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The Empire and the Gospel

Written by Maria Kirby : October 23, 2008

I’ve been reading Jesus Manifesto for a little over a year now. I like the emphasis on ministering to the poor and living the gospel of peace and forgiveness. I like the honesty and thoughtfulness of all the writers. I appreciate that fact that the writers’ are willing to expose injustice, their suggestions for peaceful solutions, and their honesty about how difficult it is to live the gospel we preach. I like their well thought out challenges to conventional wisdom.

However, I have yet to read something that commends a governmental institution or large religious establishment. Maybe this is because Jesus Manifesto is trying to move the religious pendulum in the other direction, but I get a little queasy with the idea of painting all government with brushstrokes of violence, greed, and abusive power. I’m uncomfortable with equating my home country, USA, with an Empire that needs to be overthrown through subversive methods. I am very uncomfortable with seeing only the negative aspects of large religious institutions without complimenting the positive. I am willing to admit that my country is not perfect, that large does not necessarily mean better, that there are abuses of power happening, that Jesus’ methods of turning the other cheek and walking the second mile have largely been sidelined for glamour and prosperity messages, but that doesn’t mean that I am ready to ditch the system or set up my own church. The bias of Jesus Manifesto has motivated me to study Church history, to form my own opinions about what the past has to say about the relationship between power, money, and ministry.

Through reading the scriptures, I was already aware of how intertwined religion and power were in the Old Testament. Prophets were instrumental in choosing military saviors and dynasties. Kings appointed priests. Central power, secular or religious, provided a national identity and cohesion. Sometimes the religious and secular overlapped such as in King David and King Hezekiah, other times they were more separate such as Ezra and Nehemiah. Distributed power and religious practice allowed for continuity through turbulent times such as in the time of Judges, or Israel’s apostasy, or even later with Daniel and Ezekiel.
There always seemed to be a certain amount of tension between the various groups. God ordained strong leaders to call his people back to purity; God gave ordinary men a mission to call leaders back to justice. God didn’t seem particular who he used. He called a wealthy man with visions of grandeur to father his people; a stuck up spoiled brat to save an infant nation from starvation; a boy his family forgot about to unite beleaguered and quarrelsome tribes into a country identified with the God of the Universe, a powerful prophet to save a foreign widow, disenfranchised Levites to gather together oral tradition into a written testimony that constitutes large portions of our Bible, groups of poets to encourage a displaced and grieving people, persons who inherited their position of song leader to write psalms.

No matter what political entity was in power, whether heathen or believer, God’s Spirit made use of it. He used godly kings to restore his people to faithfulness. He used godly men and women within heathen governments to testify to his faithfulness and redeem his people.

The pattern I see of God working in the Old Testament is very similar to what I see when I read Church history. God used a pagan Empire’s efficient road system and general peace to spread his good news, He used the effective Roman administration and educational systems to bring order and theological rigor to the new faith. Sometimes, God spread his word through kings such as the conversion of King Olaf of Norway, other times he brought repentance through the poor and enslaved such as St Patrick. Sometimes, it was the religious who broke the power of the secular. Other times, secular power punished immoral religious leadership. Throughout, political power was important for both preserving and promoting religious faith.

When Christian communities lost political power, the Christian faith became extinct in the face of prolonged systematic persecution, similar to the ten lost tribes of Israel. Over the centuries there have been several missionary efforts to China which produced Christian communities: the Nestorian church in the fifth and sixth centuries, the Franciscan efforts during the thirteenth century, and Jesuit followed by protestant efforts beginning in the seventeenth century. The first two attempts became extinct from severe persecution. Only the external political power of Europeans and Americans allowed for the preservation of a Chinese Christian community through several centuries of intermittent persecution. Even then, the Christian community suffered local extinction in some places.

In the sixteenth century, Japan saw a Christian community grow to thirty thousand and then go extinct when political forces turn against it. In the eighth century, Christian communities in the Middle East and North Africa suffered under Islamic expansion, surviving when it was in the economic interest of the Imam to allow a degree of tolerance. Even in modern (or post-modern) times we have witnessed the difficulty of Christianity to survive severe persecution and genocide, such as in former Communist countries and Sudan.

I will admit that ministry doesn’t thrive very well with an excess of money and power; that Christian witness dies when Christians are more focused on attaining either than their Lord or their fellow man. From my brief review of historical evidence it seems as though there is a delicate balance between excess and dearth that allows for the spread of Christianity. In some ways it seems as though the pendulum swing between poverty and wealth drives the ratchet, and keeps the spirit ticking.

Author Bio:: An admirer of Jesus Manifesto, and a daydreamer with more ideas than energy, time, or money to make happen. And who sometimes wishes for the ordinary, like a clean house.




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Comments

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    As we continue to review the narrative we have graciously been brought into it can be difficult to discern what lessons are to be learned from our reading and retelling.
    Your words here have reminded me of God's sovereignty, and given me pause to wonder what He is up to. We can ask "why," and "how long" with the Psalmists, because while He has passed down to us a peculiar ethic, it does not always appear that He is playing by the same rules!
    Our friend, Greg Boyd, has undertaken some of this more difficult work, and each of us wrestles with it in some way everyday in practical matters. What has helped me is frequent reminders of God's greatness, and my responsibility to be obedient to what I understand Him to be saying to me through scripture, tradition, and conviction.
    The peculiar ethical stance which rejects the use of force and adopts subversive yet non-violent methods for making space for the church is entered voluntarily. I believe that Christian attempts to manipulate political mechanisms are compromising and end up enlarging the space of the state, crowding out the church, rather than making way for the Kingdom. That God has manipulated these same mechanisms without risk of compromise demonstrates how far above all this He resides.
    We follow the Christarchical path because we believe in miracles, and that in being obedient to His mandate to us, we make room for Him to perform His perfect will in the human institutions which fall under the temporal dominion of the evil one.
    Nathanael Snow
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    http://www.gregboyd.org/books/myth-of-a-christi...
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    Is the author suggesting the Kingdom of God is expanded through violent effort?
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    I am not advocating violence, I am merely observing that God uses all circumstances to his glory. I also see that the preservation of Christian community has sometimes resulted in the use of force, much in the same way a porcupine uses quills or horse bites or kicks.
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    Are you condoning such uses of force (what specifically are you referring to within history)?
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    Yes, but we still know who are the Nestorians ARE and we know about Matteo Ricci, and we know their legacies. All of these groups are important to Christianity, and much of the time, when Christianity is supported by empire, Christianity becomes stagnant (as it did in SOME places during SOME periods of the Middle Ages, I'm a historian, so I don't like to make generalizations about history). The facts also from Acts and other places that Christianity grows expotentially when it is in opposition to empire, as it was for the first three centuries to Nicea and Constantine.
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    When Christianity is seen as the opposite of corrupt authority it attracts followers. In post-Christendom many people equate Christianity with corrupt authority, particularly here in the USA. so Christian groups that are anti-political or apolitical have more traction than those who want to participate in the system.

    But I would still like to contend that the growth of the Church during the first three centuries had a lot to do with the fact that the Roman Empire had a general policy of religious tolerance and travel within the empire was relatively safe and easy. When Christians were persecuted in one locale they had the opportunity to move to another where there was less or none at all.
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    Yes. Christianity grew under the Roman Empire, but it often grew apart from political power.
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    Hello Maria,

    Kudos to you for writing something that (as far as I can tell) won't go over all that well with the crowd here. Of course, I disagree with most of what you say as well, but still, kudos. This sort of dialogue is very good.

    There is much that I would want to challenge or question about what you say, but I reckon other commentators have and will continue to jump on those things.

    At the point, I only really want to challenge the historical point you make about the growth of Christianity in the first three centuries. You mention two common misconceptions: (1) that the Empire had a general policy of religious tolerance; and (2) that travel within the empire was "relatively safe and easy".

    I'll start with the second point. The word "relatively" is important here. Yes, the Romans built a lot of roads and, yes, this made travel easier for some, and faster for a good many. Yes, the Romans had also cleared the Mediterranean of most (the rhetoric of 'all' is a little over-inflated!) pirates, so that also made sea travel relatively safer. However, the roads generally were safer for those who were armed (soldiers) or those who could afford to travel with armed guards and companions (the wealthy). For other travelers, like a poor artisan like Paul, the roads were still quite dangerous. Think of the dangers Paul lists in his travels and we begin to see how dangerous travel was for the vast majority of people within the empire. The dangers faced by Paul are extreme by our standards, even if travel was 'relatively' safer than before the roads were built. The same can be said about sea travel. The removal of pirates made travelers safer from harmful people, but not from other elements. Recall, again, that Paul was shipwrecked on more than one occasion. This would not be an uncommon experience. Thus, for example, when we read authors like Juvenal, we hear multiple references to beggars sitting with pictures of a ship in a storm, which shows that they were made destitute because they were shipwrecked and lost everything (this was how beggars communicated in a largely illiterate society).

    Returning to your first point, it should be emphasised that the religious tolerance shown by Rome carried a good many provisos. Thus, for example, Romans allowed many people to worship a variety of gods -- but they also required people to participate in the Imperial Cult (NB: this is true of the early imperium, and not just of the later empire). So, the empire would tolerate a good many of your gods, if you would also tolerate its gods. A group that wanted to be shown tolerance, while refusing to participate in things like the imperial cult, would not be tolerated.

    Further, being fearful of the development of subversive groups, the Romans put strict boundaries on what religious groups could and could not do. Thus, for example, meeting together on a weekly basis was illegal. Things get interesting here, because the Jews were pretty unique in being allowed to meet weekly in Synagogues and celebrate Sabbath (although the Jews had an uneasy [at best!] relationship with Rome). Thus, I would suggest that a good many of the tensions that exist between Paul and the so-called 'Judaizers' is tension related to the political status of the early Christian communities. In particular, the Jewish communities want to argue to the authorities that Paul and his people are practicing an illegal religion (which was true) and so the 'Judaizers' wanted to take on the traditional marks of Judaism in order to avoid (political) persecution. It is this that Paul rejects. Christians must be willing to move into subversive and illegal territory... come what may.

    So this, then, begins to pain a different picture of primitive Christianity, arguing that its growth should not be premised upon assistance form the Empire. Instead, I think we should look elsewhere for explanations of the growth of Christianity.

    However, I've gone on far too long. Grace and peace to you.
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    Maria,

    Because we have gently sparred a bit in the past, and because you have taken the time to share your thoughts in this way, I thought I'd take a moment to say that I'm more sympathetic than I was, say, six months ago. My reasons are almost certainly different from yours, but that doesn't matter so much. Like you, I retain an admiration for those who maintain a consistently radical outlook.

    Me, I've had to make peace with the realization that I'm more of a liberal. It's not as sexy, but the shoe fits. You? Well, I can't represent you -- that's your prerogative. Keep it up.

    Peace to you,

    Ted
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    Thanks.

    I really don't know what label I fit into. My sons' classmates think we're some sort of technological Amish. But I doubt the Amish or Mennonites would really find themselves compatible with some of my beliefs.
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    awesome article...more complete response coming. :) Thanks, Maria
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    The Kingdom of God, the reign of God, is here; now. Living in this "native country" I must live by the ways of that reign, must live that life-style, must desire this and work and live for this. This will not help the military industrial economic complex of any nation, but it will bring life to the dead, meaning to all that has happened and is happening and will ever happen even in those very nations and complexes of their reign. Only seeing the world through this lens or in this Light give me hope and here and now in the midst of the ways of the world man have made--joy; the American Dream is for Americans; the Marxist Dream for Marxists, etc, but the Dream of God, the view of this world from the other side of the cross (right here in this very world), from the eyes of one who has been raised from the world of the dead in Christ, sees the same world as everyone else, but one in which even sin is now seen in Light (Glory, for it is God's Light) of the cross and resurrection and presence of God among us here and now in concrete human flesh in the person before me. The Kingdoms of the world man has constructed of the things of the God can not (can not, not will not) bring anything but greater power and use of that power and therefore violence to bring about even peace. Hence "peace-makers" as a euphemism for "armed Force." Live in the Kingdoms of this world as pilgrims. Love it, work for it's peace, but we are citizens, fellow citizens of the kingdom of God. That is not something to work for, it is here. Faith is a matter of living in that kingdom, here and now.
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    I love what you've brought to the fore, Maria.

    One of my biggest concerns with Jesus Manifesto is that it might turn into a myopic, navel-gazing gripe-fest. :) I think we've avoided that thus far, but it's a fine line sometimes.

    But I know Nathan and I kind of raise eyebrows a lot when comments will pop up that are strongly anti-government politically but not economically, or Mark and I where there seems to be a social critique without Christ's heart behind it. But it's ok, and I've fallen into some of those traps as well.

    But perspective is crucial, and your comment about balance is crucial. Here in the states, the concern about is about too much Christianity in government, not too little; therefore for those arguing against, you begin to sound like a broken record - and if you're not careful, you can begin to think that way too. But it's not as though Christian influence in government is a bad thing, but I think the key word is salt - a little quality salt seasons the whole dish.

    But on the flip side, you have the opposite problem; churches in China or the Middle East or India that appeal for ANY kind of government support, just to end the persecution or to gain religious freedom. I know personally of some Christian leaders who act as liasons between the church and the government, petitioning for greater freedom of movement, greater freedom of speech, the ability to own land, etc.

    But striking the balance is tricky. What many of us have found is that the attitude helps. If I am convinced, as Boyd channeling Ellul indicates, that "In Ellul’s estimation, it’s not appropriate for Kingdom people to either support or revolt against governments. This gives them too much credit. Rather, following the example of Jesus, we should ignore them as much as possible, put up with them as much as we need to, and stay focused on living out the radical Kingdom. If we do this, then we, like Jesus, will find ourselves revolting against the government (and culture). We are, most fundamentally, called to be non-conformists. Our service to the world is the way our counter-cultural lives expose the invalidity of all forms of government by manifesting the reign of God." My convictions in this area have actually spurned social involvement in my local area, and I'm looking into how laws work and how city governance works so that I can make better use of myself in the area.

    So, if I'm reading you right, I think we're close to the same page, and certainly in the same book, but perhaps just reading it different directions. God bless
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    Great post Maria. As someone whose personal politics might be described as classical conservatism but who often finds himself attracted to a more anabaptist/Christian anarchy perspective, I feel the same discomfort as you and experience the same tension.

    I also appreciate the comments from hewhocutsdown, especially the point about generally ignoring governments and politics as much as possible while focusing on living out the gospel. I think that comports well with the words of Paul in Romans 13 and of Peter in 1 Peter 2, as well as some other parts of the New Testament. One thing I've noticed from people of varying and widely different political convictions who self-identify as Christians, including myself, is the too easy tendency to allow our Christian faith to become too defined by the politics we choose.

    For an interesting perspective on how Christ stands above and judges all human political systems and perspectives, I strongly recommend Stephen J. Keillor's book "God's Judgments," one of the best, most thought provoking books I've read this year. Peace.
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    To me the best way it seems to not get caught up in just bashing of gervnment closely, is subersion through ignoring the government and living out the gospel(submissive non-compliance) rather than subversion through focusing on just figting the government. That in itself becomes idolatrous.
 

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  • Government, Religion, Jesus Christ and Empire « Community of the Risen

    October 24, 2008 at 10:57 am

    [...] of the government (which, she argues, can sometimes be a good thing).  Over at Jesus Manifesto, Maria seems to ...

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