God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now

In God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now theologian John Dominic Crossan lays out a great case for a nonviolent and non-imperial Christianity.  Yet what I found really interesting is that he did so in a different way than what I have usually heard which usually fundamentally relies on an assumption of authority of the Bible.  I believe in the authority of the Bible (although not inerrancy and definitely not literalism), so this was a refreshingly different way to end up at a similar conclusion.  Those of us who work from an assumption of biblical authority have come up with many different ways to try to explain how the Bible can so clearly be extremely violent at some points and extremely nonviolent at others.  I make that sound like we have to lie to ourselves to solve a contradiction, but I don’t think that’s the case – I really do believe in concepts such as accommodation and progressive revelation.  But those are subjects for different posts.

Anyway, instead of dealing with those many different ways of reconciling the two, Crossan works with the conflict obviously evident in the text and identifies which to him is clearly the nonviolent inspiration of God and which is clearly some counter-productive violence of human authorship.  He doesn’t do this to the point where he dismisses violent passages but he does use them as the example of the human struggle of what not to accept.  So really it is not actually against any assumptions of authority but it is an authority of the flaws of humanity rather than an authority of following their lead.

Crossan uses a lot of different ways of phrasing things to explain this ever-present conflict between the two, but the one that I felt stood out the most was “peace through victory” vs. “peace through justice”.  He argues that all empires, including the current American economic empire, are trying for the first.  They want world peace, and the way to achieve that they think is through victory.  By subjecting those who disagree under a powerful leadership – whether military, economic or even social or religious – there is peace.  It might be an uneasy peace where a lot of people aren’t really that happy, but outwardly, people aren’t physically killing each in large numbers.  If you know your ancient history, you know the term Pax Romana – the Roman Peace – and this was exactly what it was: peace through victory.  This idea is in tension throughout the whole Bible with the idea of peace through justice, which he argues (and I’d agree) is what God desires.

Specifically, the book breaks down into five chapters.  The first addresses the idea that civilization is inherently violent, especially national/imperial civilization since there is a clear us vs them.  I know some people would object to this on optimistic principle, but I’m not sure you can find an example at any point in history where it is true, so I’d say that even if it is optimistically possible it still isn’t realistic.  So I’m not going to spend much time on that first chapter.

Chapters Two through Five were much more interesting in my opinion, and I’d say got more and more interesting from one to the next. Chapter Two was primarily an overview of the Old Testament.  This is the prime opportunity for him to set up this dialectic between violence and nonviolence that I’d agree with him in saying runs throughout the whole Bible – not a strictly violent Old Testament God and a strictly nonviolent New Testament God as is sometimes portrayed.  Crossan spends a great deal of time looking at the laws of the Old Testament which we Christians normally ignore.  For sure some of the Old Testament had some violence we consider very excessive today, even for a lot of things that we don’t consider to be morally wrong today like eating shrimp, or homosexuality, or wearing cotton-polyester blend clothing.  But Crossan does a good job of zooming out a bit farther and seeing an important theme in the laws that point to the heart of God.

This theme is that of distributive justice rather than retributive justice.  Crossan argues (and I’d agree) that God does not punish and reward, but he does work through the consequences of our actions to bring about an equal society.  So while we consider many of the laws to be outlawing things that shouldn’t be outlawed, from the perspective of the time, many of the laws were actually restrictions that stopped people from exacting retributive justice.  For example, if somebody stabbed your eye, you were allowed to take an eye for an eye, but you were not allowed to kill them, which would have been the norm for other societies of this region in that era.  Of course Jesus would later take this particular example a step farther in the Sermon on the Mount by saying to forgive your enemies and not even try to “get even”, but in my mind that is an example of progressive revelation.  To pair this up with the distinction I made earlier, peace through victory is retributive justice – just punish the bad guys enough that they won’t do anything bad any more – while when Crossan says peace through justice he means peace through distributive or restorative justice.

Chapter Three moves onward to the New Testament with the Gospels, specifically the Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke (John is far more theological while the Synoptics are much more ethical).  Jesus is clearly a pacifist, and I’d agree with Crossan and a lot of others I’ve heard say that anybody who doesn’t think that from an honest reading of the Gospels is fooling themselves.  I think it is fair to debate whether he meant for everybody to be nonviolent, his followers forever to be nonviolent, his specific followers at the time to be nonviolent, or that nobody has to be even though he himself was (the Just War position of most of the church).  I feel like a lot of this section was blatantly obvious to anybody who has actually read the Gospels without trying to twist them so I’ll cut this section short quickly as well.

Chapter Four moves on to the second most influential person in the history of Christianity: Paul.  Or more accurately, the three different “Paul”s we have in our Scriptures.  As Crossan labels them, there is the “radical Paul”, the “liberal Paul”, and the “conservative Paul”.  While I hadn’t heard those specific labels before, it is well established by the majority of scholars that there are clearly three different people writing in the name of Paul.  From my own reading I would probably be willing to merge radical Paul and liberal Paul as the original Paul, but I don’t think you can get around conservative Paul being a different person.  The original Paul from whom we have 7 letters was extremely radical, while the second Paul (3 letters) was less radical but still liberal to his society, and the third (3 letters) was conservative conforming to his society.

Crossan uses the role of women as his example, which again is one I’ve heard before as a clear dividing line between the three Pauls.  Radical Paul was the closest to Jesus when it came to this crazy justice of equality.  Radical Paul clearly had a lot of women involved in his movement in key leadership roles.  The list in Romans 16 is really all you need to look at to see this.  Of the 27 names listed, 10 are women.  Of the 11 who get some form of special mention, 5 are women.  A wife (Prisca) is listed before her husband (Aquila).  Junia is said to be prominent among the apostles.  Very radical stuff that we might be tended to gloss over because “it is just a list of names”.  Liberal Paul steps back a little bit but would still be pushing societal norms in Ephesians 5:22-33 and Colossians 3:18-19.  Those passages specify that wives should submit to their husbands which shocks us now but would have been an “of course” for them.  However it is still somewhat radical in that husbands are also told to love their wives as Christ loves the Church and to never treat them harshly.  This would have been unheard of at the time, not to mention that it is a much more challenging task than submission, so definitely still liberal even if not as radical as the original Paul.  The third Paul, conservative Paul, author of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus as well as the addition in 1 Corinthians 12 which isn’t in the earliest manuscripts, is of course the one who still gets quoted today by complementarians who deny female leadership in the church or the home.  This Paul says that he never permits any women to speak, which is either hyperbole or it is not the same Paul who praised the leadership of many women in other places.  Anyway, this trend in “Paul” sets up the trend that will continue with the final chapter as we see how an initially very radical movement was watered down within two or three generations.

The final chapter was especially interesting as Crossan took on the apocalyptic literature.  He sets up the contrast again by comparing the Little Apocalypse of Mark (Chapter 13; also Matthew 24) to Revelation.  The Synoptic version is much more suited to Jesus while the Revelation version returns to an idea of retributive justice where the bad people and this bad earth are obliterated with direct violence from Jesus.  At least that’s how he reads it – I’d disagree on the Revelation bit, but probably the majority of Christians would side with him on saying that Revelation presents a violent end of the world.  He thus sees this as a falling away from the revolutionary teaching of Jesus and instead moves toward endorsing the usual retributive justice attitude of Empire.

My general conclusion of the book is that I agree with his general points even if I disagree with some of his biblical interpretation (mainly questions around the historical Jesus as well the intended meaning of Revelation).  It is hard for any legitimate scholar to argue that Jesus was not a revolutionary in some sense.  There are a few things that are essentially undebatable about the historical Jesus: he lived, he taught, and he was executed by the Romans.  Those things are testified to in Roman sources, not just the Gospels.  The Romans didn’t kill people just for fun – they would have been far too worried about an uprising for killing a religious leader – so Jesus obviously did something in his teachings that made them think they had to shut him up.  We get a lot of glimpses at that radical Empire-disrupting teaching in the New Testament as well as in the life of the early church.  We’ve often watered that down as the church so that we really aren’t that radical anymore.  I therefore recommend this book for the sole reason of being reminded of just how revolutionary Jesus was and to take those lessons for us as the church to continue his revolution of the Kingdom of God.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.