Jesus’ Confrontation with Empire

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.7

[Published in Nathan E. Yoder and Carol A. Scheppard, eds., Exiles in the Empire: Believers Church Perspectives on Politics (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2006), 27-41.]

 At the core of the believers church ideal, as I understand it, lies an unequivocal commitment to follow Jesus Christ.  When we discuss “God, Democracy, and U.S. Power” in light of the believers church ideal, part of our task surely must be to ask, What might we learn from Jesus’ own confrontation with empire that might speak to ours?  James McClendon, in his discussion of the believers church ideal—what he called the (small-b) baptist vision – identifies a key element as the sense of close connection between the present-day believer and the biblical narrative.  We are part of the same story; what happened then is still going on now; “this is that.”[1]

I will reflect on the story of Jesus as part of the broader biblical story with the assumption that our story is part of the same story. What the Bible tells us about people of faith and the great powers has great relevance for our lives. Though I will, except for a few points at the end, focus on the biblical story, I want to be clear that I consider Jesus’ confrontation with empire as directly relevant for North American residents of our world’s one great empire.

This is a big issue for U.S. Christians. We have so much to appreciate in this country—religious freedom not least. However, many of our nation’s practices resemble all too closely the imperialism of the biblical empires. It is as if we have two Americas, America the pioneer democracy and America the dominant empire.[2]  I believe that attention to the Bible’s empires can help us as we discern how we respond to the latter America.

First, I will make the point, obvious once we notice it but rarely part of how we actually read the Bible, that the entire Bible, including most definitely the four gospels but actually ranging all the way from the Genesis creation story (written, at least according to some, to counter Babylonian influences during the sixth century BCE) to the final vision of God’s saving work in the Book of Revelation (written, most scholars agree, to counter Roman influences in the late first century CE), reflects the setting of God’s people amidst the various empires, or great powers, of the biblical world—from Egypt and Babylon down to Rome.

Jesus’ confrontation with the empire of his day must be seen in the much broader context of the biblical faith community’s confrontation with various empires. Some of the elements of our modern-day believers church ideal echo key elements of the biblical story: (1) a commitment to sustaining a faith community that seeks to maintain a free space over against the domination of empire; (2) a conviction that this faith community has the vocation of witnessing to the surrounding world of God’s healing love and against the violence and oppression of empires; and (3) a hope that this vocation of showing love actually will have a transforming impact on the entire world, including the great powers themselves. When Jesus bumps up against Rome—a “bump” that cost him his life—he continues in the prophetic tradition of his people, a tradition going back to Israel’s earliest days.

Contra Egypt

Ironically, the first overt mention of Egypt, one of the great powers of the ancient world, occurs in a story that presents one of the Hebrew patriarchs, Joseph, as playing a key role in expanding the empire’s power (Genesis 37–50), serving as a brilliant adviser to the Pharaoh during a time of famine.

The Bible’s portrayal of Egypt, though, takes a decisive turn toward the negative with the beginning of the Book of Exodus. “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exod 1:8). Out of fear of the proliferating Hebrew people, recognizing that in some sense they had resisted fully assimilating into Egyptian society (thereby maintaining a measure of freedom from empire state-ideology), the Pharaoh acts against them.  He orders “his people” to “set taskmasters over [the Hebrews] to oppress them with forced labor” (Exod 1:10-11). However, “the more [the Israelites] were oppressed, the more the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.  The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.  They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them” (Exod 1:13–14).  Thus, the Hebrews learn early on the ways of empire—ruthless, oppressive, and harshly punitive.

The foundational event in the establishing of Hebrew peoplehood, the heart of the tradition’s self-identity, occurs in this context of slavery in Egypt. “The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out.  Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Exod 2:23–25). The Hebrews’ experience of oppressive empire domination fed into a radically counter-cultural religious and political vision. In contrast to the gods of the empire, who serve the will of the king, the Hebrews worshiped Yahweh, whom they understood to be free, the critic of kings, and the advocate of vulnerable, oppressed people. Yahweh acted with unilateral mercy.

In contrast to the social structure of the empire, with its great disparities of wealth between the elite and the masses, the Hebrews followed a law code (Torah) that emphasized decentralized political power and economic self-sufficiency for all in the community.[3]  Hebrew community following the exodus had two particularly distinct elements: (1) it ordered its life by a law code meant to sustain in human existence the vision the people had of God’s will for their wholeness, and (2) it self-consciously understood itself to be utterly discontinuous with Egypt.[4]

Israel defined itself over against the Egyptian Empire. As Walter Brueggemann writes, the exodus testimony, “this most radical of all of Israel’s testimony about Yahweh, verifies that the God of Israel is a relentless opponent of human oppression, even when oppression is undertaken and sponsored by what appear to be legitimated powers.”[5]  The Egyptian empire, nevertheless, cast a long shadow over Israel’s subsequent history. A number of generations later, the Hebrews faced a major crossroads concerning how they would order their community.  Their elders desired a king, like the nations (the great powers).

The old judge, Samuel, told the elders they should continue with God as their only king, and continue with their decentralized structures.  In his challenge to the elders, Samuel evokes Israel’s experience in Egypt (1 Samuel 8:10–18).  Kings take and take; you should know that. Samuel warned the people that making the wrong turn at this crossroads would return them to their status in the Egyptian empire, but he added that this time, unlike before, Yahweh would not respond to their cries amidst their oppression (1 Sam 8:18; cf. Exod 2:23).  Samuel argued in vain.  “The people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles’” (1 Sam 8:19–20).  Yahweh acquiesces to the people’s desires and instructs Samuel to relent and “set a king over them” (8:22).

As Samuel warned, these kings do figuratively, at least, return the people to Egypt.  By the time of Israel’s third king, David’s son Solomon, the die is cast.  When Solomon gained power, he reorganized social structures toward much greater centralized control.  He instituted rigorous taxation to expand his treasury.  He began to draft soldiers, to expand the collection of horses and chariots into a large, permanent army with career military leaders.  And he also decreed a policy of forced labor for his twenty-year building project of constructing first his palace and then the temple.  Samuel had warned that the kings would build standing armies, take the best of the produce of the people, and make them slaves.  This is precisely what Solomon did.  With him, Israel took a large step toward political authoritarianism, moving back in the direction of Egypt.

Solomon also cultivated ties with other countries. He had hundreds of wives—women from many nations, one of the great harems of all time. Ironically, and surely not coincidentally, we are told that one of these foreign wives was the daughter of Pharaoh himself (I Kings 3:1). The irony of Solomon—the king who established the permanent military and who instituted forced labor—marrying into the Egyptian empire’s leadership class rings loudly when we remember Samuel’s warning about the people, under their desired king, returning to slavery. This connection was also made in Deuteronomy 28:68. The final threatened curse, should Israel not remain faithful to the covenant, reads as follows: “The Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, by a route that I promised you would never see again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.”

Egypt surfaces several times in later writings as representative of the nations in rebellion versus God (e.g., Ezek 29–32; Isa 19; Jer 46; Ps 87). Egypt is responsible for the death of King Josiah, one of the few kings in Judah who is portrayed as seeking to let Torah govern the kingdom (2 Kings 23:28–29).

Poignantly, the prophet Jeremiah, when Babylon conquered the Hebrew nation-state, writes of accompanying Jewish exiles into Egypt.  It is as if the entire history following the exodus has been for naught, as people of the covenant return to trusting in power politics and turning from Torah and toward empire faith.

The other empires

A second great power in the Old Testament, the Assyrian Empire, enters and leaves the scene much more quickly than Egypt.  The ruthless power of Assyria, as recounted in 2 Kings 17:5-23, utterly destroyed the northern Jewish kingdom Israel and moved on to attack the southern kingdom Judah. Isaiah 36–39 and 2 Kings 18–20 tell how Jerusalem was besieged but ultimately staved off Assyrian conquest. This event, wherein Assyria withdraws from the attempt to conquer Judah along with Israel, was portrayed by Isaiah as evidence of Yahweh’s power over against the brutal superpower.

The antipathy many in Israel felt toward Assyria received voice in the prophecy of Nahum, who joyfully proclaims the impending doom of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, due to Assyria’s injustice and brutality.  Nahum portrays this doom as the work of Yahweh. “Your shepherds are asleep, O king of Assyria; your nobles slumber. Your people are scattered on the mountains with no one to gather them. There is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?” (Nah 3:18-9).

Israel’s antipathy toward Assyria and Nineveh is used to much different effect in the later book of Jonah, which means to critique Israel’s insular perspective in post-exilic Palestine. To do so, the writer draws on the assumed hostility toward Nineveh and Assyria that would have remained alive in the people’s memories. That is, Nineveh plays a rhetorical role here, standing as the last place the Hebrews would ever want God’s mercy to be expressed. This symbolic use of Nineveh indicates how terrible the actual Assyrian empire had been in the eyes of Israel. During the seventh century BCE, Assyria met its match in the resurgent Babylonian Empire. Babylon, ultimately, succeeded where earlier Assyria had failed—conquering Judah and destroying the temple and much of the rest of Jerusalem, and taking the Jewish ruling class who survived into exile.

The role of Babylon in Israel’s consciousness as the paradigmatic example of political authoritarianism is reflected in the use of “Babylon” in symbolic ways down through the writings of the New Testament—most famously the Book of Revelation, where “Babylon” symbolizes the brutalities and blasphemies of the Roman Empire.

The Persian Empire, which emerged in the mid-sixth century BCE under the leadership of Cyrus, is the one great empire presented in a more positive light in the Old Testament. Persia defeated the terrible Babylonians, the destroyers of Judah and the temple. Israel’s joy at this action is reflected in Isaiah’s identifying Cyrus as God’s “shepherd” (44:28) and even God’s “anointed one” (45:1). The ramifications of Persia’s victory indeed did serve Israel’s purposes. It is hard to imagine the covenant community surviving otherwise. Whatever Cyrus’s own motivations may have been, from the Israelites’ perspective his actions surely did look for everything like a saving act of God. The seemingly enlightened Persian policies that had allowed exiled Israelite leaders to return from Babylon and had supported the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple provide a bit of a counter-weight to the otherwise quite critical spirit of the Old Testament concerning the great empires.

Nonetheless, the general portrayal of the great powers in the Old Testament opposes the ways of empire with the ways of God’s chosen people. The faith community, at its origins and in its most faithful mode, understands itself as a contrast society in relation to empire. Through a long and tumultuous journey, the foundational ideals expressed in the Mosaic revolution survived—waiting for a new embodiment amidst the greatest empire of them all.

Roman domination

Jesus entered the world in the early heyday of a great power mightier than any described in the Old Testament, the Roman Empire.  Rome’s transition from an expansionist republic to a full-blown empire is usually dated around 27 BCE when Octavian, renamed Caesar Augustus, became emperor.  Augustus reigned for 41 years.  He was succeeded by another long-reigning emperor, his stepson Tacitus, emperor from 14 to 37 CE.   Rome’s initial stability of two emperors covering 64 years helped foster the Empire’s expansion and consolidation of its dominance.  The Roman general Pompey had captured Jerusalem in 66–63 BCE.  The Romans established a relationship with the various provinces in Palestine, which were consolidated under the client king, Herod, who ruled from 37 BCE until his death in 4 BCE.

Herod sought to retain Jewish support by greatly expanding the Jerusalem Temple.  His spending practices – all the building he oversaw, indulging his own court, and sending wealth Rome’s way – placed great stress on his people.[6] Herod sustained his power through brute and ruthless force. The story in Matthew 2 of the killing of newborns accurately reflects his style and character. After Herod’s death, his kingdom was divided into thirds among his sons. Herod Antipas ruled as Rome’s client over Galilee for over 40 years and Philip ruled the northern areas for nearly 40 years. The third unit, Judea, though, soon came under the direct control of the Romans due to the failure of Herod’s third son, Archelaus, to maintain his authority.

The Roman governor of Judea exercised firm control, having—for example—the power to appoint or dismiss the high priest of the temple. “In classic colonial fashion, Rome maintained exclusive authority over matters of foreign policy and serious domestic dissent (such as capital punishment).”[7] Pontius Pilate became governor of Judea twenty-some years into the Roman era of direct control of Judea. His contemporaries, Jewish writers Josephus and Philo, portrayed his rule as bloody and violent.  Luke 13:1 seems to allude to Pilate’s responsibility for the deaths of a group of Galileans.  Later on, after the slaughter of a large number of Samaritans, Pilate was recalled to Rome. Church historian Eusebius wrote that Pilate eventually committed suicide.

The gospels give evidence of the empire’s harsh response to perceived opposition.  “King Herod resorts to murderous violence to kill the newborn baby who is known as ‘king of the Jews’ (Mt 2).  Herod [Antipas] beheads John the Baptist who has been critical of Herod’s personal morality and political alliances (Mt 14:1-12).  Pilate, with whom the ‘religious leaders’ are allied, readily executes Jesus, king of the Jews, a perceived leader of the resistance (Matthew 27:11).”[8]

Jesus and empire

In his ministry, Jesus sought to foster renewal among his people, in part by expanding the scope of who would be included among people of the covenant. Hence, he came into conflict with the religious leaders who would be more restrictive, the guardians of the law and the guardians of the temple.  A significant part of Jesus’ message, though, also included a critique of the dominant forces from outside of Israel’s religious structures that oppressed and exploited—that is, the political rulers, the Roman Empire.  From the start, language about Jesus (lord, savior, messiah/king, kingdom, etc.) signaled a collision of claims.  For his followers, Jesus, in contrast to Caesar, is lord and savior (these were terms used of Caesar Augustus).[9]  It is no accident that the gospels present Jesus as born to carry on the tradition of Moses, down to the parallel between Pharaoh’s violence and the violence of King Herod, the client king of the great empire of Jesus’ day.

When Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, he at least implicitly questioned the Pax Romana (the dominance of Rome). He juxtaposed the true peace of God’s kingdom with the “imperial good tidings of a pacified world and human happiness in it.”[10]  To say God’s kingdom is at hand implies that Caesar’s kingdom is not ultimate.

The stories of Jesus’ exorcisms evoke the sensibility of Moses and Elijah—crossing the sea, healing, feeding the multitudes in the wilderness, preaching the law—and Moses’ resistance to Pharaoh and Elijah’s resistance to King Ahab. As this kind of prophet, the renewal Jesus sought among his people had both a positive component of empowering those under the yoke of oppression and a negative component of facilitating the rejection of empire. Jesus’ power over demons (linked on occasion with Roman legions—Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30) symbolized his rejection of Roman power.  Remember Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. Satan offers Jesus political power as if it belongs to Satan. Jesus later on displays his continued rejection of Satan’s presence in and among the people when he casts demons out.

When Jesus rejected authoritarian types of leadership, he rejected Rome’s power politics: “You know that among the Gentiles (that is, the Romans) those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It must not be so among you” (Mark 10:42).  With this statement, “Jesus clearly stated that the existing ‘order of peace’ is based on the oppressive rule of force.  That is the way in which Jesus and…his disciples experience the reality of the Pax Romana…. The alternative which Jesus puts forward shows that he is not resigned…. Peace based on oppressive force is not what Jesus wants.”[11]

Jesus’ words concerning the payment of taxes present his listeners with a choice between two competing claimants for their loyalties.  God or Caesar; it has to be one or the other. Those who trust in the true God will deny Caesar’s claims for their loyalty.  “If God is the exclusive lord and Master, if the people of Israel live under the exclusive kingship of God, then all things belong to God, the implications for Caesar being fairly obvious. Jesus is clearly and simply reasserting the Israelite principle that Caesar, or any other imperial ruler, has no claim on the Israelite people, since God is their actual king and master.”[12]

When given the opportunity in the wilderness prior to the beginning of his public ministry to overthrow the Romans with force, Jesus turned Satan down.  And, at the end, when face to face with Pilate, Jesus asserted that “my kingdom is not of this world.”  However, neither of these points should be understood as portraying Jesus as apolitical or indifferent to the Roman Empire. Rather, when seen in conjunction with his ministry as a whole, Jesus in both cases presents his politics as an alternative to Roman political authoritarianism.[13]  Jesus spearheaded a revolutionary movement—revolutionary not only in its rejection of the present political status quo but in presenting an alternative vision for social order.  The language of “kingdom” indicates that Jesus understood himself to be posing a contrast between his community and Rome.[14]

Jesus’ vision was in full continuity with the heart of Torah.  That such a Torah-oriented vision was revolutionary in first-century Jewish Palestine only underscores that the spirit of empire embodied in ancient Egypt remained alive and well in the time of the Romans. Just as Torah originally countered the empire-consciousness of Egypt, so its renewal in Jesus’ ministry countered the empire-consciousness of Rome.

The death of a political criminal

Jesus presented a challenge to empire—and the empire struck back.  In the end, even with his conflicts with the religious leaders, we must remember that Jesus was crucified – the manner of execution used by Rome for political offenders.  And he was crucified with the title “King of the Jews” attached to his cross – certainly a political term.  As N.T. Wright explains: “Crucifixion was a powerful symbol throughout the Roman world.  It was not just a means of liquidating undesirables; it did so with the maximum degradation and humiliation. It said, loud and clear: we are in charge here; you are our property; we can do what we like with you.  It insisted, coldly and brutally, on the absolute sovereignty of Rome, and of Caesar.  It told an implicit story, of the uselessness of rebel recalcitrance and the ruthlessness of imperial power. It said, in particular, this is what happens to rebel leaders.”[15]

That Jesus’ crucifixion, and the events leading up to it, are best understood under the rubric of confrontation with empire may be seen by looking carefully at the story of Jesus’ arrest and death.  John’s Gospel highlights political issues the most directly, so I will follow it here.[16]  Jesus was arrested by temple police, taken before the Sanhedrin, and then taken before Pontius Pilate. The main accusation voiced in this context had to do with his allegedly calling himself the “king of the Jews” – which could be a conclusion drawn from the use of messianic language of Jesus (messiah=“anointed one”=“king”).  Raymond Brown points out, “in first-century Palestine the charge that Jesus was claiming the ‘king of the Jews’ title might well be understood by the Romans as an attempt to re-establish the kingship over Judea and Jerusalem exercised by the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great.”[17]

The allegations of Jesus claiming to be king stand at the center of Pilate’s concern when he faces Jesus.  His first question focuses the issues: “Are you king of the Jews?”  Significantly, Jesus does not answer with a simple denial, even as he also makes it clear that he is not seeking to be the kind of “King” who rules the Roman Empire by brute force.  “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus replied to Pilate.  What might Jesus’ words here have meant?  Traditionally, many have read this as a statement that Jesus is not concerned with the politics of the material world but is advocating a purely spiritual, “otherworldly” kingdom. However, the evidence would seem to indicate otherwise.

Jesus was perceived as having this-worldly political significance when he miraculously fed the multitudes.  They sought him afterwards, desiring to make him king (John 6). Jesus, of course, disappeared from the scene because he did not trust their motives.  However, he was acting in a way that made people think he could be a political leader.  The religious leaders feared that Jesus’ activities had enough this-worldly political significance that the Romans might intervene with the full force of the Empire and impose a military solution to the problem (John 11:45–53).

The form of death Jesus faced as he went before Pilate—crucifixion—shows that the government itself saw him in this-worldly, political terms.  Crucifixion served that Pax Romana.

In Klaus Wengst’s words: “This execution, like many others, was virtually an act to secure the peace.  Extant reports of the implementation of Roman punishment of crucifixion at Palestine at the time of Jesus mention only rebels as criminals…. In the eyes of the Roman provincial administration Jesus was a rebel who endangered the existing peace. A disturber of the peace was done away with, by legal means, by the power responsible for peace.”[18]

Jesus was apolitical only if politics is understood strictly as power politics, the politics of the sword.  However, if we understand politics more generally as meaning the way human beings order their social world, Jesus was political.  In fact, in this sense just about everything he taught (e.g., turn the other cheek, reject lording it over others, share with those in need) was political. So, when Jesus says “my kingdom is not of this world” we may best understand him to mean, “my way of ordering human social life in real life is not of the order of political authoritarianism.” Jesus still leads a kingdom, a social order in history, but it is about a different way of living, a different way of structuring social life.

David Rensberger makes this same point. “Jesus’ words about his kingship do not deny that it is a kingship, with definite social characteristics.  Instead they specify what those characteristics are.  It is not a question of whether Jesus’ kingship exists in this world but of how it exists; not a certification that the characteristics of Jesus’ kingdom are ‘otherworldly’ and so do not impinge on this world’s affairs but a declaration that his kingship has its source outside this world and so is established by methods other than those of this world.”[19]  Jesus is a different kind of king, rejecting the brute force and hoarding of wealth that characterized emperors. He denies the validity of militarism.  “The empire (‘kingdom’) that his words and actions have attested differs significantly from Rome’s.”  Jesus advocates inclusiveness, humility, and mercy—all in contrast to how the Gentiles’ leaders lord it over them.[20]

In this sense, then, Jesus did offer a direct challenge to the hegemony of the Roman Empire.  According to the values of the empire, its agents were justified in deciding to punish this so-called “king.”  “For Pilate, to call Jesus ‘the one called Christ’ (Matthew 27:17,22) expresses Jesus’ political threat of sedition, of claiming power without Rome’s approval.  And Pilate is right. He correctly understands that the term denotes opposition to Rome’s rule and so Jesus must be resisted.”[21]  Pilate, especially as presented in John’s Gospel, may be interpreted as a cynical, manipulative politician.  He does not genuinely care about the fate of Jesus.  He certainly shows no sensitivity concerning Jesus’ life and message.  Pilate’s basic concern stems from his hatred of the Jewish people he is charged with governing.  He mostly wants to heap scorn on their nationalistic aspirations and thereby to solidify the standing of the Romans in their occupation of Palestine. “Pilate’s intention is not to placate ‘the Jews’ but to humiliate them.”[22]

Pilate thus serves these purposes by whipping the crowd to a frenzy about killing Jesus, focusing most directly on the religious leaders who are central throughout this part of the story.  Pilate several times tells the crowd that Jesus has done no wrong, only riling them up the more.  Finally, he says, “here is your king!” The crowd cries out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your king?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar!”  This was what Pilate had been waiting for. With their assertion that they have no king but Caesar, he got what he wanted.[23]  Immediately, he hands Jesus over to be crucified. Pilate simply wanted an admission from the Jewish leaders of the supremacy of Caesar. Jesus was essentially a pawn in Pilate’s game. Pilate seems to assume that he knows the only truth that matters: “There is no king but Caesar.”

Pilate, in his direct encounter with Jesus prior to turning him over to be executed, made clear his utter lack of interest in learning from Jesus.  Pilate’s agenda was buttressing his coercive power, not discerning truth.  Pilate begins the encounter by asking Jesus if he is “the king of the Jews.”  As Jesus tries to explain how he understands his “kingship,” and the role of seeking the truth as being at the heart of the genuine kingdom of God, Pilate simply quips, “what is truth?” and then leaves, not interested at all in listening to Jesus.  He has Jesus tortured, then uses him as a pawn for manipulating the religious leaders and the crowd, and in the end sends him to the most terrible of executions.

In the end, Jesus’ death offers a profound alternative to imperial power politics. Jesus exposes Rome’s style of politics as actually a kind of anti-politics, a dis-order that gains people’s trust as an idol that actually separates them from God.  “The scene exposes Roman justice to be administered by the elite for the elite’s benefit.  There is no doubt that by Rome’s rules Jesus deserves to die. But this scene, in the context of the Gospel story, raises profound questions about the nature of those rules.”[24]

At the heart of Jesus’ teaching in the final months of his life was his instruction to his followers, “take up your cross and follow me.”  This is a call to live free from political authoritarianism, to recognize that following Jesus puts them directly in opposition to the powers of empire. That the authorities (human and spiritual) would put Jesus to death is absolute proof of their idolatrous nature – and of the need for people of faith to distrust them.


How might we think of the connection between the then of Jesus’ confrontation and the now of the twenty-first century?  I will conclude by briefly mentioning four points of connection.

(1) Jesus’ experience with Pilate reflects what we now might call the Machiavellian tendencies of great powers.  Pilate’s actions expose the fact that empire’s agents care about coercive power much more than about truth.  Pilate asks “what is truth?” a cynical response to Jesus’ statement that “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).  As if to emphasize that he is not listening to Jesus’ voice, Pilate walks away from Jesus right after his obviously rhetorical question.  The revelation of the great powers’ true colors in relation to Jesus’ truth should, for those who would follow Jesus, have the effect of fostering great suspicion toward those powers. As Jesus himself said, though they call themselves “benefactors,” don’t believe it.  Followers of Jesus, of all people, should be unremitting critics of imperial pretensions and coercive policies whenever they arise.

(2) More than simply exposing empire’s privileging coercive power over truth, Jesus’ confrontation with empire also exposes the actual violence of empire toward any and all perceived threats.  The Soviet gulags in the past century make clear that this kind of violence has continued; we may also, perhaps closer to home, see parallels in the history of Australia as the nineteenth-century dumping ground for many who expressed dissent in relation to the policies of the all-powerful British empire and, into the twenty-first century, in the story of U.S. treatment of prisoners from the “war on terror” at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Christianity has sanitized and depoliticized the cross in the years since Jesus’ execution. However, the fundamental historical meaning of the cross is that it represents the worst imaginable punishment that empire can visit upon dissenters. Resist imperial hegemony and you bring to the surface what is inevitably always part of empire: domination based on violence. As it was in Jesus’ day, so it remains today.

(3) When Jesus made the metaphor of the “kingdom of God” the centerpiece of his life and teaching, he seriously sought to create a social order that would serve as an alternative to the kingdom/empire of Caesar. Rome (and Rome’s agents among Judea’s religious leaders) made no mistake when they arrested and killed Jesus—he did threaten their domination. Jesus’ contrast between the leadership style of the great powers (that of lording it over) and that of his counter-culture (compassionate service) was not meant to be a statement of the two distinct realms where people of faith dwell, i.e., expect service to predominate in the church and power politics to predominate in the world. Jesus’ intention was the “opposite” of the idea that you do not need to threaten business-as-usual in the broader culture when you seek to follow Jesus.  Rather, Jesus meant to say, the servant-oriented approach he embodied should govern your lives in all settings, and is normative for life everywhere at all times.  When you insist on this truth, though, expect to find yourselves in conflict with the powers-that-be.  Jesus made this clear when he told followers to prepare to take up their crosses.

(4) The gospels’ story of Jesus, of course, does not end with his execution. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God made the ultimate counter-empire statement. This man who, in his confrontation with empire, died as a political dissenter, whom Rome executed even though he embodied precisely what God wants from human beings, received the ultimate endorsement from the creator of the universe. In thus endorsing Jesus and the life he lived, God provides the strongest possible message that those who judged Jesus guilty of threatening the peace actually in the end prove themselves to be the threats to genuine peace. The resurrection of Jesus Christ witnesses to the truth of his life—a life committed to a politics of service and compassion—and to the falsity of the politics of empire. And, the resurrection of Jesus Christ provides his followers (then and still today) with the strongest possible statement that the politics of Jesus conform with the very creator of the universe.

[Master list of Peace Essays]

[1] James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Systematic Theology, Volume Two: Doctrine (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 44-45.

[2] For more reflections from a believers church perspective on this idea of the “two Americas” see Ted Grimsrud, “Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 78.3 (July 2004), 341-62.

[3] See Millard C. Lind, “Law in the Old Testament,” in Monotheism, Power, and Justice: Collected Essays (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1990), 61-81.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1978), 16-17.

[5] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 180.

[6] Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 33.

[7] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 56-7.

[8] Warren Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001), 62.

[9] Carter, Matthew, 59.

[10] Klaus Wengst, Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987), 55.

[11] Wengst, Pax Romana, 55-56.

[12] Horsley, Jesus and Empire, 99.  See also Wength, Pax Romana, 59-60.

[13] John Howard Yoder argues persuasively for Jesus self-consciously understanding his message to be about creating such as alternative politics.  See The Politics of Jesus, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).

[14] Carter, Matthew, 62.

[15] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 543.

[16] I am especially indebted to the provocative analysis by David Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1988), 87-106.

[17] Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 731.

[18] Wengst, Pax Romana, 1-2.

[19] Rensberger, Johannine, 97.

[20] Carter, Matthew, 161.

[21] Carter, Matthew, 163.

[22] Rensberger, Johannine, 94.

[23] Rensberger, Johannine, 95.

[24] Carter, Matthew,167.

4 thoughts on “Jesus’ Confrontation with Empire


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