Killjoy Prophets: A Response to Tony Jones’ “In Praise of Empires”

Killjoy Prophets: A Response to Tony Jones’ “In Praise of Empires” November 7, 2014

By Daniel Fan

News Flash: White Cis Hetero Male finds Empire Not So Bad After All

A response to Tony Jones’ “In Praise of Empires”

Courtney and I are in Rome this week, compliments of Focus Features and A Different Drummer, to visit the set of a movie based on Anne Rice’s novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. We are embargoed from writing anything about the movie (yet), but my fifteenth trip to the Eternal City has brought on some thoughts.

Among Christianity’s critics from within — especially my own tribe of progressive Protestants — it’s fashionable to disparage empire at every turn. Empire, it seems, is responsible for everything that ails our faith.

Empire might not be the root of all evil, but it is one historically significant structural expression of the usurpation of the free will of others and the illegitimate theft and exploitation of their resources. In fact, the history of the world is often told as the succession of empires. Unfortunately, the Imperial pattern is one that Christianity has not only been complicit in, but also chosen to replicate on its own.

Oh, and Constantine was an asshat.

As it turns out, that’s not exactly true.

The Roman Empire was, indeed, brutal. But it was also extraordinarily civil. Crucifixions? Yes. But also aqueducts. And public baths and voting and roads and regulated commerce.

The Roman Empire is only considered “civil” because today’s laws are largely built on concepts which are (correctly or otherwise) traced back to Roman civic and governmental structures.  To the victor goes the spoils.  And what of these great forerunners, these beneficial icons of modern life which Jones names?  The overwhelming preponderance of public bath houses today is a clear testament to the staying power of this august cornerstone of civilization. How much voting do you think the Roman Empire tolerated?  Hint: It’s called “the Roman Empire,” not “the Roman Republic” or “the Roman Democracy.”  Furthermore, what political enfranchisement did exist was restricted to land-owning men.  Roads predated the Roman Empire, and empires long before Rome regulated commerce (taxes, basically).  While some of these were technologically advanced public works projects and regulatory practices for their time, such features do not convey civility, as we shall see.

The brilliance of the Roman Empire came in many forms, but none so much as its conquests. When Rome conquered a land, they would acquire slaves — slaves that could attain freedom — but more significantly, they made those who were conquered Roman citizens. And there was no more powerful a safeguard to one’s personhood in the ancient world than Roman citizenship (Paul probably lived a decade longer than he would have otherwise because he claimed Roman citizenship (scholars are split on whether he truly was a Roman citizen or not)).[sic]

Yes, conquests, brilliant:  let me enslave you as a free person, so that you can maybe earn your freedom (freedom you already had before the empire arrived), but only if you survive?  Oh, by the way, your wife was sold to a serial rapist abuser and your children to someone else, can’t remember who, sorry.

Who said the conquered even wanted to be part of the Roman Empire anyway?  Roman citizenship existed for one reason: to protect the sanctity of one’s person and property from the power of the Roman state.  Such a scenario, as the one Paul invoked his citizenship during existed only because the state was abusive to individuals under its authority.  An analogy to the American legal system:  If there were no government to arrest you, you wouldn’t need the right to remain silent, or the right to an attorney, or the right to a speedy trial and a jury of your peers.  The fact remains that those outside of the reach of Roman hegemony were never forced to earn or use the rights and protections afforded to Roman citizens because they were not subject to Roman tyranny.

A conquered people became Roman citizens, and they were able to keep their own religion, customs, and even governors, as long as they paid their taxes and didn’t revolt. And in return they got roads, potable water, and security.

First of all, that’s not historically true.  Rome had a state religion.  In some cases you could practice your religion in private, but certain religions like Christianity were outlawed and these could not be practiced legally in public or private without potential legal repercussion.  Under some emperors, like Decius, worship of the Roman gods was mandatory.  Those who did not obey were imprisoned and tortured (e.g: Origen).

Again, not all conquered people became or even wanted to become Roman citizens.  Let me put it this way: if another country conquered the US by military force would you be happy to be one of their citizens?  Or would you prefer to stay an “American” (or whichever country you chose to be a citizen of)?  Many Americans would refuse “foreign” citizenship on principle.  Here Jones drops to the classic security/convenience v. freedom argument.  If you give up your rights as a human being and submit to being an expendable cog in my system of empire, you can have roads, police to keep you in line, and this piece of candy.  Benjamin Franklin had these words for early colonists who proposed similar trades: “Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.”  Freedom > Security/Convenience.

By the way, the Romans didn’t have “potable” water in the modern sense: their aqueducts brought water into the cities, but didn’t filter, sterilize or more importantly, remove lead from it.

Christians are familiar with the razing of the Jerusalem temple by the Roman general Titus in AD 70, but it is often forgotten that Titus was in Judea to put down a Jewish revolt against Rome. And that wasn’t the first time the Jews had tried to cast out the imperial forces. Each time they found out what an ill-fated strategy it was.

Kent Brockman

Does anyone ask, at this point, whether the Jews were right to revolt against Rome?  Historical hint: the Jews don’t.  They were invaded and occupied by a foreign army, ruled by a foreign governor appointed directly from Rome, their wealth was drained and sent away to a far-off land which then used some of that wealth to bankroll the very army which enforced foreign laws and cultural practices on their populace. In short, the Jews were forced to fund their own oppression.  If that had happened today it would be ruled an illegal invasion and an illegitimate, non-democratic military occupation enacted by a despotic and autocratic regime.  America, born in the fires of revolution, went to war against King George for far less and after a much shorter period of imperial antagonization.

I recognize that it may be difficult for someone like Tony Jones to envision empire as being anything other than on the right side, but dude, Star Wars, ok?  Luke Skywalker? The Rebel Alliance? If you’re not going to study history, at least have some imagination.

Just because the Jews lost doesn’t mean their cause wasn’t worth fighting for.  Maybe in Jones’ world might makes right, and concession to empire is always the wisest choice, but I haven’t found it in the Bible anywhere.

Christianity as we know it is very much the result of the Roman Empire, which itself was built on the backbone of what another brutal empire-builder, Alexander the Great, had accomplished centuries before. Alexander carved the roads and built the Western world. The Romans paved those roads.

It was on the back of Roman order and government that Christianity spread.

Jones is likely correct in the assertion that Rome’s infrastructure aided the spread of Christian doctrine.  But in his rush to defend the cleanest corner of the filthy rag that is empire, he fails to ask the more fundamental question:  If Christianity as we know it is the result of the Roman Empire, is today’s conceptualization of Christianity better for it?  Is the Imperial Christianity we have inherited the Christianity we would have hoped for, or is it the one we’re stuck working against?

If this model of empire allows us to operate (Western) Christianity the way that we currently do, how much of what we’ve taken for granted is illegitimate privilege that is actually enabled by the imperial methodology of exploitation and inequitable & illegal resource extraction?

To the extent that today’s Christianity was grown and benefits from empire (of any age), such are the fruits of the poisonous tree.

But how about the emperors?

The Roman Republic lasted only a short time, ultimately cut down by the murder of Julius Caesar. When his nephew-cum-adopted-s0n[sic] Octavian acceded to the head of the government and claimed the title, emperor, many in Rome feared that he would be a vicious dictator. He was anything but. Now known as Caesar Augustus, Octavian went on a massive building campaign, funded by massive — and massively successful — military campaign. He’d conquer a land, those people would pay taxes, and he would built [sic] another public building in Rome.

Jones says “conquer” like it’s a good thing with his primary defense being a literal straw-man show-down between visions of an evil “vicious dictator” Octavian, and the real one.  Jones’  “Things could have been worse” theory demands the response of “For whom?”  For those who were enslaved or executed under Augustus and his empire, could things really have been worse?  We should be careful not to confuse “it happened” with “it was legitimate.”  Just because someone is “massively successful” at enforcing their will over a large number of otherwise unwilling people doesn’t meant it was the right thing to do.

And should this then be the modus of Christianity?  Isn’t that immoral resource extraction exactly what Luther railed against when travelling papal representatives would take money through biblically illegitimate means from the already conquered masses of Germany so St. Peter’s could be built in Rome?

If this is what Jones considers “successful” then I will gladly fail my way into heaven for I see no way to arrive by “succeeding.”

Along the way, there were some bad apples among the subsequent emperors (e.g., Nero), but there were also great rulers (e.g., Trajan) and even poet-philosophers (e.g., Marcus Aurelius). Constantine very much fashioned himself after Augustus, being both a great general and a builder.

Trajan wasn’t a good guy, he was a pragmatist: he basically codified the passive trawl.  If you were busted for doing something else and they found out you were a Christian, you had to recant.  If you didn’t you could be executed as an enemy of the state (since Christianity was still outlawed).  Trajan never revoked the prohibition on Christianity, he simply didn’t want state resources spent on hunting people he saw as neutral or at worst only passively antagonistic towards the Roman Empire.

Sure, Marcus Aurelius was a poet, great.  Did you know Hitler was an architect?  And Idi Amin, even though he hated Israel later in his life, continued to proudly wear Israeli Paratrooper wings on his uniform?  History is full of seeming contradictions, but the quirks of dictators are rarely used to justify their genocidal tendencies as Jones has done here. Marcus Aurelius can be counted among the most brilliant of the Roman Emperors, but he also ordered the execution of Felicitas and her seven sons on account of their refusal to renounce Christ.  Unknown if the execution order came in the form of a poem or not.  Justin, one of the foremost Christian scholars of the day was also executed during Aurelius’ reign (and executed in Rome: legislate globally, execute locally).  Suffice to say, had Jones lived at the time of Marcus Aurelius and come to the emperor’s attention, an all-expense-paid trip to Rome would have meant something entirely different than it does in Jones’ leisurely contemporary context.

It’s also ironic that Jones is so willing to dismiss Aurelius’ persecution of Christians on account of the emperor’s poetry in light of his refusal to give Nero a pass. Certainly Nero must have been half-decent on the fiddle if he jammed long enough for Rome to completely burn down.  I mean, you can only play “Do you really want to hurt me?” so many times before the crowd starts turning on you.

Note to self: If attempting to get into Tony Jones’ Book of Redeemed Perpetrators of Crimes Against Humanity: disregard fiddles, acquire poetry.

Constantine’s conversion to Christianity on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge should be understood with some suspicion. And nota bene, Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire. In the Edict of Milan in 313, he merely legalized Christianity, bringing it into the Pax Romana.

Jones is at least even-handed in this part of his statement on Constantine.  The Great Commission commanded the creation of disciples, not converts–and Constantine would never pass for the former.  It should, however, be noted that, with regard to the Pax Romana, the absence of state-sanctioned conflict is not an indicator for, or evidence of, the presence of shalom.  Just because something was stolen from you a long time ago, and you’ve temporarily stopped fighting to get it back, does not legitimize either the original theft or the continued deprivation thereof.  The Roman Empire was forged in the heat of war and quenched in blood of the conquered. No matter how long the state proclaims “peace” there is no statute of limitations on the act of murder–even if that murder was committed by the state itself.

It should also be remembered that by the time Constantine wore the imperial purple, the Roman Empire was in its denouement. Constantine himself saw the writing on the wall and spent most of his time in the East, establishing a new capital in Constantinople. The Roman Empire would fall only 139 years after Constantine’s death.

My point is this: The Roman Empire and the Roman emperors, like almost everything in history, have legacies of ambivalence. Yes, they were brutal and often violent, but they were also civil and appreciative of beauty and art and literature. In its time, the Roman Empire accomplished feats that moved civilization forward in giant steps. And Christianity spread largely as a result of these imperial advancements.

“Civilization” is based on the word “civis” which is translated “citizen.”  Citizen is not a technological term, rather it is a relational one.  Given that the Roman Empire was based on the murder, enslavement, and exploitation of non-Romans, and inequitable distribution of their resources, one can hardly find the Roman Empire civilized.  Rome appreciated its own beauty and art, and literature, but what about the culture and values of those it crushed beneath is boot heels? And no, taking trophies does not count: appropriation is not appreciation.  Rome was perhaps learned, perhaps technologically advanced, perhaps politically and militarily ambitious, but civilized?  No.  Instead of relating to each other as human beings, Rome taught us to relate to each other through the law or the sword.  Instead of acting out of honor as is the indigenous way, we act out of legal obligation.  Instead of asking how well we can get along with each other, we ask how much can we get away with.  Rome’s legacy of laws, attorneys, and courts made humanity more prosecutable and less relatable.  In many ways, Rome was uncivilization systematized.

In associating the brutality and expediency of empire with the good news of Christianity, Jones proposes an odd fellowship of light and darkness.  In a more than metaphorical sense, Imperial war-making and coercion paves the road for the Gospel.  That this happened is not in contest; that empire is praiseworthy because of it, or that Christianity is not some how tainted by this cooperation is extremely problematic not only from a doctrinal view, but from a missiological one as well.

In fact, without the Roman Empire, there very likely would be no Christianity.

It is with this statement that Jones abandons all pretense of faith and shows his cards as an all-out imperial apologist: replacing God with a political system as the central tenet of Christianity. The irreducible, irrevocable and essential foundation, source, and sustainment of Christianity is not and has never been the Roman Empire, or empire of any sort, but Jesus Christ.  

But, if empire is, as Jones states, essential to Christianity then the whole of Christian doctrine is turned upside down.  Salvation comes not through faith in Christ but in complicity with empire.  Jesus becomes no more than a speed bump on the road to “civilization,” righteously executed as an anti-Roman insurrectionist.  And with him, the disciples, apostles, and martyrs who were likewise killed on account of their faith become lesser speedbumps, ignorant, misguided and primitive and uncivilized rebels of a bygone era.  Constantine, the avatar of empire, replaces Jesus as savior and central figure when he merges empire with Christianity. The lives, resources, and stories of the indigenous are sacrificed and should be sacrificed so that Empire may be renewed. With a nod to James Cone and Soong-Chan Rah: the indigenous get the cross, the empire gets the resurrection.

Without the Roman Empire, Christianity today would look very different and probably act very differently.  It might even be hard to recognize for those born under the talons of Imperial Christianity, but the basic tenets of the faith would have survived, very likely for the better*.

So, the next time you hear someone throwing Constantine under the bus or savaging the reputation of the Roman Empire, take a minute to consider whether the story might be a bit more nuanced than that.

The next time you hear someone praising the Roman Empire**, or empire of any sort for that matter, take a minute to ask whether that person is a beneficiary of empire, and why they would chose to defend such a brutal, oppressive, and inhumane institution.  There are indeed nuances to empire but, like M&Ms mushed into a steaming pile of dog shit, they don’t really improve the palatability of Imperial Christianity.  Empire, like the One Ring, is altogether evil.  Christianity cannot wield it: Empire answers to Empire alone.  It has no other master.

Jones’ naive and coddling portrayal of the systemic evil that is empire is an inevitable consequence of the Church’s refusal to center the perspective of the most marginalized among us.  But perhaps we have been too harsh on Jones.  Perhaps we have no right to expect better of someone who is incapable of empathy with the oppressed because he has never been on the losing side of empire? Perhaps he among us who most benefits from empire, while being best suited to sing the praises of its nuances, is also least able to judge such a closely-held mistress fairly?  Perhaps if we were all privileged enough to be on our fifteenth trip to Rome, we would also find ourselves seduced by the intoxicatingly decadent nuances of empire?  Fortunately, Jones’ self-important travelogue and hopelessly flawed historical analysis does not have to be the only story. Instead, we should ask whose stories have we not heard, and why haven’t we heard them?  Perhaps, in the margins of empire, in the wake of its genocidal campaigns, we will find not only truth, not only authenticity, but redemption and inspiration as well?  Dare we allow white hetero-patriarchs, those who feign objectivity while their mouths overflow with the teats of empire, to be our sole educators on the gentle caresses of the imperial lash?

We choose not to.

We choose to resist.

We are the Killjoy Prophets.  

The tale of empire is ours only unwillingly.  It is ours only in so much as empire has invaded our sacred spaces, exploited our lands, our stories, and our bodies.

We have a different perspective.

We tell a different story.

+++

*If you’re wondering what Christianity can look like without the taint of empire, you need only look to decolonizing indigenous Christian movements in Africa, Asia, South and North America.  Imperial Christianity is by no means universal and those who believe so chose foolishness over fact.  The more we learn from our indigenous sisters and brothers, the better we understand the flaws of Imperial Christianity, the sooner we will be rid of its poisonous influences.

** Especially when doing so from Rome on NBC Universal funding.

 

Daniel Fan is but one minion among many within the Killjoy Prophets Collective. He is an MA student in the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS), screenwriter, historian, amateur cook, and activist for indigenous solidarity. On the astronomically rare occasion that he tweets, he can be found at @mish_merc

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