Review: God & Empire
Part of the problem was that I went into it expecting (wanting?) the wrong things. I wanted to have a book that proved Jesus would have railed against imperial theology and policy, in particular the policies of the United States. I wanted unequivocal condemnation of war and poverty and exploitation and capitalism and… you name it – with verses to back it up. I wanted Crossan to give me a god that looked like me, talked like me, and wanted everyone else to see things the way I see it.
Right from the get go, Crossan didn’t deliver. Damn his honesty.
What I love about Crossan is that he is almost obsessively historical. Reading him is like accessing a Masters-level course in the history, sociology, politics, agriculture and economics of a very specific place at a virtually pin-point period of time: a geography of only about 80 miles along the Jordan river basin, under the rule of Rome from 60 BCE to 60 CE.
Yet at the same time, Crossan weaves into the specific peculiarities of the subject an exploded vision of the big picture, even the really big picture. He jumps back and forth between discussing the politics and nature of the Roman imperial occupation of Palestine on the one hand, and the nature and origins of civilization itself – all the while, building a Biblical awareness (with an honest scholarship that looks at the cultural and historical context of the Bible and its stories).
Turning traditional ideology on its head, Crossan identifies civilization itself as the phenomenon of injustice, and Crossan builds a case for the historical Jesus pitting himself against the domination system of civilization.
Civilization is the process of replacing a rough, natural equality among humans with an enforced unequality signaled by the production and acquisition of wealth (by a few) and resultant systems of violence to enforce and protect power-positions. Crossan, among others, refers to “civilization” as a 10,000 year experiment in living in systems of ordered domination and exploitation. (Think of civilization as a giant, thousands-of-years-long pyramid scheme, where most everyone “benefits” a little – except the top figures who benefit a great deal, and the masses of exploited people at the bottom who suffer extraordinarily in order to preserve the pyramid for everyone else.)
The historical Jesus – even preserved in the canonical tradition – stood against this system of violence and domination. The Pax Romana was purchased at the price of domination. The Pax Deus, the Peace of God, is established by justice for all – equality and sustenance. To such a counter-cultural/political/economic model, Crossan believes Paul was a faithful witness: struggling for equality and justice among Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and slave-holders, rich and poor. To support this idea, Crossan delves deeply into the canon and works with the reader to identify genuine letters of Paul, letters that are certainly not Paul’s work, and a few letters in between of questionable attribution to the famed Apostle. And in so doing, Crossan does more.
Crossan goes to great efforts to recognize and lift up divergent streams in the Christian canon – those that support the domination model of peace-through-victory (which is supported by all the ideology and mechanisms of “civilization”), and those that stand counter-culturally against domination in faithfulness to a prophetic peace-through-justice conception of right human relations. Both models find ample expression in our Bible – Old and New Testaments. Crossan builds his case that the Bible itself is a struggle between the forces of civilization creeping into our minds and ways, and the forces of God’s peace establishing a beachhead on our hearts, minds and behaviors.
You see, I wanted Crossan to blast the Christian hawks of America. But he is very honest about the scriptural support for their reliance on peace-through-domination. At the same time, however, he is clear that the historical and canonical Jesus is a voice on the side of peace-through-justice.
And I suspect some readers will be asking why we can’t have both – peace-through-victory and peace-through-justice, or reading the word “justice” as “revenge” or “protection of what I have from those who want it.” In so doing, we are virtually proving Crossan’s thesis that the forces of civilization are making their way into even the counter-cultural and other-worldly vision to which God is calling us. We, just like the Bible, are the field upon which the question is played out – civilization’s rules or God’s rules?
God & Empire ends with the contest between Paul’s faithful struggle for equality and justice on the one hand, and John of Patmos’ vision of a vengeful, violent return of Jesus on the other. The Bible is ambiguous (unable to point clearly to one or the other), and oftentimes so are we who read the Bible. But Jesus is calling us out of the confusion. As Christians, that should matter to us most of all.
Crossan never ends up closing the sale for me. His book leaves me with more questions than answers; more insight and understanding, but less arrogant certainty about the clear call of “the Bible.” I went in hoping for evidence of how right I was, and came out wondering if that desire is really one of civilization’s fingers wrapping around my brain. God & Empire ends up opening more doors than it closes.
Which might be why can recommend the book so highly.