Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Role of Empire in our Religious Narratives

Last week, I stumbled across this post by Debra Dean Murphy, which moved me, even though we're weeks away from the Christmas season.  It looks at the Christmas story as told by both Luke and John:  "Chapter 2 of Luke's gospel can easily be reduced to Christmas pageant nostalgia; John’s prologue can leave us bewildered by a form and formality hard to warm to. But together, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the full picture of salvation history comes into view: the familial and the philosophical; the provincial and the universal, the personal and the cosmic. And we find our place in a story that at once traverses the dusty roads of Nazareth and the farthest galaxies of the heavens."

Murphy looks at the earlier part of Luke and reminds us that it's not a pretty tale:   "The Christmas pageant version of verses 8 through 14, for instance, has long colonized our imagination, with toddlers in bathrobes and bed sheets, coat-hanger halos on their wee heads. But as Dorothee Soelle once observed, 'the boot of the empire crushes everything in its way in the narrative from Bethlehem to Golgotha.'”

I am captured by that quote within the quote:  "'the boot of the empire crushes everything in its way in the narrative from Bethlehem to Golgotha."  It's a very different picture that emerges when we look at the ministry of Jesus against the backdrop of the brutal Roman empire.

I've been reading Reza Aslan's Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  I read it during Advent, that time when we prepare for the baby in the manger.  Reza Aslan would not be interested in the baby in the manger.  He talks about Jesus as a Jew, Jesus as a radical.  How do we know he was a radical?  Because of the way he was executed.  If you've read widely, especially in the realm of historical Jesus scholarship, these ideas won't shock you, as they did not shock me.  Still, it was interesting to read this book in Advent, to think about the messiah the first century Jews wanted, the messiah who came.

It's interesting to read these reference to empire and to think about the fact I am no 21st century peasant.  In the modern empire, I am not the richest of the residents, but I am certainly comfortable.  I rarely feel the crushing boot of empire personally.

There are theologians that would argue that we do feel the boot in other ways.  I feel distress about the fact that we don't educate our children well, for example, even though I have not suffered.  I feel distress about the lack of resources for the poor.  But the followers of Jesus experienced a repressive regime in ways I hope I never experience.

What does the Gospel of liberating the captives say to comfortable people like me?  Or to comfortable people who are not willing to even consider such issues?

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