Jesus and Empire
Sunday, December 4, 2005 – 10am
By Bob Reuschlein
Starting with the book “Jesus Before Christianity” by Albert Nolan, I learned this man Jesus was far more subtle than the simplistic deity he’s been portrayed as by modern religion. After five years of carefully going over the gospels line by line, I concluded that one of the most important themes taught by Jesus was all about abuse of power. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Marcus Borg calls this the domination principle. Teaching love is not enough to get one killed, but challenging the power structure is. Jesus was a champion of the outcasts of society, and a thorn in the side of the rich, the powerful, and the religious elites of his day. His mission? Quote: “I come to give you life that you may have it more abundantly”.
He knew, like the Buddha knew before him, that life was much richer when you serve and love even the least among us. All humans have value was his central message, not just those that are in People magazine. This principle is well illustrated by scenes from the movie “Titanic”. In this movie an elite young lady runs off with a poor boy and has the time of her life. While the rich are having a boring dinner on the top decks, the poor people are having a rollicking party below decks. The difference is between being "controlled and reserved" vs. "open and relating". Note the word “control” is an empire word.
This is what Jesus means when he says, “I come to give you life”. Careful reading in context of the 37 passages in the gospels that refer to the “kingdom of god” or the “kingdom of heaven” suggest to me a more earthly interpretation. He uses these terms the way I would use the term “fellowship of humankind”. This is what Jesus refers to when he says it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of god”.
Note also that "eye of the needle" is the gate to a city in those times, not a tiny piece of metal. Such gates had a zigzag baffle type entryway that would block a camel but not a person, like similar gates to environmental areas today, that block bicycles. I use the device of putting in the word "good" for "God" to read the bible in more secular terms. The rich tend to divorce themselves from the rest of us, and this alienation or isolation reduces their life experiences, a kind of self imposed mild purgatory, if not exactly hell, at least a separation from God. So the rich are cutting themselves off from good, as I see it, in the "eye of the needle" quote.
While John the Baptist is known for his fasting, Jesus is known for his eating meals with all manner of people, partying if you will, another part of his giving us a model of life. Jesus urged a carefree attitude, asking his followers not to obsess about their needs, reminding them how nature provides for the birds in the air. The miracle of the loaves and fishes is all about feasting rather than fasting. The Last Supper is the way he wants to be remembered. He urges us to let our light shine.
He understands that the richness of life is predicated on being in touch with all of the human experience, including poverty, sin and ill health. In his day, as now, people tend to blame the victims of bad circumstances and to avoid them. Not Jesus. We gravitate instead to those who are momentarily successful. Momentarily, I say, because we all have our ups and downs. We are undervalued in youth or old age. Jesus urges us to become as little children again, full of openness, honesty, and wide eyed wonder. Those of position and honor, looking down their long noses on the rest of us, are cutting themselves off from the “kingdom of god”, the fullness of life, and the fullness of connection to the full range of human experience and wonder. That is how we build our own hells, like Howard Hughes in the penthouse in Mexico City.
Jesus constantly criticizes Pharisees, scribes, and the rich, while elevating the status of the poor and downtrodden. He calls the Pharisees “like empty sepulchres, pretty on the outside, but full of dust and bones inside”. He tells the parable of the poor man eating outside the rich man's house and their role reversal in the afterlife.
Another major theme of Jesus is against group solidarity, the idea that there is an “us” vs. “them”. So he not only tells us to love our enemies, but that his ideas of equality are more important than even family loyalty. The Good Samaritan story tells us our actions are more important than our status. Jesus challenged patriarchy in many ways: with his mother and Mary Magdelene, concerning divorce and the stoning of the woman, with the woman by the well, with the demeaning of children. Patriarchy and group solidarity are at the root of many wars.
Contrary to the most common Christian myth, Jesus does not consider himself God. The gospels refer in several places to all of us as children of God. John the Baptist teaches people to become children of God. Jesus himself calls all of us children of God. Jesus tells the Pharisee Nicodemus how he can become a Son of God. Jesus even rebukes a man who calls him “good master” or “good teacher” by saying “Why do you call me good, only God the Father is good.” In Luke, Adam, the first man is listed as the son of God. So Son of God is a common title for many if not all of us. Renee Du Bois “A God Within” may be right. That tends to make Jesus a Universalist (we are all saved) and a Unitarian (there is one God, not a trinity). This interpretation seems much more consistent with Jesus' pervasive emphasis on equality and against hierarchical notions. Thus Jesus challenges the notion of the trinity in the overwhelming body of his thinking, as he emphasizes equality and service, the poor, the sick, rather than elevating some people over others as much of humanity does. This is very consistent with all his criticisms of various hierarchies and domination systems. I do not think he would approve his elevation to the status of God in the modern Christian church.
It took a long time to develop the idea that Jesus is divine. The earliest gospels, the synoptic gospels of Mark, Luke, and Matthew were written forty years after Jesus’ death and Jesus is mainly silent or avoids making glorified claims about himself. One exception is the Messiah claim where Peter calls him that and he promptly swears Peter to silence. The deification of Jesus seems to begin with the gospel of John, different in nature from the early Gospels, written ninety years after Jesus’ death, a time when few people, if any, who had known the real Jesus would be alive. John seems to have been written with the theology of the emerging church in mind. In John there are frequent suggestions of the divinity of Christ. The Doubting Thomas story may be in the Gospels to discredit the secular Gospel of Thomas. There were about fifteen early versions of the Gospels, but only four were chosen as official. One of the rejected versions talks about slaying dragons in Egypt. I personally think some of the Jesus story was ginned up to keep up with the Jones’ because many deity stories of the time featured virgin births and crucifications.
Jesus’s brothers and sisters come up to him in one passage, putting in question the virgin birth story. Some historians consider Jesus the third born of seven. The feast of the Immaculate Conception was declared a holy day of obligation in Vatican I in 1876. Gee, that took a long time to figure out. It took eight hundred years for the church to forbid priests to marry. This first century or so many Christian communes were lead by women and there were women bishops. The real meaning of Christmas is that it was renamed to coopt the pagan holiday of Saturnia, and keeps many of the same old practices. Some say Jesus’ missing years were spent in a monastery in Tibet until 26 AD when records show a man from his part of the world left for home. The New Testament rejects the violence of the Old Testament. My impression of the difference in the two testaments is mainly that lack of justified violence in the New Testament. The Israelites committed genocide against the Canaanites, for example. The whole flavor of the New Testament is more loving and kind, reminding me of Eastern religions like Buddhism. Hence the Tibet story has some plausibility.
Jesus rebukes those who cast aside one wife for another as adulterers. This may be as much a criticism of a form of the domination system as a criticism of divorce. Getting rid of one wife for another seems to be the crime here, not the recognition of a failed mutual companionship that we mainly have now.
With all the criticism of the rich and sayings in favor of the poor is Jesus a socialist? The parable of the talents may make him a capitalist. There he criticizes the servant who buries his gold in the ground and applauds the one who doubles his money in commerce. But could this just be an allegory about not wasting one’s abilities? Who knows? Jesus teaches us to avoid jealousy by giving the parable of the vineyard, where workers who arrive to work late in the day are paid the same as those who started early. Thus he pays them according to their needs, a socialist concept.
Intuitively the prince of peace Jesus knows how much damage is done by human strivings to be "top dog". The "peck order" system leads to wars and enemies, not love one another, turn the other cheek, and forgiveness. He urges us to forgive “seventy times seven”. He gives the parable of the prodigal son. He urges people going to church to set aside their offerings and first settle their differences with anyone they have offended. He talks about the good shepherd who leaves the flock to find the lost sheep.
Does Jesus favor “separation of church and state”? Probably so judging by his "render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s". He also says, “the Sabbath was made for man, man was not made for the Sabbath,” when the Pharisees question his healing a person on the Sabbath. This supports the "question authority" Jesus who reviles the strict constructionists of his day, the Pharisees. His message of radical egalitarianism contrasts with the “corrupted by power” individuals who preach in his name today. He warns us about “false prophets who will come in his name” and this makes me think of the prowar prorich Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
The main mission of Jesus was to challenge the system of dominance of some people over others. In this very fundamental way he challenges the essence of empire, which is control. That control alienates the rich and powerful from others personally, while taunting others with the power of empire alienates the world from the United States today. It seems like the very use of power tends to distance people from each other.
Jesus was particularly hard on the Pharisees, calling them on their hypocrisy. They were ostentatiously pious taking the seat of honor yet full of greed and wickedness inside. Ultimately, these Pharisees followed him around trying to trip him up. These sticklers for the law tried to stop this free spirit.
Jesus praises the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the righteous, pure and merciful. But his highest praise is for the peacemakers as children of God. He himself is a peacemaker when he stops a woman from being stoned to death by asking “he who is perfect to cast the first stone.” He urges us to not be judgmental saying “judge not lest you be judged.”
The reality of empire is so very far afield from the teachings of Jesus. Empires are haughty and judgmental. Empires will either find or make enemies, and are almost never merciful. They are not humble, like the poor in spirit. Empires are seldom peacemakers. Empires expect deference, expect others to yield to them in every way. Empires are sticklers for the law, just like the Pharisees, yet they are hypocrites, doing whatever they want with impunity.
No one will tell the emperor that he is wearing no clothes.
In my “decay of empire” sermon, I pointed out the harshness of the empire society, full of stagnation and crime. The empire society is win lose and petty, with nothing of the graciousness of Jesus’ “love one another” society. The empire society revels in the barbarity of the gladiators and/or football players. The empire society is like feudalism, being judgmental like the Pharisees, and resorting to the inquisition for heretics then and favoring torture today. This is reminiscent in some ways of the intolerance of the modern fundamentalists.
So Jesus stands opposed to everything empire stands for. When others set themselves up as better than the rest of us, as alpha dominant, as winners sitting on top of the peck order of human societies, they are almost setting themselves up as Gods. And as Jesus says, no one can serve two masters because one or the other master will be preferred. So empire and those who run the empire run up against the first commandment. “I am the Lord thy God, thou shall not put false Gods before me.” Hierarchies, dominance, and control always lead to abuses cutting us off from the source of life, the fullness of life among social creatures like the human being. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Pride comes before a fall. As you sow so shall you reap. The meek shall inherit the earth. Empire corrupts itself and brings about it’s own downfall. Love is the way the truth and the life. Blessed Be.