God and Empire, by John Dominic Crossan (LentBooks #5)

godandempireThis was a surprise: a book by John Dominic Crossan that I mostly agreed with.

I’ve read a bit of Crossan’s work before, specifically his work on the historical Jesus, and often found myself in violent disagreement with him.  Crossan is one of the leading lights of the Jesus Seminar, and his take on the Jesus of history is a far more liberal one than most of us more conservative or traditional Christians can live with.  He’s the sort of scholar who seems to doubt things simply because they appear in the canonical gospels, taking that hermeneutic of suspicion thing just a little too far.

But one thing you can’t ever accuse Crossan of being, even when you disagree with him, is shoddy or slapdash.  I’ve read the book he calls “Big Jesus” (The Historical Jesus, so called to distinguish it from “Baby Jesus,” Jesus: A Revolutionary Biographpy, a shorter and more accessible version of the same material) and though I disagree not only with his conclusions but with much of his methodology, I can’t deny the fact that he is a thorough and serious scholar who has brought years of study to bear on his treatment of Jesus.

In God and Empire, which is fairly light and short and written much more for the popular than the scholarly reader, is not so much about the historical Jesus (although, obviously, he makes an appearance) as it is about the whole idea of “empire” — whether the ancient Roman empire or the modern American empire, or any system where the few exercise power and control over the many through use of force.  Here Crossan seems to be drawing on many of the same ideas that Walter Wink did in the Powers trilogy, so he’s speaking my language.  The main purpose of this volume is to apply that analysis of the idea of “empire” to the Bible itself.

Crossan argues that while power and dominance have been part of human civilization for — well, at least as long as there’s been human civilization, the Bible offers glimpses of another way.  A way for people to live together without the strong dominating the weak, a kingdom based on love rather than on power. But Crossan doesn’t ignore the fact that the Bible also contains many passages that seem to underscore the traditional system: rule through power and violence, including divine violence (like the Flood story).  Nor does he accept the simplistic dichotomy that suggests that the Old Testament God is a violent, angry God and the New Testament God is a peaceful, loving God. Rather, he says, these two strands are interrwoven throughout the whole Bible itself, and as Christians we are called upon to choose one over the other, to accept those parts of the Bible that speak against “empire” (or what Wink would call “the domination system”) and reject those parts that perpetuate it.

Well, that’s a little more radical approach to the Bible than most of us are comfortable with.  But I will say honestly that, speaking as one of the more conservative representatives of “most of us,” the constant effort to “harmonize Scripture” and make the bloodier passages of Judges agree with Jesus’ parables of grace is also uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of cognitive dissonance. This, at least, is a new way of approaching the problem.

In this book, Crossan takes a narrative approach to the canonical gospels and discusses the stories they tell as a unified whole rather than picking them apart to see which bits come from “Q” and which were added later and why, as he tends to do in his historical Jesus work.  In general, he suggests that the Jesus of the Gospels represented the anti-Empire view and that this perspective was carried on by Paul and the other early Christians (refreshingly, Crossan doesn’t buy into another popular trap of thinking Paul ruined all Jesus’ good work by trying to make it palatable to the Romans — in fact, in Crossan’s view, Paul’s teaching was very unpalatable to the Roman Empire, which I agree with. I particularly enjoyed all the references to Augustus and his cult of emperor-worship, given the reading I was doing last year about ancient Rome).  However, Crossan suggests that the book of Revelation (and, by extension, those Christians who build their theology largly upon its foundation) represents the opposite — a strand of the old power-through-violence theme popping up in the New Testament, as persecuted Christians imagine finally getting vengeance on the persecuted as a warrior Jesus comes back to mete out punishment and death.

There’s a lot in here to think about, a lot to disagree with, a lot to question.  But in general, unlike earlier Crossan books I’ve read, I found myself mostly with him rather than against him on this one, perhaps because of my own reflections on the ideas of empire, power, peace and justice.  I think I’d like to come back and reread this one again in a couple of years and see what I think.  Well worth a read, no matter what your perspective.

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1 Comment

Filed under LentBooks, Nonfiction -- general

One response to “God and Empire, by John Dominic Crossan (LentBooks #5)

  1. Your site, like Crossan’s book, came as a surprise to me… a pleasant one… and I particularly like your brief ‘review’ of citing ‘Big Jesus’ and ‘Baby Jesus’ – although the latter is hardly ‘baby food’ for those who have a spiritual hunger.

    You wrote: “But one thing you can’t ever accuse Crossan of being, even when you disagree with him, is shoddy or slapdash. I’ve read the book he calls “Big Jesus” (The Historical Jesus, so called to distinguish it from “Baby Jesus,” Jesus: A Revolutionary Biographpy, a shorter and more accessible version of the same material) and though I disagree not only with his conclusions but with much of his methodology, I can’t deny the fact that he is a thorough and serious scholar who has brought years of study to bear on his treatment of Jesus.”

    But that you disagree “not only with his conclusions but with much of his methodology” . . . wouldn’t that be an apt commentary on the nature of what we call ‘The Bible’ itself – especially the forms in which it has be watered down with revisionist translations. So let’s face it – the book we’re left with is itself an ‘imperialistic’ commentary that was very selective in what was written down about an oral memory of some ancestral faith stories… and then added onto and edited to fit the needs of the royal and imperial scribes who were hired – or perhaps conscripted by imperial decrees – to give us the story from the dominant rather than the dominated. And that’s certainly true of what we ended up with in terms of a ‘canon’ in post-Nicene, Constantinian realities. It is, however, strikingly honest in including some of the critics of imperialism – but that’s much clearer in the Hebrew scriptures than the Christian ones – although there are subliminal hints of that… and that is what Crossan has uncovered. And that’s what ‘theologies of liberation’ also discovered and uncovered – and those theologies go back to the reformation period when an oppressed laity began to read some stories of ‘liberation’ rather than ‘salvation’ within their own contextual situation. And the same was true later of African slaves in America whose slave-owners thought they were ‘Christianizing’ them by giving them the Bible – and they had the audacity to read its narratives as a CALL TO FREEDOM!

    If only the imperialists could understand all of that… they might have a chance to become freed of their own idolatrous pursuits in terms of possessions, prestige, and power.

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