Empire

Every Christmas Carol A Protest Song

An angel surveys a city. Image courtesy Neale Cousland/shutterstock.com
An angel surveys a city. Image courtesy Neale Cousland/shutterstock.com

I need a word of hope.

In verse 1 of chapter 2 of Luke’s gospel we are introduced to a word of hope, a person who in the ancient Roman empire was referred to as “Divine, Son of God, God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer Liberator, and Savior of the World” and his name is…

No. Not Jesus.

Caesar Augustus.

All these terms are first used of Caesar Augustus. We use them in reference to Jesus because the gospel is a counterclaim against every other power. Every Christmas carol is a protest song. That is, every Christmas carol is a protest song if we realize Christmas isn’t about God’s ticket to escape the world and its pain. Christmas instead is the powerful way God shows up "in person" to transform the world and our pain.

Both imperial Rome and the early church claimed that their good news came from Heaven. Both announce a gospel of peace, here on earth. The Roman Empire believed it of Caesar Augustus — the early church believed it only of Jesus the Messiah.

For some, today’s Bible reading with its talk of empires is too political. For others its talk of angels too spiritual. But today’s gospel reading wants us to open our eyes to the empires and open our ears to the angels and their protest songs.

What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

The Roman Colosseum, S-F / Shutterstock.com
The Roman Colosseum, S-F / Shutterstock.com

Last week I spent a few days in Rome with, among others, Tony Jones. As someone who hasn’t ever been to Rome, it was particularly helpful for me to have a Christian historian along. It’s easy enough, having seen one amazing display of ruins after another, or cathedral after awesome cathedral, to lose some perspective. So along the way, Tony would stop and point out the historic significance of various landmarks. Then of course, we’d go grab a bourbon and talk.

Both of us, at one point or another in the week, thought of the Monty Python scene from Life of Brian, in which the disgruntled rebels exclaim, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” So of course, some wise guy in the group starts rattling things off, like the aqueducts, roads, education, and so on.

So this led to a minor debate between Tony and me about the benefits of empire. Now, keep in mind that Tony is never one to pass up an opportunity to serve as the antagonist, but his argument as outlined in his blog post cheekily titled “In Praise of Empires,” is that it’s en vogue to trash empire, both present and past.

To put a finer point on it, we chatted about whether Constantine, the Roman emperor responsible for establishing the Nicene Creed, was an ass-hat.

The Church Has Been Left Behind

Tilyo Petrov Rusev/Shutterstock.com
The church has been left behind, but we are not alone. Tilyo Petrov Rusev/Shutterstock.com

Editor's Note: This post was originally a sermon in our monthly Sojourners chapel.

Friends, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Around the time I started middle school, my church acquired a series of books called The Left Behind Series. These books chronicle the final days of earth as outlined in the book of Revelation and other apocalyptic biblical texts. I won’t offer any commentary on the theology of these books, or even their literary value, but, as a middle-schooler, they were fairly impressionable.

The entire series begins with a dramatic reinterpretation of the rapture. People are going about their daily lives — driving to work, flying airplanes, making breakfast — when all of a sudden, people who had been there just seconds before are gone. Simply vanished into thin air. Of course, chaos ensues, because who is driving the car? Flying the airplane? Tending the stove? The world they leave behind is shattered, broken, and chaotic! This seminal event — the rapture — shapes the rest of the series as those who have been “left behind” work to win the ultimate prize — a place in heaven where they are no longer left behind.

Holy Week: Journeying from Empire to Resurrection

Three wooden crosses, mossolainen nikolai / Shutterstock.com
Three wooden crosses, mossolainen nikolai / Shutterstock.com

We love a good parade, don’t we? All that celebration, the noise, the crowds, the jubilation … It’s exciting and contagious and a little amazing how a good parade can impact us.

No one understood this like the Romans. These are the people of bread and circuses after all, and no one in the ancient world did empire better than the Romans. The Romans were incredibly good at subduing those people they had conquered. They celebrated the festivals of, raised up leadership from, and generally ingratiated themselves smoothly into the lives of those they ruled. But rule they did.

There certainly were people in Jesus’ time who thought Jesus’ work would be to overthrow the Roman oppressors — establish a political kingdom. Scholars surmise that Judas, the disciple who would betray Jesus to the empire, was one of these. Think of Judas as someone who saw the evils of the Roman Empire and desperately wanted Hebrew rule returned to the region. What we might today call a freedom fighter.

But throughout his ministry, Jesus talked explicitly about the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven that is not of this world but is omnipresent, always at hand, constantly among us. And God’s. Period. A very different image of kingship, of dominion.

Shepherds

Night.
The sheep huddled against this big rock.
Jake keeps watch while I wrestle with sleep:
—wool prices down, third year
—owner talks of selling out
—Jake and me—Where do we go?
—Martha’s carrying our fifth child
—rumors that Herod’s at it again,
—this time killing babies.
—Same old story:
the Empire trades in fear.
Where can we run?
Like papa says, “I hate being poor.”

 

Pitch black.
Then a light out of the sky.
Am I asleep already?
I hear voices.
A rumor, they say:
             A refugee couple living in a box
                            in Bethlehem.
             Had a baby. Screaming. Cold. Hungry.
The voices are singing,
             “All will be well,"
              All will be well.”
Like papa says, “Dreaming is the only
             hope poor folks have.”

Harry C. Kiely, co-author of One Nation, Many Gods, is a retired United Methodist clergy living in Silver Spring, Md.    

Image: Sheep in the early morning light in the Dutch heath, Fotografiecor.nl / Shutterstock.com

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Becoming Fluent in the Language of Hope

THE CELEBRATED PHILOSOPHER Ludwig Wittgenstein used to speak—disapprovingly—of “language going on holiday.” For example, sportswriters often free language from the drudgery of everyday common usage to let it spread its wings in glorious hyperbole about their favorite teams.

Our biblical heritage gives us examples that are much deeper. When we read the prophets especially, we hear language liberated from the constraints of the everyday to give it a sacred vacation, a true “holy-day,” so that it can return to us reinvigorated. We hear them sending language on an adventure holiday into the realm of God’s future. When they receive the words back, the prophets find themselves recounting visions of a new world that God has in store.

Eschatological language that has been to the future and back exerts a powerful authority over us. In this month’s scriptures we experience that authority again in Isaiah’s unforgettable oracles about the holy mountain on which no one shall ever again hurt or destroy. We shall see, with our mind’s eye, the rising of the sun of righteousness with healing in its wings. We shall hear Jesus speaking of the life waiting for the children of the resurrection. The church’s year ends by inviting us to enter under the authority of the coming kingdom, to become fluent in its strange language of hope, harmony, and ultimate reunion with the Holy One who has reconciled all creation through the cross and resurrection.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ NOVEMBER 3 ]
The Eyes Have It
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 32:1-7; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

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Jesus and the Top Secret Empire

WATCHING THE PBS Frontline documentary “Top Secret America” in April reminded me of why I read the gospels. They help me get my head screwed on right—upside-down, that is.

In that show, Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter Dana Priest investigates the secret history of anti-terrorism in America since 9/11. “Secret” is the key word, since the public has little idea of the injustice, torture, black sites, civilian-killing drone strikes, data-mining, over-surveillance, and general terrorizing that have been done in our name and with our tax money for the past 12 years. The Boston Marathon bombings will only up the ante.

“Empire,” I think as I watch. Our American empire has secret tentacles in every part of our inhabited world. Cofer Black, then head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, announced after we were attacked on 9/11, “The gloves come off!” In other words, we will do whatever it takes to obliterate al Qaeda. “We went in [to Afghanistan] to kick ass. And we did!”

Restraining gloves have apparently stayed off, since little has changed in the Obama administration. No current national security big shot would speak to Frontline. It’s “top secret,” of course, since in public we are supposed to be a democracy and not an empire.

I THINK OF texts from the gospel of Matthew—radical texts penned under the thumb of the Roman Empire. A couple of years ago, I was asked to write “insight essays” for a teacher’s guide in the “Gather ’Round” series of Sunday school lessons for children and youth published by the Brethren Press and MennoMedia. The first seven lessons leading up to Easter were centered on texts from Matthew 18-28. I struggled to find a common thread running through these stories and sayings leading up to the final events in Jesus’ life.

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