Early each morning, I light a candle and immerse myself in the words of the morning office, which is a form of prayer. Today’s lesson from Acts ended with an evocative phrase: “beyond Babylon.”
The context is a divine curse, as retold by St. Stephen: The Hebrew people, whom God has liberated from slavery in Egypt, have turned aside to worship the gods of their pagan neighbors, and God promises, “I will remove you beyond Babylon.” Babylon, of course, was the imperial neighbor to the east of Israel, which eventually engulfed the tiny kingdoms of Israel and Judah and removed their population from the land. And so the promise is one of exile, and it recalls the curse first spoken at the beginning of the human story, when God casts Adam and Eve and sets them to wander east of Eden.
But Babylon is much more than an ancient city; it became the mythological symbol of all that was evil in human life: power, corruption, idolatry, displacement, the worship of money, the pillaging of goods from the end of the earth, the enslavement of human bodies and souls to the pleasure of the rich and the voracious, all-consuming demands of commerce.
And so, today, I found myself wondering: what would it mean to be “east” of all that? Would it mean that we would be utterly surrendered to those forces, compelled to serve them with no hope of a return to life lived on a human scale, of life lived on our own land, among those we love, in relationship with our own community? Or would it, just possibly, mean seeking out a place that was genuinely beyond those forces — beyond where they could touch us, beyond where they could corrupt us, beyond where they could blight our lives?
The truth is, we need no divine intervention to make that choice; we make it every day, by what we choose, and by whom. We can choose to allow ourselves to be consumed by the things of this world, by work, by politics, by acrimony, by division. Or, we can choose to hold a part of ourselves aside, to open in our souls a secret place where only God can come, God and those we most love. We can choose to nurture bonds that matter, relationships of trust. We can choose to give our time to what we treasure, even if we have only shards of time to give. We can choose to opt out of a culture that defines us as consumers, and into a society that allows us to have aspirations beyond a sofa or a flat-screen television, into a society that allows us to be human beings.
James Rebanks writes, “Modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them. How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they can’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend. How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.” The signs of that disenchantment are everywhere today: in the anger of those who cannot get ahead, no matter how hard they work; in the savage ferocity of a police officer who assaulted an African-American man for jaywalking; in our unwelcoming attitudes toward those who are not “like us,” which assumes that life is a zero-sum game and closes its eyes to the possibility that those very people may bring the gifts we most need; in the increasing reliance of so many in our culture on alcohol, marijuana, and other substances, suggesting that their deepest desire is not to engage this life, but to dull themselves to its pain.
If the Bible tells us anything, though, it’s that a clear sign is a gift, even if what it points to is the fact that our way of life is untenable. And so, today, I invite you to wonder:
What would it look like to nurture lives that brought joy, that were rooted in community, that engaged beauty and hope and tenderness? How can you be a part of making that happen, not only for yourself, but for others?
Beyond Babylon, there is a whole new world. I’ll meet you there.
James Rebanks quote is from his book, The Shepherd’s Life. It is surprisingly wonderful.