America as Babylon

THE BACK STORY: Introduction to Martin Gonzalez Sostre

It was during our weekly Wednesday evening program with prisoners in Dannemora, NY  that I first learned about the case of Martin Gonzalez Sostre, held in solitary confinement in resistance to dehumanizing prison practices, and joined the campaign for his release.

A year later at the Gunnison Memorial Chapel of St. Lawrence University I delivered a sermon inspired by a fresh reading of the Book of Revelation and what I had learned about Martin. The sermon – “Worship and Resistance: the Exercise of Freedom” – was  published by The Christian Century in March, 1974.

The first half of the “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom” introduces the hearer/ reader to Martin Sostre’s resistance as a political prisoner incarcerated in solitary confinement at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY, known as “New York’s Siberia” or, as the inmates refer to it, “the Hell Hole of the New York Prison system”.

THE CONTINUING STORY: resistance as worship

Excerpts from “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom:

“Incarcerated on the Aegean Island of Patmos, a penal settlement of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D., was a political prisoner named John. He wrote a political-religious manifesto declaring open resistance to the Roman Empire. The Revelation to John – the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible – is the earliest extant Christian tract deliberately and openly directed against the pretensions of the world’s greatest power. In the Revelation to John, resistance to Roman power and authority is so inextricably bound together with worship of God that they constitute two sides of the same coin. Worship and resistance are the twin sides of faith’s freedom to celebrate God’s gift of life. The unity of resistance and worship is expressed with notable clarity in the passage where the fall of mighty Babylon occasions a celebration in heaven. The destruction of Babylon is joined to the salvation of the world itself and is the sign of God’s power and righteous rule over the nations. Only those who profit by Babylon’s wealth, power and injustice have reason to mourn her fall, while those who have ‘come out of her’ – who have disentangled themselves from her oppression, corruption and imperial claims – have cause to worship God and sing joyful hymns of praise.”

….

“Babylon is the state or nation in its presumption to be God. Babylon is any state, nation, or constellation of principalities and powers, which attempts to rule as final judge of persons and nations. Babylon is any such power – in any time or place – which makes its people subjects, calling them into idolatry of the nations, and any state or nation that persecutes its prophets of righteousness, peace and justice while rewarding the aggressive supporters and the silent ones who acquiesce. America is Babylon.”

….

“Envision once more a visit to Clinton Correctional Facility. Remember the disorienting sensation of having left everything familiar on the other side of the wall, the feeling of walking out of a real world into a nightmare, the shock induced by the size of the walls and the presence of the guards – strange and terrifying.

“But the closer one gets to the prison reality, the more one comes to realize that it is not so strange, that it is simply a more exaggerated and visible form of our own everyday reality in the face of death. Here on the outside, the walls are not visible, but they are much higher. Out here the guards do not stand poised with machine guns, but they are real and far more powerful – the guards our own fears provide.”
….
“Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…’” (Rev. 18:4 RSV).

THE FRONT STORY: 2017

I see more clearly now what I took into the pulpit at St. Lawrence in 1974, magnified a thousand times over in the name of a false patriotism that turns love of country into worship of America. “We’re going to make America great again!”

In the Book of Revelation Babylon is the mythic city that dehumanizes its people, the “bad” city (to use a favorite word of our current president) which people of faith and conscience are called to resist. Worship requires it. Without resistance, worship is dead. So is the U.S. Constitution and a democratic republic.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 1, 2017

2 thoughts on “America as Babylon

  1. This is a tough one. I think about the Old Testament story — no specifics left in my head, which prophet, what city — but God had planned to destroy the city for its many sins, and the prophet pleaded with God several times to spare the city if he could find some number of righteous people, then fewer, and finally if there were just one righteous man to spare the city for the sake of that one man. Now there are many hundreds of thousands protesting the deep unrighteousness of the “leadership.”. Maybe he will yet spare America — hoever unlikely that seems now. At this point we need to pray for the survival of human life on this planet — however unlikely that seems now.
    Cheery, aren’t I? I do what I can, mostly praying and donating to causes fighting the decline, but then I try to enjoy the good moments and leave the rest in the Lord’s hands.

    Liked by 1 person

    • CA,

      And that’s exactly what we should be doing and precisely in whose hands we should leave the rest. This morning at Trinity a friend who shares so much of our concerns spoke of a conversation with someone from a younger generation who asked her where she and our generation were years ago re: the racial/ethnic imbalance in the American prison system. She said “We didn’t know.”

      I hesitated to say “I did.” Experience is the best teacher. Perhaps. But the path of my life of conscience and expanding social consciousness began with our Junior High Fellowship’s visit to the Green Street Settlement House when we were in the 8th grade, as I remember it. Maybe we were older. Do you remember? I knew that day that there were two worlds: one white, one black. One privileged. One poor. Years later Episcopal lay theologian William Stringfellow’s My People Is the Enemy spoke to me like nothing I had ever read. Many years later, Bill wrote An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land in which he spoke about America as Babylon.

      Weeks before I learned of Martin Sostre, Bill and black libration theologian James Cone (Black Theology and Black Power and God of the Oppressed, had each been guest speakers and guests in our home in Canton, NY. The insights of these two leaders sharpened my theological perspective and honed my social critique. Anyway, I do believe that genuine worship is itself an act of resistance and that nonviolent resistance, in whatever name it’s done, is its own kind of worship (it honors God).

      Liked by 1 person

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