A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The New Testament, Empire, and the Echo Chamber

I was honored a while ago when Scot McKnight and Joe Modica asked me to contribute to a book that evaluated empire criticism in the New Testament. The final result was InterVarsity's book, Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies.

At AAR/SBL in Baltimore there was a session devoted to the book, in which some of the contributors and the editors offered brief papers and two individuals presented critique. I was in attendance at the session and it was good to listen in on the discussion.

Scot McKnight has posted his response at that session on his blog, Jesus Creed. He speaks of the echo chamber of those who see empire everywhere in the New Testament. In particular, he focuses on Tom Wright:

What makes Wright typical in the empire critics is that he sees these stories clashing with one another and that Paul intentionally wants the stories to clash. What makes Wright atypical is his skill in writing, not least-- to use one of his favorite subordinating introductions-- in his clever idea that Paul’s "story" is the "echo chamber" in which all of Paul's writings must be read. His construction of the chamber in which he sets off the music that echoes is used constantly to read and re-read Paul’s letters in such a way that the longer one stays in the echo chamber the more one will hear echoes of Rome bouncing off the Pauline walls.
A common pushback is that the level knob for the music in Wright’s echo chamber is set too loud so that if one sees "son of God" or "gospel" or "savior" or "peace" or "justice" one may hear anti-Caesar tones only if the Roman music drowns out the Jewish music. Wright, responding as he has to in this volume to Jon Barclay, contends it is not the words but even more the surrounding contexts of each word. Which leads me to a pointed criticism: as is the case with many empire critics, when the empire temptation presents itself with one or more terms, the Jewish music is turned down or off so the Roman music can be given full play. In this section, in spite of Wright's clear two-themed Jewish story and which gets full play, the themes that are now heard is what Jews mean by these same terms-- son of God, gospel, savior, justice and peace. Yes, perhaps resonance from Rome but also resonance from Israel, and only after we have compared the echoes of each kind of music are we prepared to discern if the primary echo is Jewish or Roman.
Anyone who knows me knows that I have seldom met a criticism of modern empires that I do not like. I am always ready to go after the "emperors" we elect whether they are Republicans or Democrats. But, when one honestly looks at the New Testament texts, while there are clearly implications for empire, it is questionable whether empire is present in the overt and centrally focused way that empire critics suggest. Indeed, I would suggest that the early church's affirmation that Jesus Is Lord means not so much a focus on empire, but a dismissal of empire and its pretentious attitude and behavior that assumes it rules the world.

Empires matter. Empires can do some great good and great harm as well. But Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. That means all empires everywhere, all Caesars who rule are on borrowed time. It is wise to take them serious, but we must avoid the echo chamber that forces us to give them the significance they no longer have now that the risen Jesus is indeed Lord.

Scot's entire response is worth a read. It can be found here.


Patrick said...

What if the empire was not into Caesar worship? Isn't that mainly where the NT dialectic was, Caesar is Lord, NO, Christ is Lord?

I doubt Paul could care less if Rome was ruling only Rome or the entire continent if Rome's rulers weren't making claims that are reserved for Christ.

Cyrus was king of an empire and he comes off quite well with God. So does Nebuchadnezzar around Daniel chapter 4.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Hi Patrick,

It's more complicated than Caesar worship. It's the issue that empires, while certainly capable of doing good, ultimately stand as rivals to God's kingdom. God may have used Cyrus, but God's work is not done primarily through Cyrus, but through God's people Israel, and in the New Testament, the church.