Severing the Rhetorical Roots of the Empire

Written by Brandon Rhodes : January 31, 2008

(This essay was originally prepared for presentation at the NW Inklings convening, November 2007, where participants answered the questions, “What is the prophetic ministry and how does it function? And in what way is the church prophetic?”. It has since been posted in a special collection at Andrew Perriman’s

The church’s prophetic function toward the world is usually characterized by its advocates as being counter-cultural. Indeed, being “counter-cultural” is core to the prophetic nature of the church. But being counter-cultural is not enough. Rob Bell describes the church as “God’s counter-cultural insurgency that actually things the world can be put back together.” And I think he nailed it with that last clause, that inclusion of hope in his definition. After all, the prophet’s function in the Old Testament is one who primarily announces judgment and hope. So also the church’s living out hope is prophetic, announcing God’s reign amid a broken and aching world.

Much has already been written on how to be that prophetic community, but I have encountered frustratingly little about how to give prophetic language to that prophetic life together. Just as faith without works is dead, so also prophetic works without prophetic words may lack the full potential of prophecy’s pierce to contemporary culture. Jeremiah’s prophetic actions would have made little sense to Israel if they were not somehow legible to his hearers. Likewise, what sense would the church make without investing its prophetic actions with legible language?

To be sure, prophetic language is more than bluntly explaining what is going on, thought that is a start. More: it does so by very consciously saddling its claims right alongside the claims of the world, making their differences plain. Two questions from here must be asked: what, theologically, is prophetic language explaining? And does the New Testament provide any examples of the kind of prophetic language we’re digging at?

Here is what prophetic language explains. The late Lesslie Newbigin says that in the Acts of the Apostles, time and again the question being asked of the church by onlookers is, “What is this new reality?” Their answers to that question was that the kingdom of God was breaking in. That is immensely telling: somehow, when the church was most being the church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it revealed a new reality, the life of the Age to Come. Their life announced that not only was another world possible, but in fact that it was in some strange way being anticipated in their midst. The shalom, joy, reconciliation, worship, and healing that will so characterize the world to come is pouring through the seams of the present one, and, as Paul says, the world smells the aroma of the Messiah. The church is being salt and light of new creation amid the competing claims of the present age over how to be truly human. That, I suggest, is at the heart of the prophetic nature of the church.

Yet this fresh reality of new creation needs fresh language to describe it.

Paul created fresh, prophetic language to explain, implement, and steer the prophetic nature of the church and the kingdom of Jesus by taking from the language of the Roman Empire. N.T. Wright has written thoughtfully on this in his essay “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” and Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat have written an entire book on the topic in Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire.

The gist of Wright, Walsh, and Keesmaat’s ideas are that throughout his epistles, Paul takes the language normally ascribed to Caesar, and reworks it around Jesus. Language of man’s empire is challenged by similar language about Jesus’ kingdom. Where the gospel was that Caesar was the son of God, ascended and now sending his messengers to announce his worldwide reign of peace and justice, now Jesus’ gospel is that he is the true Son of God, ascended and sending messengers to announce his true worldwide reign of real peace and justice. Proper response to the former is to confess that “Caesar is Lord,” but Paul says the proper response to the true gospel is a confession that “Jesus is Lord”. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, concerning Paul’s dissident, prophetic language.

Paul answers the question of “what is this new reality?” with sly, subversive answers that aren’t just talismans of ethereal theology to sate so strange a question, but instead are stark challenges to the power-holders and rhetoric-dispensers of his culture. I believe that the church, if it is to let its prophetic nature flourish, must do the same.

So, what are today’s treasonous claims? What empire-language must be subverted for Christ’s sake? What does America and the global market claim for itself which rightly belong to God and the church? Hear the following with an ear not just to what may politically offend, but to what is treasonous to King Jesus. Hear also their aspirations, aspirations which are only a mockery next to God’s kingdom. Hear where these tomes can be reimagined in subversive poetry around Him. Now, let the facts be submitted to a candid world.

Can we echo the US Constitution in doxology-form, as Paul echoed Caesar-language? It begins with

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Now hear echoes of atonement language that most fully belong to Jesus; this from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Could we form atonement language which echoes Lincoln? I’ll come back to that later.

Thomas Paine, the great Revolution-era propagandist, said,

“We have it within our power to begin the world over again.”

Our power? The world was made anew on Easter, not in the Enlightenment!

George W Bush said,

“America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America.”

I believe the cross is the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world, Mr. President. And what, the church should ask, does he mean by “the best of America”, and how might it compare with the “the best of Christ Jesus”?

Elsewhere President Bush said,

“This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”

Is anyone else seeing, as Paul saw, that the empire’s mythic language must be confronted by the truth of Jesus?

Bush, again:

“In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America, because we are freedom’s home and defender. And the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time.”

That is as much a theological claim as it is a political one, claiming for the American empire language which rightly belongs to Jesus and his church.

More Bush:

“Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

Heresy! Treason! Jesus is ridding the world of evil! How dare any institution sap the cross and empty tomb of such power. That the church has so clangingly failed to hear these claims as power-plays against the real Commander-in-Chief, Jesus Christ, baffles me utterly.

One more from Bush:

“America is united. The freedom-loving nations of the world stand by our side. This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail.”

Again, didn’t Jesus already beat evil? Didn’t good prevail in the resurrection? We must not be led astray by this false gospel of anyone but the true King beating evil.

And let’s not forget that great myth that world history can be benevolently guided by the invisible hand of the market. One wonders, what ever happened to the invisible hand of Yahweh Almighty in ruling history? We have put ourselves, rhetorically, in the wrong hand.

Finally, here’s an easy one to subvert:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America,
and to the Republic for which it stands,
one nation, under God, indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all.

If Christian conversion is about allegiance, this pledge must be stood down. We must pledge allegiance to King Jesus.

Before giving an example of how we might use imperial language as prophetic language, we should pause to hear one important contour about how Paul reclaimed imperial claims from Caesar for Jesus: he often simultaneously drew from the imagery, language, rhetoric, and aspirations of Jewish memory, custom, and scripture at the same time! He didn’t just steal from Caesar’s pledge of allegiance or just quote Micah 6:8. No, he often did both. Paul drew from biblical language and from contemporary power-language, and let them dance worshipfully in the minds of his readers!

The evangelical movement has been great at only doing the latter, quoting scripture, proof-texting; but we have been lousy at synthesizing biblical language and allusions with the language of the contemporary culture and empire. So, it is important to me, if this experiment is to follow Paul’s lead, that we reach one hand into the language-banks of our religious traditions, stories, and memories, and the other hand into the mythic language of contemporary empires. Combined they sharpen one another, and our prophetic life together.

I’ll end my presentation today with these few remixes, only partially grasping, I admit, this final ingredient of biblical allusions:

Language of “the axis of evil” might read:

“The axis of evil — sin, rebellious powers, and the devil — was challenged, exhausted, and defeated decisively on the cross of Jesus Christ.”

President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which I quoted an excerpt from earlier, may be paraphrased in Jesus as

“Two millenia ago, our Father brought forth onto this world a new creation, conceived in suffering, and dedicated to the proposition that God’s kingdom has the last word. … But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this world. The humble servant, dead but now alive, who suffered on Golgotha, has consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. … From Jesus crucified we take increased devotion to that cause for which he gave the last full measure of devotion — that God’s world, under his reign, shall have a new birth of God’s freedom from sin and death — and that the kingdom of God and his Christ shall not perish from the earth.”

And perhaps God’s churches can have their own pledge of allegiance:

I pledge allegiance to the true Commander in Chief, and to the kingdom for which he died, one church under God, indivisible, with God’s freedom and justice for all.

There is much more to be done. I have begun a Google Document which catalogues the mythic language of America, from founding articles to famous speeches to patriotic parlance to national songs. At the bottom of the document is the beginning of a “Letter to the Church of America” which has inaugurated an effort to put this most fully into effect. Contact me if you’d like to see it, and participate in its creation.

Thank you, and may the Pax Christo, not the Pax Americana, be with us as we invest our churches with prophetic language that provocatively reveals God’s kingdom to contemporary culture.

Author Bio:: Brandon Rhodes lives in missional community in Portland, OR. Gardening, hammocks, pub theology, and Jesus all warm his heart.

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    Yes, I would love to participate in creating this document. I'm also going to post a few of these quotes over at my blog and see if anyone responds to them.
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    Yes! One thing Newbigin says that I think we ought to wrestle with much more- especially those of us who resonate with the communal ecclesiology of the Hauerwas-Yoder variety- is this: We are not so much the agents of mission, as the locus of mission. We are the place where God acts to redeem the world because it is in us (but not only in us) that the Holy Spirit lives and reigns.
    Excellent use of American quotes, I'm looking forward to seeing how the GoogleDoc develops! One thought I've had lately regarding prophetic language in our time is what it will look like poetically. I've often struggled with poetry; anyone have any suggestions for some recent poets that you consider prophetic?
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    Excellent article! I would also be interested in the document, that's just what we need.
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    yeah this is really good stuff. i'd also like to join the Google Doc

    ellens.joshua [at]

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    I really enjoyed reading this article. Very well done! I would be very interested in seeing more of this document and perhaps even being involved in it.

    joelpostma (at)


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