God, Empire, America

One of the more interesting developments in New Testament studies is called “empire criticism” and one of the finer expositions of the approach can be found in John Dominic Crossan’s God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. The “now” bit is about America. A careful analysis of what “empire” means and how Rome was an empire and how America (USA) is an empire, and how they differ … not to be found in this book. Instead, there’s a level of assumption in this book that Rome and America are parallel empires. My long time friend, Joe Modica, and I are co-editors of a book about to be released called Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not, so the discussion will have to wait.

Is it accurate to compare the Roman empire and America, or any of today’s superpowers?

But for today I want to post some of my favorite statements made by Crossan in his inimitable style:

So beneath the problem of empire is the problem of justice, but beneath the problem of justice is the problem of violence (5).

… the sequential program of Rome’s imperial theology: religion, war, victory, peace — or more briefly, peace through victory (23).

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.” … all those terms belonged to Caesar Augustus (28).

… civilization itself, as I am using that term, has always been imperial — that is, empire is the normalcy of civilization’s violence (30).

It is a strange God, by the way, who punishes Christian secularism with Islamic terrorism (71).

… the Bible proposes the radically of a nonviolent God struggling with the normalcy of a violent civilization (88).

If the Bible were only about peace through victory, we would not need it. If it were only about peace through justice, we would not believe it (94).

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  • All empires of the ancient and modern kind share similarities with violence, power, accumulation of wealth for the elite and resources for their military so that they can either stabilize or grow their economy. Justice systems develop that are designed to extend the might of the empire and subjugate all opponents. I think America tried to be a more perfect “empire”, and the union has certainly attempted to be a beacon on the hill. But using other empires as a model, even if in part, still results in us being an empire of sorts, with all the sins and fatal flaws that go with it.

  • scotmcknight

    Tim, is there any federal state that is not an empire?

  • T

    I don’t think the comparison is perfect by any means, but it’s not completely inappropriate either. I do believe that, had Jesus been killed in our day, he would have found a way to be killed by a nuclear bomb. The reason is that I think the bomb today serves as a similar symbol of power as Rome’s cross did (and as the Egyptian gods who were humiliated by the plagues did). I believe that God chose the Roman cross for several reasons, one of which was to make the same statement he made through Pharaoh: “I have raised you up for this purpose, that I might display my power in you” to his people and the world. Every story needs a foil, and God has now twice used the symbols of power of the world’s most powerful nations as stepping stools to remind the world who’s world this really is. And he did it in the two most central stories in the Bible, each announcing and cementing covenants of his rule.

    So did God intentionally let Caesar gather all kinds of lofty titles for himself that would also be more perfect for Jesus, and then send his son to die on—and rise from—Caesar’s most infamous instrument of power and propaganda? Absolutely. The resurrection both exalted Jesus and put Caesar’s power in perspective. Caesar built for himself a megaphone for his power and right to rule in the form of a cross, and God used it to compare his Son, the true Lord, to Caesar, the foil. Now the cross is still a symbol, not of Caesar’s power and character, but Christ’s. If God chose today to be the time he would announce his kingdom and Christ, the U.S. would, IMO, be the foil, or at least symbolically through an atomic bomb, which is the ultimate symbol and instrument of our power. BUT, this would be less about the U.S.’s sins and/or injustices that it would be about God’s Messiah and his power, as it was in the gospels. I don’t believe the cross was about Rome getting punished, I think it was about God’s justice. It wasn’t about Caesar, it was about Jesus. Caesar was just the highest footstool around.

    So, the U.S., in my mind, has the mantle now as the most powerful nation ever to be on the earth, and, that alone makes the comparison apt. How they’ve used that power, for good and for ill, isn’t really the point. The U.S. is not the worst empire or dominant nation by any stretch of the imagination, but neither are its hands clean of innocent blood, not by a long shot. But I don’t thing that’s the point.

  • Rick

    From Merriam-Webster:

    “1a (1): a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority; especially: one having an emperor as chief of state (2): the territory of such a political unit
    b: something resembling a political empire; especially: an extensive territory or enterprise under single domination or control
    2: imperial sovereignty, rule, or dominion”

    I am not sure the US fits these descriptions.

  • Looking forward to Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not. I guess I’m still feeling the influence of Walsh and Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. Empire can rightly be seen in American foreign and domestic policy – a foreign policy that turns to military solutions far too quickly and a domestic policy that edges ever nearer plutocracy. But empire also is seen in other facets of society – I’m thinking of the empire of giant corporations and banks and media conglomerates with little accountability and far too much power.

  • T,

    I’ve not thought about the issue of empire the way you described, and I appreciate what you’ve written. In both instances, though, Israel was a slave to the empire, and I think that’s a vital point in this discussion. (Perhaps Babylon deserves mention here as well.) God’s demonstration of power was ultimately for the purposes of freeing his people, first from physical slavery, then from holistic slavery to sin, evil, and death.

    The difference between America and the other empires is that God’s people are not systematically enslaved here. Sure, we could talk about an existential slavery to consumerism, but that is self-imposed. The powers that be today are not, despite what some folks say, surpressing the Gospel or oppressing God’s people.

  • Darryl

    There are indeed parallels between America and Rome. This is one reason why I have always been uncomfortable with churches displaying the American flag in their assemblies–as if the flag were a symbol of Christianity in some way.

    However, I do think the differences are also profound. Is America an empire of sorts? Certainly. Do the cross, the gospel, and the counter-cultural community of God critique and provide a contrast to the ruling governments of the current generation? No question about it. Is America the moral equivalent of Rome? I’m not certain I could go that far.

    However, government’s primary goal is not to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. There will always be a tension between the world’s governments and the Kingdom of Heaven. If for no other reason than the fact that even the best of governments are ruled by humans and must therefore compromise with the powers that exert themselves from within and without. Just my opinion–and I’m prepared to change my mind! 8^)

  • Tim Hallman

    Scot: I suppose any federal state could theoretically become an empire given certain conditions.

    However, to be an empire assumes power and ability and willingness of that federal state to enforce its will on its neighbors or distant colonies. That’s not possible for every federal state. It would also require a leader to emerge who can become a focal point for the successful expansion of that federal state. Or a series of leaders and acquiescing populace.

    It’s easy to compare the federal states of Rome and America when you compare the two states pre-Julius Caesar. Both had republics growing in wealth and regional power, an expanding business class that was heavily influencing the Senate to rule in its favor, especially using the army to create favorable markets overseas. But certain cultural situations led to the rise of highly skilled leaders who were ambitious and ruthless and desired to increase the glory of Rome through a sort of Imperial leader. It was a gory process. Rome had the feel of an Empire before Julius. That’s what made a Caesar possible.

    As T points out above, the USA is the most powerful nation on Earth, maybe in history. And in the past, only Empires had that kind of power. Maybe it’s fair to say that America tried to be a better kind of empire without an Emperor. Though Teddy Roosevelt certainly did not mind using Imperial language and imagery and ambitions when he enforced expansionist policies as President.

  • T


    I don’t know about that. Jesus didn’t take Caesar off his throne or change any physical rule or rules over the Jews or anyone else. The only physical ‘slavery’ Jesus rescued folks from was from the same carrots and sticks that all the powers use (then and today) to rule people’s lives. Pharaoh and his Egypt were demolished. Not only did Jesus not end caesar’s rule, Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem by it.

    I think your argument to distinguish what Jesus did then to Rome and what that might look like today on the basis of Jesus rescue of God’s people from physical slavery is flawed for the lack of such rescue by Jesus.

  • scotmcknight

    Bob, if corporations are empires we’ve got mini-empires compared to true socialist states where the means of production is owned by the government. That is economic empire.

    On media, as long as we’ve got both CNN and FoxNews, we’ve got no media empire.

  • I think Walsh and Keesmaat described the 4 characteristics of Empire as:
    1. Systemic centralizations of power
    2. Socieconomic and Military Control (the economics of oppression)
    3. Powerful Myths (Pax Romana/Pax Americana)
    4. Images that Capture the Imagination

    I think we could have fun describing how America fits into each one of these, while maybe not completely fitting the mold in every case.

    There is a black-and-white style to much critique of Empire that doesn’t fit the nuanced and complicated nature of the world’s systems.

    But….there is a lot about the critique of Empire that should resonate with anyone who claims to follow Jesus.

  • Scot, thanks for the list of quotes from Crossan’s book, especially the punch line about the divine savior being Augustus. I have always seen a closer comparison of the USA to a pre-Augustan Rome in the last centuries of the Republic than the Augustan built imperial Rome. Late Republican Rome faced massive problems in politics, society, and culture from an earlier Rome. By the late Republic, Rome was already an empire, but the republican model and the old cultural values of gravitas and pietas could not contain a changing Rome. My favorite quote is from the Roman historian Sallust: “Ambition drove many men to become false; to have one thought locked in the breast, another ready on the tongue.”

  • T

    I think the term ’empire’ is a bit of a red-herring. Whether we use Miriam-Webster’s or Walsh and Keesmaat’s definition or someone else’s, I don’t see the scriptural stories concerned with that term or concept per se. I do, though, see an oft repeated concern of idolizing the strength and glory of men, especially men of power, both in and beyond the people of God. As I highlighted above, our central narratives of God rising to power to rule both make use of the biggest kid on the block, so-to-speak, as foils to the power of YHWH. If Israel can put misguided hopes in its own nationalism, or in the strength of Egypt to save, or if trusting in chariots of old was error, surely Americans can and have committed the same sin.

    The issue, as far as I can see it from the scriptural concerns, is not whether the US is an empire, but if it is the subject of classic idolatry, in a variety of ways. If our hope is in the USA (or if our hopes in Christ are inseparable from the US), or if the values or culture of the USA eclipse the values of Christ, or what have you, then we have a problem. And I do think we have such a problem, regardless of whether the US is an “empire” or not.

  • Marshall

    @T #3: I think a better symbol for the arrogance of American power is the remotely-controlled drone. Everybody who is anybody has the Bomb these days, but only our President has the ability to order a strike against individuals anywhere in the world. I think that captures the ideal of humiliation, that the Big People can put a little-b bomb in through your bedroom window at any moment, and you’ll barely get a line in the newspaper. But it’s really about the ability to exert economic control, as “austerity”.

    The usual date of reference for the transition of Rome from Republic to Empire is 44 BC, when Augustus became the first Emperor and really got a grip, following a few hundred years of maneuver and internecine competition. The the Empire played out over the next thousand years. The US, or perhaps the Western World System, only assumed world hegemony after WWII, so the parallel has much to recommend it, but we are only about 50 years along. About the period when Christ appeared, although hardly anybody noticed at the time.