Tag Archives: authoritarian

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.


The Problem With “The Bible Says”

Our old, flat, and uninformed way of reading the Bible has become at best an unhelpful burden, at worst a liability. The church’s insistence on handling the Bible as a singular and consistent whole rather than a library of diverse voices continues to stifle and sabotage our ability to grow and learn. Worst of all, it has built an echo chamber of tepid and contradictory religion where the radical voice of Jesus can no longer be distinguished or heard.

Simply reporting that “the Bible says” this or that isn’t helpful in itself and can actually be detrimental and misleading. Yet this continues to be this basis for authoritarian Christian claims, often over the lives and fates of others, and not just inside the walls of the church. If “the Bible says” something, it must be true, and it must be prescriptive at least for the lives of Christians if not for all humankind. This elevates the texts of the Bible to a dangerous and impossible level of authority, consistency, and relevance. It also relativizes and neuters the subversive teaching of Jesus.

Context is Everything

If one day your spouse or roommate announced, “The library says that April is the cruellest month!” and then proceeded tearing out calendar pages and barricading doors, you might think they were nuts, or you might even join their strange crusade. But if you knew that those words were written in the early twentieth century by the English poet T.S. Eliot in a poem about death called The Waste Land, you could calmly engage them in a conversation about what those words might mean to them personally.

Context reveals the subjectivity and humanity of a text, which is precisely why Christians interested in an authoritarian Bible ignore it, and want others to ignore it too. They simply expect the “clear meaning” on the face of the text to be unquestioned and obeyed. The problem is, apart from context, the only “clear meaning” is the one imposed upon the text, explicitly or by way of unspoken assumptions. And when we do allow context to illuminate meaning, the shape and application of that meaning is often not as clear and straightforward as we’d like it to be.

Some Things “the Bible Says”

Here are just a few examples off the top of my head of things “the Bible says” that are not as straightforward as they seem.

    • The Bible says that the earth was created in six days. (Genesis 1)
      Actually, the book of Genesis opens with a song celebrating nature. It uses a distinctive seven-day schedule as an orderly and easy-to-understand framework in which to explain creation, often in contrast to the chaotic and violent creation myths that were popular in that ancient world. We know a lot more about the cosmos today, so what kind of language might we use to describe the fundamental integrity of the universe?
    • The Bible says that the punishment should fit the crime, i.e. “an eye for an eye.” (Leviticus 24:20)
      Actually, while some Torah laws appeal to this principle, later dubbed lex talionis, others call for harsh punishments and even execution. Elsewhere in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches his followers to forfeit all retaliation and to confront evil with nonviolent resistance. Does this perhaps represent a trajectory away from violence and retribution? How do we approach questions of justice and punishment in our own time and culture?
  • The Bible says that God punishes children for the sins of their parents. (Exodus 20:5; Numbers 14:18)
    Actually, this is a common claim in some portions of Torah and some prophetic texts, but it also openly rejected in the writing of Jeremiah and the teaching of Jesus. How does it change our understanding of history and our view of the future if we get past the idea that God punishes us for the “sins of the past”?
    • The Bible says that rich people go to hell and poor people go to heaven. (Luke 16:19-31)
      Actually, Jesus adapts a very common Greek fairy tale as a parable about the subversion of wealth and class in the kingdom of God. How might Jesus reconfigure some of our best known myths and stories to demonstrate our inside-out values?
    • The Bible says that there can be no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood. (Hebrews 9:22)
      Actually, the unknown author of Hebrews says that “according to the law, there could be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood.” It’s part of a complex and often strained argument for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. How would we as Christians respond to this kind of argument today?
    • The Bible says that wives must submit to their husbands. (Colossians 3:18)
      Actually, the apostle Paul wrote letters to his first century congregations teaching them to organize their relationships according to mutual love and respect. Language of “submission” was commonplace in that ancient world, but Paul’s point was about reciprocal love rather than strict hierarchy. How should we approach family relationships today in a way that reflects our understanding of Christian love?
    • The Bible says that women cannot teach or lead men. (1 Timothy 2:12)
      Actually, the author of Timothy (probably not Paul) wrote a rant against a particular group of women who were apparently stirring up trouble in one of his churches. What do the contents of letters like these reveal about the evolution and struggles of the earliest Christian churches? What issues in our own day might correspond to those faced by the ancient churches, and how might we respond to them? And while we’re here, does the controversy about the authorship of Timothy and Titus have any bearing on how we read and interact with the Bible, or on our concept of “biblical authority”?
  • The Bible says that the world will end in Armageddon, a cosmic battle between good and evil. (Revelation 16)
    Actually, the book of Revelation is not a prediction of the sorts of things that will or must happen in the future. It was a creative apocalyptic response to a specific first-century crisis, the martyrdom of Jewish Christians at the hands of the Roman Empire. The author was attempting to reassure suffering people that Rome would fall and God’s kingdom would be established, and images of dragons, plagues, and war were his way of condemning Rome’s oppressive regime. What does the Bible’s pervasive critique of empire say to us as modern Americans? How does our view of the future change if holy war is not a foregone conclusion?

Each of these biblical statements represents the work of a subjective human author, and each invites us into a world of thought and imagination. There are a thousand conversations to be had, fresh in each generation, and always new voices to be added. It is never enough to simply throw “the Bible says” at someone, as if these texts were objective axioms from the very mouth of God, and as if our own humanity and the humanity of the Bible’s authors never entered into the equation. If there is truth and value and glory in the Bible, we will find it together through humility and listening, by embracing honesty and subjectivity.


Reframing the Question of Jesus and Divinity

In today’s post I’m not particularly interested in the academic question of whether or not Jesus thought of himself as divine, or of how early the ancient church came to identify him with/as God. I’m more concerned with the modern side of history and what it might mean for us to say that Jesus is or isn’t divine. In fact, I’d like to sketch out two basic models for understanding the “divinity” of Jesus, a traditional authoritarian model and a more subversive model grounded in faith and risk.

The Authoritarian Appeal to the Divinity of Jesus

The classic church approach to this question is, like so many of our traditions, grounded in an authoritarian appeal to an inerrant Bible. A flat, literal, uncritical reading of scripture yields a systematic (and schizophrenic) concept of God which is then retrofitted onto Jesus of Nazareth. Our knowledge of “the God of the Bible” comes first, and then Jesus comes along to confirm and endorse it. In this model, believing that Jesus is God becomes one of many Christian shibboleths, like inerrancy or creationism, load-bearing doctrines that must be affirmed lest the entire house of cards should topple. Continue reading