This article is the fifth part of a series adapted from the ideas in my thesis, The Trump Shall Resound: Christian Anarchism as Eschatological and Apocalyptic Witness; but it’s basically a total rewrite, because the paper is far too long and far too academic to post on this blog. If that kind of stuff floats your boat, though, feel free to check it out, and don’t forget to read the intro post to the series.
In this series, I am going to follow the general outline of my thesis, even though I am completely rewriting it. In the paper, I propose that there are three major “genes” in the DNA of Empire, and that by comparing this genome with the totally opposite one of the Kingdom of God, we can learn a lot about what makes the Kingdom vision of Jesus so special.
The third gene in the imperial DNA is violence. This series has already explored many reasons why the Kingdom and the Empire are at odds, so you can read some of the other posts if you’re interested in learning more. Today, though, I want to focus on another foundational difference: Empire is built on violence. It always has been, and it always will be. There is no other way for an Empire to exist.
Founded on violence
It’s true, the US is a unique case of Empire. Modern “Empire” looks different from other historical ones. We aren’t a military Empire like Rome, conquering and pillaging lands, razing cities, enforcing military rule, enslaving the people, and executing those who disagree with us. We aren’t a colonial Empire like Britain was, sending armies and merchants by sea to “plant our flag.” For this reason, it’s easy to deny what is staring us in the face: Empire always exists, it just looks different now.
We may not be starting wars to capture lands, but we have soldiers and “peacekeepers” stationed all around the globe, and we make regular interventions in foreign wars based on our determination of who the “good guys” are. (This often has more to do with who will benefit us the most. American foreign interventions were almost non-existent until World War II, when we were finally powerful enough to achieve imperial status. Since then, the scale and frequency of them have increased dramatically.)
We may not be capturing and selling people as slaves, but massive corporations outsource themselves to take full advantage of cheap labor, keeping whole populations of workers in abject poverty and working under slave-like conditions.
We may not be taking control of foreign governments and installing our own politicians, but our vast economic and political influence gives us domination over many nations and even global politics as a whole. Also, our cultural influence - even in seemingly innocent things like that global “colonization” of Starbucks and McDonald’s - functions as a propaganda machine in ways that we can’t even imagine.
The word here is hegemony - and even if it looks different today, it is still the same ugly creature at its core. Violence (physical or not) is at the core of it all. I am not saying that this is “wrong” in the sense that it can be set right if the Church is just socially and politically active enough. That is, I’m not saying that we could somehow make a non-violent, benevolent Empire. Instead, I am saying it is wrong in the sense that it is totally at odds with the principles and practices of the Kingdom of God; and the best thing the Church can do is to be the Church, living out those principles and practices with the eyes of the world upon them - no matter what the cost.
Saving the world through fascination - the alternative society
Stanley Hauerwas, a well-known theologian who could be labeled as a Christian Anarchist in many ways, argues that the church’s job is not to make the world more like the church, but to actually be the church so that the world can know it is the world. Similarly, in his book Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne says that this is how God will “save the world through fascination, by setting up an alternative society on the margins of empire for the world to come and see what a society of love looks like.” It’s easy to dismiss this quote by thinking Claiborne is advocating for setting up cultish communes out in the woods somewhere; but that is not his point. Shane’s “alternative society” is a group of people resolutely committed to being with and for the poor and disenfranchised. They work for peace, restoration, and justice (God’s kind - not the world’s kind). They refuse to engage in violence or violent systems, not just with their hands but with their dollars, too; but they also refuse to sit on the sidelines and watch the “least of these” suffer and die voiceless and unheard.
The Church’s challenge to Empire is not one of external assault. Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place," (John 18:36) and when Peter actually did pick up a sword to try and defend him from the police force, Jesus scolded him to put it down, “for all those who take the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) Fortunately, the Church is no longer in the business of ordering crusades to go and capture land for the “Holy Empire;” but the rhetoric of many Christians about military service, the war against unholy Muslim terrorists, and the need to defend our Christian country from the evils of this world and “make the world safe” sometimes sounds very similar. Christian Anarchists realize that any use of violence - against the Empire or for it - is totally contradictory to the principles of the Kingdom of God.
On the other hand, internal reform is also not the way of the Kingdom. We cannot make the Empire “Christian,” despite all the chants and slogans of well-intentioned evangelicals. We also cannot overthrow it violently. Instead, we proclaim the Kingdom of God through this “alternative society.” It is a society that uses its creative imagination to live into a better reality now - a reality that is totally at odds with the way the kingdoms of this world operate. This can be a very dangerous thing, because doing so unmasks the diabolic nature of the Empire, shining light on the dark side of it. I explored one example of this in my short article On going the extra mile (and how it doesn’t mean you think it means), but there are many others to be found in the New Testament as well as the Early Church.
A (non-violent) assault
In fact, the entire message of Jesus is a non-violent challenge to Empire, and the Early Church understood that. Here are just a few illustrations of that:
First, his death on a cross was a political death reserved for those who threatened Rome. The “thieves” on the other two crosses and the “murderer” Barabbas who was released in his stead are poor translations; they were most likely all violent revolutionaries in some way seeking liberation for the Jews from Rome. This is proven by the primary tactic the religious leaders used to convince Pilate to agree to his crucifixion. At first, Pilate refused, because religious crimes had nothing to do with his state-sanctioned military force; but when the leaders told him Jesus of Nazareth was proclaiming himself king and taunted Pilate by saying he was no friend of Caesar’s if he allowed this crime to go unpunished, then he got involved. They declared their allegiance clearly that day, “We have no king but Caesar!” In contrast, the Christian Anarchist’s motto is “no king but Christ.”
Second, the book of Revelation is one of the strongest anti-imperial books in the Bible. We fail to realize it because we have been trained to read the book as some kind of encoded roadmap to the “end times,” but much of the symbolism in the book would have been recognized by its original readers as a thinly veiled attack on the Roman Empire. (I highly recommend Michael Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly for more on this. It’s one of the most influential books I’ve ever read.) In this book we are shown the image of Christ the Pantokrator: the Almighty, all-powerful ruler of all things. And how is he portrayed? The majestic ruling lion (symbolic of authority and royalty) turns out to be a slain lamb. This slain lamb contrasts with the ferocious dragon and achieves victory over the whore of Babylon (symbolic of Rome and Empire in general) who rides it.
Third, the vast majority of the Early Church fathers refused to collaborate with the Empire in any way for the first three centuries after Christ. There was no question about it: Jesus followers were not to serve in the military or take part in corrupt imperial politics. “In disarming Peter,” wrote Tertullian, “Christ disarmed all Christians.” They cited the book of Isaiah, where it says that in the final days the tools of war will be beaten and mangled to become nothing more than tools of agriculture - swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. They saw this as the reality into which we are supposed to live. This makes Emperor Constantine’s decision to convert the Empire to Christianity all the more disturbing, since he did so on the basis of a vision of the cross in the sky with a voice from heaven telling him, “In hoc signo vinces.” (You shall conquer by this sign.)
This article, and indeed the whole series, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring how the non-violent Kingdom of God challenges the nature of Empire by its very existence. The more I have grasped this profound truth, the more radically transformative and deeply subversive my faith has become. I know and love many members of the Religious Right, but I will never be able to reconcile their dream of a more Christian America with what I see in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I refuse to shimmy a red elephant into the family photo of the lion and the lamb. There is always more to be said, but in the words of John, “If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
Now it is evident that no one can terrify or subdue us who have believed in Jesus over all the world. For it is plain that, though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but the more such things happen, the more do others and in larger numbers become faithful, and worshippers of God through the name of Jesus. For just as if one should cut away the fruit-bearing parts of a vine, it grows up again, and yields other branches flourishing and fruitful; even so the same thing happens with us. For the vine planted by God and Christ the Savior is His people. -Justin Martyr
Check out the rest of the series:
Part 1: Why I am a Christian Anarchist
Part 3: The American mythology
Part 4: A war of myths
Part 5: Built on violence