Tuesday, June 29, 2010

J-BOM: the Empire in fresh perspective

In recent years, a number of New Testament scholars have highlighted the anti-imperial themes contained in the New Testament. Consider the following from a paper by N. T. Wright's entitled "Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire" (*Disclaimer: Though Wright places significant theological significance on the Jewish meanings inherent in the gospel message, nevertheless his supercessionist viewpoint comes through clearly in this paper. Be challenged by it, but don't take it as the only word on the matter.):
"Paul's declaration that the gospel of King Jesus reveals God's dikaiosyne [righteousness] must also be read, I suggest, as a deliberate laying down of a challenge to the imperial pretension. If it's justice you want, you will find it, not in the euangelion that announces Caesar as Lord, but in the euangelion of Jesus."
After being exposed to a little of this line of thing, it became relatively easy for me to picture Rome as the evil Empire!
Thus, I was particularly struck by the following passage from Milton Steinberg's As A Driven Leaf, in which the central character, Elisha ben Abuya, reflects on how the Roman Empire had changed his world...for the better!?!
Month after month for over a year he pored over records of the nations, Berossus on the Babylonians, Manetho on the Egyptians, Herodotus, Thucydides and numberless chroniclers of Greece and Rome. And the more he read, the more he was confirmed in that judgment of the role of the Empire at which he had first arrived in the chambers of Clarus. For until Rome had conquered the world the entire career of civilized man had been apparently nothing but a harrowing succession of wars. Armies had marched incessantly across all lands, murdering, burning, looting. Thousands of lives had been extinguished in each generation, millions had been subjected to bereavement, pain and misery, treasures on which hosts might have lived in luxury had been consumed--all to no point or purpose.
The motives of the Romans in subduing the peoples were by no means altruistic, and their treatment of the lands under their dominion had not always been beyond reproach, but the effects of the spread of their power could not be denied. Wherever they had gone they had brought back the Pax Romana. It was a precious boon which Italy had forced civilization, that of peace. And with it had come security for the individual and the opportunity to live out his life without hindrance in pursuit of the dreams of his heart. Of what account compared to this was the coerced surrender of their political independence by the nations, whether Gauls, Spaniards, Egyptians or Jews?
Reliving the unhappy past of humanity, Elisha reflected often that a rabbi-priest had once put it well, saying:
"Pray ye for the welfare of the Empire, for, had it not been for the awe of it, men would long since have swallowed one another alive."
Elisha is captivated by the human achievements seemingly made possible by the pax Romana.
But later on in the story, other characters remind Elisha of the signs of Rome's "justice"--people buying and selling other human beings as if they were stone carvings, and roads lined with the crosses of those who had been considered disloyal to Caesar. The Roman justice which so impressed Elisha with its impartiality later proves to be impotent to counteract the will and whim of Caesar himself, and ultimately it cruelly betrays Elisha and dashes his faith in "Roman justice."

In my opinion, it's easy to pick up this anti-Empire theme and run with it. In recent times, more than a few people have cast the Western World (or even the U.S.A.) as the Empire. (Scot McKnight explains here: "So what does 'empire mean'?")

Reflection and honest self-criticism are important. But I think the analogies of the U.S. to "Empire" are often made too lightly, emphasizing the injustices we're still struggling with yet ignoring the breakthroughs we've experienced. I think we ought to be suspicious of allowing our nation to be cast as the "evil empire" in our own thinking.

Back to Elisha: his wonderment at the contribution of Rome to human history deepens my understanding of what it meant to speak out against the Roman Empire in the time of Yeshua and his apostles. They weren't just daring to speak out against a clearly oppressive, evil power. They were also looking at what many saw as the most successful political venture yet and pointing out the ways that it still fell short of true peace and true justice, and that it required a level of allegiance that at times bordered on idolatry. Most importantly, they were preaching and living for the day when the God of Israel caused his kingdom to come fully on the earth, under the authority of his chosen regent, the Messiah, the Son of David.

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