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Monday, October 7, 2013

The fleshpots of empire

Scary Jesus: Christ Pantocrator at the Basilica in DC
You don’t see mainstream spiritual writers following the via negativa much, the possibility that most of our thoughts about God are wrong, and that coming at it from another direction, or starting again from the beginning, might be more revelatory. It seems to me that we’re much too dogmatic in what we say that we think we know about God, and try to reconcile in God all kinds of opposites: power and meekness, judgment and mercy, anger and love, forgiveness and the demand for redemption. It’s not that I have a problem with dichotomies and dialectics. It’s that they make me wonder whether we made a mistake farther back in our calculations, like we’re doing this big crossword or sudoku and more and more answers aren’t making sense, and it’s because we put a wrong word or number in a few rounds ago.

I got the title of this entry thinking about the saying from the book of Exodus (16:3)
The Israelites said to them, "Would that we had died at the LORD'S hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!"

And I was thinking about Jesus’s preaching of the empire of God, and how it was offered as a specific alternative to the empire of Caesar Augustus and his line, and to the oppressive collaboration experienced by the people of Israel by the chief priests and scribes colluding with Herod. The pax romana, after all, was only good if you were romana, and the rest of the world experienced it as iron-fisted oppression at the point of the sword. The very fact that Jesus called the realm or dominion of God by a word that put it in competition with another regnum or imperium is important, I think, and also the fact that while he does this, he does not refer to God as emperor, but as “Abba.” This seems significant to me, because it describes some of the attributes of God’s empire that put it in opposition to the empire of Caesar.

And yet, ultimately, I think language failed Jesus, because we hear “empire” or “kingdom” and we think of emperors and kings as we know them. We, and the disciples who came before us, starting with the twelve and seventy-two and continuing through history, imagine that God’s empire is meant to give us power, meant to give us some kind of victory over our enemies, whoever they may be. Victorious emperors must be what God is like! Power to do anything in any way, the ability to vanquish the foe with greater force, to rout out evil and destroy its memory from the earth: this is where our thinking generally goes when we imagine God and God’s empire. For a persecuted Christianity for the first two centuries of the church’s existence, the powerlessness of being hunted, betrayed, and fed to wild animals in the Circus must have been a horrible experience, and one can imagine that their eschatological longing for the return of the Lord would have included some butt-kicking of the people who had harassed and killed them for so long. But in the face of all that, the gospel kept calling the church to peace and surrender: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Blessed are they who suffer persecution for the sake of righteousness. And there was the example of the master, killed as a seditionist on the cross, and silent before the judgment of Caesar’s minions in Judea.

But we are so enamored of power! Here we have a God whose image in Christ is of the eternal Logos taking flesh and becoming one of us, pouring himself out completely in love. As a human being, the Master becomes a servant. He turns the tables on our mores, castes, and legalisms, our games of oneupsmanship, cult, and in-groups. He gives us, in himself, a path for a people’s journey to a different way of living from the grasping, hoarding, violent ways of the empire of Caesar, and we desert him while Caesar hangs him on the gallows. And even when he is vindicated by God in the resurrection, we prefer Caesar. It’s only a couple of centuries before the transformation is complete, and the persecuted church becomes the ruling class, the emperor becomes a Christian, and different kinds of pogroms and new castes and cults and grasping arise. We were offered the promised land of the empire of God, and we settled, and continue to settle to one extent or another, for the fleshpots of Egypt, of Caesar’s empire. And because the term “kingdom” works so well, we kept it, and because “heaven” sounds far away we substituted it for the empire of God, moving safely out of this world into the next, so that we can keep this one as a place of commerce and accumulation for the elite, and for the rest, God and religion are...opium?

For all its blustery promises, power doesn’t work out. It always is exercised against someone else. It’s not an equitable way of operating, not in the sense of imperial power. The “power of God,” or power in the empire of God, must mean something different from the power that an emperor would use. There’s something in our faith that God is somehow “trinity,” that power is shared, that power is self-gift, that power is other-directedness, that is at the heart of power in empire of God. But still, like the Hebrews wandering in the Sinai desert, we long for the fleshpots of empire. Jesus offers us the freedom that comes from being like God, and walking in love, and we want to go back to where we were comfortable slaves, subjects to other powers, and exercising petty force over one another. 

But built into the preaching of Jesus are the parables, which subvert our imagining of an earthly empire, and make us think new thoughts about what God’s empire is like. And we have the words of the gospel, the actions of the Lord, and the writings of the apostles which also ameliorate the damage of words like “Lord,” “King,” and “empire” or “reign.”

One of my favorites, having read Crossan and Scott, for example, on this subject, is the parable of the leaven. 
"The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened." (Mt. 13:33)

While some commentators are quick to point out that this parable is about the church (if Jesus spoke this parable, the church didn’t exist yet!), if we examine the details we find that it’s something else entirely. First, the “kingdom of heaven,” or in Crossan’s and Scott’s more striking translation, the “empire of God,” is not the church. Not even the Church thinks that. Second, it’s like yeast kneaded into flour. We need to remember that the “kosher” bread of the time, the pure bread that was used for ritual, was unleavened. Leaven or yeast was considered a corrupting agent. So this parable might be about the ability of something small to change something big, but it doesn’t seem to be the church, or the religious establishment. Third, it’s a woman that is doing the kneading, in other words, in cultural context, corruption piled upon corruption. But this is what the empire of God is like - the overturning of what is clean and good from everything that is expected. 

The parables themselves are leaven - they will help to corrupt the large measures of scriptural and theological flour we have gathered to bake our liturgical bread. They will, eventually, help us to re-imagine Jesus as the herald of the empire of God, a legitimate alternative to the temptations to power and greed that are the hallmarks of political and economic empires to which we generally pay our taxes. We just have to keep listening with fresh ears - as Jesus said, “Whoever has the ears to hear, let them listen.” We hear the term “kingdom of heaven” and we hear “a far away place in the sky where there’s a God who is like a king,” but what if, when Jesus said it, he meant, “there’s an alternative to the kingdom of Caesar, and it’s right up the road, and it’s a place where your enemy might be your savior, where things aren’t the way you’ve been told they are about God, and people of all kinds can sit at the same table and live in peace.” If we could find a way, by the way we live, to make that place clear, to make that empire shine, then maybe others would have the courage to leave the fleshpots of empire, and start the journey to a new land of milk and honey.