Review and Reflection on “God and Empire” by John Dominic Crossan

John Dominic Crossan is a person within Christianity that elicits a strong reaction from some folks because of his arguments about Jesus.  I generally try not to read book that are only going to confirm what I already believe, but rather, I like to read books that cause me to question my beliefs, explore them, argue with the author, do reflection, and come away with a fresh perspective.  I appreciate an author that has caused me to do this type of inner work.  Crossan has certainly done that. 

So, let’s dive into his work.  So much of this book can be characterized as an exploration of the theology of empire versus the theology of the kingdom of God.  Crossan describes the social power inherent in empires such as Rome as coming from four types of powers – military power, economic power, political power, and ideological power.  (Pg. 12-13). This is not unique to Rome of course.  But in exploring the contrast of empire versus kingdom of God, Crossan makes two key statements:

  1. “Rome spoke of itself in transcendental terms as an empire divinely mandated to rule without limits of time or place.” And
  2. “Second, when Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, and John of Patmos came against the Roman Empire, they did so not with military, economic, or political power but exclusively with ideological power.” (Pg. 15)

Given Crossan’s restrictions to four types of powers, I’ll grant him the second statement, although I’m not convinced that ideology and theology are the same things.  There are overlaps in ideology and theology, but there are key differences as well.  But I think Crossan is using the term in a more encompassing way because for Rome, ideology and theology was the same thing.  Crossan goes on to explain four aspects of Rome’s divine destiny: 

  1. Heavenly decree – “Rome began in heaven according to Virgil’s Aeneid…”
  2. Ancient lineage – “Rome’s ancestry began with piety for both family values and ancestral gods…”
  3. Prophetic promise – “Rome’s foundational epic continued with reiterated preparatory and prophetic confirmations about its future glory.”
  4. Divine victory – “None of the preceding claims would have been credible or even possible without this fourth and final element – without, that is, Octavian’s naval victory off Cape Actium.” (Pg. 16-18)

All of this points to the Roman imperial theology that Crossan is going to hit hard in contrast to the kingdom of God’s ideology(?) – “religion, war, victory, peace – or more briefly, peace through victory.” (Pg. 23). The order matters a great deal.  One could argue that this ideology is what every empire has always operated on.  

Crossan contrasts the imperial ideology with that of the kingdom of God, which he claims is “religion, nonviolence, justice, peace – or more succinctly…peace through justice.” (Pg. 29).  

Throughout the book Crossan contrasts these two core ideas.  He describes the theology of empire as “the normalcy of civilization’s violence.” (Pg. 30).  And he asks the key follow-up question – “Is the normalcy of human civilization’s violence our inevitable destiny?” (Pg. 36).  His answer: “Violence is not the inevitability of human nature but only the normalcy of human civilization.” (Pg. 46)

Crossan shifts gears to present what the kingdom of God is about – justice, stewardship, Sabbath, moral knowledge.  

He then spends time talking about civilization and it’s rise.  He does this through the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.  He sees this story as the beginning of civilization – “the murder of a shepherd by a farmer…the farmer displacing the shepherd – and God does not punish the farmer but only marks him forever as the future of a lost past.” (Pg. 60-61).  “Cain, the introducer of violence, is, moreover, identified as the father – or grandfather – of sedentary culture of ‘civilization’…This story corresponds neatly with the understanding that agriculture surplus eventually led to an increase in individualism, aggression, warfare, and greed.” (Pg. 61)

I understand what he is arguing, but I also wondering if this is a bit of a stretch.  Can one story summarize the rise of civilization?  Is that the purpose of the story in Genesis 4?  It’s in the section of Genesis (the first 11 chapters) which is attempting to deal with how humanity go to where it is (or was at the time of its writing).  I think there are lots of questions that can be asked about this.  

Crossan next spends time talking about justice.  I actually appreciated this section because so often the word justice is used, but it seems there are differences of what the term means.  He talks about the concepts of distributive and retributive justice.  Retributive justice has to do with punishment.  Distributive justice has to do with stewardship and Shalom.  “…the land belongs to a just God who distributed it fairly and equitably to the tribes and families of Israel and who demands that it be administered fairly and equitably by those who do not own it but simply administer it as resident aliens or tenant farmers for its Owner.” (pg. 66).  He goes on to talk about aspects of the Law that relate to this – forbidding interest, collecting collateral, remitting debts, freeing slaves, reversing dispossession. 

And Crossan also looks at how God enforces retributive justice – “it’s sequence of sin, punishment, repentance, and deliverance runs through huge swaths of the biblical books…” (pg. 71)

All of this leads to a key question – what happens at the end of time?  Will it be retributive or distributive justice?  Crossan doesn’t take a side but shares the unsatisfying reality – “…the two final divine solutions for the problem of the Gentile empires, the Noahic solution of extermination by force and violence and the Abrahamic solution of conversation to justice and peace, are never reconciled anywhere in the biblical tradition.” (Pg. 88)

So where does this leave us in terms of how we Christians are called to act and interact with the world? Crossan answers his own question this way – “My proposal is that the Christian Bible presents the radicality of a just and nonviolent God repeatedly and relentlessly confronting the normalcy of an unjust and violent civilization. Again and again throughout the biblical tradition, God’s radical vision for nonviolent justice is offered, and again and again we manage to mute it back into the normalcy of violent injustice.” (Pg. 94).  That last sentence is the key.  

Crossan forces us to deal with the reality of violence and is asking us how we are to respond as Christians.  “My answer is that we are bound to whichever of these visions was incarnated by and in the historical Jesus. It is not the violent but the nonviolent God who is revealed to Christian faith in Jesus of Nazareth and announced to Christian faith by Paul of Tarsus” (pg. 95). 

The next two chapters walk us through the character of Jesus and Paul as well as the context in which they lived and how their lives aligned with faith, justice, violence, and more.  It’s an interesting read, and a good summation of history that I’m going to encourage you to read for yourself.  

The last chapter cuts to the heart of the whole argument.  It’s titled “Apocalypse and the pornography of violence.”  (Pg. 191).  And yes, it’s an appropriate title.  Crossan deals head on with how faith and religion are used and abused as excuses for violence in a variety of forms.  It goes back to his earlier question: How do you view God – is God violent or nonviolent?   You are likely to follow suit based on your answer.  This doesn’t just play out in literal acts of violence, but in other ways too.  If God is violent, then it makes sense to argue for a final destruction of creation at the end of time as portrayed in popular Rapture theological arguments.  But if God is non-violent, then the end of time will be a period of God restoring creation and offering healing.  

These are two radically different images and they have real-life implications.  If God is going to destroy the world, then there is no point in us trying to address climate change, international relations, and more.  It would make more sense to promote these things in order to bring out the end sooner.  But if God is going to heal and restore, then it makes sense to be stewards of creation and to be peace makers.  

Is Christ warlike or peace like?  Is Christ going to use the methods of empire or the Kingdom of God?  That’s the essential question.  

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