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.