The harlot takes centre stage in the Book of Revelation. In the context there, a harlot is one who has left their first love. She is an unfaithful wife, once wedded to a loving husband, but who left him for “greener pastures.”
This concept begins in the Book of Samuel in the Old Testament. Israel was wedded to Jehovah, who rescued them from Egypt. He rebuked the Red Sea and dried up the Jordan River, to free them from the oppressive forces of idolatry and its violence against human life. Israel were to be governed not by a megalomaniac king, but they were a kingdom of priests. They were a whole people made in the image of God and called to share the image of justice and mercy with the world.
But in the end, Israel, led by their desires for other things, strayed from their trust in the goodness of the Lord and his kind intentions towards them, and followed Adam and Eve’s fall. Without faith they felt the need for their own protection and desired to copy the ways of the nations around them. They desired a king, who would go before them into battle.
God warned them against this king. He would tax the people, use their children in battles and take them as slaves. By the time we reach the end of Solomon’s reign this is exactly the picture we see.
Fast forward to the teachings of Jesus not to resist violence with violence, but to love our enemies. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to the people of Israel. It was the teachings they received in the Law. Jubilee, freeing slaves, not holding a standing army, not allowed to create fortresses and own horses for war, commanded instead to love the neighbour and the foreigner… all these were God’s community building justice/mercy principles, that alone could lead to a lasting peace.
But alas, by the time of Jesus, Israel on the whole had grown tired of fidelity to a God like this, who expressed his perfect kingdom not through their ways of violence, but through the teachings and example of Christ. Instead they preferred Rome. They left faithfulness to a God of love, and took a new lover, the beast, which promised good fortune through the blood of war and oppression. The leaders of Israel now had a new husband, which promised them security in their position of rule over the less fortunate in Israel. Jerusalem was the harlot. They were the ones once betrothed to God in love and care, but had instead left him for Rome. They had become the False Prophet of violence as the way in which God’s kingdom comes. They had no time for the ways of their true husband who revealed himself in the life of Jesus Christ.
Now fast forward once again to the days of Constantine, 300 years after the birth of the church. The church had begun in the traditions of Jesus. They had suffered for their faith, transforming the world by their love for enemy, by their service for others and their non-prejudicial kindness to those around them. They were reflecting the cross of Christ to the sinner and to the nations.
But once again, tiring of these persecutions, and desiring instead the protection of the state and the wealth and good life that could be acquired, God’s people took a king like the nations around them. They found this king in Constantine and peace began to come to the church. But the cost of this peace was to join with the new king in persecution against his enemies. Soon enough the church found itself in battle against heretics and law breakers on all sides, against those who kept not the faith within the church, against Jews, pagans and Muslims. This has been our general history to the current day.
This joining with the state to protect the interests of the church, the compromise that results, and the loss of the image of God as seen through the cross of Christ, produces the Babylon that Revelation speaks of. Babylon is the state empowered church that visits violence upon its enemies, rather than being a church that follows the Lamb, seeking to renew the enemy and community God’s way of self-giving reconciliation and redemption.
Force and unfaithfulness to the cross of Christ is the harlot’s way. Riches and world control are its desire. God’s way: to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and strength, and our neighbour as ourself.” This is what the law expresses and this is what Christ showed, and this is what his eternal Spirit births into our heart. This is the good news.