Kingdom: Alternative to Empire: I Introduction

Appian Way and camperbus

Note on the photo: A number of years ago, finding frustration in the ministry and with the church, I took a sabbatical during which I spent eight months travelling in Europe and North Africa in a VW camperbus with my family. Having in those years a warm feeling about the Roman Empire, we spent a good period of time exploring the city of Rome. This photo shows us on the Appian Way (on a segment where cars were allowed). If you look closely, you can see my two children peering out the back window.


My thesis for this project: Contemporary Empire Scholarship tells us that the Roman Empire was of central importance to the context of the early Jesus communities. (Blog post one) The Empire was not the background of the first two centuries for Jesus followers; it was the “foreground of the New Testament”. (Blog posts two and three.) We have known from previous Biblical scholarship that the primary teaching of Jesus focussed on the Kingdom of God. This was the central issue in the text that community was developing, namely, the New Testament. The intersection of Kingdom and Empire is the primary issue for the first century Christians. Knowing that, we are left with the question “How, then should the issue of Empire be relevant to the twenty-first century Church?” Hence, the title of my blog and Facebook page: Subversive Church.

Having posted several times on the Empire aspect, I’ll turn now to the other part of the equation for Jesus’s earliest followers: the Kingdom of God.

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For the last several years I have been studying our Christian origins. More specifically, I have been researching two aspects of the origin of the church covering what two different groups of Biblical scholars have written about in the last decade and a half.

Both of these fields have discovered new knowledge about how the church operated in the century and a half after the death and resurrection of Jesus. One of them is related to the external setting with which early followers of Jesus had to contend. The other relates to the internal setting of the earliest community gathering of the church. (The aspect of the internal can be found on the Facebook page I started, the Dinner Church Movement.)

Perhaps I ought to say ‘Jesus communities’, as one discovery scholars have made is that there never was a single unified early community where all were led by Apostles who agreed with one another and taught their disciples that one message. The Golden Age- when there was one church in which all agreed- never existed.

External setting: One group of scholars have developed what has come to be called “Empire Criticism”, or, what I call simply Empire Scholarship. What they mean is that one cannot understand the early church or the NT without taking into serious account the Roman Empire. Trying to understand the world of the early church without taking account of the Empire is like trying to understand the American Civil War without taking into account the slave plantations.

Pushing that analogy a bit further, the men (and they were all men) who began developing what we call Biblical Criticism were the contemporaries of the plantation owners in the 17th and 18th centuries. They, the early biblical scholars, were citizens of European countries who had colonies in foreign lands, which colonies oppressed the natives, just as did the American plantation owners, and just as the elite oppressed and exploited the non-elite in the Roman Empire. So it is no wonder that, until recently, the Roman Empire was seen, by descendants of those original Biblical scholars, as a “good thing”. The Romans brought civilization to the barbarians, didn’t they? (See segment from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.)

It was with a sense of awe, while touring Rome, that I explored the Forum- standing near the rostrum where Shakespeare has Julius Caesar for his “Friends, Romans, countrymen..” speech. I marvelled at the Titus Triumphal Arch. It was not till doing this recent research that I found out that the objects depicted being carried by the soldiers on the arch were loot confiscated from the Temple in Jerusalem. The funds from that loot would make possible the building of the Colosseum I so admired. To be in the remains of the ancient Roman Empire was like a religious experience. I just hadn’t realized it was of the wrong religion!

I have previously shown how the recent Biblical scholars agree that we had been looking at the Roman Empire from the perspective held, not by the common empire person’s view but from the viewpoint of the empire’s privileged few. Neither Jesus nor the disciples were the privileged. Nor were most of the early followers or the NT writers. They certainly would not have had the beneficent view of the Roman Empire that early Biblical scholars had, which I and probably many of you inherited.

The empire was far from a paradise for our spiritual ancestors in the first century. The Appian Way not built for their use. Like other Roman roads, it was built to move the legions quickly to where an uprising needed to be stopped. On the contrary, the empire was a roadblock to a good life for them. Warren Carter encapsulates the reality:  “Rome’s empire does not disappear or go away when it is not explicitly mentioned. It is always there. It forms the pervasive context of New Testament writings.”

Jesus’ central message: If my NT seminary professors got the value of the Roman Empire wrong, they did get the central message of Jesus right. One of my most beloved professors was Dr. Georgia Harkness. In a time when the men in my seminary, Pacific School of Religion, were studying to be ministers there were women students. They couldn’t be ministers, so they were studying to be teachers of Religious Education in the churches. (Today, the majority of students- at that seminary and many others- studying for the ministry are women.) But in my day, here was one of the earliest women teaching theology. In her book on Understanding the Kingdom of God, she writes:

“There is general agreement that the kingdom of God is at the heart of the message of Jesus. Try to extract it from the words recorded in the Synoptic Gospels as spoken by him, and nearly everything else goes with it. People may differ as to how to combine the apparently contradictory things on this subject ascribed to him, but nobody who reads the New Testament can doubt that the kingdom was at the center of the thinking and speaking of Jesus.”

Throughout the Gospels Jesus proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Matthew, of course, as a good Jew was reticent about using the name of G-d, and instead wrote about the Kingdom of Heaven. A word search reveals that the four Gospels make 85 references to the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven and only 3 mentions of ‘church’, with most of those being found in Matthew.

On the surface Paul seems centered elsewhere. He uses the term ‘church’ 67 times and that of the ‘Kingdom of God’ only 11 times. The words that many Protestant ministers focus on with Paul’s central message are ‘justified’ (17 occurrences) and ‘justification’ (7 occurrences). However, recent biblical scholars indicate that the equivalence for Kingdom in Paul is his expression “in Christ”. I was surprised to find that in the 13 epistles that claim to be attributed to Paul the expression is used 214 times. If you restrict the number of usages to the 7 epistles that are by consensus thought to be by Paul, it is still 143 times. I will cover this Pauline aspect later when I look at Galatians Reimagined by Brigitte Kahl. Let me contend for the moment that when Paul writes about being “in Christ” he is referring to the same present reality for Christians as Jesus did when he speaks about the Kingdom.

One of the mistakes that can be made about the Kingdom is to view it only as primarily a future reality. There are swaths of Christians who see their faith as a means for getting a ticket for the next life. All of this earthly life is seen as the realm of the devil and therefore to be shunned in favour of being with Jesus in heaven.

In the Methodist Church in California where I grew up, the evening service was more ‘spiritual’ than the morning service. Sometimes our youth group joined them. I recall one of the hymns, Sweet Hour of Prayer” that ended with the words

Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
I view my home and take my flight.
This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise
To seize the everlasting prize,
And shout, while passing through the air,
“Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!”

I’ll be expanding on the concept of the Kingdom of God in my next two postings. The first will looking at the Kingdom with the help of the writings of Walter Brueggemann, the premier scholar today on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. The second will use a recent book by New Testament scholar, Joerg Rieger, Jesus Vs Caesar to delve further into an understanding of the Kingdom of God.

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