The Western consciousness is deeply shaped by its perception of power structures. Even in democracies we are addicted to authority structures that give stability and predictability to life. It is intrinsic to all civilization.
Undergirding these structures are always religions of some sort. Even with the arrival of a god-less creation story, the religion of no religion is still a religion. Darwin's theory has served as a myth of origins to give moral commission for the advance of humanity, the pinnacle of evolutionary process. Humans alone possess the power to observe how the world works and this higher knowledge has allowed us to conquer disease, advance our technologies and make moral choices. Indeed, with our elaborate power structures, once seen as a way to mediate God's authority to the world, it is not surprising that the structures themselves would begin to replace God. After so long, with so little change, these fixtures seemed permanent, functioning to keep the wheels of politics, society, industry and innovation turning like clockwork.
The old traditions still have their proponents, of course. I once read a book that delineated the structures of Christian society into such neat hierarchies of church, family and state, that it was hailed by the publisher as a definitive work on the subject. I was quite taken with it at the time; it seemed to hold so much promise for the enlightenment of a world sitting in confused darkness. And then I met someone, or rather fell in love. He was actually the one who loaned the book to me, and then we started dating. But it was during one of our romantic, late night theological discussions that he dropped the proverbial anvil. "I really don't think there is a place for a Christian state. Every argument I've ever heard was just repeating Romans 13." In other words, he had begun to suspect that there really wasn't that much to go on. It was Romans 13 plus a whole lot of elaborate schematization that was needed to support the pillarized theory of Christian society.
My mind began scrolling through the paradigm. Israel had both a kingly and priestly function, divided that way through Moses and Aaron. That served, for covenant theologians at least, as a foundation for the state and church, right? But then the image of Christ enthroned in heaven, both as king and high priest, flashed through my brain. Weren't the two functions merged into one in the person of Christ? And didn't he begin a new kind of society from out of Israel itself? And didn't he make everyone who was part of that society both king and priest? I felt a large crack, almost audible, appear in my stable worldview. Light was filtering through, and God was wriggling out of my firm grasp like a muscled, slippery, wet fish.
That was just the beginning. It was not long before I began to pose the question, "What would the Bible and history look like if it were not read from the top looking down, with all of its structured hierarchies, but from the bottom looking up?" My worldview began to take on an entirely new shape. From N.T. Wright's "The New Testament and the People of God", I learned to read Jesus from the perspective of the Jew who had never quite recovered from the state of exile. From John Howard Yoder's "The Politics of Jesus", I began to see that taking up the cross didn't just mean bearing our own difficult burdens in life, it meant being on the wrong end, politically, of an imperial justice system. And through wide reading from many perspectives and disciplines, a clearer picture began to emerge as to just how imperial and oppressive my own history, as a US American Christian, actually was. I began to see colonization and industrialization from the perspective of the Native Americans, Australian Aborigines and African tribes, from the bottom looking up. I read of malappropriated lands, polluted rivers and razed forests, which once provided food, water and fuel for their previous inhabitants. Now they must work long hours in factories and corporate industry farms, every day, to make toys and games and chocolate for us to enjoy, while barely scraping enough to eat from their meager pay. I read how the World Bank uses loan sharks to persuade a country's rulers to go into debt. The loan goes to multinational corporations to set up their infrastructures which benefit a few rich, while the debt goes to the people who cannot repay it and must then become the labor force for the rest. And if the president refuses the loan, they are soon after killed in a tragic accident. But the next one usually takes it. And I read how missionaries were used as spies to destabilize tribal resistance to such predators. And how indigenous children were stolen from their families and forced to attend Christian boarding schools well into the 1960's in order to enculturate them to the white, Christian ways. I read how the missionaries always followed the armies and forts into the Western territories of Dakota and other Native peoples. And how Romans 13 was quoted by Lutherans in Germany when Hitler came to power. I read how SWAT teams invade homes in the ghetto and you can get shot if you even move, or if you are a little girl sleeping on the couch, even when they get the wrong address for a drug raid. And how these events happen every day, but go unreported. And how armies invade other countries to bring them freedom by deposing a tyrant, but somehow only depose tyrants in oil rich countries and ignore the rest, and somehow feel the need to stabilize oil rigs before stabilizing villages, and somehow end up staying and building permanent bases, and somehow the multinational corporations get the aid money to set up their infrastructures.
And I could go on. Needless to say, I found things a bit different from the glossed over account of history in the Christian curricula from my homeschooled days. An account gushing with God's favor upon those who emerged victorious. Yet nothing was ever said about those who lost their ancient homelands. The account was from the top looking down.
And here is the place to quote Walter Brueggemann. Looking to the Biblical narrative and Moses' prophetic stance against Egypt he writes, "We will not understand the meaning of prophetic imagination unless we see the connection between the religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation...The gods of Egypt are the immovable lords of order. They call for, sanction, and legitimate a society of order, which was precisely what Egypt had. In Egypt,...there were no revolutions, no breaks for freedom. There were only the necessary political and economic arrangements to provide order, "naturally," the order of Pharaoh. Thus the religion of the static gods is not and never could be disinterested, but inevitably served the interests of the people in charge, presiding over the order and benefiting from the order. And the functioning of that society testified to the rightness of the religion because kings did prosper and bricks did get made." (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination) Thus it was the function of the Egyptian religion to determine a static system of roles in order to keep everyone in their place.
Oh, how I detest the religion of fixed roles. I was told that because I was a woman I could never teach in church and that my place was in the home under my husband's "headship." And there were plenty of Bible verses to back it up. Yet somehow I could not reconcile that which I was not allowed to question with the vision of full participation that I saw elsewhere in Scripture, indeed, almost everywhere else. When I read of Abraham, I was Abraham. I was there somehow when that terrible sleep encompassed him and the torch passed between the divided animal carcasses. And the Holy One spoke in symbols, “So be it to me if I do not keep my promise to you.” And I was Jacob, wrestling with God and not letting him go. Gripping flesh and not heeding pain until I limped away with the blessing of my deepest desires, which I had not known before I began wrestling. But I was not supposed to go there. I was breaking the rules. I was meant for other things. Like sitting on the sidelines as a spectator, waiting for Prince Charming to rescue me after I watched and applauded his valiant fight with the dragon. Ah, the Imperial Ego. It dragged me through Sunday mornings, choking on the array of chemical scents that formed a halo around the Moral Ones, and cowering under paste smeared faces, stuffed into shiny, hard shoes that squeezed my toes and clothes that prevented the freedom of my body by forcing me to be on constant guard that my underwear was not showing. I was a fish out of water, but made to feel that if I did not conform I was rebelling against God.
I no longer believe in that God. I do not worship the white Christ of dominion, fixed hierarchy, colonization, oppression and repression. God is the God of freedom. He doesn't function according to our neat, imperial categories. God's power is dynamic, always moving and always bringing those on the bottom, the prisoners, the exiled, those bowed down physically and those held down under imperial oppression, up to his side. The Apostle Paul knew this. His letters often were in response to questions about how the church should behave in a hostile, patriarchal society. Perhaps he felt a little like Samuel did when the Israelites demanded a king like the nations around them. His response was to get the power dynamic rolling, not to set up a static system of inequality. Slaves, wives, children, you are all on the bottom in this imperial society, so I am asking you to submit, that Christ might bring you upward . And those on top, the patriarchs, go down, kneel, and be like the Christ who lifts up those who are down. Because Christ went down from his place of power and lifted up those who were bowed down and seated them beside himself. As God raised Christ from the dead and seated him beside himself. So God is in Christ and Christ is in God and we are in Christ and Christ is in us, for in God we all live and move and have our being. It is not a static, fixed order, but a fluid, dynamic one, like the creation, the dance of the stars and seasons, the bonding and unbonding of atomic particles. All is perfect order, yet none of it of a static nature. It is a dynamic interplay of roles, like the blood that courses through the body that is joined to a head so the two might become one flesh. It is a profound mystery. And where the apostle leaves off talking about human relationships and goes into doxological stammerings of wonderment at the relationship of Christ and the Church is often hard to determine. He is so enamored with Jesus that all discussions trail off into open-ended mystery, of ways of being yet to be dreamed of. Exist peacefully with the Imperial order, each in their place, because a change is just around the corner.
Yet Paul is also a product of his times. His views cannot help but be shaped by the culture, language and history of which he is a part. Yes, God's Spirit breathes and penetrates through those, but never to the point of creating a static, ahistorical, universal system of truth. Truth is always relational. God allowed different viewpoints and perspectives by various authors of the Scriptures, yet taken together they form a unified narrative. The author of Judges seems to promote the idea that a king was what Israel needed. Samuel did not. And the prophetic tradition was usually against the king. And perhaps some things are left on purpose as unresolved plot tensions, awaiting the readers' response as they contemplate the larger narrative. Creation, Fall, the calling of Abraham, the creation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, their fall into idolatry and subsequent exile, the coming of Jesus to bring about a new exodus and a new creation humanity, to the formation of the Church, called out from every tribe and nation to be God's ministers of reconciliation in the world and to be raised at the last day when the whole creation is released from its bondage to death. Our task is to read the Scriptures faithfully and to take them as they are, in all their diversity and mystery and unresolved plot conflict. To realize the unified narrative and yet not repeat it verbatim as if it were a script or rulebook. We respond not with systematic theologies, fixed orders and imperialistically static roles, but with faithful improvisation, as actors in an unfinished play. And we read it from the bottom looking up.
The story of Israel has been a history lived from the bottom looking up. They were slaves in Egypt, wanderers of the wilderness. When they possessed land, they turned to other gods. Gods that were predictable. Gods that could guarantee that the storehouses would be full if their practical systems of production, labor and economy were implemented. Who wanted the unpredictable God of the wilderness, who only gave enough manna for one day? “We want a king like the other nations!” they begged. And so they were forced to build Solomon's empire and send their sons to die in his wars and send the fruit of their hard earned labor to his table. Oh, there was a surplus of food, and they all got a share of it, but they had no time. Day after day, there was nothing new under the sun. Rise, work, go to bed, then rise again the next day until they put you in your final bed with its blanket of sod. The best you can do is be happy with what you’ve got, stay in your place, and keep the wheels of industry turning to fill the tables of kings with sweets and trifles.
The prophets came, disrupting the daily cycles. They predicted droughts when the Baals promised eternal seasons. They were sustained in the wilderness by ravens who brought food each day. They defied gravity, floating ax heads, they turned bitter stews into nourishing food. Armies were sent after them and were struck blind. They humiliated kings. They walked around naked and starving, crying out that Israel was left destitute while everyone feasted around them. They defied every static, imperial claim to order. They were disorderly, dirty, dwelling in caves and wearing camel hair. And saying crazy things like “Every valley shall be exalted and every hill made low before the coming of the Lord.” And when the dynasty ended, when the survivors found themselves enslaved in Babylon, they understood. But it was too late.
When Jesus came, it was not to those favored by the Empire, who helped keep the people in their proper roles through the temple system. It was to those who might not have known where the next meal would come from and who watched Imperial soldiers march outside of their windows on a daily basis. He went to the unclean, the shepherds, prostitutes, demon possessed, lepers and fishermen, who were not allowed to be touched by moral people. And to them was given the vision of the victor on the white horse, though when he was among them he rode a baby donkey. To those who were surrounded by horses and chariots on every side, announcing the Pax Romana, the peace that Caesar brought when he colonized the nations, bringing law, order, stability, predictability, transportation systems, sewer systems, economic systems. And at last life could be for everyone a long, deathless now. As long as everyone stayed in their place. Diverse religions were tolerated, but were relegated to hopes of the afterlife, something to look forward to if you kept in your proper place. They functioned to support the empire, for after all, the empire looked after you in this life and you should be willing to defend it if you were truly grateful.
And so the god of predictability and satiation was paid homage to daily. And the wheels kept turning. And those crushed under it cried out, but no one heard their cries. Because in the system the cries did not exist. Only lazy people, social misfits and criminals would defy the Order. They were the workers of Chaos, which the Order successfully vanquished. Babylon, the castle of the great Marduk, whose throne the king represented, had conquered the chaos beast, the sea goddess Tiamet, dismembering her carcass and creating the cosmos out of her slain parts. The forces of chaos, the defeated gods and goddesses, were forced to serve Marduk and his allies. Yet the defeated gods were still gods, still royalty, and so to serve them, Tiamet’s consort Kingu was slain, and humanity fashioned from his blood, to be servants of all the gods. (see the description of the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth, in Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be by J. Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh)
Thus the Empire of Order has its national allies. And it has its deposed and defeated nations as well, but these it still treats well. Their people can still serve their own kings, if everyone cooperates, and the kings are guests in the emperor’s palace. And the wheel keeps turning, all is well in the land. Now and then challengers come to disrupt the security that people call freedom, but they are quickly crushed by the military might of the empire. Lives are lost, but sacrifices are sometimes needed to maintain the Order. And the Empire memorializes those who are sacrificed, because the Empire is the Empire that cares.
One of these sacrifices, one of the criminals that the Empire had to do away with, because he was disrupting the peace, (and order must be maintained or civilization collapses) became a bit of a problem. They didn’t want to kill him, because they thought he was an innocent man, but they had to, or chaos would have broken loose. That could have been the end of the story. But for some reason, his little band of followers kept claiming that he had come back to life. And they wouldn’t go away. And some had prophetic visions that the Empire was the chaos beast from the sea, and that a greater God, who had just been leading it along, frolicking with it as if it was a toy, had grown tired of its boasting and angry at the innocent blood it devoured, and decided to end its reign. “In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!” (Revelation 18:17)
And the wheel stopped turning for a second. The treaders stopped treading and turned their gray, tired faces upward for a moment. Was that hope? Was there an echo of something, somewhere? A different sort of freedom than that of order and security. A completely new creation, a new way of being. Full participation and inheritance for all. The supervisor gave a stern glance and the wheel started up again. But when the whistle blew, the workers started home under the smog choked stars and over the ash covered streets, and their step was just a little lighter, and a few of them cast knowing glances toward each other. And from somewhere beyond, where there were gardens and forests with deer and singing birds and the scent of real pine that the janitor would not have recognized, came a breeze. And on the breeze, a whisper. Just barely audible. “Alleluia. He lives.”