Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Jesus, Paul, and Empire

Having been inspired by John Dominic Crossan's God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, I thought I would offer some of my conclusions regarding his book and where I personally think Christian witness should assert itself in the coming decades. Crossan has given me a renewed appreciation for Paul. Part of that appreciation comes from distinguishing the various "Pauls" in the New Testament differentiating the historical Paul from those who diluted and even reversed his message in the New Testament itself, particularly the Pastoral Epistles (1&2 Timothy and Titus), and to a lesser extent Colossians and Ephesians.

More importantly, Crossan has demonstrated that Paul and Jesus (and the Gospel witness to Jesus) were united on the most important thing: peace through justice (kingdom of God) vs. peace through violence (Empire).

The Roman Empire was not an evil empire. Compared to many before and since, one could consider it quite benevolent (view the scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian--"What have the Romans ever done for us?") To use a phrase from Crossan, the Roman Empire was the "normalcy of civilization." It exercised its influence through military might in order to keep the peace. Yet Rome was resisted in the Jewish homeland in various ways, from violent resistance (Maccabees, Jewish War), to accomodation (Temple authorities), to non-violent resistance (Jesus, Paul, and the Jesus Movement). The Empire of Rome was not simply a backdrop for the New Testament, it was and is its matrix.

Terms such as Son of God, Lord, Savior, etc. were terms Rome used for its Emperor, who was the son of God. Early Christian writers used those same terms for Jesus. That was treason. Jesus and many of his followers were executed by Rome.

Paul introduced his letters with the salutation, "Grace and peace." That was not simply "Have a nice day" but it was Paul's commitment to an alternative reality--grace and peace through justice, not through violence.

The various writers of the New Testament understood this present reality of peace through justice in different ways. Crossan makes a quick summation:

  • For the historical Jesus, the Kingdom of God is already here.
  • For the Pauline tradition, the general resurrection is already begun.
  • For the Synoptic Gospels, the Son of Man is already present.
  • For John's gospel, the Logos of God is already incarnate. (p. 188)

I might add here that other writers (Letter of James, Q (material common to Luke and Matthew not found in Mark), the Didache, and perhaps early Gospel of Thomas) used different theology in describing the resistance to Empire. James Tabor has done fine work with this.

The theological terms were different, but the message in essence was the same: Peace through justice in direct opposition to peace through violence. Followers of Jesus could participate in that reality in the present. Thus was the power of the Spirit.

Crossan opened my eyes to bodily resurrection as a Maccabean martyr theology (God would raise physically the bodies of martyrs slain for God first at the beginning of the general resurrection) in which the bodily resurrection of Jesus was the first fruits of general resurrection. In the meantime we live this bodily resurrection in the present as we witness with our minds and bodies to peace through justice.

What do we do with all of this? Nearly 2000 years after Jesus and Paul, many things have changed, much has stayed the same. Obviously, our conception of the universe has changed. Earth and humanity have moved away from the center toward the periphery of the Universe. We have achieved incredible advances in learning and technology. Civilization has virtually covered the globe. Yet, what has remained the same is the matrix of Empire or the "normalcy of civilization" (peace through violence) and the witness of the Spirit against it and for peace through justice.

A theology for the 21st century may need to use different theological expressions for this present reality (God at work through peace and justice) than our 1st century forebears, but the essence of the message is still the same. What is the character of our God and how do we witness to that God?

We need, therefore, to consider our present context.

1) Our house is Earth. We earthlings share it. We are, however, destroying it. If this is not obvious to you, I won't belabor the point.

2) We are on the verge of a world-wide resource war--that resource being fossil fuels. We have used up about half of the world's oil supply. Review Hubbert's Peak. Yup, we have about 500 years of coal left, but man is that stuff dirty. We are blowing up the mountains of West Virginia to get it. People now think the Smoky Mountains earned its name because of the haze that has reduced visibility from 75 miles to 15 on a typical day. Here is how the Smoky Mountains really got its name.

3) America is an Empire--the new Rome. We make up 4% of Earth's population yet consume 25% of Earth's oil. We have 700 military bases in 30 countries. We spend more on our military than the next 20 nations combined. Yet, our military is underfunded and underresourced to carry on our imperial dreams.

4) In Crossan's prologue, he quotes Ronald Wright from A Short History of Progress. "From the first chipped stone to the first smelted iron took nearly three million years; from the first iron to the hydrogen bomb took only 3,000 years." Take a moment to watch this video.

5) Here is the key. We are still using war and the threat of war to solve problems. That is no way to share a house. Unless we raise our level of consciousness regarding war, we will perish. War must be considered unnatural. That moves me toward theological considerations for the 21st century.

The Christian witness of peace through justice:

1) We can draw from our biblical and theological resources that the reality is that we share one house, Earth, that no one owns it or any part of it. The equitable distribution of resources, and care for the house for future generations is our primary responsibility. This will require a raising of consciousness about who we are (one global family) and whose we are (God who calls us and moves us toward peace through justice).

2) Fossil fuels have been an incredible boon to the quality of human life. They are limited. It is now time to use our remaining resources, cooperatively and creatively to move us to sustainable and renewable resources. We have the technology to move toward wind and solar power. We need the will to do so. This is the role of the church, to educate and to inspire.

3) Empires fall. Every empire has fallen. An empire rules by coercion. It seeks peace through violence. The biblical witness including Jesus and Paul is peace through justice. I don't think I can use that phrase enough. The U.S. does not need to be the military big brother for peace. First, it is impractical. It cannot be sustained. Second, it creates situations of injustice. All nations must work together to deal with our environmental and energy problems together. This requires constant dialogue, especially with those who we consider to be enemies.

4) We have the technology to destroy all life. The biblical witness is to turn swords into plowshares. This will require dismantling nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. should take the lead as it has the most.

5) War is unnatural. Slavery was once considered natural. No longer. This same level of consciousness must be embraced in regards to war. Peace is natural. We know this. We have experienced peace and we act with peace everyday of our lives. Everyday, we solve our conflicts peacefully with negotiation and concern for the well-being of all involved. Again, our biblical and theological resources can be an aid in proclaiming the gospel of peace.

6) Most importantly, we need to believe that God is at work in us. We need to point to signs of God's peace being enacted in our lives. We need to listen for and to the Holy Spirit. I have faith and hope in a new era. For now, I must love.

Here are some practical considerations:

1) Legislation comes before congress again and again to establish a Department of Peace. Here is a letter the peacemaking committee and I presented to our representative David Davis. Creating a culture of peace by teaching children and adults to solve conflicts non-violently and solving international conflicts through negotiation is the key to humanity's survival and I think this is where the Spirit is leading us.

2) In addition to a Department of Peace, requiring national service for all Americans upon reaching the age of 18 could be the way to raising the level of consciousness for Americans. 18 year-olds could choose from options such as the Peace Corps or another form of peaceful, humanitarian service or the military. We could make an army of non-violent peacemakers.

Those are big ticket items. But I think promoting them and other large dreams is part of the Christian witness. Churches could make a huge impact on creating a culture of biblical peace. In addition, here are smaller ways for congregations to make an impact in their communities:

3) Take a Green audit for your home and for your church. Go through your own church building and see how energy is used, recycling is done, etc. This is a process our congregation has begun and it will both educational and make a difference. Supporting farmer's markets, the use of "Just Coffee" using socially responsible investments can all be part of it. Showing the film, "Kilowatt Ours" can be a great start.

4) Establish a peacemaking committee and take on issues of peace, the environment, energy, social justice and so forth.

5) Get involved in your local community for hunger and housing relief. Have a mission committee that gets its hands dirty.

6) In a recent post I talked about churches paying taxes. Here is an idea. Calculate how much your church saves because it does not pay property or sales tax. Use that money to purchase green power or promote peacemaking initiatives. Here is a challenge for clergy. What do you say we calculate how much we save by not paying income tax on our housing allowance and give that to a Federal program that supports peace with justice? I will put my money where my mouth is on this one. Join me?

I don't think what I have proposed is do-gooder stuff. I think it is directly linked to Jesus and Paul and other theological witnesses in the early Christian movements. This isn't simply idle speculation. I think our future depends upon peace through justice.

Grace and Peace,

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