September 4, 2007
God and Empire
BY JOHN DEAR
John Dominic Crossan, New Testament scholar and bestselling author, has just published
an illuminating book about the nonviolence of Jesus, God and Empire: Jesus Against
Rome, Then and Now (Harper San Francisco, New York, 2007).
In it he outlines an important point or two. First is the notion that the Christian Bible
strives mightily to paint a radical portrait of a just and nonviolent God. Such a portrait, he
says, counters our ancient suppositions. Namely, our taking for granted civilization's
claim to violence and injustice. Civilization claims violence as its due -- a prerogative, it
assumes, sanctioned under heaven's approving eye. Our minds are transfixed, and we go
along; we abdicate to the state. We regard violence as natural, customary, the exclusive
privilege of those in power.
But here and there the Bible imparts a different view -- God sanctions no violence.
Trouble is, the view comes down to us murky, adulterated, partly hidden in the shadows.
Why aren't things clearly stated? Because the world impinges and muddles matters, even
among the hallowed pages of scripture, for the civilized have always lived amid armies
and dungeons, pograms and coups. In such a world, the rigors of nonviolence weigh
heavily. And humanity struggles and fails -- even to some extent the composers of
Scripture. The struggle over nonviolence even goes on within the Bible's own pages.
From Genesis to Revelation, we have two Gods, as it were. A God on one hand who
loves God's enemies, who on the just and the unjust sends abundant rain. And a vengeful
God on the other hand, all sulfur and fire. A great incompatibility. The Bible thrashes
about in its own travail. Says Crossan, "Again and again we manage to mute [God's
vision of nonviolence] back into the normalcy of violent injustice." And the reader of the
Bible wonders: Which God is humanity up against? Which vision are we to seize hold
The vision we seize, says Crossan, must be the one incarnated by the historical Jesus.
And Jesus was nonviolent. On this matter both Crossan and I insist. "It is not the violent
but the nonviolent God who is revealed to Christian faith in Jesus of Nazareth and
announced to Christian faith by Paul of Tarsus."
Here is a startling revelation of God in Jesus -- almost too good to be true. God is
nonviolent. God worked through Jesus and his followers to subvert, nonviolently, the
empire of Rome. And the young Christian communities took up the challenge. They were
bands that emulated as best they could Jesus' nonviolent resistance against the Roman
Pursuing the matter, Crossan poses the issue. "Since the Old Roman Empire crucified our
Lord Jesus Christ, how can we be his faithful followers in America as the New Roman
Empire?" The inference follows naturally -- the vocation of American Christians is to
emulate similar resistance against our empire at home.
Crossan poses a few questions more, and the heart trembles to read them. "Is our
Christian Bible violent or nonviolent? … Is Bible-fed Christian violence … instigating
our imperial violence as the New Roman Empire?" And among the final pages are others
yet: "How is it possible to be a nonviolent Christian within a violent Christianity based on
a violent Christian Bible? How is it possible to be a faithful Christian in an American
empire facilitated by a violent Christian Bible?"
If we take such questions to heart, they fling us into the gravity and tensions of history.
They place us, as Crossan says, where God's radical nonviolence challenges the habitual
violence of civilization and where civilization's violence challenges the nonviolence of
Such is the place Jesus himself occupied before the Roman procurator Pilate. Here was
the emissary of the nonviolent God facing off with a functionary of empire -- an empire,
need it be added, that employed violence as a matter of course. Jesus said, "My kingdom
does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants
would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the [Judeans]. But as it is, my
kingdom is not here." (John 18:36)
"This world," says Crossan, means something far more specific than the third planet from
the sun. It expresses the customary way of the world; it means "empire and the barbarism
of civilization." And so the tenor of Jesus' testimony, according to Crossan, was this:
"Your soldiers hold me, Pilate, but my companions will not attack you even to save me
from death. Your Roman empire, Pilate, is based on the injustice of violence, but my
divine kingdom is based on the justice of nonviolence."
Between the two kingdoms stands but one difference. Not that one kingdom is here and
the other among the stars. Not that one is now and the other beyond time. Or that one is
secular and the other religious -- an unheard of distinction in those days. "The crucial
difference," Crossan says, "-- and the only one mentioned -- is Jesus' nonviolence and
With his standoff with Pilate, Jesus entered a crucible of his own making. Just days
earlier he had outsmarted his opponents, turned their puzzles and conundrums back on
their heads. ("Shall we stone the adulteress according to the Law?" they asked. "Let the
one without sin be the first," he answered.) But there is no such attempt with Pilate. No
appeal for reform. No effort at all to finesse his way toward another day. Here was
history's quintessential clash and Jesus would take it to its natural finale.
"Jesus," Crossan says, "could have told Pilate that Rome's rule was unjust and God's rule
was just. That would have been true, but it would have avoided the issue of whether
God's just rule was to be established by human or divine violence." Which is to say, it fell
to Jesus not to convince with argument or move with feeling. It fell to him to embody the
problem, to exemplify it, so to say, in the stream of history. "Beneath the problem of
empire," Crossan says, "is the problem of justice, but beneath the problem of justice is the
problem of violence." Jesus held the problem close to his body
And so today, on the shoulders of American Christians, is laid a crucible of our own. We
must make a choice, Crossan says. Do we choose a God of violence, rooted in the course
of human events? Or choose the God of nonviolence incarnate in Jesus?
It matters how we choose. Choose one way, and the die has been cast for the way of the
world, a fable, an oxymoron -- a jagged peace nailed together through violence. Choosing
the other, leads to discipleship and union and the ordained way of God -- organic peace
thriving through justice.
Officialdom today has peace much on their lips -- a full blown Pax Americana. The
media rhapsodizes in terms of sole superpower and new empire. Officials seize on the
ancient notion of divine right. American destructive power tightens throats with pride.
And in the confusion Christian communities fall into being co-opted and into irrelevance.
Our irrelevance in turn saddles us with the enormous questions Crossan dares to ask. As
followers of the nonviolent Jesus, what to do? As those who live in the belly of the new
empire, how to respond?
Reading Crossan leads me to a few answers. Shortly put, our vocation is to non-cooperate
with the American empire. Ours is to refuse to be imperial people. And the forms of our
refusal are for each of us to find. Declining to join the military. Withholding our taxes for
war. Practicing downward mobility. Serving those on the margins. Caring for the
Second, we must fix our minds on Jesus as our Lord and Savior, as the Apostle Paul so
often stressed. Thereby we place our citizenship in the kingdom of God and declare
ourselves Jesus' attendants, not Bush's and Cheney's. We quit ourselves of being minions
And third, I submit, we embrace nonviolence. We spread the "heresy" of nonviolence.
And as it gallops from heart to heart, when the empire finally falls, it falls nonviolently because of us. And if nonviolently,
then not a dreadful upheaval of malice and blood, but
a gentle transformation of relief and joy.
"There is," Crossan concludes, "both good news and bad news."
The bad news is that our problem is as deep as human civilization itself. … The
good news, as seen from Jesus and Paul, is that the violent normalcy of human
civilization is not the inevitable destiny of human nature. Christian faith and
human evolution agree on that point. Since we invented civilization some six
thousand years ago along the irrigated floodplains of great rivers, we can also
un-invent it -- we can create its alternative. In the challenge of Christian faith, we
are called to cooperate in establishing the Kingdom of God in a transformed
earth. In the challenge of human evolution, we are called to Post-Civilization, to
imagine it, to create it, and to enjoy it on a transfigured earth.
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