Hope for Babylon: Church as an Alternative Community

December 11, 2013Clayton Roberts

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In our time, as in many times in history, things often seem like they are spinning out of control. The government seems to be less and less about the people, and more about supporting a vision of corporate power and oligarchy. Many feel that the powers that be cannot be counted on to make decisions that will protect our families, give a good education to our children, and insure the common welfare.  Social safety nets are under attack from all sides and people can no longer count on a good career or even a steady job. Materialistic society deadens us to living fully and teaches our children to be, first and foremost, good consumers. The Biblical metaphor for this kind of fallen society is Babylon and the biblical witness is firmly to resist Babylon.

During the time of communist empire, Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright in Czechoslovakia, wrote a paper called The Power of the Powerless. In this essay he described a societal paradigm in which citizens were forced to “live within a lie” under the communist regime. His solution to this problem wasn’t violent revolution or even so much about demonstrations and protest. Instead he proposed that the answer to a society that was living a lie, was to live in truth. In that essay he wrote:

If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth, . . .  Living within the truth [is] an attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility. In other words, it is clearly a moral act, not only because one must pay so dearly for it, but principally because it is not self-serving; the risk may bring rewards in the form of a general amelioration in the situation, or it may not.

He also used the metaphor of a green grocer who one day snapped and quit taking part in the lie.

By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. . . . He has said the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened. . . . He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.

Havel’s vision went beyond mere civil disobedience. He encouraged others to found small organizations and groups that would help their members to free themselves from the control of the communist party.  They had underground philosophy seminars, musical groups, sporting groups, and literary groups. They essentially started a parallel society and they called their movement the Velvet Revolution. And when the dust had settled, they had non-violently defeated the Communist state. Vaclav Havel became the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic.

He said of their revolution, “We had our parallel society. And in that parallel society we wrote our plays and sang our songs and read our poems until we knew the truth so well that we could go out to the streets of Prague and say, ‘We don’t believe your lies anymore’—and communism had to fall.”

We are in a situation now that’s not all that different, except the lies aren’t propagated by a communist state. The lies we must contend with are at the other end of the spectrum. Our societal lies are produced by a  state where the economic and political system is controlled by corporations and corporate interests.  A system that subjugates people and the planet to the economic interest of the few, the wealthy, and the powerful. The lies that are being told are lies like buying stuff will make you happy, or that corporations will take care of us and the planet if only just left alone. That giant pharmaceutical and insurance companies really can be relied on to insure everyone’s health. That more wars will keep us safe.

So with these thoughts in mind lets look at how a church can be more than just a spiritual haven that we go to once a week, just to go back to living in the dominant society the rest of the time. How can we envision a more holistic church that is a vibrant, positive social catalyst, providing practical as well as spiritual support for it’s members, and a prophetic witness to the rest of the world.

This is not a utopian dream, nor is it a separatist dream. We acknowledge that the world is broken. Political systems and governments will fail us. People in general can be cracked vessels. Instead we want to offer a way to live positively, authentically and truthfully within these realities. Rather than separate from society we can live amongst our neighbors. Not only will we be able to take care of our own but we can be the salt and the leaven to show and encourage our neighbors and governments how to live more fully and compassionately.

Churches by nature are an excellent starting place for an alternative vision of society. First off they have a common  philosophy, spiritual grounding and cultural identity. With thousands of years of tradition behind us, it grounds us in ways not available to secular society. Since a church is already a coherent community there is no need to start completely from scratch or make radical changes. It can instead start out a little bit at a time and grow in a healthy and organic manner, perhaps prioritizing one project at a time or using the passions of certain members to give impetus to a new project. Second, churches have a pool of members from varied backgrounds and skills. In any given congregation there are likely to be doctors and nurses, teachers, carpenters and farmers or gardeners etc.

And while being alternative community is by definition counter to prevailing society, it is important that we identify ourselves, and are identified by others, by what we stand for as opposed to what we stand against. It must remain a positive vision. This is about taking church beyond the stereotype of a spiritual balm to be focused on once a week, and into a fully vibrant way of living amongst challenges of modern culture. This manifests itself in three ways:

First, The church should see to the spiritual growth of its members. That’s what churches do. All the great religious traditions have their core a message of being “more” than just followers of the  dominant culture. Spiritual traditions teach their people to have a vision toward a higher good, to take themselves beyond the needs of ego and greed.

Second, church should be a source for practical material support. We can strive to see that we are a sustainable, resilient, and holistic community that can take care of itself regardless of what turbulent times our congregation or society are going through.  While admittedly part of this vision is a readiness against disaster or perhaps social and economic upheaval, this is not an apocalyptic vision. In all probability, our trials, if they come, will look more like a great depression rather than total societal collapse or doomsday scenario.  If anything bad happens we should be prepared, but the beauty of this approach is that even if nothing bad happens, it is still a positive, productive and uplifting way to live our lives.

Third, Our church should be a catalyst and prophetic witness for peace and justice. We should be an example and a force for positive change. We should seek solidarity with the poor and the marginalized. We can help our society see the sacredness of creation and work to protect our planet for generations to come. We can also seek to partner with and support other communities with our same values and look for ways of promoting a dynamic cross fertilization of ideas and resources.

So how do we resist Babylon? Jesus’ gospel was the good news of the kingdom of God, and as we’ve seen in the lords prayer, it was a vision of Gods kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. To paraphrase biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, heaven, then as now has always been in good shape. It is here on earth that was and remains problematic.

Jesus’ message was to live positively and compassionately in the midst of empire. His vision was to raise not only ourselves, but those around us as well. It was a way of shalom. It was a way to live a fully authentic life in God amongst the slings and arrows, and the joys and sorrows of this world.

Or as the prophet Jeremiah told his people in Babylon, “Build your houses, and dwell in them, and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them . . . Seek the shalom of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in the shalom of it, shall you have shalom” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).

  • 2GreatCommandementPreschooler

    Great post Clayton! So appreciate your heart and talent and courage!

  • Matt Cumings

    Moving words. A community rooted in activism against empire is a community I could fully embrace.

  • http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com/ Bill

    Great post. Love the Havel quotes…

  • Terry Neudorf

    This is fantastic. I submit that this parallel society already exists, and is quietly making enormous inroads into the consciousness of a largely sleepy society. The only minor point of disagreement that I would have would be here: “we can be the salt and the leaven to show and encourage our neighbors
    and governments how to live more fully and compassionately.” I cannot see Jesus including in his mandate for us to be salt and light a provision for reforming government, as the state is diametrically opposed to full and compassionate living, and that in its very essence. No reform is possible of a system that can only exist by theft, force and coercion.

  • Deborah Horvath Rowden

    Beautiful truth! I do wish, though, that you had made the distinction that we ARE the church and that what ever organization we hold to needs to make these organic changes. Church is not something I go to, It is who I am.

  • http://www.evolvingchristianfaith.net irreverance

    Excellent article! I do have a bit of a quibble with part of it though.

    >>And while being alternative community is by definition counter to prevailing society, it is important that we identify ourselves, and are identified by others, by what we stand for as opposed to what we stand against. It must remain a positive vision.<<

    I think that it's important not only to identify us with what we strive to become, but also what we strive to avoid. That means part of an accepted identity must com from what we stand against. Indeed, any prophetic identity has to have that. For example, if you want to witness "for peace and justice," then you need to identify with standing against "violence and injustice." Still, very well done!

  • Andy_in_Germany

    Great post. Your description of church is the sort of church I’ve wanted to be a part of since I was a teenager and couldn’t understand why the only debates considered worth having were about the music.

    Twenty years later I’m still having the same problem: our local churches seem to be well locked into the the empire: the pastors are paid from the church tax that the state collects on the behalf of the church, our local church has buildings financed from trust funds, and many of the people (devoted followers of Jesus) who attend work for the large corporations that support the empire, or get their pensions from the same source. “Building God’s Kingdom’ means ‘converting people’ to a lot of local christians. To be fair, many of these believers are also the ones going out and helping single mums get ready for Christmas or hanging out in refugee camps: it isn’t all black and white.

    The idea that the emperor has no clothes is met with derision and bewilderment: have we not just elected Angela Merkel as our Chancellor, a centre right politician with strong family values? It’s a pity that she didn’t get a majority and has to have a coalition with the centre left, but at least she stands up for ‘christian values’. What? the poor? creation? I’m sure she cares for that too, but you must remember we need a strong economy and support for families…

    Our churches are a long way from this vision, and we are wondering if in fact withdrawal is the better response. Thank God there is Jesus Radicals

  • Howard Louthan

    Hi Clayton,
    Glad to see you using Havel! I’m bouncing to some of my students from fall semester. I ran an Honors Class on “Ideal Societies” where we read texts from Plato to Havel. A number of the students were Christians, and it’s great to see how these ideas still resonate and can provide a pathway for the church today. Well done!!!

  • Belén

    Congratulations on the post, Clayton. I agree with Deborah that church is not a place I go to but a community I’m part of. I support this joyful and I’m working on it myself.

  • primaltruth

    With alternative community really needed, Christian churches should really provide that. So many generally do not though. And there is in fact so much change that is called for, the problems in the world from what is being done in these times are much worse than in previous lifetimes. Where there can not be change from the contribution to the problems, there is more basis for the call from God as recorded, Come out of her my people! The community for the people of Christ is to provide for the positive change for what is to be done in better ways. It may be better to do it separated yet where it is more effective. Doing such can still be effective being seen and being an example, helpful to more who would be coming to it.

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