Jesus and Caesar: God’s Love in the Context of Roman Imperialism

“Kiss of Judas” by Giotto (fresco)

Some time ago the writings of theologian David Ray Griffin crossed my desk. Griffin sets Jesus’ ministry squarely in opposition to Roman imperialism in the first century. He quotes Richard Horsely as saying, “Trying to understand Jesus without knowing how Roman imperialism” worked is like “trying to understand Martin Luther King without knowing how slavery, reconstruction, and segregation” worked.

To better understand what precisely Jesus was opposing, Griffin outlines five attributes of imperialism:

  1. A conviction that the Empire has divine authorization to rule: The claim, basically, that the leader of the empire is somehow divinely elected, “God’s man,” and backed by the state or nationalist (imperial) cult, church, or religion. The first Caesar claimed that he was the “Son of the gods”, and legend claimed he was born of a virgin (sound familiar?).
  2. The employment of military power to maintain and sustain an illusion of peace (pax romana), a peace Caesar once declared as euangelion or “good news/gospel” as early as 9 BC. This power doesn’t always come in the form of violence, but can emerge in two ways: (1) appeasement/distraction that anesthetizes the masses by way of mass entertainment, gladiatorial sporting, and sex (lots of sex); or (2) the sowing seeds of discord and division that keeps people fighting one another rather than legislating change. Division and unrest inevitably necessitates a stronger police state.  The more policing, the higher the budget for a government military complex and standing military presence.
  3. The use of terror and intimidation to silence, marginalize or otherwise banish alternative narratives that re-frame hope, challenge, and kingship. At times, discrediting the narrator(s) is more effective than addressing the narrative, even if it means dehumanizing or marginalizing the narrator(s) or “alternative herald(s). When Jesus was crucified, the sign above his head read, “King of the Jews,” and Jesus’ “good news” (euangelion) was in direct contradiction to Caesar’s “good news”.
  4. Rule through puppets (governors, mayors, High Priests who claim to speak for the state, etc) backed by the empire’s “pervasive military presence.” Court priests or prophets affirm divine right of rule, and insure the legitimacy of imperial status quo.  This inevitably establishes competing values in which a civic religious cult must “back” the state even when it contradicts its most basic beliefs, such as lobbying for “pro-life” initiatives such as banning child sacrifice, all while lobbying for “anti-life” initiatives such as war, limited access to healthcare, and the amassing of weapons.
  5. The collection of taxes to build an interdependent economy that doubles as a metric to measure “health and good will” (my words) upon which the citizens both rely and “trust”. There is a constant threat of break-down in the economy that produces fear and encourages the endless accumulation of resources. This means accumulation by any means necessary, even at the expense of human lives or exploitation of land. Sustaining the economy rarely affirms the sanctity of life, and this often translates into threats by the Empire to withhold funding from local municipalities when economic decisions are not made in the best interest of the Empire or if a puppet gets out of line.

In opposition to Empire, however, stands Jesus and God’s love that, according to scripture, pushes back against darkness, the powers of this world, and the world itself.  First John 2:15 says it plainly, “Do not love the world or the things of the world,” which means avoiding worldliness and the values of the world but affirming the people who live in the world.  This means initiating love for people (not the values of the world) that is “bold” (1 John 4:17) because “as he is [God is love], so are we in the world”.

The Greek word for bold is parrhesia, which can be translated as “cheerful courage”. It is not a love that gets our own way, but a love that makes a way for the love of Christ to up-end and subvert the values of the world and of Empire.

God’s Love pushes back the notion that a nation or empire has a divine mandate to rule in the name of God. Quite the contrary, love is the ultimate defense against the “principalities and powers of the air” (Eph. 6:11-12) and Satan, who currently holds “all authority” (kingship) over the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:6). (Its hard for us to hear this truth isn’t it?).

God’s Love pushes back against the notion that a good economy translates into “peace.” Every worldly economy from the beginning of time (after Eden) has winners and losers. There is only one peace in which no competitors and no losers exist, and that is found the Good News of Jesus Christ who frees us from the world’s flawed, fragile, and fear-inducing economy. We place our trust entirely in Christ, not in our stuff or the ability to accumulate stuff as a measure of peace and tranquility—and Christ calls us not to retain our stuff by means of threatening or taking the lives of others (see the Sermon on the Mount).

God’s Love pushes back against a swollen military complex. In current history, this is why our very nation was founded both in reaction to and in resistance of a “standing army.”  For all my conversations surrounding the constitutionality of guns with gun owners, gun owners often claim that the Second Amendment is there to keep the government from infringing on the rights of the states and the people of the states– Why now, then, does it seem that we readily hand the keys over to standing armies for national security that deny due process even when those armies are not requested by local municipalities?  It has to do with the previous point–when Christians are more concerned with protecting their “stuff,” they are more likely to do and support means by which they protect stuff at the expense of the lives of people.

God’s Love pushes back against the subterfuge of power and Empire-wielding leadership. Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “When Caesar, having exacted what is Caesar’s, demands still more insistently that we render unto him what is God’s — that is a sacrifice we dare not make.”  Christ will not be co-opted by the state anymore than Christ should be subject to Caesar. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s; do not render to Caesar what is God’s! Jesus gave the church an other-worldly ethic that flies in the face of political manipulation: “Those who seek to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

God’s Love pushes back against fear and intimidation.  Rather, God’s love calls for biblical, “cheerful courage”. Bold love infiltrates and usurps the values and methods of empire. It is not passive, but takes action. It is not merely a feeling or a message on a Hallmark card–it is a call to enact God’s values and ethics on the world around us. God is love, and we–God’s children–are to be Christ’s Beloved Community.

This sober reminder of Jesus, set in the context of the Roman Empire, may have fresh lessons for us today…  What lessons might we learn for our present-day context, culture and public sector?

Sources

David Ray Griffin, The Christian Gospel for Americans: A Systematic Theology (Anoka: Process Century Press, 2019), p. 130.

Parrhesia,” in The New Spirit-Filled Bible, ed. by Jack Hayford (Thomas Nelson Press, 2002), p. 1392.

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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