I know we’re impressed with Empire, but I don’t think God is.
In fact, while we see it as the pinnacle of human achievement, I think He views it as a backwards step.
Early on in the book he begins by suggesting that we read the Bible all wrong: something I went into a few weeks ago. Literal applications of individual verses was never an intended use of scripture in my view. McLaren suggests God’s story has to be read as a whole. Before we start talking about ‘the individual bits’, we have to understand the ‘Meta-Narrative’, or ‘overarching story’ which runs through everything.
Simply put; we will always get the details wrong if we don’t understand the ‘Big Thing’ God is trying to do.
Now there are many layers to this story, but I think one of the things God is always trying to accomplish is to make us more holistic human beings, and His interaction with us is often pointing out, and breaking down, ways in which we are forming societies which ‘dehumanize’.
Watch the progression:
Adam and Eve (whilst I don’t believe they were necessarily literal characters) were Hunter Gatherers in a place called the Garden of Eden, which had more than enough to eat. But their disobedience sees them cast out into a situation where man is forced to work the soil for his sustenance.
Man moves from Hunter Gatherer to Agriculturalist.
Cain and Abel then represent the battle between Herders and Farmers: Cain (the farmer) killing his brother Abel (the herder, who God favoured) signaling the move to more aggressive forms of human habitation.
Man moves from Herder to Farmer.
Farming fields leads to the need for centers where collectives can support each other, and markets serve to sell produce and make profit, rather than just feed your family. The rat race begins. By the time of Noah these have become ‘Cities’ where all manner of evil exists and thrives… and God doesn’t like what He sees. So He wipes the lot out.
Not long after the Ark touches dry land though, cities thrive again, to the point where an Empire is beginning around the Tower of Babel. Men are building to prove the might that comes from their collective work; we never hear that the tower is actually there to serve any functional purpose.
So God comes in, and splits them up by giving them different languages.
The tellers of these early stories are clearly letting us know that God’s view of ‘progress’ and ours are definitely not the same, and God is constantly trying to save us from ourselves, because we get caught up in greed and pride, and don’t see what we’re really doing.
The story continues and the Hebrews are under the yoke of Empire in it’s ultimate form. The nation of Egypt has this people working as slaves to build monuments to their kings and gods; monuments so great that many still stand strong today. But now God’s people are feeling the flip side of Empire. They are dehumanized in the worst ways, and so they cry out for help, and God rescues them from Egypt.
He takes them into the desert to teach them how to be more humane. He shows them how to worship Him, and how to administer a kingdom with good health care and welfare. He gives them a special focus on the care of the poor, the widow and the foreigner in their midst. He warns them never to use slaves in the way they used in Egypt, and He sets Judges to rule over the people.
But it seems greed is siren song humans can’t ignore. In no time the Israelites are demanding a king, so they can be taken serious on the world’s political stage. They get their way and things slowly build to Empire in the Promised Land. By the time Solomon is king he is conscripting slaves to build lavish works in the manner of the Egyptians. There is this great reference in 1 Kings 10:14 which says, “The weight of the gold that Solomon received yearly was 666 talents…” Do you really think that was the amount, or is the writer trying to tell us something?
The kingdom splits.
In time other Empires conquer and cart them off as slaves.
Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and eventually Rome.
This whole time the prophets keep speaking about a better Kingdom where human beings are valued and peace reigns, but it seems human beings are more keen to get ahead while stepping on others.
By the time Jesus arrives Israel is under the boot of the Roman Empire, and the talk seems to be about trying to work out how to throw them off… probably so they can get back to being their own oppressive Empire again. You don’t get the feeling that anything has been learnt.
Jesus is cornered in the Temple one day and asked whether He thinks the people should pay taxes to Rome. He tells the guys to pull out a coin and asks whose picture is on the front. They reply that Caesar’s image appears there, and He responds, “Well give it back to him then.” On another occasion the crowd is so impressed with His bread and fish trick that they want to ‘make Him king by force’, so He runs, because again their answer to everything seems to be ‘Empire’. He consistently refuses to be drawn into the debate about money and power, instead He teaches about a kingdom where there is justice, love and mercy between human beings; a place where all people are valued and cared for.
Sounds like the prophets.
Sounds like God at Sinai.
After Jesus death and resurrection, Paul and the Apostles are always contrasting the Empire of Rome with the Kingdom of God. Again and again in their writings they talk of the power and oppression of Rome in opposition to the love and community of God.
Through all this it seems God is warning us that Empire is not the way forward: ‘progress’ seems to be ‘regress’ in God’s opinion, but we stubbornly push on because Empire feels good if it’s working for you.
As a solution God keeps trying to establish communities to show a way of living which adds value to humanity.
He tries to form Israel along these lines.
He tries to get the church to live from this space.
And it seems it generally did for the first 300 years of Church history: it lived underground; in the catacombs under the cities of the Roman Empire, and in the provincial backwaters where the long arm of Rome was weaker.
In those kind of circumstances it was easy to keep Jesus’ concern for the disenfranchised alive because, well, they were the disenfranchised.
But then something very significant happened.
In 312AD a Roman General named Constantine was in a power struggle with a contemporary named Maxentius to wear the purple robes of the Emperor of the Rome. Things came to a head on the 28th of October when the two meet to do battle at Milvian Bridge in Northern Italy.
Being alive then you would be forgiven for thinking there was nothing too significant about this battle as this is how power rose and fell in the Roman Empire, and these sort of conflicts were regular as clockwork.
But this battle would change everything for the church. Historians at the time, like Lactantius, tell us how Constantine had a dream the night before the battle in which Jesus visits him and simply says, “By this sign, conquer”. Some suggest the sign in question was the Chi-Rho symbol, which looked like a tall ‘P’ with an overlaid ‘X’, and this symbol had become one of the accepted symbols used by early Christians to identify each other and places of worship.
Constantine got up and immediately ordered that all his soldiers should paint this symbol of the Christian God on their shields. The next day they went into battle and smashed the forces of Maxentius in a decisive victory, and Christianity finally got a break from the disenfranchisement.
A big one.
In gratitude to God, and due to his new religious convictions, Constantine not only chose to follow God himself, but, as new Emperor of Rome, he made Christianity the official religion of the whole Empire.
In a very short space of time Christianity moved from being centered around the oppressed, to being the official religion of the Roman nobility; and they were now the decision makers of it’s future.
Council after council was held over the years that followed were the elite began to choose which books to be included in the canon of Scripture, what the structure of the church would be, what the buildings would look like, and what the important elements of the services would be.
More than that, the church got into bed with politics. The two mingled to the point where Popes began appointing kings, approving treaties and blessing royal marriages. The Holy Roman Empire gradually became an all-powerful force in Europe, and if you know anything of the history of the Dark Ages it was anything but the ‘Kingdom of God’ Jesus had been speaking about. It seemed many of Jesus’ good teachings about this Kingdom being an upside down one, which moves from the underside of power, were left in the dark recesses of now-abandoned catacombs.
Church had become Empire!
And in the last 1700 years not much has changed in our thinking. God is having a really hard time driving this habit out of us.
I mean we don’t really need lessons in the evils of Empire in our day and age, it’s effects are obvious:
The degradation of our environment for industry.
The hugely unequal distribution of wealth.
The pillaging of natural resources by the wealthiest countries, leaving a wake of poverty.
The recent global financial crisis perpetrated by a handful of supremely greedy fat cats, plunging millions into unemployment and poverty.
But in church we often seem so blind to this stuff, as if it’s none of our business.
Human beings may think Empire is the answer, but He can see what it’s doing to the world, even if we can’t, and He’s trying to rescue us from ourselves.
Can you see the story He is trying to write?
Too often the church today has forgotten this mission and replaced it with a quest to form mini-empires of their own making. We function with the same power structures in place. Our fancy buildings sit in the midst of abject poverty. We have copied-and-pasted the Empire’s mode when we should be a force moving in the opposite direction; offering an alternative.
Our job as Church, is to imagine a new way to be; a better way to be that doesn’t rely on Empire thinking. Church, if anything, should be a model of fully-human community that extends beyond it’s own walls. We have to, in every way, be ‘humanizers’ in a ‘dehumanizing’ society.
It’s how the story ends.
It’s the end goal.
And we can’t hide behind the walls of our own success for much longer, because if history is anything to go by, God tends to smash those before long, kicking us out the door to actually ‘be’ Church again.
So what would it look like to be constructively anti-Empire?