in the midst of Babylon.
So far as the human beings who are participants and witnesses in any manifestation of the Jerusalem reality of the Church are concerned, nothing similar may have happened before and nothing similar may happen again. But that does not detract from the event; it only emphasizes that the crux of the matter is the transcendence of time....
[H]ere and there and now and then--Jerusalem is apparent.
And finally, before leaving this chapter, how are we to characterize the "sacramental ethic" of living in Jerusalem in the midst of Babylon?
Stringfellow says something very interesting about "sacramental ethics" in this chapter. First, because ethical action is always "incarnational," bound to a particular time and place, the "sacramental ethics" of the Christian cannot aspire to eternal and unchanging standards. Ethical action isn't about discerning a timeless "right versus wrong." Consequently, the human assessment of God's judgments concerning "right versus wrong" cannot be the guide for Christian ethical action. Human ethical action--being bound to time and place--will always be provisional and situational. As Stringfellow succinctly puts it, Christian ethical action has to do with "becoming and being human and not with guessing or imitating God's will."
The ethics of biblical politics offer no basis for divining specific, unambiguous, narrow, or ordained solutions for any social issue. Biblical theology does not deduce "the will of God" for political involvement or social action. The Bible--if it is esteemed for its own genius--does not yield "right" or "good" or "true" or "ultimate" answers. The Bible does not do that in seemingly private or personal matters; even less can it be said to do so in politics or institutional life.In fact, Stringfellow goes on to argue that when we do try to "play God" with ethics we end up dehumanizing each other:
Biblical ethics do not pretend the social or political will of God; biblical politics do not implement "right" or "ultimate" answers. In this world, the judgment of God remains God's own secret. No creatures are privy to it, and the task of social ethics is not to second guess the judgment of God.
It is the inherent and redundant frustration of any pietistic social ethics that the ethical question is presented as a conundrum about the judgment of God in given circumstances. Human beings attempting to cope with that ethical question are certain to become dehumanized.I think we've all seen this happen. Christians assume that the ethical task is to sort out God's timeless and eternal judgment on any particular issue and then to use that as a weapon to dehumanize others. But as Stringfellow notes, the claim to know God's judgments is inherently idolatrous.
We are human beings. None of us knows what God thinks. Adjudicating right versus wrong in any ultimate sense is idolatrous.
So what is at the heart of a "sacramental ethic"? Stringfellow:
[B]iblically speaking, the singular, straightforward issue of ethics--and the elementary topic of politics--is how to live humanly during the Fall. Any viable human ethic--which is to say, any ethics worthy of human attention and practice, any ethics which manifest and verify hope--is both individual and social. It must deal with human decision and action in relation to the other creatures, notably the principalities and powers in the very midst of the conflict, distortion, alienation, disorientation, chaos, decadence of the Fall.That's the question at the heart of the Christian moral vision. How can I act humanly now? How can I act humanly in the midst of the conflict, distortion, alienation, disorientation, chaos, and decadence of the Fall?
In the Bible, the ethical issue becomes simply: how can a person act humanly now?
This question also guides the community of faith. The experience of Jerusalem is the cultivation, experience and protection of humanity in the midst of the Fall:
[T]he ethical question juxtaposes the witness of the holy nation--Jerusalem--to the other principalities, institutions and the other nations--as to which Babylon is the parable. It asks: how can the Church of Jesus Christ celebrate human life in society now?Link to Chapter 3