Gospel of the Absurd: Take up your Cross before the empire steals it
In response to recent statements made by public administrators about the Christian obligation to observe laws and policies mandated by government, nation-states, or political leaders. It must be made clear that the Bible tells the story of a people of YHWH who live in constant tension with Empire, and that Christ is both the Answer and the antithesis to the claims of empire. Regardless of how the Christian may feel or what they believe to be true about democracy, the United States is representative of empire in every sense of the world. Empire is anti-Christ. Anti-Christ is not a morally accusatory term, but rather an indicator that the claims of Empire are contrary to the claims made by a Creator God about how human beings are to be in relationship to one another, and reflect the divine desire for humanity. Empire does not have the cross as its moral compass, nor does empire have a mandate to love enemies or care for refuges or foreigners.
Recent political administrators and politicians have made several references to the Bible as it relates to the current administration and policy concerning matters of language, culture, and borders. The ancient Pauline Baptismal Hymn of Galatians makes it clear – racism and racial privileging is anti-Christ.
If there has never been a time to recognize clearly that the church must refuse such racism and racist policies that to this point now results in children being stripped away from nursing mothers and placed in cages – the march around the walls of Jericho have no meaning for the walls being erected by the national government, and the prison walls being built to maintain control over people who in fact Jesus would prefer fellowship with. The church stands judged and apostate at this point if it does not stand in judgment of the United States government and resist with every fiber the racist policies that have been the result of the democratic process of the 21st century. Vote if you must, but it is your decision to benefit from whiteness and the sins of empire that will bring judgment even upon those who claim Christ. There is blood on the hands of the church.
The following is a brief overview of biblical mandates to resist unjust mandates by governments and ruling powers. The church in all of its weakness, in the shadow of the cross and in the Light of Christ, must eschew political power to stand with those caged and marginalized in favor of maintaining a culture of whiteness. God will indeed judge us for our failure to resist evil.
Exodus 1:15-17: 15 Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other was named Puah; 16 and he said, “When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live.
I Samuel 14:24-30: 24 Now the men of Israel were hard-pressed on that day, for Saul had put the people under oath, saying, “Cursed be the man who eats food [a]before evening, and until I have avenged myself on my enemies.” So none of the people tasted food. 25 All the people of the land entered the forest, and there was honey on the ground. 26 When the people entered the forest, behold, there was a flow of honey; but no man put his hand to his mouth, for the people feared the oath. 27 But Jonathan had not heard when his father put the people under oath; therefore, he put out the end of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it in the honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes brightened. 28 Then one of the people said, “Your father strictly put the people under oath, saying, ‘Cursed be the man who eats food today.’” And the people were weary.29 Then Jonathan said, “My father has troubled the land. See now, how my eyes have brightened because I tasted a little of this honey. 30 How much more, if only the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found! For now the slaughter among the Philistines has not been great.”
Esther 1:10-12: 10 On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown in order to display her beauty to the people and the princes, for she was beautiful. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. Then the king became very angry and his wrath burned within him.
Daniel 3:8-18: 8 For this reason at that time certain Chaldeans came forward and [k]brought charges against the Jews. 9 They responded and said to Nebuchadnezzar the king: “O king, live forever! 10 You, O king, have made a decree that every man who hears the sound of the horn, flute, [l]lyre, trigon, psaltery, and bagpipe and all kinds of music, is to fall down and worship the golden image. 11 But whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire.12 There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the administration of the province of Babylon, namely Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego. These men, O king, have disregarded you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.”
13 Then Nebuchadnezzar in rage and anger gave orders to bring Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego; then these men were brought before the king. 14 Nebuchadnezzar responded and said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? 15 Now if you are ready, at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery and bagpipe and all kinds of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, very well. But if you do not worship, you will immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire; and what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?”
16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. 17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Daniel 6:6-24: 6 Then these commissioners and satraps came by agreement to the king and spoke to him as follows: “King Darius, live forever! 7 All the commissioners of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the high officials and the governors have consulted together that the king should establish a statute and enforce an injunction that anyone who makes a petition to any god or man besides you, O king, for thirty days, shall be cast into the lions’ den. 8 Now, O king, establish the injunction and sign the document so that it may not be changed, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which may not be revoked.” 9 Therefore King Darius signed the document, that is, the injunction.
10 Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously. 11 Then these men came by agreement and found Daniel making petition and supplication before his God. 12 Then they approached and spoke before the king about the king’s injunction, “Did you not sign an injunction that any man who makes a petition to any god or man besides you, O king, for thirty days, is to be cast into the lions’ den?” The king replied, “The statement is true, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which may not be revoked.” 13 Then they answered and spoke before the king, “Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, O king, or to the injunction which you signed, but keeps making his petition three times a day.”
14 Then, as soon as the king heard this statement, he was deeply distressed and set his mind on delivering Daniel; and even until sunset he kept exerting himself to rescue him. 15 Then these men came by agreement to the king and said to the king, “Recognize, O king, that it is a law of the Medes and Persians that no injunction or statute which the king establishes may be changed.”
16 Then the king gave orders, and Daniel was brought in and cast into the lions’ den. The king spoke and said to Daniel, “Your God whom you constantly serve will Himself deliver you.” 17 A stone was brought and laid over the mouth of the den; and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the signet rings of his nobles, so that nothing would be changed in regard to Daniel. 18 Then the king went off to his palace and spent the night fasting, and no entertainment was brought before him; and his sleep fled from him.
19 Then the king arose at dawn, at the break of day, and went in haste to the lions’ den. 20 When he had come near the den to Daniel, he cried out with a troubled voice. The king spoke and said to Daniel, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you constantly serve, been able to deliver you from the lions?” 21 Then Daniel spoke to the king, “O king, live forever! 22 My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths and they have not harmed me, inasmuch as I was found innocent before Him; and also toward you, O king, I have committed no crime.” 23 Then the king was very pleased and gave orders for Daniel to be taken up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den and no injury whatever was found on him, because he had trusted in his God. 24 The king then gave orders, and they brought those men who had maliciously accused Daniel, and they cast them, their children and their wives into the lions’ den; and they had not reached the bottom of the den before the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.
Acts 4:17-20: 17 But so that it will not spread any further among the people, let us warn them to speak no longer to any man in this name.” 18 And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all [a]in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; 20 for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Acts 5:26-40: 26 Then the captain went along with the officers and proceeded to bring them back without violence (for they were afraid of the people, that they might be stoned).
27 When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. 31 He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”
33 But when they heard this, they were cut to the quick and intended to kill them. 34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time. 35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.”
40 They took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them.
From Christian Peacemaker Teams website comes this work from John Dear:
Based on "The Sacrament of Civil Disobedience," John Dear S.J., 1994, Ch. 3, pp 44-68 John Dear lists ten major episodes as actions of nonviolent disobedience by Jesus, followed by the nonviolent act of resurrection (note that this is only one of many ways of looking at the incarnation.) Jesus' first public declaration in Mark 1:15 – "The Kingdom of God is at hand..." – was subversive, as were his readings from Isaiah (Luke 4:17-19) in the synagogue. To enact a "jubilee year" would have meant the complete upheaval of the class structure. As a truth-teller he was in trouble from the start. 1. Jesus' first action was a public exorcism of a man with an unclean spirit in the Capernaum synagogue (Mark 1:23-26). He disrupts the cultic atmosphere. He exorcized the culture's possession of people. The man was amazingly cleansed from the unclean spirit of imperial violence which had been internalized. 2. The healing of the leper (Mark 1:40-42) was civilly disobedient because it went beyond the designated boundaries of society. Lepers were "outsiders." Buy touching him, Jesus became a marginalized outsider too. He broke social and religious laws of behavior. (Gandhi also associated with India's "untouchable" cast.) 3. A third set of illegal actions includes Jesus' mingling with the outsiders: sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, the sick, the dying, the hungry, widows, women, fishermen, and children. He declared (Mark 3:34) his total union with the poor and oppressed. By eating with the marginalized (Mark 2:15) Jesus publicly embraced all who were excluded by societal laws.
4. Working and healing on the Sabbath constitute a fourth series of civil resistance actions: (Mark 2:23) plucking grain by the disciples (their first public action was illegal!) Mark 3:1-6 healing of the withered hand; Luke 13:10-17, healing of the woman, Luke 14:1-6 healing of man. For Jesus, mercy and human needs preceded regulation and rule. 5. This addresses the economy of militarism , the business of war which allowed the imperialistic forces of Rome ("legion") to control people (Matt. 8:28-34). The man possessed by the unclean spirit represents the poor who were under the oppressive and violent Roman military occupation. Jesus also called for the economic conversion from profits and oppression to justice and disarmament. Then, as now, Jesus' message was scandalous and radical. 6. Jesus challenged the religious leaders by breaking the legalized religious dietary codes used to manipulate and oppress (Mark 7:1-23). Not washing hands before eating could result in condemnation and ostracization. Essentially, Jesus called for a return to the basics of justice and mercy (Luke 11:37-43). He used very strong language ("Woe to you!") 7. Jesus was constantly fraternizing with the enemy: loving one's enemy was dangerous, subversive activity and yet it is the hallmark of Jesus' teaching and life. In his time the enemies were Samaritans, Gerasenes, and Greeks. (John 4:4-43 – the Samaritan woman; Mark 4:35-41– enemy territory). When crucified by enemies, he prayed, "Forgive them!" 8. The street theater of the donkey ride into Jerusalem is considered a satire on the military parades of the empire (Luke 19:29-40). He is demonstrating how a real liberator acts: in humility, nonviolence, and simplicity. The procession is public and political, like Gandhi's salt march to the sea or King's march from Selma to Montgomery. 9. The climax is Jesus' nonviolent direct action at the temple, the public center of the Jewish-Roman system, which kept the people subdued and oppressed. By wrecking the tables, Jesus symbolically throws over the imperial and religious domination (Mark 11: 15-18). He quotes Isaiah and Jeremiah who regularly condemned the Temple-state system and called for justice and peace.
10. Following the Temple action, Jesus continues to stress obedience to God. High on the list is not to pay taxes to Caesar – a revolutionary declaration (Mark 12:13-17 etc.) Dorothy Day commented, "Once we give to God what is God's there is nothing left for Caesar." If the people followed Jesus in voluntary poverty and radical obedience to God, Caesar would be out of power. Recognizing the political nature of Jesus' Divine Obedience, the authorities arrested and killed him (Luke 23:2). 11. God raised Jesus from the dead and the resurrection was the ultimate act of nonviolent civil disobedience! According to God, suffering love and truth-telling (not the empire's law) always lead to resurrection and life. Thomas' "my Lord and my God" was an act of faith and an expression of love for Jesus. Beyond that it was an act of political "blasphemy" because the emperor had been declared God. "The resurrection inspired the disciples to practice nonviolent civil disobedience as a way of life towards the ruling authorities of the day"
As for the Apostle Paul: The main alleged accusations before Felix and Festus respectively (Acts 14: 5- 6; 15: 7-8), were doubtless carried up before the Roman emperor; and these were three in number:—first, that of treason against the Roman government, by having caused factious disturbances among the Jews throughout the empire; "we found this man a pestilent fellow," (literally a pest or plague), "and a mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world." Secondly, that of heresy, against the law of Moses, in being a "ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes." And thirdly, that of having attempted to profane or defile the temple at Jerusalem (Acts 14:5), which was an offence not only against the Jewish, but also against the Roman law, for the latter protected all persons in the exercise of their religion. Heresy, sacrilege, treason, "against the law, against the temple, against Caesar,"—these were still the charges, and were all the charges to be made against him. (https://www.biblestudytools.com/classics/barnes-scenes-in-life/pauls-first-trial-before-nero.html)
Finally, a brief overview of Romans 13 by NT Wright.
A final word is necessary about Romans 13 in particular. Romans 13:1-7 has of course long been regarded as the one point at which Paul nods in the direction of Caesar, and the nod appears quite respectful. This, obviously, I consider radically misleading. There are six points to be made.
First, the fact that Paul needs to stress the need for civil obedience itself tells fairly strongly, if paradoxically, in favour of my overall case. It implies that, without some such restraining counsel, some might have heard his teaching to imply that the church was to become a Christian version of the Jewish ‘fourth philosophy’, owing allegiance to no one except God and therefore under obligation to rebel violently against human rulers, and to refuse to pay taxes. The paragraph can therefore be seen, not as evidence that Paul would not have been saying anything subversive, but that he had been, and now needed to make clear what this did, and particularly what it did not, imply.
Second, to say that the ruler is answerable to God is itself a Jewish point over against pagan ruler-cult. Caesar did not, normally, owe allegiance to anyone except himself, and perhaps, though at a surface level, the traditional Roman gods. Paul declares, with massive Jewish tradition behind him, that Caesar is in fact responsible to the true God, whether or not he knows it. This is an undermining of pagan totalitarianism, not a reinforcement of it.
Third, the power and duty of the ruler qua ruler is emphasized in the context of the prohibition against personal vengeance at the end of the previous chapter (12:19-21). What Paul says at this point belongs on the map of one of the regular theories as to why magistracy matters: without it, everyone will take the law into their own hands. This fits closely with the following points.
Fourth, Paul’s underlying point is that the victory of the true God is not won by the normal means of revolution. Rome could cope with revolutions; she could not cope, as history demonstrated, with a community owing imitative allegiance to the crucified and risen Jesus. God did not intend that the church should be the means of causing anarchy, of refusing normal civic responsibilities; anarchy simply replaces the tyranny of the officially powerful with the tyranny of the unofficially powerful, the bullies and the rich. The real overthrow of pagan power comes by other means.
Fifth, if in Romans 9-11 Paul is concerned with Christian attitudes to non-Christian Jews, in 12-15 he is concerned with mutual relationships within the church itself. He almost certainly knew of the riots in the late 40s, impulsore Chresto; this kind of behaviour, he says, is to be avoided. Though the church does indeed give allegiance to another king, this allegiance must not be seen by the watching powers to result in civic disturbance, in strife between different sections of a community. God is the God of order, not chaos; the Christian response to tyranny is not anarchy but the creation of a community worshipping Jesus as Lord.
Sixth, as the succeeding passage makes clear, Paul wants the Roman Christians to live appropriately in the tension between present and future. This does not mean, as Paul’s own example bears out, that one must be politically quiescent or repressed until the final reappearing of Jesus. Preaching and living the gospel must always mean announcing and following Jesus, rather than Caesar, as the true Lord. But the eschatological balance must be kept. The church must live as a sign of the coming complete kingdom of Jesus Christ; but since that kingdom is characterized by peace, love and joy it cannot be inaugurated in the present by chaos, hatred and anger. This, I think, is what motivates Paul in Romans 13:1-7.