God and Empire


Here is quote from a book I have begun reading:

Imagine this question. There was a human being in the first century who was called "Divine," "Son of God," "God," and "God from God," whose titles were "Lord," "Redeemer," "Liberator," and "Savior of the World." Who was that person? Most people who know the Western tradition would probably answer, unless alerted by the question's too-obviousness, Jesus of Nazareth. And most Christians probably think that those titles were originally created and uniquely applied to Christ. But before Jesus ever existed, all those terms belonged to Caesar Augustus. Christians were not simply using ordinary titles applied to all sorts of people at that time, or even extraordinary titles applied to special people in the East. They were taking the identity of the Roman emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant. Either that was a peculiar joke and a very low lampoon, or it was what the Romans called majestas and we call high treason.

Those titles were fully appropriate for one who had saved "the world" from war and established peace "on earth." The first Christians therefore had to present a positive counter-mantra and a positive counter-program to Roman imperial theology's sequence of religion, war, victory, and peace. Victory, by the way, does not bring peace but only a lull--whether short or long--and after each lull the violence required for the next victory escalates. Is there any possible alternative to "first victory, then peace," or "peace through victory"? Yes, it is this: "religion, nonviolence, justice, peace"--or more succinctly, "first justice, then peace," or "peace through justice." -- John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire
I am still in the midst of reading this book, but I am utterly impressed with it. In the beginning of the book, Crossan writes about Empire--its history in the course of "civilization", its development, and its full expression during the era of Imperial Rome. Empire, Crossan argues, has been with us ever since the first emergence of civilization some 6000 years ago. Empire is inevitably a part of civilization as it is currently constituted. Empire, closely associated with the accumulation of power and the unequal distribution of wealth, and enforced by violence, is still with us today. The modern dominant Empire of our age is, of course, that of the United States. Although we live in a different era from that of ancient Rome, the fundamental aspects of Empire remain with us.

Jesus stood in contrast to the Empire of his day. In the quote above, Crossan makes the point that the titles assigned to Jesus by his followers were meant to be a subversive expression of rebellion, in which the Kingdom of God was contrasted with the Empire of Rome. Unfortunately, I believe, this act of subversion had a certain self-defeating consequence, as I believe it became more focused on the crowning of Jesus as King than on the building of the Kingdom that Jesus sought. In a way, these followers couldn't get out of the royal or imperial mindset; they were simply replacing one Emperor (Caesar) with another one (Christ), which certainly seemed like a good idea to them at the time. But this in turn led to Christianity being a religion about its founder almost to the exclusion of the message that its founder believed in--a colossal mistake that led to such travesties as the Apostles' and Nicene creeds, and which has derailed Christianity throughout much of its history ever since.

Despite all that, Jesus's message has not been totally obscured or lost. In many ways its core has survived, albeit sometimes it has been buried under a degree of theological detritus; it can be found in the New Testament, but it is frequently surrounded by post-Easter filters, interpreted through later creeds, and drowned in doctrinal language that focused on meaningless points of dispute on such issues as Jesus's divine nature, the Trinity, or the atonement. Through it all, though, there have been many Christians dedicated to the pursuit of social justice. But the social justice message has always been easily obscured as well.

But what of the Empire that rules the world today? Many liberals believe that the solution to our problems of Empire lie in crowning a better Emperor. If we'd just replace the current guy who rules it with a kinder, gentler Emperor, our problems would go away, or so the argument goes. I don't believe this to be the case. The problem lies not with the Emperor, but with the Empire itself. But even that doesn't go far enough, because the problem lies not with any single Empire, but with a worldwide system that has continually produced new Empires throughout history. It is this cycle of Empire, this system that produces Empire, that lies at what I see as the core of the message of the Kingdom of God.

In the Kingdom of God, there are no Empires, and no Emperors to govern them.


Cynthia said...

Do you think if the American Empire changed first, others would follow, a kind of spiritual domino effect?

Michael J. Bayly said...

Another good book on this issue is Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer's Saving Christianity from Empire.

Thanks for this insightful blogsite!



Mystical Seeker said...

Cynthia, you raise an interesting question. I don't know the answer to that question.

Michael, thanks for the book reference.