PROLOGUE

From the first chipped stone to the first smelted iron took nearly three million years;
from the first iron to the hydrogen bomb took only 3,000 years.
Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (2004)

For a very long time I have been pondering the texts and wandering the ruins of the Roman Empire. Initially, I did so as a biblical scholar doing research for books I was writing on the historical reconstruction of earliest Christianity from The Historical Jesus in 1991, through The Birth of Christianity in 1998, to In Search of Paul, co-authored with the archaeologist Jonathan Reed of the University of LaVerne, in 2004. I presume those three books as prelude and preparation for this book on God and Empire.

I have always thought of the historical Jesus as a homeland Jew within Judaism within the Roman Empire. I have always thought of the historical Paul as a diaspora Jew within Judaism within the Roman Empire. For me, then, within Judaism within the Roman Empire has always been the absolutely necessary matrix rather than the annoyingly unnecessary background for any discussion of earliest Christianity. You can see that three-layer matrix, for example, in the sub-titles to the first and last books above. For the historical Jesus, The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant, emphasizes Rome,  Judaism, and Jew.   For the historical Paul, How Jesus’s

Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, emphasizes Jew, Rome, and Judaism. Whether you start or end with the Roman Empire, the Roman Empire is always there.

But there is now a further reason for studying the textual and archaeological history of the Roman Empire. Here is that newer but now accompanying reason. I have been hearing recently two rather insistent claims from across the spectrum of our religio-political life. The first one claims that America is now and/or was always an empire. That, in fact, the virus of imperialism came—like so many other ones—on those first ships from Europe. The second and subsidiary one claims that we are in fact Nova Roma, the New Roman Empire, Rome on the Potomac.

It may surprise you to learn that both of those claims are about one hundred and fifty years old. Walt Whitman published a poem entitled “The Errand-Bearers” in the New York Times for Wednesday, June 27, 1860, and triumphantly proclaimed America’s imperial destiny:

I chant the new empire, grander than any before — As in a vision it comes to me;
I chant America, the Mistress — I chant a greater supremacy ….
And you, Libertad of the world!
You shall sit in the middle, well-pois’d, thousands of years ….
The sign is reversing, the orb is enclosed,
The ring is circled, the journey is done.

That poem was later included as “A Broadway Pageant” in his epic Leaves of Grass of 1871.

Even the specification of the American Empire as the reborn Roman Empire was already there by that same date. In his 1858 work The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, Oliver Wendell Holmes — father of the same-named Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court — announced that “We are the Romans of the modern world — the great assimilating people. Conflicts and conquests are of course necessary accidents with us, as with our prototypes.”

Within a few years of those triumphal claims, America dissolved into a civil war which, with racism accepted by both, had one side defending the evil of slavery — the injustice of race over race— and the other side the (greater?) evil of empire — the injustice of nation over nation. Still, even a terrible civil war could be seen to copy Rome’s story and thus to confirm our Roman destiny.

There is indeed a certain parallelism between the march of the Roman Empire from Italy, around the Mediterranean, and out to what they called “the earth,” and our advance from continental, through hemispheric, and on to global American Empire. But it is the modern voices that assert the Romano-American Empire that moved the creation of this book. That parallelism is repeated again and again today—sometimes proudly, sometimes sadly, sometimes with approval, sometimes with disapproval.

In the past year I have read about a dozen books on that topic—mostly on the sad and disapproving side of it—and here is but one single example, from Chalmers Johnson’s 2004 book The Sorrows of Empire:

Americans like to say that the world changed as a result of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It would be more accurate to say that the attacks produced a dangerous change in the thinking of some of our leaders, who began to see our republic as a genuine empire, a new Rome, the greatest colossus in history, no longer bound by international law, the concern of allies, or any constraints on its use of military force (p. 3).

And, furthermore, his Chapter 3 is entitled “Toward the New Rome.” He emphasizes that America is “not an empire of colonies but an empire of bases” (p. 23) but we are still “the second coming of the Roman Empire.” (p. 284)

In a magnificently parabolic scene in John’s gospel, Pilate confronted Jesus (or did Jesus confront Pilate?) about the kingdom he proclaimed. “My kingdom,” said Jesus in the King James Version of the incident, “is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” (18:36) I take six foundational points from that brief interchange.

First, Jesus opposes the Kingdom of God to the kingdoms of “this world.” What “this world” means will be discussed throughout this book but especially in Chapter 1 whose title, “Empire and the Barbarism of Civilization,” is my own translation for the “this world” of Jesus.

Second, Jesus is condemned to death by Roman Pilate, in Roman Judea, in the eastern reaches of the Roman Empire. But he never mentions Rome as such and he never addresses Pilate by name. He opposes something incarnated in but also far greater than Rome or any other empire.

Third, had Jesus stopped after saying that “my kingdom is not of this world,” as we so often do in quoting him, that “of" would be utterly ambiguous. “Not of this world” could mean: never on earth, but always in heaven; not now in present time, but off in imminent or distant future; not a matter of the exterior world, but of the interior life alone. Jesus spoiled all those possible misinterpretations by continuing with this: “if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered” up to execution. Your soldiers hold me, Pilate, but my companions will not attack you even to save me from death. Your Roman Empire, Pilate, is based on the injustice of violence, but my divine kingdom is based on the justice of non-violence.

Fourth, the crucial difference—and the only one mentioned—between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Rome is Jesus’s non-violence and Pilate’s violence. But, to return to my first point, the violence of Roman imperialism was but an incarnation at that first-century time and in that Mediterranean place of “this world,” that is, of the violent normalcy of civilization itself.

Fifth, the most important interpreter of Jesus in the entire New Testament is Pilate. He clearly recognized the difference between Barabbas and Jesus. Barabbas was a violent revolutionary so, as Mark 15:7 put it, “ Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection.” Pilate arrested him along with those of his followers he could capture. But Jesus was a non-violent revolutionary so Pilate made no attempt to round up his companions. Both Barabbas and Jesus opposed Roman injustice in the Jewish homeland but Pilate knew exactly and correctly how to calibrate their divergent oppositions.

Sixth, Jesus’s response to Pilate did not represent a speaking of truth to power. It was one powerful truth confronting another. It was the powerful truth of non-violent justice confronting the powerful truth of violent injustice.

I emphasize that contrast between Pilate’s Kingdom of Rome as violent repression and Jesus’s Kingdom of God as non-violent resistance because that juxtaposition is the heart of this present book. It is an attempt to rethink God, the Bible, and empire, Jesus, Christianity, and Rome. Jesus could have told Pilate that Rome’s rule was unjust and God’s rule was just. That would have been true but it would have avoided the issue of whether God’s just rule was to be established by human and/or divine violence. So beneath the problem of empire is the problem of justice but beneath the problem of justice is the problem of violence.

From all of that, I raise three main questions for American Christians—or, better, for Christian Americans—by this book. Since the Old Roman Empire crucified our Lord Jesus Christ, how can we be his faithful followers in America as the New Roman Empire? But, as we move through the book, a second question arises. Is our Christian Bible violent or non-violent—is it actually for or against Jesus’s non-violent resistance to “this world”? By the time we get to the end of the book, and especially in its final chapter, a third questions appears. Is Bible-fed Christian violence supporting or even instigating our imperial violence as the New Roman Empire?

Monday, May 8, 2006
Hiroshima, Japan

 

         


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