Jesus vs. Empire: A Religion of Creation
June 13, 2018
Last month, I had a chance to share with a group of clergy about an aspect of my faith that helps inform contemporary social critique. The session was playfully titled, “A Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim Walk into an Empire.”
I’ve been interested in what faith in a time of empire looks like. Last summer, I preached a short series at Reservoir called Faith in a Time of Empire.
I’ve been thinking in particular about how the life and teaching of Jesus and writings of the early Jesus followers speak when we try to peel off some of the trappings of power that were mixed with them later.
I’ve been reading the work of Wes Howard-Brook, most recently Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected, 2nd-5th Centuries. It explores this dramatic shift in expression of faith over these four centuries. You start with a faith that emerged in the context of first century Palestinian Judaism, a faith that is deeply subversive to power and wealth, that has a victim of state execution at its center. But by the fifth century, you have a religion that was deeply embedded in the power structures of the Roman Empire, using state violence to stamp out theological enemies and promote its own dominance.
Christianity has a mixed to poor track record with power and Empire. And in this four century shift, Howard-Brook sees the origins of much of the worst power plays that would continue to plague Christian history: anti-Semitism, intolerance to theological diversity, acceptance of state violence to achieve supposedly moral ends, and a heaven-directed faith that promotes abuse of the earth and an anti-sexual, disembodied spirituality.
Howard-Brook’s insight is that it didn’t have to be this way. And that the violent, imperial, disembodied faith that so much of Christianity became isn’t true to its scriptural source materials, or is maybe just true to the worst parts of them.
Wes Howard-Brook’s big idea about the Bible is that the Hebrew scriptures which were included in the Christian Bible capture a thousand year tension between two different expressions of faith. He calls them “the religion of empire” and “the religion of creation.”
The religion of empire looks like any human triangle of power. In this case a powerful god demands service and loyalty. People worship God in urban temples, mediated through a priestly elite. The earth and its resources belong to the powerful, who extract from the land and extract from people to serve the interests of the most powerful, which are called the interests of the collective through propaganda. Enemies and others must conform or suffer violence.
By contrast, in the religion of creation, people worship God wherever God is to be found, which is anywhere on earth, and in human community that gathers in God’s name. The purpose of life is love and praise of God, with joy and gratitude for the abundant gift of life, expressed in right relationships with God, with fellow humans, and with all of creation. All the earth and its resources belong to God, so people are to treat all things as gifts to be treasured. Others are to be included, and enemies to be loved.
Howard-Brook argues that Jesus emphatically took sides in this debate, proclaiming and practicing the reign of God along the lines of this religion of creation.
You can see this throughout what Christians call the New Testament – in its radical ethic of love, in its recasting of “neighbor” to mean all of humanity, in its co-opting of Roman imperial language like “good news”, “Lord and Savior”, peace, and salvation. And throughout the teaching of Jesus as well.
I’ll give you one moment as a highlight, from the gospel of Mark.
Mark 12:13-17 (NRSV)
13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said.
Right away I apologize for the anti-semitic tone this introduction has come to have. That’s truly shameful. But the point is that Jesus is entering a first century family debate about the right relationship to the power of the state.
14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.
Jesus sees this Roman coin with the image of Ceasar on it, and says I have no need of that, no interest in that. Let the Romans have their coins. But let God have what is God’s.
This passage is fascinating to me, because it’s been used so differently. In the United States, for instance, during the Vietnam War, it was used both insist on draft compliance and to empower draft resistance. Because see: read through the religion of empire, this text says you need to give the state what it asks for and what rightfully belongs to it, which is just about everything, your life included. Give God worship and loyalty and religion, and do whatever the powers of the state ask you to do, including fight in their wars.
But read through the religion of creation, this text says something very different. It says to give to the state the stuff that the state has made – the state can have its money and its flags. Participate in the power structures of society at whatever minimum compliance level you need to – fine. But that which bears the image of God –which is all of humanity, each and every person – belongs only to God. Neither the state nor any other human power structure owns your body, your time, or your allegiance.
When I was sharing this with Kathleen Patron, an organizer from Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, it reminded her of a session she teaches in a training on organizing. She teaches that the world as it is is based on power, but the world as it should be is governed by love. Jesus-centered faith as I understand it invites me to push as deeply as possible into the world as it should be, a community of love, and to give only minimum consent to the world as it is, governed through power.
This fuels my social critique: to keep an eye out for the real purpose of corporate and national power, that invites my participation for my own good but is more often than not looking to use people and resources for the good of only a few. And it fuels my social engagement – to ask how people and institutions can use our power to advance systems of right relationships and economies of love.
by Steve Watson