Political Theology and the Anti-Imperialism Hermeneutic

If some believers over-spiritualise Scripture, others can over-politicise it:

If my title seems a bit too arcane and academic, please forgive me, But I do usually try to take rather complex ideas and render them somewhat more easily understood for the average lay person. My discussion here rises from a series of pieces I have been writing of late on the broader issues of the Bible and politics, and on the more specific matter of resistance theory.

In several recent pieces I have looked at aspects of Scripture and politics, and in one of them I mentioned one newish school of thought in New Testament studies, that of seeing the Bible through the lens of empire. See that piece here: billmuehlenberg.com/2021/07/10/political-theology-the-kingdom-of-god-and-the-kingdom-of-man/

In the past few decades, a whole slew of books and articles on this topic have appeared. Many of those writing on this are not evangelicals or conservatives. N. T. Wright is one advocate of this who is more or less evangelical and conservative. His many books have often discussed this theme. For those wanting a brief and accessible intro to his thinking on this, see his article, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire.” In it he says:

If Jesus is Messiah, he is of course also Lord, Kyrios. The proper contexts for this term, too, are its Jewish roots on the one hand and its pagan challenge on the other. Taking them the other way round for the moment: the main challenge of the term, I suggest, was not to the world of private cults or mystery-religions, where one might be initiated into membership of a group giving allegiance to some religious “lord”. The main challenge was to the lordship of Caesar, which, though certainly “political” was also profoundly “religious”. Caesar demanded worship as well as “secular” obedience; not just taxes, but sacrifices. He was well on the way to becoming the supreme divinity in the GrecoRoman world, maintaining his vast empire not simply by force, though there was of course plenty of that, but by the development of a flourishing religion that seemed to be trumping most others either by absorption or by greater attraction. Caesar, by being a servant of the state, had provided justice and peace to the whole world. He was therefore to be hailed as Lord, and trusted as Savior. This is the world in which Paul announced that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was Savior and Lord. ntwrightpage.com/1998/01/01/pauls-gospel-and-caesars-empire/

But many of the other writers on this are much more theologically liberal. For example, Neil Elliot, Warren Carter and Richard Horsley are some of the leading figures that fall into this camp. And their theological liberalism is usually matched with political liberalism. As to Horsley, he has written the most books on this. Three of them that can be mentioned here are these:

Paul and Empire (Trinity Press International, 1997)
Jesus and Empire (Fortress Press, 2002)
In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008)

While these writers help us to realise that there were very real political and social backdrops to what the biblical writers were involved in and reacting to, many others have argued that they have overstated the case. While we can learn much from the discussion of anti-imperialism emphasis that lies behind biblical writings, too often this is pushed too far. Thus a number of works have appeared to critically assess and offer corrective to all this. Three of them worth mentioning are these:

Christopher Bryan, Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Seyoon Kim, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke (Eerdmans, 2008)
Scot McKnight, and Joseph Modica, eds., Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not (IVP, 2013)

Image of Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies
Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies by McKnight, Scot (Editor), Modica, Joseph B. (Editor), Crouch, Andy (Foreword) Amazon logo

Getting the biblical balance right here is crucial – as always. Marxists and neo-Marxists – and those of the religious left, including liberation theologians – often will say that everything is political, everything is economic. They see power struggles everywhere, oppression everywhere, and the evil machinations of the West everywhere. That is one extreme to avoid, and that is not what I have in mind as I seek to emphasise the political messages as found in Scripture.

But the other extreme is to see no political or social ramifications of Christianity at all. Too many Western Christians have privatised the faith so much that it has nothing to say to political, economic, and social matters. We have over-spiritualised things, and our gospel has no relevance for the real world that we find ourselves in. And we fail to see the political backdrop to many things found in Scripture.

So we need some balance here. The Lordship of Christ demands it. And we see that the gospel message did – and does – run counter to not just the world in a broad spiritual sense, but to the world in its political and social sense as well. So being aware of the political and social implications of the gospel is crucial for all Christians.

But let me here offer a few quotes from some of those evangelicals who have warned of taking the imperial theme too far. The book edited by McKnight and Modica has a number of great essays on this. The editors define empire criticism in their introduction this way. It “refers to developing an eye and ear for the presence of Rome and the worship of the emperor in the lines and between the lines of New Testament writings.” It “asks us to listen closer to the sounds of the empire and the sounds of challenging empire at work in the pages of the New Testament.”

Or as Judith Diehl explains in her chapter, when the NT writers used anti-imperial rhetoric, it entailed proclaiming not just “Jesus is Lord” but also “Caesar is not!” And she reminds us that there is much to all this:

A cursory review of the New Testament writings reveals an abundance of direct references to the people and culture of the Roman Empire, many of which have become so familiar to modern readers that little thought is given to them: Roman soldiers, centurions, proconsuls, guards, kings and kingdoms, rulers, councils, and governors. We recall Caesar’s taxes, tax collectors, customs and decrees, Roman roads, palaces and prisons, Roman power, authority, and citizenship.

But she and the other authors featured in the book look more closely at the various claims being made about this and find that they are too often overstated, and that these folks are reading too much into the biblical text. I could cite some of the other writers here, but let me offer some quotes from the editors in their concluding chapter. 

As they rightly state, “if all one sees is the Roman Empire while reading the New Testament, then everything becomes empire criticism.” Yes, quite right. Instead of letting the Bible speak, some of these folks are far too keen to overly-politicise Scripture and use it for various leftist and Marxist agendas. (It is telling that some of these authors have their books published by the leftist Orbis, a publisher that has often printed the works of the Marxist liberation theologians.)

And as but one indication of this tendency to find empire rhetoric everywhere in Scripture, consider the words of Horsley in the introduction and conclusion of his 2008 collection of essays: “Just in the past few years biblical interpreters have realized that once we start looking for them, issues of imperial rule and response to it run deep and wide through most books of the Bible. . . . It is difficult to find biblical texts and figures that are not affected in significant ways by imperial rule.”

McKnight and Modica speak further to this overreaction:

Biblical studies, much like other fields, has the proclivity to sway to extremes. This book is an attempt to strike a balance between a postcolonial reading of the New Testament and one that recognizes the contributions of such a reading, yet posits a very different view of the concept of “kingdom of God.” Our title clearly offers our perspective: Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. To make the claim “Jesus is Lord,” one does not make specific sociopolitical allegiances; rather the claim forthrightly involves repentance and following Jesus. Hence, the New Testament writers affirm that Jesus is Lord, not with the sole intent of debunking Caesar and his empire, but to offer a stark contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan.

 

Let us make this point crystal clear: We believe that the New Testament writers do indeed address the concerns highlighted by empire criticism. But we also strongly suggest that this is not their primary modus operandi. The New Testament writers are cognizant of Roman occupation, aware of Roman customs and laws, but they fundamentally understand Jesus’ inaugurating of the kingdom of God in direct opposition to and in contrast with the kingdom of Satan (see Mt 12;26; Lk 11:18).

And let me offer a brief quote from one of the other two books I mentioned above which are critical of the anti-imperial reading. Bryan offers these words in the prologue to his very useful and even-handed volume:

My conclusion, briefly, is that Jesus and the early Christians did indeed have a critique of the Roman superpower, a critique that was broadly in line with the entire biblical and prophetic tradition. Its basis is the prophetic claim “the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our ruler, the LORD is our king; he will save us (Isa. 33:22), “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). On that basis, the biblical tradition challenges all human power structures…. 

 

I think that the biblical tradition challenges human power structures not by attempting to dismantle them or replace them with other power structures but by consistently confronting them with the truth about their origin and purpose. Their origin is that God permits them. Their purpose is to serve God’s glory by promoting God’s peace and God’s justice.

I mentioned earlier that while N. T. Wright has been a leader in promoting this new view of Paul and the NT, he is at least much more in the evangelical camp than many of the others pushing this view, and as such he is somewhat more moderate in his claims. While his essays will appear in books edited by Horsley for example, he does not buy their entire package.

As he said in one essay on this, “Paul and Caesar: a New Reading of Romans,” found in a collection of pieces on the political use of Bible (A Royal Priesthood, edited by Bartholomew, Chaplin, Song and Wolters – Zondervan, 2002):

I am not proposing that we give up looking at Paul as a theologian and read him simply as a covert politician. There is a danger, which Horsley and his colleagues have not always avoided, of ignoring the major theological themes in Paul and simply plundering parts of his writings to find help in addressing the political concerns of the contemporary Western world. To be sure, Paul has not been much used in Christian political thinking, and much work remains to be done in this area. But we would be foolish to suppose that we could substitute a one-dimensional political reading for a one-dimensional theological one.

As I said, seeking to get the biblical balance right here is imperative for all believers. Over-politicising Jesus and Scripture is not helpful, but neither is under-politicising things. The social and political worlds found in the Bible need to be taken seriously, but so too do the theological and spiritual messages also found there.

[1936 words]

6 Replies to “Political Theology and the Anti-Imperialism Hermeneutic”

  1. Thanks for this challenging piece Bill. I must admit not to be well informed in this area. I never understood Jesus or Paul for that matter as having any political agenda at all. Their focus was purely on pointing people to the kingdom of God. And that should be our focus too. Only incidentally should we as Christians be active in the political sphere. It seems to me that when we engage politically we can do more harm than good. Am I missing the point?

  2. Thanks John. It in part depends on what you mean by “Their focus was purely on pointing people to the kingdom of God.” And what exactly does the “kingdom of God” mean? As I said in earlier articles, if it means just getting disembodied souls out of this world and into ‘heaven’ where we float around on wispy clouds strumming on harps forever, I do not think that is what Jesus and Paul had in mind. They had very real this-worldly aims as well, including feeding people, healing people, and working for justice in this world. Being salt and light in other words. Seeing the Lordship of Christ extend to every area of life in other words. But this I have discussed in hundreds of articles already.

    As I tried to argue in this article, we must avoid two unbiblical extremes: one is to totally politicise the gospel as the liberation theologians and some religious lefties try to do. The other is to totally depoliticise the gospel, and see no bearing at all on how our faith connects with the social and political arenas, as many evangelicals have done.

    And since you were once a federal politician, I hope you think you did some good and were not completely wasting your time while being there! I was glad you and other Christian politicians were there. Politics is not everything, but Christianity impacts all of life, including the political sphere. Just think of Wilberforce for starters!

  3. The tension between Christ and the Caesars discussed above reminded me of the ancient account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, traditionally held to have learned his faith from the Apostle John.

    For the imperial Roman authorities and their pagan subjects, it was those whose chose to worship one true God alone and refused worship of the emperors and the cult of the allegedly eternal city of Rome who were considered atheists and infidels. Polycarp meant something vastly different to what the proconsul did by the words, ‘Away with the Atheists!”…

  4. In response to John Bradford I would suggest that you would have to believe that lies are more fruitful than truth to suggest it is wrong for Christians to engage in politics.

    I have always thought that Marx’s assertion that “everything is connected to everything else” was one of the few things he got right. (Gen 1-2, Eph 4:6).

    The fact is it is worthwhile giving money to the Romans because they build good roads and it is worthwhile giving money to the church because they are used to save souls and if you want to save souls, roads come in handy.

  5. Unfortunately going to extremes seems to be the human condition. Only few of us ever see middle ground. Look at the political arena, which is so in focus nowadays with covid, we often either completely trust the government or we completely distrust them. The latter leads to nothing be accomplished since we can’t trust them to do anything on our behalf in our interests the former leads to atrocities of varying levels. I just read about Joe Arridy and feel if we hadn’t been so trusting of government maybe this wouldn’t have happened. (I’m sure there are many other Joes out there from that era for whom the government must answer for) I think Reagan put it best trust but verify. A little healthy skepticism and some investigation never hurt anyone and could prove invaluable for both the political AND the religious arenas.

    We must especially be cautious when the State wants a partnership with us as inevitably the State end up the senior partner. When the State wants your help selling something to the public be sure you TEST the kool-aid before sales start.

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