Is the Gospel necessarily against empires (like, say, even America, he asks sheepishly on the morning of July 4)?

Is the Gospel necessarily against empires (like, say, even America, he asks sheepishly on the morning of July 4)? July 4, 2013

Today is July 4th, and, being independent of oppressive British rule, I chose today, as a free man, to bring to your attention an informative, learned, but utterly readable book published this spring (IVP) and edited by Scot McKnight and by my colleague at Eastern University, Joe Modica: Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies.

This book assembles essays from 10 scholars for the purpose of describing and evaluating “empire criticism.” The essays address those parts of the New Testament where empire criticism is more prevalent. They do a solid job of being even-handed, refraining from overstatement, and laying out clearly how each thinks the New Testament does and does not engage in empire criticism.

Which leads to the question many of you are asking: “What the heck is empire criticism?” It’s an approach to New Testament studies whereby the New Testament’s message is seen primarily as a criticism of the Roman empire. Put another way, the proclamation “Jesus is Lord” is not simple an expression of religious devotion but political subversion, since Caesar was also known as “lord.”

The editors and authors don’t question whether empire criticism is found in the New Testament–it most clearly is. They question whether it is as dominant and central an idea as some say it is. Concerning the latter view, the editors (as do some of the essays) mention especially the work of Warren Carter, N. T. Wright, and Richard Horsley, and Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat).

The example they lead off with in the introduction is a good one–and I use it with my undergrad students to show that the message of the Gospel is about more than morning devotions: Luke 2. Jesus, at his birth, is described as savior and lord, born of God, and whose reign will bring good news and peace.

Hold that thought. Now look at a portion of the famous Priene Calendar Inscription, that laud’s the birth of Caesar Augustus:

Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him which Asia resolved in Smyrna.

Augustus, a god, was sent by “Providence” to bring “good tidings” (= “good news”, i.e., “gospel”; the Greek is the common NT word euangelion) that would benefit all humanity by ending war and “arranging all things.”

It’s hard to read the birth story in Luke and not say, “Wow. That looks like Roman rhetoric. Maybe the birth of Jesus is told in this way to signal that the gospel is anti-Roman, that Jesus is the real Lord and Caesar isn’t.”

That’s the gist of “empire criticism,” and I agree with the observation.

What this book brings to the discussion, however, is the following sober idea, which I would frame as a question: “Is the purpose of the gospel to oppose Rome–or–does the proclamation of the gospel as an alternate ’empire’ necessarily include the dethroning of Rome and its exaggerated claims as the supreme power in the cosmos?”

Many empire critics would say yes to the first question. McKnight/Modica et al. would say yes to the second. I side with the latter group.

Empire criticism definitely exists in the New Testament and we miss a crucial element of the gospel’s exposition if we aren’t aware of it. Those new to the idea will benefit greatly from the essays in this book that walk you through the relevant portions of the New Testament.

The gospel is inextricably tied the righting of wrongs and stripping bare the false claims of any political regime that poses as the ultimate source of justice and peace–a “false eschatology” as N. T. Wright has put it. And, if I may say as an American on this July 4th, that includes any such claims made by contemporary empires including our own.

But, empire criticism is not to be equated with the gospel message; it is an implication of the gospel. I think this sums up the book pretty well.

Neither does the gospel claim to render irrelevant the world of human politics. Jesus is Lord, yes, but so is Caesar–over something. The issue is that Jesus is Lord of lords, including Ceasar, but that is not to encourage dropping out of society, etc. Jesus himself said “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

If you will indulge me, my own take on passages like Luke 2 (as well as the genealogy that opens up the Gospel of Matthew) are clearly couched in “anti-empire” language, or as I would prefer to say–taking my cue from Walter Brueggemann–“alternate empire” language. In view here is not simply a criticism of the Roman empire but any empire that seeks to rule by force of military might.

That includes Jewish messianic expectations at the time of Jesus’ birth. Segments of Judaism, fueled by the Old Testament vision of the people of Israel eventually dominating the world scene and weary of hundreds of years of foreign rule, were looking for a change. They were expecting at some point, hopefully soon, for God to show up and re-establish the independence of the Jewish state, free from Roman oppression and influence. As long as pagans ruled over God’s chosen people, God’s plan for Israel is on hold.

“Messiah” refers to a military/religious leader who would bring that about through the usual means amply supported by the Old Testament: war. In my opinion, Luke and others present Jesus to their readers by playing off of this sensitive political topic only to subvert it rather quickly.

If you knew nothing of Jesus but did understand both Roman rhetoric and Jewish political expectations of independence, and then read Luke 1-2–Gabriel’s words to Mary, Mary’s song, Zechariah’s prophecy, Simeon’s prophecy, and the angels’ announcement to the shepherds–you would think that this Jesus was destined to liberate Israel from Rome and usher in the “kingdom of God.”

Working off of these expectations, Luke and others quickly subvert them by redefining messianic expectations, which ultimately leads to this messiah, Jesus, in effect losing to Rome (he is crucified) but then raised to usher in a kingdom of a different sort.

Put another way, Luke and others use the theological language available to them from their tradition–the Old Testament idea of Israel as a permanent political entity, which is evidence of God’s favor–but then subverts and transforms that language to speak of a “messiah” and a “kingdom” that Israel’s story was not prepared to articulate.

But that’s just what I think. At any rate, I recommend this book to you. It will make you think about what the gospel is, which is a good thing.

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  • When I first became aware of how much of the language in the New Testament was coopted from the empire it opened my mind to a much different way of understanding much of the gospel. In fact, it was the richness of that word “gospel” (euangelion) that was the most illuminating. I have come to appreciate the message of Jesus and the early church as (at least in part) a message of resistance to empire–meaning any empire/coercive authority.
    Great post.

  • mark

    I find it odd that you would address this topic without mention of Jesus’ actual dialogue with Empire–in the person of the Roman Empire’s representative in Judaea, Pontius Pilate.

    This whole question is best understood in light of the contrast between what Mircea Eliade terms “archaic ontology” — the ontology of traditional cultures — and the Christian understanding, enlivened by the insight into the divine creativity provided by God’s self revelation in Jesus as Trinity. This is what lies behind Jesus’ dialogue with Pilate.

    Anyone who wishes to become educated on such fundamental issues–without an understanding of which history and human nature will remain a closed book–should consult (beyond Eliade’s work) such classics as Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture or Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics, especially the highly relevant chapter “The Struggle for Representation in the Roman Empire,” which deals with “competing types of truth.” Jesus had something to say about that to Pilate.

  • Val Russo

    I like your posts Peter! Why ? Because they are “present”. I would like to read in your style how is this “empire criticism” relates to the “present empire”. “Empire of speaking” ( Kingdom of God – The Gospel) versus “Empire of Listening” ( the imorality of NSA). In the time of writing the Gospel was more an implication in the political issues. Now the economic issues are more ….”important. Just think at this: If in the same time are calling to the White House a president of big corporation and a president of a country? Who gets the anwer: “Wait a minute” ?

  • Andrew Dowling

    I agree with the latter also Pete. Empire criticism is intertwined with Jesus’s message but it’s not the sole purpose.

    Recollections of the early Christian martyrs are really illuminating. It’s really the first time, that I know of, of people attesting to the rights of religious freedom and the individual’s freedom of conscience in the Western world (such were the claims made in their defense to the Roman authorities). Sadly, those ideals were swept away once the Church came to power under Constantine and remained dormant until the Enlightenment, which also produced the American Revolution! .

  • Eric

    “But, empire criticism is not to be equated with the gospel message; it is an implication of the gospel. I think this sums up the book pretty well.”

    Does the book engage postcolonial biblical criticism, represented by scholars like Tat-siong Benny Liew, Musa Dube, R.S. Sugitharajah, and Stephen Moore? To my mind most of these scholars go beyond the question of pro/anti-empire or even empire as main concern/implication.

  • From my reading of Wright’s work, I don’t find that he conflates empire criticism with the Gospel itself. I think he would agree with you and McKnight that the Gospel advances an “alternative empire” and does not merely oppose Rome. I think he would agree with you that empire criticism is an implication of the Gospel. Wright would likely say Rome was the empirical reality of the day, and so served as a potent symbol of all empires which offer a “false eschatology.” Eugene Peterson sees the same thing in his book on Revelation: _Reversed Thunder_. I think listing Wright among those who take empire criticism to an unbiblical extreme is an error.

    • mark

      I think that there has been some progression or development in Wright’s thought over the years, and that in his most recent work “empire criticism” takes on a more prominent place in his presentations. Whether that criticism goes to an “unbiblical” extreme is open to debate.

      My problem with Wright (in this regard) is not with “empire criticism” per se, but the way he approaches it. Essentially all ancient/traditional cultures partake of the worldview (which, following Eliade, I term “archaic ontology”) that we and the early Christians find/found in world empires such as Rome or (as Wright likes to say) America. The ideology of the Davidic kingship is a good example. OTOH, a critique of that worldview is unquestionably developing in Israelite thought–although it doesn’t reach it’s completion until God’s self revelation in Jesus. The reason for this is that God as creator doesn’t reach full articulation without an understanding of God as Trinity (cf. the work by Cochrane, referenced in my earlier comment). Without this insight into the nature of the imperial worldview we will also lack essential insight into the nature of Christianity.

      Wright, IMO, lacks this perspective and so becomes bogged down in politics in the modern sense, rather than in the classical sense (cf. Voegelin, also referenced earlier):

      he existence of man in political society is historical existence; and a theory of politics, if it penetrates to principles, must at the same time be a theory of history. …

      To pursue a theoretical problem to the point where the principles of politics meet with the principles of a philosophy of history is not customary today. Nevertheless, the procedure cannot be considered an innovation in political science; it will rather appear as a restoration, if it be remembered that the two fields which today are cultivated separately were inseparably united when political science was founded by Plato. …

      • Eric

        “Without this insight into the nature of the imperial worldview we will
        also lack essential insight into the nature of Christianity.” What, exactly, is this essential “insight”? Sorry, this paragraph doesn’t make that clear. And I wouldn’t expect Wright (or the other “empire critical” scholars listed here) to be working with Eliade in this context anyway.

        • mark

          Eric, this is a difficult topic to address briefly. Perhaps I could have stated it more clearly by saying something along these lines:

          The archaic ontology of traditional cultures, while recognizing the dependence of the cosmos on the divine (Eliade), does not pursue this insight (dependence) to theoretical clarity–the actual createdness of all that exists in our experience. Rather, the divine and the cosmos are typically viewed as in a type of symbiotic relationship. Israelite thought did, in fact, move from its origins in archaic ontology toward that theoretical clarity (Mark S. Smith), the idea of God as creator. Nevertheless, this insight only reaches its full development in Christianity with the doctrine of God as Trinity. The reason for this is that the doctrine of God as One–even when joined with the idea of creation (Judaism, Islam)–retains a type of metaphysical anthropomorphism: we can imagine God as One because all that we experience in the cosmos is finite, and all that is bounded is “one”: “one” being a transcendental of being. The doctrine of the Trinity breaks the bounds of that anthropomorphism and leads to the idea of God as infinite creativity. God may be one, but we acknowledge that the meaning of “one” as applied to God is infinitely beyond our understanding. It is this type of thought that Paul is getting at both in his encounter at the Areopagus as well as in the opening chapters of Romans.

          These insights allow Jesus to readily distinguish between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s, but for the Romans and Greeks–and anyone enclosed within the world of archaic ontology–this radical distinction of God and Man, creator and created, is incomprehensible because for archaic ontology the divine and cosmic realms are fundamentally joined in what Voegelin terms a “compact” worldview. You can see this still in the highest “philosophic” development of archaic ontology, the Neoplatonic thought of late antiquity, which posits an elaborate scheme of emanations, because it lacks the insight into the createdness of all that is not God.

          Wright actually has a pretty strong background in philosophy–it was his undergrad major, I believe–so I’d be surprised if he didn’t have some familiarity with these ideas. I haven’t seen him actually cite Eliade, but you can see that he has thought along these lines when he compares America to Rome. The problem I see with his thought is that he doesn’t address the issue of how the Christian West has regressed, in a sense, turning from these “essential insights” of Christianity, with its openness to the unbounded creativity of God, back toward the compactness of archaic ontology. He seems to prefer to see things in black and white terms: empire bad, anti-empire good, without exploring the reasons why people make these choices and the significance this has for the Church’s project of reconverting the world.

          Wright doesn’t usually flaunt his familiarity with such ideas, especially not to Evangelical audiences, but if you want to see how deeply he has gone into it all, look at the first half of The New Testament and the People of God, in which he draws heavily on the “critical realist” thought (a form of Thomism) of the Jesuit Ben Meyer.

          • Eric

            So, Christianity, uniquely and apparently imperfectly going back to Judaism, conceives of an ontological distinction between Creator/creature. And that distinction, in turn, enables–what? The only real critique of imperialism and its attendant soteriological myths? Or a justification for the separation of “religion” and “politics”?

            I think you are skipping through (or over) several centuries of political philosophy here. Not to mention presenting a rather supercessionist theology, and then anarchonistically attributing it to Paul and Jesus himself. In any case, I still don’t quite get how this insight matters Wright’s empire-critical approach, even his more theological interpretations. If you want to say that antiquity and modernity have radically different ways of thinking about “religion” and “politics,” ok, but that can be described much more clearly in other ways. And if you want to say that “America” has “regressed” from a modern view to an ancient view that conflates “religion” and “politics,” well that’s arguable, but if true would seem to provide Wright some reason for *not* spelling out the philosophical differences between antiquity and modernity here.

            To my mind, if Wright doesn’t explore why people take up anti-imperial stances, it’s probably because he hasn’t attended to the history of anti-colonial struggle as much as he might.

          • mark

            So, Christianity, uniquely and apparently imperfectly going back to Judaism, conceives of an ontological distinction between Creator/creature.

            Mmmm, no. Got it wrong. Judaism develops out of archaic ontology–Mark S. Smith’s Memoirs of God is an excellent shortish resource on this topic. Christianity is the full development of this trend in Israelite thought–brought to completion by God’s self revelation in Jesus. For the importance of the understanding of God as Trinity, cf. Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture.

            I think you are skipping through (or over) several centuries of political philosophy here.

            I guess I am. If I were to insist on touching every single relevant point in history I think Peter would tell me to get my own blog.

            Not to mention presenting a rather supercessionist theology, and then anarchonistically attributing it to Paul and Jesus himself.

            I certainly believe that Christianity–God’s self revelation in Jesus–is a theoretical advance over Judaism. Call that what you will.

    • I think you are probably correct that Wright doesn’t equate empire criticism with the gospel. But for those amongst us for whom Wright was our introduction to empire criticism, the nuance between the first position and the second might not be well articulated. Thanks, Peter, for pointing out the nuance of that difference: empire criticism as a necessary component of a larger gospel narrative that is about an “alternative empire” founded by Christ. This was the first time I’d read that so well put, looking forward to reading the book.

  • Susan_G1

    Something else I’ve never heard of; something new to think about. This is why I read this blog.

    I am far less learned than other commenters here, so please forgive the basic level of my questions. Knowledge of the gods of ancient Egypt brought a fuller and richer understanding of the plagues, but not one necessary to understanding the overall narrative – God vs Egypt/God wins, He frees His people.

    Messiah as earthly king vs Messiah as spiritual/otherworldly King is easy to understand. Gospel as theology (with added richness of anti-worldly imperialism) vs ‘Gospel as supra-all-world-Imperialist-governments (with added richness of theology)’ is difficult to understand/accept. I think you are affirming the former.
    Do you think (and I hate to put you on the spot, but it’s your post) that this book brings a fuller and richer understanding of the Gospel, but one unnecessary for the understanding of the narrative? Or do you think it’s necessary for the understanding of the narrative? I admit I am very interested in what Jesus thinks of governments and the book seems to hold promise on educating me in this. Will the book help me with things like ‘just war’ or how I am to respond to those in authority over me?

    I am most assuredly not against learning for the sake of expanding my understanding. But expanding my understanding of the theology of the Gospels is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. Would you classify this book as an enriching book?

    I don’t know what first led me to your blog, but it has greatly – and for the better – changed my understanding of the Bible, and for that I owe you many thanks. I don’t enjoy putting you in a spot. If I ever have a blog site, I will let you know, so that you can get even in spades, which should not be hard to do.

    P.S. happy fourth!

  • James

    Having read both Wright and Walsh/Keesmaat, I think the latter take the teaching of their mentor too far. We tend to do that.

    • mark

      There’s another way to look at this all too common phenomenon: “take too far” or simply work out the logical consequences in ways that the mentor failed to foresee?

      Etienne Gilson illustrates this in a highly amusing passage (192-193) of his great classic The Unity of Philosophical Experience.

      Having recounted how Kant, all unbidden, provided Newtonian physics with what he (Kant) considered its only possible philosophical justification, Gilson continues by discussing the relationship of Kant to the young Fichte:

      What a metaphysico-theological maze! Newton would have been surprised to see such results flowing from his method. Philosophers [Kant] who have been misled by the lure of positive science always end their lives in a queer world–that is a punishment for their mistake; but it never occurs to them that it is their philosophy that is queer–that is a reward for their honesty.

      Yet, there is for them still another punishment–their disciples. At the beginning, master [Kant] and disciple [Fichte] find nothing but pure joy in their mutual intercourse. … What usually brings such friendships to an end is that, whereas a master holds his conclusions as conclusions, his disciples receive them as premises,

      By the way, I regard this work by Gilson to be one of his several masterworks, a truly indispensable book.

  • mark

    Stanley Hauerwas has a provocative article today that, despite the title, is actually very much about empire–if by that term you understand Wright’s main focus to be America: The end of American Protestantism. He gets into Noll’s ideas too. IMO, deeper in some ways than Wright’s “empire critique.”

  • Ryan

    I find it interesting that you limit your scope to the New Testament, when in fact, if you include the Old, the argument receives further support. Exodus provide the perfect example. Here we have a group of slaves, liberated, saved from slavery/empire and given the Ten Commandments and the laws to create a nation that lives differently in the world. While not perfect, even servants and foreigners were granted the Sabbath.

    We also have the experience of the Israelites in Babylon, and while they were called to work for the welfare of the city (Jeremiah), they were not to succumb to the idolatry of the nation and worship it as the supreme good/god (Daniel, 1st & 2nd Commandment).

    Whenever I hear statements like “The United States is the greatest force for good in the world,” my skin crawls because such a statement is not far from Nebuchadnezzar asking all to worship him, or for that matter, the emperors of Rome.

    I would recommend reading Wes Howard Brook’s Come Out My People: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond.

  • Jeffrey Taylor

    The US is not an empire nor is it an imperialist nation. Why does the academy whether evangelical or progressive incessantly chant this 60s Vietnam era mantra and act as though our imperfections make us the enemy? Bone up a little on early American history and stick to the one thing you really know-theology and Biblical studies. Your letters do not qualify you to be an expert on every subject.

    • Jonathan Becker

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you didn’t read this blog post…

    • Andrew Dowling

      Maybe you need to “bone up” on some basic Latin American history. To not say the U.S. for 200 years has had an imperialist policy towards its southern neighbors (and in this century also Southeast Asia) is akin to placing head firmly in sand. Doesn’t mean what the U.S. did was always bad or out of pure evil, but imperialist all the same.

      And yes you clearly didn’t read the post as Peter doesn’t even take up that discussion.

  • John Stamps

    My favorite novel of all time, Mark Helprin’s “A Soldier of the Great War,” includes the following observation about empires (in the novel, the Austro-Hungarian empire): “Old cats and dying empires viciously insist upon decorum.” We the People of the United States demand the illusions of our own innocence upon the world-historical stage. We are not the worst empire in the blood-soaked history of the world; we might well be the most historically deluded though. We Americans are absolute geniuses at forgetting and rewriting our own history.

  • Roger Harper

    Many thanks Peter,

    Yes indeed. The Tower of Babel is the archetype of Imperialism, the monolithic dominance needing to be replaced, for the good of humanity, by human diversity. From then on the God of Israel and Jesus is opposed by and to imperialism, by and to the ‘spirit’ of imperialism which is more fundamental than the present embodiment of that spirit.

    Also worth reading: ‘A New Christian Manifesto’ by Bob Ekblad

  • Don Bryant

    Thanks for posting this. There are any number of doors we can walk through to understand how first century peoples heard the Gospel story. This one make a lot of sense to me. The deeper one looks into the Dead Sea Scrolls the clearer becomes the conflict between world systems. Recent reflections on idolatry, per the preaching of Tim Keller, also opens up this strain of New Testament interpretation. It all moves beyond the “how do I get saved?” hermeneutic that is so dominantly at work in my branch of Christianity, though that question is posed and answered at the level of the individual. I do find NT Wright refreshing in his “big sweep” picture in “How God Became King.” Jesus taking on Caesar doesn’t get a lot of press in Evangelical gnosticism.