I have spent a possibly troubling amount of time reading, analysing and teaching the Revelation to John of Patmos, not to mention directing several dramatized readings of the text. But it was in the last activity – and reasonably enough, since it is a text written to be performed – that I fully realized the depth, the beauty and terror, of the doom pronounced upon Babylon in chapter 18:
“… the sound of harpists and minstrels and of flautists and trumpeters
will be heard in you no more;
and an artisan of any trade
will be found in you no more;
and the sound of the millstone
will be heard in you no more;
and the light of a lamp
will shine in you no more;
and the voice of bridegroom and bride
will be heard in you no more.”
As the economy of Babylon begins to collapse, it is not the powerholders who are the first to be trapped in the rubble, but the innocent musicians, the ordinary artisans, the slaves working in the mills, the young couples in love. Babylon must fall – the institutionalized oppression and exploitation of the empire must and will crash under its own weight – but it cannot fall without tragedy. And the scope of the tragedy will be immense.
As I am writing this, the COP26 talks are wrapping up, without any substantive or meaningful commitments to truly reducing emissions and containing the climate emergency. And as I write this, every highway into Vancouver has been shut down by flooding. Entire towns have been evacuated, barely months after the absolute material destruction of the village of Lytton by wildfires. Indigenous communities are cut off by mudslides, without food or medicine, and much of Abbottsford is now under water. It will not stop with this. The angels, to use John’s imagery, are pouring out their vials.
It seems certain, now, that our world of uncontrolled capitalism, fossil fuel addiction and end-game consumerism will fall. It is falling. We are living in a global Babylon, with which the Church has collaborated for a long time, and more thoroughly than even John of Patmos could have imagined. We, all of us, are entangled so deeply in structural sin, and our leaders, our merchants and kings of the earth, are so unwilling to step out of it, that there is no realistically possible future which avoids collapse. And perhaps this is, on the larger societal level, even a kind of justice.
But many of the people most directly affected by the BC disasters are Indigenous – the descendants of those who cared well for this land for so long. Most of the people who are watching their homes wash away are not wealthy, and they have had few choices. Some of them are musicians, artisans, low-wage workers in the mills of the service industry, young couples in love. They are innocent casualties of the empire’s falling.
Faced with the demand to live truthfully amid this tragedy, John suggests a stance of withdrawal, non-cooperation, detachment. Up to a point, it is helpful advice; we must still try to pull ourselves out of the matrix of sin, to live without unnecessary consumption, to choose smaller lives, to grow our vegetables and put up our solar panels. And to build, as well, community resilience, the skills and relationships and shared bonds of mutual aid, the sense of a common and interdependent life and destiny.
But there must be more than that. The Canadian government continues, even now, to build pipelines and to expand our fossil fuel industry, and it is primarily Indigenous land defenders who are standing in their way. We must name this, we must name the apocalyptic riders of our time, and we must be prepared to stand with those who are opposing them. We must name the fact that the Church itself is deeply tied up in the fossil fuel economy and consumerism; we must change ourselves, and we must be ready to help those who will suffer from this change, too.
And we must make space for lament. For it is too late now to save much that was beautiful and good; it is too late to spare our descendants the pain and struggle that will be created by our decisions. As the angel’s lament over Babylon disrupts John’s vision of avenging justice, we must hold a place and time for mourning, mourning for the light of the lamp and the music of the flute, for the polar bear and the coral reef and the last white rhinoceros, for all the lovely things that were and will be no more. To remember, to memorialize, and to grieve – this too is the work of the Church in our time, and may be the work that only faith, and a fierce irrational hope, can enable us to do.