The Gospel and Empire


Icon of Humility, Service and Care for Creation

Icon of Humility, Service and Care for Creation

Looking forward to Holy Week, I went back to Bishop Spong’s columns on the scripture and Holy Week. In today’s Gospel, the debate over who Jesus was continues. The backdrop is the plot against Jeremiah in the first reading. Who was plotting against Jesus? Initially, I think it was the Roman authorities who were trying to squelch the radical reformer from the hinterlands of Galilee. The crowds were growing and, as they did, Jesus posed an even greater threat to Roman rule. The early followers of the Way worshipped in the synagogues as Jews who followed the teachings of a Jewish Rabbi called Jesus. It was only after the rift when “Christianity” split from Judaism that “the Jews” came to be implicated in Jesus’ death. How the Jewish people have suffered once this took hold and once the church abandoned the nonviolence of Jesus.

We know very little about the details of Holy Week. It seems to me that most modern scripture scholars agree that the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection were fashioned by writers who were targeting specific communities and who were building the story by bringing in events which show Jesus to be the Messiah proclaimed in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The only historical fact we really have is that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. That’s it folks! We seem to have lost the impact of Jesus crucified among all the manufactured details in the four Gospels. Having lost perspective, we live with a distorted view of Jesus then and the Risen Christ now.

Jesus died because he was challenging the values of Roman Empire. His teachings about love, forgiveness, the first shall be last, feed the hungry, and so on posed a threat to the established social order. Roman Empire is not all that different from American Empire. Peace is maintained through the sword of violence. Jesus was trying to raise the consciousness of the people so they could go beyond self to love and serve one another.

How many Christian churches challenge empire? Since Constantine’s time, the church has been very comfortable getting into bed with empire and living by its distorted values. Merton understood this as he described a visit to the General Electric plant in Louisville:

Last time I was in town–we had to drop something at the G.E. plant–Appliance Park. We came at the enormous place from the wrong side and had to drive miles all around it. Surrounded by open fields with nothing whatever in them, not even thistles, marked “Property of General Electric. No Trespassing.” The buildings were huge and go on forever and ever, out in the midst of their own wilderness. Stopped by guards, we signed in at the appropriate gate and promptly got lost in the maze of empty streets between the buildings. Finally came out right. What struck me most was the immense seriousness of the place–as if at last I had found what America takes seriously. Not churches, not libraries. Not even movies, but THIS! This is it. The manufacture of refrigerators, of washing machines, of tape recorders, of light fixtures [fighter engines, parts for nuclear weapons]. This is the real thing. This is America.

This is Empire!

In a few weeks, we will participate in our favorite Good Friday activity—the Ecumenical Good Friday Walk in Melbourne, FL. We will sing and pray as we visit a veterans’ center, a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, the railroad tracks (immigrants), and the local government building. We will in effect be challenging the values of Empire. Why are people hungry, homeless, and on the streets while the stock markets have risen to new highs? Why do our budget crunches result in cuts to programs to alleviate human misery while Ryan is proposing yet another huge tax cut for those who create much of human misery? Why do we rely on the Marine Corps instead of the Peace Corps?

May I suggest that you read John Dear’s column where he uses the story (not history) of Jesus’ encounter with Pilate. It is poetry and metaphor that rings true, “My kingdom is NOT of this world.” John challenges us to rethink our Christian priorities. (

I am also pasting a link to John Allen’s column because there is real significance for church—any denomination—in the new pope’s selection of the name Francis. Francis of Assisi is an icon of humility and service to the least among us. Putting this image before the tainted image of institutional religion is a great first step to proclaiming Gospel values anew. (

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