This is a complex but fascinating book that I muddled through over the course of Lent this year. The basic thesis of this book is that Jesus Christ taught a radical message contrary to the idea of empire, whether the Roman empire of Christ’s time or the American empire today. Pax Romana created peace through the enforcement of Roman military strength but the Kingdom of God is a true peace built on justice and equality. Thus the violence of “civilized” humanity if challenged by Christ’s non-violence. This is a book worthy of a contemplative reread.
As the greatest pre-industrial and territorial empire—just as we are the greatest post-industrial and commercial empire—Rome was the expression, no more and no less, of the normalcy of civilization’s violence, first-century style. Usually we use the term “civilization” for everything that is good about our humanity—for example, poetry and drama, music and dance, art and architecture, image and narrative. Correspondingly, to call individuals or groups, places or actions, “uncivilized” is normally a calculated insult. So I need to explain very clearly what I mean in this book by the “brutal normalcy of civilization.” The point I wish to emphasize is that imperialism is not just a here-and-there, now-and-then, sporadic event in human history, but that civilization itself, as I am using that term, has always been imperial—that is, empire is the normalcy of civilization’s violence. It is, of course, always possible to oppose this empire in favor of that one, to oppose yours in favor of ours. But if you oppose empire-as-such, you are taking on what has been the normalcy of civilization’s brutality for at least the last six thousand years.
As everyone knows, civilization began immediately with fratricide: the murder of one brother by another. But the story is more detailed than that. “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground” (4:2), and “when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him” (4:8). That inaugural fratricide was the murder of a shepherd by a farmer on his own farm. That is the first act in the invention of human civilization—the farmer displacing the shepherd—and God does not punish the farmer but only marks him forever as the future of a lost past. There is no counterviolence from God—not even the appropriate divine vengeance when, as God says, “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (4:10).
I think that Jesus started by accepting John’s theology of God’s imminence but, precisely because of what happened to John, changed from that to a theology of God’s presence. John expected God’s advent, but Antipas’s cavalry came instead. John was executed, and God still did not come as an avenging presence. Maybe, thought Jesus, that was not how God acted because that is not how God is. Jesus’s own proclamation therefore insisted that the Kingdom of God was not imminent but present; it was already here below upon this earth, and however it was to be consummated in the future, it was a present-already and not just an imminent-future reality. Jesus could hardly have made such a spectacular claim without immediately appending another one to it. You can speak forever about the future-imminence of the Kingdom, but unless you are foolish enough to give a precise date, you can hardly be proved right or wrong. We are but waiting for God to act; apart from preparatory faith, hope, and prayer, there is no more we can do. When God acts, it will be, presumably, like a flash of divine lightning beyond all categories of time and place. But to claim an already-present Kingdom demands some evidence, and the only such that Jesus could have offered is this: it is not that we are waiting for God, but that God is waiting for us. The present Kingdom is a collaborative eschaton between the human and divine worlds. The Great Divine Cleanup is an interactive process with a present beginning in time and a future (short or long?) consummation. Would it happen without God? No. Would it happen without believers? No. To see the presence of the Kingdom of God, said Jesus, come, see how we live, and then live likewise.
It is certainly correct, therefore, to call Jesus’s death—or in fact the death of any martyr—a sacrifice, but substitution and suffering are not the point of sacrifice. Substitutionary atonement is bad as theoretical Christian theology just as suicidal terrorism is bad as practical Islamic theology. Jesus died because of our sins, or from our sins, but that should never be misread as for our sins. In Jesus, the radicality of God became incarnate, and the normalcy of civilization’s brutal violence (our sins, or better, Our Sin) executed him. Jesus’s execution asks us to face the truth that, across human evolution, injustice has been created and maintained by violence while justice has been opposed and avoided by violence. That warning, if heeded, can be salvation.
It is the age-old normalcy of civilization’s violent injustice that is weakness and foolishness with God, and it is God’s nonviolent justice that is weakness and foolishness for civilization’s violent normalcy.
To turn the nonviolent resistance of the slaughtered Jesus into the violent warfare of the slaughtering Jesus is, for me as a Christian, to libel the body of Jesus and to blaspheme the soul of Christ.