Building Babylon’s good without bending to its gods

The finest book of the late Richard John Neuhaus (though not his most well-known) is “American Babylon,” published posthumously in 2009. The book helpfully guides the reader through the challenges of living as an “exile” — both in the world and in a nation sometimes inhospitable, or even outright hostile, to a society grounded in the Gospel.

Neuhaus’ insights are even more indispensable today as we consider how we can continue to serve others and work for the good of our nation without bending to its “gods” — the idols, powers and principalities that are held up as the keys to health, happiness and prosperity.

Strangers in a strange land

Throughout history, Christians have often felt like outsiders even within their own nations. In appearance, they may seem indistinguishable from those around them, but their mode of being is different, often times conflicting with the mainstream culture.

To illustrate this tension, Neuhaus points us to the second-century “Letter to Diognetus,” an early example of Christian apologetics:

“[Christians] live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them, their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. . . .  They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”

As the Letter to Diognetus notes, though Christians love all men, “all men persecute them. . . .  To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. . . . The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.” Many Catholic Americans cannot help but feel a sense of alienation from their neighbors and from a culture that increasingly ridicules religion in general — and Catholicism in particular — and is now beginning to impose social and legal penalties on the practice of the Faith. Further, our society promotes the crudest forms of “enjoyments” for our consumption, and it often has little regard for the dignity of the human person, justice, or the common good.

Though many overstate just how bad things are here (comparatively, it is not that bad — yet), and may similarly neglect the genuinely good things going on in America today, it sometimes can truly seem as though we are living in a modern-day Babylon.

Living in sin . . . well

Comparing today’s America to other times and places, such as ancient Rome or 19th-century Britain, is an easy tool that talking heads lean on for prognostication.  But often, people fail to see the full lessons of those historical examples. We may invoke the image of Babylon, but forget some key parts of the story.

Father Neuhaus reminds us of the acts and deeds of the Jews living in exile in Babylon, as well as the instructions God gave them while they were there, and exhorts us to take counsel today from this witness of Scripture.

Though forced into service by King Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel and his Jewish friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, served Babylon with honor and distinction. As Neuhaus notes, these fellows put up with a lot, even having their names changed in less than flattering ways. But they had their limits. They would not defile themselves with unclean food or bend the knee to false gods.

They were punished and tested by being thrown into a “burning fiery furnace,” but God honored their righteousness. They had worked for the good of the city —even one that was deeply corrupt and which had enslaved the best and brightest of their people —without bending to its “gods.”

God had likewise spoken to the people in Babylonian exile through the pen of the prophet Jeremiah and instructed them similarly. He told them: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their fruits. Take wives and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters. Increase there; do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the Lord, for upon its welfare your own depends” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).

What is striking about this passage is what God is asking his people to do — lay foundations — even in exile in a foreign land and even as they hoped and desired to return to Israel. The examples of gardens and marriage are not chosen by accident. Lay down roots; be fruitful and multiply. God is telling his people that though Babylon is not their home, and that they are different from those around them, they must work for the good of the city in which he has planted them. In doing so, they will find their own good as well.

God’s exhortation to the exiled Jews of Babylon and its import for our own day is clear. Isolating ourselves and trying to keep “Babylon” out is neither practicable nor desirable for Christians. Nor can we, as laypersons, ignore the good of others and of society as a whole and hide out in a sectarian bubble while everything crumbles. God calls most of us into prudent engagement with the broader culture, even a hostile one where it seems we can only improve things at the margins.

The challenge is to continue working for the city’s good without bending to its gods. As social and legal mandates to violate our faith and the moral law continue to increase, the pressure will grow to simply “sprinkle a little incense” and avoid the “burning fiery furnaces” of our day: media ridicule, professional penalties and social scorn. Little compromises here and there that ultimately lead people to losing their identity as a disciple will be a constant temptation.

Through prayer and discernment, each Christian must be vigilant in keeping the Faith so that he or she can continue to be salt and light to the world, and to live well, even when surrounded by sin.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.  

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