I am becoming more and more convinced that we have to pay close attention to the historical fact that Christianity began in the shadow of an empire. Not just any empire but the Roman Empire, the biggest Empire in world history up to that point. This is also true of the Jews. Although they had a brief period of some independence under David and Solomon, the rest of the time, Juda was under the thumb of one empire or another at best and squashed by the boots tramped in battle at worst.
Of the Gospel writers, Luke in particular takes pains to locate the life of Jesus in history. He says that Jesus was born under the reign of the Emperor Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Some scholars have doubted the historicity of this particular census, but it is the sort of thing Empires do for the sake of social control and it sets the stage for the story. Later, Luke says that the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” (Luke 3: 1) Here we have a list of the very people who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. These were the builders who rejected the cornerstone, the body of a man who is the Body of Christ.
Most people don’t like to think of cold hard politics at Christmas time, but the angels’ song to the shepherds was a political statement. Augustus Caesar claimed to be the peace broker for the Empire. Luke claims that the new-born Christ is the real peace broker. Thirty-three years later, it becomes clear that the Roman peace is kept through tactics such as crucifixion. Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew’s version helps us draw the contrast between Church and Empire.
Jesus also draws the distinction between Church and empire in his reply to the question designed to entrap him: Must we pay taxes to the emperor or not? The most important element of this little story is that Jesus asks his questioners to bring a coin because he does not have one. He has withdrawn from the economical system. This reminds us that Empire isn’t necessarily about politics; it is also about economics. Jesus’ lack of a coin suggests that the Parable of the Talents, in Luke’s version that portrays the master as violent, the servant who buried his talent might be the figure of Christ who dropped out of the economic order and was cast out. (I believe we should make the most of the talents given us by God; I’m just not so sure any more that this parable, at least in Luke’s version, teaches us that Jesus does not teach that God demands that his enemies be torn to pieces—a sacrificial act.)
What Empire is about fundamentally is power that must be sustained by sacrifice. This brings us back to the first post in this series where I discussed the contrast between Jesus’ way of gathering people and the Empire’s. Empire isn’t just about size. We all know of little fiefdoms all over the places, including (especially!) religious institutions. Since Empire is all over the place in all sizes, we need Church (not limited here to a single faith tradition) of all sizes in all places.
Being Church is not about dropping out of an imperial society. Jesus was living in the Roman Empire whether he liked it or not (and he probably didn’t) and we live in empires whether we like it or not, which I hope we don’t like. The fundamental thing to do is live and act grounded in the love and forgiveness of Jesus, the Risen Forgiving Victim. Virgil Michel, a Benedictine monk at St. John’s Collegeville during the Depression years was a strong advocate of creating parallel economic structures that would be nurturing for everybody involved. If I remember a lecture I heard about him some years ago rightly, Michel invented, or helped invent the credit union. As a leading member of the Roman Catholic Liturgical Movement, he envisioned liturgy as a springboard to social action.
Most fundamentally, Empire cannot be resisted in the Empire’s terms, which is the use of violence of any kind. This is what Jesus showed us in his silence before Pilate. If Jesus really is the wedding guest thrown out into the outer darkness and the penniless servant thrown out in the same way, then we can all join him in the outer darkness which will then lighten up with some help from the Light of the World.
See also: Stupid Galatians, Stupid Us
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Thank you for a wonderfully concise post that really is about the essentials: The Kingdom versus the World. Another pair is, of course Nature and Grace. For that contrast, one of the best treatments is Terrence Malick’s 2011 film, The Tree of Life.