The Genesis of “Kingdom or Empire”

 Method, Message, Mission

So far in the distillation process I have posted a couple of things. In “A New 21 Century Theology” I laid out my own journey in finding what I am now calling, for want of a better term, the “Kingdom or Empire” perspective of the Bible and Christian life. Next, I posted the Book List”, which contains the written resources that brought me to discovering the reality and extent of Kingdom vs. Empire That list has grown from 20 to 40, to, now just short of 90 books, covering on the one hand Biblical studies and on the other hand a new perspective for the church and the individual in living the Christian life in the 21st century.

But if you try tracing this new idea and methodology to its sources it is like starting at the mouth of a wide river and trying to trace it back to its headwaters. One of the latest of the 80+ books is “Come Out, My People!”: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, by Wes Howard-Brook. This book served as the focus of my third posting.

I discovered that one of my favorite peace activists, Fr. John Dear, reviews Howard-Brook’s book. But in the midst of this he mentions an earlier book of a similar nature, which he calls one of the two “best scripture commentaries of my lifetime”. One book is “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus” by Ched Myers, written in 1987.

Better recommendation than even John Dear’s is that of Walter Wink, an eminent New Testament scholar. On the cover he writes, “this is, quite simply, the most important commentary on a book of Scripture since [Karl] Barth’s Romans.”

Yet, in the introduction to his own book, Myers acknowledges that he is indebted to Norman Gottwald, a professor of Old Testament. “This book is situated within a still young North American exegetical tradition, which emerged in the late 1970s under the inspiration and guidance of Hebrew Bible scholar Norman Gottwald. This new approach to Bible study has been referred to variously as ‘political hermeneutics’, ‘sociology of the Bible’, and ‘liberation reading of Scripture’.”

Myers says that Gottwald identified several major chasms in Biblical study and practice: between thought and practice; biblical academics and popular Bible study; religion and the rest of life; and the past as ‘dead history’ and the present as ‘real life’.

As concerns the third chasm, Myers writes “My book endeavors to carry on his (Gottwald’s) great work of uncovering both the political character of theological discourse and the theological character of political discourse.”

In “The Roman Empire and the New Testament”, Warren Carter continues the theme of the interplay of religion and politics. “In the first century Roman world, no one pretended religion and politics were separate. Rome claimed its empire was ordained by the gods. Those whom we think of as religious leaders in Jerusalem, such as chief priests and scribes, were actually the political leaders of Judea and allies of Rome.”

This interplay can be detected through a closer reading of Scripture. “Even when the New Testament texts seem to us to be silent about Rome’s empire, it is, nevertheless, ever present. It has not gone away. The Roman empire provides the ever present political, economic, societal, and religious framework and context for the New Testament’s claims, language, structures,personnel, and scenes. The New Testament texts guide first century followers of Jesus in negotiating Rome’s power that crucified Jesus”.

His book recognizes “that 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.”

“People got crucified not because they were spiritual, but because they posed a threat to the Roman system. Early Christians and New Testament writers engaged the empire largely ‘from below’ as the powerless and oppressed who had no access to channels of power, no voice, and no hope of changing the imperial system.”

If you read the Gospels looking for Jesus to explicitly oppose the power of Rome, you do not find it. Thus, a literal reading does not find an anti-Rome slant. hence, much of the church has concentrated upon an individualistic, spiritualized reading of the Good News.

Let’s take an example of a passage from the Gospels and see how one can come out with different interpretations. In the forward to Myers’ “Binding the Strong Man”, Obery Hendricks writes about the difference in understanding one gets by using Myers’ ‘socio-literary’ approach.

“The purpose of the wording and placement of Mark’s account of the widow’s mite (Mark 13:41-44) was not too laud a poor woman’s willingness to sacrifice for her faith, but rather to condemn the way the ideological hegemony of the Jerusalem priestly aristocracy exploited the people’s faith for their own gain— an especially important insight for the church today.”

Our tracing the source of Kingdom versus Empire back to this point prepares us for our move forward: beginning to explore method of socio-historical analysis of the Bible in its message that central in Jesus’ preaching is the Kingdom of God. This message of God’s sovereignty is addressed to people who live ‘In the Shadow of Empire” and must negotiate the constant demands that Roman power make upon their lives. The mission for today is to see the church’s role as subverting the all-pervasive power of empire in our lives in our time.

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