Christianity and Empire
by John B. Cobb, Jr.
This essay was presented to a conference on American Empire at Drew Theological Seminary, September 25, 2003. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock. It is reposted with permission of Religion Online.
Christianity is a religious tradition with many strands and many potentialities for expression. Tonight I will highlight some of the strands that support empire and some that oppose it. I need hardly say that I regard the latter as more authentically Christian. I say this because I am a Pauline Christian who reads the Bible Christocentrically and understands Christ in light of the Jesus of the synoptic gospels. But let us consider first some of the strands that support empire. I shall use that term broadly to mean imposition of the will of one people on others expressing itself militarily and territorially when appropriate.
I will begin with the Jewish scriptures. There can be no question that Yahweh, like other tribal deities was understood in some of these scriptures as a warrior God. He was worshipped because of the victories into which he had led the people of Israel. When Israel was defeated and subjugated, many of the Hebrews understood that God had abandoned them and they begged God to return to lead them again to victory over their enemies.
The greatest achievement of Yahweh was the overthrow of the Egyptians that allowed the Hebrews to escape and the displacement of the Canaanites from their land. The former shaped the sense of being the Chosen People, and the latter shaped the permanent claim to Palestine. These are both influential in contemporary Israeli policy in justifying taking much of Palestine away from the Palestinians and maintaining political and military control over the land remaining to them.
In the Jewish scriptures the most obvious support of empire relates to David. His conquests are celebrated and the Davidic period is looked back upon with nostalgia as the time of Israel’s greatness. His military success indicated that he had won God’s favor. Much of the Messianic expectation was oriented to the notion of restoring this greatness.
Christians took over much of this heritage. We identified the warrior God as our God, and when we came into political power we frequently claimed God’s support for military conquests. In Israel the full imperial implications of its heritage had been muted in that, for the most part, even when it came to understand its God as the God of all, Israel was not committed to drawing others into its status as the Chosen People. In Christianity, on the other hand, this restriction was removed. The Christian goal was to convert all people. This universalistic thrust, by the time of Charlemagne, justified the use of armies to extend the power of the church. Later, much of the conquest of the New World by Christian Europe was justified, and partly motivated, by this goal of baptizing all people. Even where conversion remained voluntary, there was often a close connection between Christian missions and colonial powers in Africa and much of Asia.
Christians took over the claim to be the chosen people. Theologically this should have been applied to Christians as a whole, but in fact, in addition, it was applied to ethnic groups. Northern Europeans, in particular, considered themselves as shouldering the white man’s burden. The most extreme case has been that of the American people. We have believed that we are a unique people with a unique calling. In itself that might not be entirely favorable to empire, but in fact it has been. Our conquest and near genocide of the native peoples of this continent seemed right to us because of our special divine call. Our enslavement of millions of Africans did not greatly disturb our conscience because it was part of the building of this special nation. Our imposition of our will on Latin America, we assumed, was for the good of its inhabitants. In short, our sense of our national virtue was unassailable.
Most Americans in the past did not approve of empires. We thought that all peoples should be free to set their own destiny, as we had, when we won our freedom from the British Empire. Accordingly, we did not think of our settlement of this country or of our extension of power throughout the hemisphere and beyond as imperial projects. In fact, we often supported colonial empires against revolutions for the freedom of the people, but this did not alter our self-image. Even now, when the talk of American empire is widespread, we assume that because of our special character, unlike other empires, ours will be benevolent. This has long been described as the belief in American exceptionalism, and its heritage from the idea of an elect people is historically evident.
The use of force in the cause of evangelism roots in part in the understanding of God and God’s relation to the world. The Jews strongly affirmed the great power of God, and often thought of this power as coercive. Nevertheless, in the Hebrew Scriptures there is no clear notion of omnipotence. The stories are told in a way that suggests that human beings and other creatures also had power that was partly independent of God’s. They depict some kind of negotiation between God and people. Still, they include elements of unilateral coercion. This opened the way to affirming the use of coercive power by humans as well. This idea was transmitted to Christianity and greatly developed and accentuated.
By the time Christianity appeared, Jewish scholars in the Hellenistic world had begun to use the name "Pantocrator" for God. This meant ruler over all. The Septuagint, a product of Hellenistic Jewish scholarship used Pantocrator, chiefly in Job, to translate, or actually to replace, the proper name of God, Shaddai. This intensified the tendency to celebrate God primarily in terms of God’s power over the world.
Although the Septuagint was used in Greek-speaking Jewish congregations, for Jews, it remained secondary to the Hebrew Scriptures. It gradually ceased to be widely used. Among Christians, however, it was for some time the Bible, supplemented increasingly by the writings that became the Christian New Testament.
The next step was to translate the Bible into Latin for the Western church. This was done by Jerome. In regard to the understanding of divine power, he made two fateful decisions. First, he translated Shaddai, not as ruler of all, but as the omnipotent. And, second, for consistency’s sake he did so wherever it appeared. The resulting Vulgate was the Bible of the Western church for a thousand years and continues to be authoritative for Roman Catholics. English translations to this day follow Jerome’s lead by reading "the Almighty" wherever Shaddai appears. El Shaddai is rendered "God Almighty." Since Shaddai and El Shaddai appear frequently in Genesis and Exodus in many familiar stories, the idea that the biblical God is chiefly characterized as almighty became deeply entrenched in the imagination of Christendom, especially in the West. This has been reinforced by the first phrase of the Apostles Creed, rendered in English as: "I believe in God the Father Almighty." "The Almighty" is the most common verbal substitute for God. Many of the standard liturgical prayers are addressed to "Almighty God."
So strong is the identification of God with omnipotence, that much theology has long consisted in reasoning from this doctrine, assuming it to be non-negotiable despite its lack of clear biblical warrant. We are all familiar with the standard form in which the problem of theodicy is posed. The really tough-minded theologians have subordinated such other doctrines as those of God’s goodness, justice, and love to that of divine omnipotence.
At an early point in its development, this sense of God as in total control expressed itself and was reinforced by the affirmation of creation out of nothing. Today, at least, it is widely recognized that this idea is not present in the Bible. Hence its great importance in the Christian tradition has other causes. These are to be found directly in controversies in the early church that did not focus systematically on the doctrine of omnipotence. But the result has been closely related to that doctrine. God’s power is most clearly demonstrated when it is exercised in complete independence of any medium or other power. The ideal form of power is understood to be determination of what happens by pure fiat. The phrase: "Because I say so" says in all.
Two conclusions can be drawn from this understanding of God. One logical deduction is that if God has all the power and determines everything that occurs, then all creatures, including rulers, are powerless. However, such implications are drawn by most thinkers only very selectively. Some do argue that, with respect to our salvation, we are entirely powerless. But few draw the conclusion that what we decide to do makes no difference at all.
The second conclusion, less logical, but more characteristically religious, comes from the imitatio dei. Believers want to embody the traits of the One they regard as supremely admirable. They want to be like the One they worship. If the most notable characteristic of God is unilateral controlling power, then analogous power seems to be a desirable goal for human attainment as well. Human beings, made in the likeness of God, have tended to understand their dominion over other creatures in terms of such unilateral control. The human father has tended to aim at the sort of control in the family that the Heavenly Father is thought to exercise over the world as a whole. The earthly king is likely to emulate the Heavenly King, to whom he owes his exalted position.
Even if such teaching cannot be derived directly from the Bible, the hierarchical understanding that supports it is quite explicit. God is viewed as ruler over the world. God gives Israel a king to rule over all the tribes and then chooses David to succeed. The husband is to rule over his wife and their children. Human beings are to rule over the other creatures.
One can also derive from the Bible, at least from the New Testament, the idea that the salvation of the soul is incomparably more important than the well being of the body. In this case, almost any action at the temporal level is justified if it results in the salvation of the soul. The only condition for this salvation can be understood to be baptism into the church as an expression of acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior. If subjugation of people to Christian imperial rule, or even their individual enslavement to Christian masters, furthers the goal of their eternal salvation, the earthly injustice and suffering cannot compare to their eternal betterment.
I assume this is enough, or more than enough, to show how and why Christians have appealed to their tradition to justify imperial policies and to affirm the sorts of value systems that support empire. The Bible and the tradition give support to such attitudes and such policies.
However, the Bible also offers a sharp critique of such attitudes and such policies, and it provides an alternative vision. As I have already indicated, I take this to be the deeper meaning of both Testaments and, certainly, of the revelation Christians find in Jesus. I will speak briefly, first, of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The biblical narrative emphasized that God’s favor is typically shown to those who are not first in line by worldly standards. God typically does not choose the oldest sons. God chose Israel when it was a people of slaves in Egypt. Worldly power is not the criterion of standing before God. Faithfulness to the covenant God established with Israel is.
Although God is certainly admired as a warrior who leads armies into battle, God is far more centrally the giver of the law. This law is complex, but overall it is designed to achieve shalom, a combination of peaceful order, responsible community, and justice. It is summed up in the call to love God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul and one’s neighbor as oneself. Again and again it measures the degree of success by what happens to the marginalized members of society, the widows and orphans and the stranger in the midst.
The law includes provisions that, if followed, would prevent extreme inequalities from arising. These may not have been implemented often, or even ever, but they show the intent of the law. The prophets picked up on this ideal, protesting the concentration of wealth and power in a few hands. For them justice and righteousness were far more central in the understanding of God than God’s military prowess or God’s favoritism toward Israel. The latter would express itself in Israel’s becoming a light to the nations, not the center of an empire.
Throughout the time of the diaspora this message of the centrality of justice continued. When Jews became able to play a role in dominantly Christian societies, their voices were raised disproportionately on behalf of the poor and powerless. The Zionist ideal was partly to provide a safe haven for Jews whose position in Christian countries was precarious, but it was also the vision of a just state that could, indeed, be a light to the nations. Even today there are many Jewish voices in Israel and elsewhere risking much in order to call for justice to the Palestinian people.
The challenge to imperial values was even more pronounced in Jesus. His understanding of God placed gracious love in the center. For him, for one to be like God was to live in gracious love to the neighbor. Jesus may be charged with having given unrealistic commandments, but no one can deny that they are oriented to peace and generosity, not to self-aggrandizement and gaining power over others. He looks forward to a world ruled by God, but the kind of rule depicted is not that of an emperor who punishes his enemies and rewards those who obey him, but of a father who forgives and loves all. If there are to be rewards and punishments, they are meted out according to the loving care we take of one another.
Although Jesus did not directly challenge Roman authority, his message was deeply antithetical to it. This resulted in his crucifixion. Discipleship to one whom the empire had executed was equally subversive of the imperial ethos. The crucified Jesus, not Caesar, was said to be lord. The implications for the way people relate to one another and to the wider society were radical. The empire recognized the threat and persecuted Christians.
In the New Testament, even more clearly than in the Hebrew Scriptures, the nature of true power is redefined. Jesus rejects the temptation to call on heavenly forces to defeat his enemies. Instead, he exercises the power of teaching and example to bring into being a transformation of life and community. It is by being crucified that Jesus draws people to himself.
In the New Testament, even more clearly that in the Hebrew Scriptures, the worldly hierarchy is turned upside down. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. The widow who gives her mite is more generous than the rich who give large amounts. Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the realm of God before those who are regarded as virtuous. We must become as children if we would enter. This realm is closed to the rich. The cross, which was used by the empire as the ultimate instrument of shame became the symbol of God’s suffering love.
In Paul’s words, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world." (I Cor. 27-28)
Overwhelmingly the teaching of both Jesus and Paul counts against any resort to violence or coercion. That is not the way God deals with us. It is not the way we are to deal with one another.
There is one book in the New Testament that suggests rejoicing in the suffering of enemies of the faith. That is the book of Revelation. But this is also the most anti-imperial book of all. It contrasts the Roman Empire most dramatically with the lamb who was slain from the foundations of the world, and it is of course the lamb who is worthy of honor.
Surely the predominant message of the New Testament condemns the lust for power over others and any use of violence to obtain such power. It certainly does not sanction the use of force to get people to accept Jesus as savior. It consistently condemns the ways of the rich and powerful and the whole value system that gives them status and prestige.
Among the many who agree that the message of the New Testament stands in stark opposition to the imperial project, there remain acute problems. The New Testament was written about and by politically powerless people. Hence there is a marked contrast with the Hebrew Scriptures, which contain laws that are intended to govern the behavior of a nation. The Hebrew Scriptures take for granted the use of force in implementing earthly rule and defending the nation against external threats.
When Christians come to dominance in a nation, they must find ways to govern. They cannot eschew force altogether. It seems unlikely that they can avoid accepting many of the patterns of value against which Jesus and Paul protested. The history of compromise shows the reluctance of the church to give in completely to imperial values, but the course of events is not reassuring with respect to the practical possibility for those who have political responsibilities to be disciples of Jesus.
Let us consider the present options in U.S. foreign policy. The two main alternatives are the idealism of the neo-cons and the focus on national interest of the realists. Simply putting it that way, it seems that Christian should prefer the neo-cons, and many do. They want the United States to use this unique opportunity to exert its power so as to bring about a world of democratic states so subordinate to U.S. power that war among them will become unthinkable. In short, the American task is to bring shalom to the whole world.
The realists, on the other hand, believe that the United States should intervene elsewhere in the world only when vital interests of our nation are involved. Then we should do so in ways that cost us as little as possible. This means that alliances are important, and compromises should be made as needed to sustain these alliances. The question of whether our allies or others have democratic forms of government is important only if we believe that democracies are more likely to support us. When that is not the case, we are quite willing to work with authoritarian governments and support them in the suppression of democratic movements.
For disciples of Jesus simply to side with the realists against the neo-cons does not make much sense. Yet in our zeal to end the reign of the neo-cons, that has tended to be our goal. We seem to prefer a less self-avowed American empire, working for our interests, and using idealistic rhetoric only as it suits our purposes, to one that states its idealistic goals clearly and seeks the good of the whole world.
Those of us who agree that as Christians we must oppose the neo-cons are driven to think again about the practical meaning of discipleship in the United States. When we do so, we see that we must refuse to choose between these two options. We cannot accept the idea that the world’s most powerful nation should exercise its power only for its own sake. Of course, if its self-interest is highly enlightened the consequences need not be bad for others. Hence, much can be done within these boundaries. But self-interest that is not held in tension with wider commitments tends to become narrower and narrower. Christians must seek an alternative.
On the other hand, we must oppose the idea that one nation can achieve the good of the whole by imposing its will on all. This extreme doctrine of American exceptionalism has no historical justification. It certainly did not work for Native Americans. It certainly has not worked for Latin Americans. The expectation that others will welcome us as messianic liberators is naïve and has been proven false. The enormous amount of violence employed in implementing this idealistic vision will call forth more violence rather than bring the peace that is its goal. The neo-cons are not wrong to be idealistic. But devotion to ideals that are misguided, and practice based on erroneous assessment of the situation are profoundly destructive and dangerous as we Christians have demonstrated over and over, notably in five hundred years of Crusades.
What alternative can there be? I suggest that our primary concern should be to enable all peoples to have a say in their own governments and in how all the nations of the world should work together. That may be utopian, but it is realistic as a direction. We should not focus on universalizing the forms of Western democracy, which we have often been able to manipulate to support the interests of our corporations. But we should be deeply concerned about the reality of popular participation in shaping governments that serve the people. We should be concerned about the fate of minorities within such countries.
We should support moves toward regional organizations that can deal with many of the problems of the nations that make them up and can impose considerable order and freedom from the fear of international war. The European Union is the great accomplishment of they type thus far. For example, the United States and the European Union, among others, should cooperate in strengthening the Organization of African States so that Africa can deal with more of its own problems. That would not preclude its calling on global institutions such as the United Nations for assistance, but what outside assistance is desired, and when, should be decided by Africans, not in Washington.
As multiple regional organizations come into being, we can encourage and support the growth of institutions that represent all of them and/or the nations that make them up at the global level. This level is already crucial for more and more problems and will become more so. Its institutions need to be empowered to deal with these problems even at the cost of considerable sacrifice of national and regional sovereignty. I think of this as a community of communities of communities. In general I support the traditional Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity. Problems should be dealt with on as small a scale as possible. I would like to see the global economy move in this decentralizing direction. But I recognize that there are extreme limits to how far this can go with respect to either the economy or governance as the world grows smaller. We need strong global institutions that can adjudicate issues at that level and enforce decisions.
Is this a more Christian view? I think so. It does not propose to end violence, but it does not depend on violence for its implementation. It reduces the international activities that provoke violence. It tends to empower people rather than to disempower them. Recognizing that no order of society will put an end to the lust for power over others and the use of power to exploit, it contains checks and balances. It leaves open for endless consideration and reconsideration the question of how much abuse of power or mutual destruction can be tolerated in one area before a wider community intervenes.
A world ordered in such a way will be a long way from the realm of God proclaimed by Jesus. It will continue to be full of oppression, exploitation, corruption, and violence. Still I believe it can provide more possibility for a sustainable global society than can other proposals. Such a goal would give practical direction to our national policies in ways quite different from either the neo-cons or the realists.
Alfred North Whitehead suggested that moral progress in the world consists in achieving patterns of order which make it more possible for more people to live more nearly in accordance with Jesus’ vision. I hope that the direction I propose would move us forward, a little bit, along the line of progress thus indicated. The other options with which I am familiar seem to move us in the opposite direction.