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I’m working away at a new book, tentatively titled American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile . It will be a greatly expanded version of the argument set out in an earlier article [ Our American Babylon , First Things , December 2005]. In the course of my research, I’ve been delving into the history of the original Babylon and discovering its troubling pertinence to our time.

Babylon is both ancient history and the stuff of tomorrow’s news. The ruins of the once famous (and infamous) city are in the suburbs of Baghdad in today’s Iraq. Well over two millennia before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Greek writer Herodotus, who is often called “the father of history,” brought the wonders of Babylon to the attention of the West. The name Babylon is a Greek form of the original Akkadian name Bab-Ilu , which means “the gate of god.” Both literally and figuratively, Babylon has been the gate through which many gods have entered history. Today it is Allah, whose more aggressive adherents are forcing the West to ask painful questions about who we are¯questions about our God and our gods.

One notes in passing that there is still today in Baghdad-Babylon a substantial Christian community. Until a few years ago, there were nearly two million Christians in Iraq. Now only 500,000 or even fewer remain, and their numbers are fast dwindling. At the time of the American invasion of 2003, it appears that no thought was given to the Christians, and today their plight receives little more than lip service. They survive, to the extent that they do survive, by paying off Muslim extortionists, who reinforce Islam’s reputation for religious tolerance by regularly kidnapping and decapitating Christians who are late in paying up.

Most of them are Chaldean Christians belonging to an “Eastern Rite” Church that is in full communion with Rome. They are among the oldest continuing Christian communities in the world. Their history of 2,000 years includes 1,400 years of living in uneasy coexistence with Muslims after Islam conquered what had been a Christian society. Most of the Chaldean Christians of Iraq have gone into yet another exile in America, establishing strong communities near Detroit, Michigan, and San Diego, California.

The safety of the remaining Christian communities in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East is a matter of urgent concern for the Catholic Church and has long complicated Rome’s diplomatic relations with that part of the world. Those of us for whom Babylon is a matter of biblical history and religious metaphor should not forget the many Christians for whom Babylon is the all too frightening daily reality.

Most Christians remember the biblical Babylon in connection with Babel . The story is found in the eleventh chapter of the book of Genesis:

Now the whole earth had one language and few words. As men migrated from the East, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Ever since then human history has been marked by confusion and conflict, with conflict, as often as not, resulting from a confusion of language. Language is more than words and rules of grammar. Language is the architecture and building material of the narrative worlds we inhabit. Without language there is no community, and human beings were created for community.

In the narrative world of the West¯that large slice of Greek-Jewish-Christian history once called Christendom and not yet entirely displaced¯the name Babylon has a powerful resonance. There is the historical Babylon and the symbolic Babylon. The ruins of the historical Babylon outside Baghdad consist of tells or mounds that are widely scattered and as high as 90 feet. There, too, are the remains of the city walls enclosing a space of several miles wide and long. Nearly a quarter of the space was occupied by royal palaces and religious buildings dedicated to various gods, with the temple of Marduk being the most prominent, followed by temples for Ninmah, Gula, Ninurta, Ishtar, and Nabu. And, of course, there is what is left, which is not much, of the ziggurat, a lofty pyramidal structure with outside stairways leading to the shrine at the top. The ziggurat, according to some scholars, is the remains of the Tower of Babel.

The historical Babylon gave rise to the symbolic Babylon. The Babylonian dynasty was founded by Nabopolassar 626 years before the birth of Christ and greatly expanded by his son Nebuchadnezzar, who figures prominently in the biblical narrative. (Some scholars call it the Neo-Babylonian dynasty because there was another earlier, but that need not delay us here.) In 612 b.c. , Babylon destroyed Nineveh, the great city that had been brought to repentance by the recalcitrant prophet Jonah. It is reported that about 200,000 of today’s Christian refugees are huddled in miserable camps thrown up on the ruins of Nineveh.

In 597 b.c. , its imperial appetite whetted, Babylon attacked the kingdom of Judah and took Jerusalem captive. The conquerors exiled many thousands of Israelites, including the prophet Ezekiel, and set Zedekiah up as their puppet king. That did not last for long. Eleven years later, in 586, Jerusalem was destroyed, Zedekiah had his eyes plucked out, and most of the Israelites who had remained were deported to Babylonia. The Babylonian exile, as it is called, lasted until Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon in 539 b.c. and permitted the Israelites to return and begin the rebuilding of Jerusalem and, most importantly, the temple in Jerusalem.

The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is riddled with references to Babylon¯to both the historical and the symbolic Babylon. The First Letter of Peter concludes with this: “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark. Greet one another with the kiss of peace. Peace to all of you who are in Christ.” (1 Pet. 5:13) Was Saint Peter, the first of the apostles, writing from the Babylon in Mesopotamia? It seems very unlikely. There is no evidence of there having been a church in Babylon at the time. The Jews had been driven out of Babylon during the reign of Claudius around the year 50 Anno Domini , so there was also no active synagogue, and the missionary activities of the early Church were largely based on the network of synagogues.

Recalling the earlier Babylonian Captivity, Babylon came to be a symbol of exile also in Christian thought. Exile is a prominent theme in 1 Peter. The letter is addressed “to the exiles of the Dispersion.” The author exhorts his readers to “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” Later, he writes, “Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul.” The overwhelming consensus of the early Church fathers and of contemporary scholars is that in 1 Peter “Babylon” is a symbol for Rome, and that Peter is writing from Rome.

The connection between Peter and Rome is virtually unchallenged until the 16th century Reformation when Calvin and Erasmus tried to dissociate the apostle Peter from the papacy in Rome. Moreover, the Roman connection is supported by 1 Peter’s specific reference to Mark who is strongly linked with Rome (see Col. 4:10, 2 Tim. 4:11), and by 1 Clement, a letter written in Rome about 96 a.d.

In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, Babylon is a symbol for a place or idea. In chapter fourteen we read, “Another angel, a second, followed, saying, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of her impure passion.’” Chapter sixteen: “The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered great Babylon, to make her drain the cup of the fury of his wrath.” And the next chapter: “The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations.’” And in the eighteenth chapter: “Alas! Alas! thou great city, thou mighty city, Babylon! In one hour has thy judgment come.”

For the writers of the early Christian centuries, such as Augustine and Jerome, Babylon represented the power, arrogance, idolatry, and wickedness of Rome. Also for Jews of the period, Rome was the new Babylon, for, like the first Babylon centuries earlier, the Roman Empire destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 a.d. For both Jews and Christians of the first centuries after Christ, Rome was the persecutor of God’s chosen people and was destined to fall. Babylon represents more than the empire, the city, and the culture of the city of Rome. As one authority puts it: “Babylon is the sphere of idolatry and worldliness under the temporary control of Satan, a worldliness in opposition to the people and the work of God, a worldliness epitomized first by Babylon and then by Rome. Babylon . . . is the antithesis of the Church as the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem, and the Kingdom of God.”

That understanding of Rome as Babylon did not last. After the bloody persecutions of Christians under emperors such as Nero and Diocletian, there came a time of toleration, acceptance, and even triumph. Already by the end of the second century the Church Father Tertullian sensed what was happening in his famous observation, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

With the ascendancy of the emperor Constantine, Christianity was officially tolerated, and by the end of the fourth century it was the established religion of the empire. It seemed that Babylon had indeed fallen, just as the book of Revelation predicted, and Rome was on its way to being transformed into “the eternal city” protecting the eternal hope proclaimed by the Church.

This triumphant reading of history was espoused by Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea who is called “the father of church history.” His Ecclesiastical History , presumes to trace God’s purposes¯from Old Testament prophecy through New Testament apocalyptic to the providential events unfolding in the fourth century. His Life of Constantine is a panegyric in which the emperor is depicted as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy in which the throne of King David is established forever.

Today, and even in his own time, Eusebius’ hyper-confident reading of history was widely disputed. The triumph that he celebrated is often derided as “Constantinianism,” the precursor to centuries of “Christendom,” and is frequently viewed not as the triumph of the Church but as the fall of the Church into a new “Babylonian captivity” in which the Church became an instrument of temporal power.

In the shadow of this tumultuous history, it may seem to be no compliment to speak of “American Babylon,” and it isn’t. But neither is it a matter of taking anti-American cheap shots at the preeminent world power of our time. Rather, it is a matter of recognizing that, for Christians of all times and all places, we are in Babylonian exile¯until what St. Paul calls the principalities and powers of the present time give way to the New Jerusalem.

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