Easter's Challenge to Empire
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Jesus came with a job to do, to complete the work to which Israel was called. This work, from the call of Abraham onwards, was to put the human race to rights, and so to put the whole creation to rights. As the gospel writers tell the story, this task was to be accomplished by Jesus bringing about the sovereign healing rule of the creator God. Jesus was addressing the question, "What might it look like if God was running this show?" And answering, "This is what it looks like: just watch." And then, "just listen." In what he did, and in the stories he told, Jesus was announcing and inaugurating what he referred to as "the kingdom of God," the long-awaited hope that the creator God would run the whole show, on earth as in heaven.
But the problem was, and is, that other people are still running the show. Other kingdoms, other power structures, have usurped the rule of the world's wise creator, and the forces of evil are exceedingly powerful and destructive. Jesus' task of inaugurating God's kingdom therefore necessarily led him to meet those forces in direct combat, to draw upon himself their full, dark fury so as to exhaust their power and make a way through to launch the creator's project of new creation despite them. That is one clue at least to the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion, though that event, planting the sign of God's kingdom in the middle of space, time, and matter, remains inexhaustible. But let's be clear. As the gospels tell the story, Jesus' death was the culmination of several different strands: a political process, a religious clash, a spiritual war, all rushing together into one terrible day, one terrible death. And in the light of that, according to Jesus himself and his first followers, everything in the world looks different, is different, must be approached differently. With Jesus' death, the power structures of the world were called to account; with his resurrection, a new life, a new power, was unleashed upon the world. And the question is: How ought this to work out? What should we be doing as a result?
If we are to think Christianly, then we must think according to the pattern of Jesus Christ. And that means that the first place we should look for God in the "War on Terror" would be in the smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers, and then in the ruins of Baghdad and Basra, the shattered homes and lives of the tens of thousands who have through no fault of their own been in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the angry superpower, like a rogue elephant teased by a little dog, has gone on the rampage stamping on everything that moves in the hope of killing the dog by killing everything within reach. The presence of God within the world at a time of war must be calibrated according to what Paul says in Romans 8, that the Spirit groans within God's people as they groan with the pain of the world. The cross of Jesus Christ is the sign and the assurance that the God who made the world still loves the world and, in that love, groans and grieves.
But God wants his rebel world to be ordered, to be under authorities and governments, because otherwise the bullies and the arrogant will always prey on the weak and the helpless; but all authorities and governments face the temptation to become bullies and arrogant themselves. The New Testament writers, like other Jews at the time, saw this writ large in the Roman empire of their day. Those with eyes to see can see it in other subsequent empires, right down to our own day.
It is the task of the followers of Jesus to remind those called to authority that the God who made the world intends to put the world to rights at last, and to call those authorities to acts of justice and mercy which will anticipate, in the present time, the future, coming, final victory of God over all evil, all violence, all arrogant abuse of power. And where the world's rulers genuinely strive for that end, the Christian church declares as the ancient Jews did with the pagan king Cyrus, that God's Spirit is at work-whether the authorities know it or not.
Insofar as the last five years have constituted a wake-up call to sleepy western Christians to think urgently about issues of global justice and governance, we can see God, I believe, in that new stirring, warning us that we have a task and that we haven't been doing it too well. In particular, we must face the deeply ambiguous question of the present power and position of America. I am not anti-American when I criticise some policies of some American leaders, any more than I am anti-British when I criticise some of the policies of my own elected leaders. To suggest otherwise is simply a cheap way of avoiding the real questions. The creator God allows societies to rise and fall, empires to grow and wane. And though things are massively more complicated than this, we could see in the rise of America as the current sole superpower some great possibilities for bringing justice and mercy, genuine freedom and prosperity, to the whole world. Empires always carry that possibility. But empires also face the temptation to use their power for their own prestige and wealth. The challenge now is to provide a critique of American empire without implying that the world should collapse into anarchy, and a fresh sense of direction for that empire without colluding with massive abuses of power.
Where then is God in the war on terror? Grieving and groaning within the pain and horror of his battered but still beautiful world. Stirring in the hearts of human beings the desire for a more credible structure of global justice and mercy. Burning into the imagination of human beings a hope that peace and reconciliation might eventually win out over suspicion and hatred, that the world may be put to rights and that we may anticipate that in the present time. The Christian gospel, revealing the mysterious God we discover in Jesus and the Spirit, offers a framework for discerning where God is at work in the midst of the dangers and opportunities that confront us. All of us in our different callings are summoned to this task; some of you, perhaps, to make it your life's work. Jesus is Lord. The Spirit is powerful. God is doing a new thing. Let's get out there and join in.
Dr. N.T. Wright is a New Testament theologian and the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. He is the author of many books, including Surprised by Hope, and Evil and the Justice of God. This post is adapted from his lecture "Where is God in 'The War on Terror?'" and is used with permission by the author.