Tag Archives: empire

Every Knee Shall Bow - J. Kirk Richards, 2008

Every Knee Shall Bow: The Bible’s Critique of Empire


This meme kicked me in the eyes over the weekend. It’s a particularly grievous example of a common Christian posture, a not-so-subtle threat on behalf of Jesus: worship me now or worship me later, but you WILL worship me! Of course Jesus never said anything like the words in that image, but it is rather loosely based on words written by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians:

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus, Messiah, is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)

Most scholars agree that this passage comprises an extended quotation from an early Christian hymn about Jesus, a song which echoes Hebrew Bible texts like Isaiah 45 and subverts Roman imperial propaganda. But questions like context and source material have been of little interest to Christians throughout history who are content to take this text at face value as an ultimatum to nonbelievers. Believe now or be crushed later.

At the same time, there are many of us who reject such a reading as utterly antithetical to the very ethos and heart of Jesus. How could the same prophet of peace who loved us and gave his life for us now demand our allegiance and subjugation? That’s what despots and emperors do, not the Prince of Peace. And this gets to the heart of the matter.

Scripture vs. Empire

What’s missing from the discussion is an appropriate contextual understanding of the texts in question. As I indicated above, passages like Philippians 2 are not random proclamations out of time and space, they are subjective and derivative, products of a time, place, and tradition. Specifically, they are subversive parodies of imperial rhetoric. These are the kinds of things ancient people would say about kings and emperors (if they knew what was good for them), boldly revised with Jesus as their subject. In Isaiah 45 (the source material), it is YHWH who rescues and liberates the people, not the corrupt and oppressive kings of the nations. And here in Philippians (the subversive hymn), it is not Caesar who warrants worship and devotion but Jesus, a different kind of lord.

And there’s the rub: implicit in the name swap is also an exchange of values. Caesar demands worship under threat of violence, Jesus does not. Jesus is exalted as a divine and peaceful alternative to empire, not a sanctified version of the same monster. After all, as Jesus himself told us, the kingdom of God is not established by rulers “lording over” others, but by self-denying love that heals and saves others. The church’s mistake has been to imagine Jesus as the ultimate super-emperor, rather than the game changing, world saving anti-emperor. His kingdom is not defended against hated enemies with swords and battles, it is celebrated with feasts where everyone is invited and fed and loved. 

Ignoring the Critique

Why have so many Christians seemed unmoved and uninterested in the Bible’s pervasive critique of empire? This informed and clarified reading has become a fixture of biblical scholarship and has been largely embraced by “progressive” Christianity, but most mainstream Christians still resist or ignore it. Why is that? How has something that now seems so loud and unmistakable been essentially filtered out of our reading of the Bible for so long?

Could it be that American Christianity was formed and codified in a time when our home empire was unquestioned as a benevolent and even divinely sanctioned force for the salvation of the rest of the world? Has our commitment to the imperial rhetoric of our homeland inoculated us to the Bible’s anti-imperial posture? And/or, has Jesus been elevated to such a lofty but generic divine stature that the earthly and political dimensions of his life and legacy have been effectively rendered moot? Has worship of Jesus as supreme leader been so fervent and intense that the cause and content of that worship has gone unexamined? Have we really imagined that the meek and mild savior grew up to be a cosmic despot?

However we got here, this much seems self-evident: when you use Jesus to threaten and intimidate others, you have lost Jesus. When our proclamations of worship and devotion to Jesus are little more than sanctified and absolutized totalitarian threats, we have betrayed the very spirit of love we profess to represent. In the Bible’s anti-imperial critique, authoritarian language is reappropriated and turned inside out. The intended effect is an unmasking and mockery of earthly oppressors and a subversive proclamation of alternative values. Peace not war, forgiveness not accusation, advocacy not coercion. Our calling is not to Christianize empire, but to destroy it with love, to render it obsolete with service and empathy. That every knee might bow to the reign of peace and every tongue confess the supremacy of love.


We Have Met the Beast and He Is Us

Beast666Somehow this is still a thing. Christian politicians and pundits routinely make fearmongering overtures about the identity of “the beast,” “the antichrist,” the cosmic boogeyman who will bring about the End Times™ and also happens to be their ideological opponent. Just pick a public figure you don’t like, label them “dangerous,” throw in a vague appeal to “biblical prophecy,” and you’re good to go.

Even as we roll our eyes, we think we know exactly which Bible prophecy is being abused: the book of Revelation and its warning of a coming antichrist. But it’s not simply that the words of Revelation are being misappropriated as political fodder, they have been completely misread and misunderstood in the first place. If we take an educated and careful look at the relevant passages, a very different picture comes into focus. Spoiler Alert: there is no singular “antichrist” figure in Revelation. There are several metaphorical “monsters” in the text, but the nearest contemporary analog for the “beast” in question is not a Muslim warrior, a popular Pope, or a socialist President. It’s something much more familiar and far more insidious.

(Actually) Reading Revelation

I get a little twitchy when uninformed Christians rant about “what it says in Revelation” concerning “the antichrist.” For starters, the word “antichrist” never appears in the text. It’s not there. Something like it can be found in John’s epistles, but not here. There is a “beast” in Revelation, a few of them in fact, and to put them into proper context we’ll need a quick overview of the whole thing.

The final book in the New Testament canon, Revelation was written as a coded message to first century churches from an exiled pastor named John. It’s an apocalypse, a sort of ancient political cartoon, imagining the imminent destruction of the Roman Empire and the vindication of Jewish-Christian martyrs who had been killed by the state. Apocalyptic literature allowed its authors and recipients to express their true feelings about Rome without incrimination, using cryptic metaphors and bizarre symbolic imagery instead of openly political language.

Revelation plays out as a pageant of symbolic tableaus. The martyrs entreat the heavenly throne for justice, Jesus (depicted as a slain lamb) opens a scroll containing God’s purposes, and bowls of consuming wrath are poured out onto the armies and superpowers of earth. In the end, the great Whore of Babylon (a.k.a. Rome) is defeated and God’s kingdom is established in its place, a glistening (earthly!) city called New Jerusalem. The end.

So where does “the beast” figure in?

Dragon and the Beasts, This Fall on ABC

The chapters in question are Revelation 12 and 13, wherein the narrative shifts and the Bible suddenly goes all Harryhausen. A “great red dragon” falls to earth and summons two “beasts” (or “monsters”), one from the sea and one from the land, who do the dragon’s bidding. The first monster speaks “blasphemous words” and “makes war on the saints,” while the second one “deceives” the people of the earth into worshiping the first monster. This is the beast that “marks” humans with a number permitting them to “buy and sell.”

The text explicitly identifies the dragon as “the satan,” the evil power which animates the two earthly monsters. The first monster is the Roman Empire, with its temporary authority to rule over the tribes of the earth and its thirst for the righteous blood of the martyrs. Who then is the second beast, the one which so preoccupies dispensationalist Christians that they’ve forgotten all the other apocalyptic critters? He represents the religious and economic systems that feed the ambitions of the first beast. He makes images of his counterpart to be worshiped and brands citizens for participation in the marketplace. And what is the “number” that this beast stamps on the people’s hands and foreheads? 666, the numeric name of Nero, the great persecutor of Christians. This beast dupes God’s people into bankrolling their greatest enemy.

Hitting Close to Home

This is the dreaded beast of Revelation: imperial consumerism that lulls people into working and buying and selling and worshiping against their own interests. Revelation wasn’t a warning to the future about the rise of a bad guy from an enemy camp, it was a clarion call to first century Christians against capitulation and collusion with the powers-that-be. It was an anti-establishment screed, reminding its hearers that Christians do not play at power and war and money like the beasts do. In a bottomless pit of irony, those Christian gatekeepers who most loudly sound the “antichrist” alarm in our own day tend to be those who are most sold out to nationalism, capitalism, and the established imperial order.

In context, the monsters of Revelation confront us with an unexpected threat. It’s easy to exploit weird, cryptic prophecies for personal gain, fearmongering, and drumming up the donor base. It’s easy to imagine some far off, foreign enemy who threatens to take our freedom away and disrupt our lifestyle. It’s quite another thing to imagine that our very lifestyle itself might have all the markings of a beast.

For a more detailed breakdown of Revelation, check out this podcast.