KINGDOM: ALTERNATIVE TO EMPIRES

dopnamedatum: 2006-04-18

(Rembrandt: Christ before Pilate 1636)

In the first part of a review of Warren Carter’s The Roman Empire and the New Testament*, the focus was on the Empire. I began with the reality that we were raised thinking the Roman Empire was a “good thing”. Carter made clear this is no longer the case with present biblical scholars. (Compare this with SPQR the book by renowned classics professor of Cambridge University, Mary Beard. With all the careful scholarship she exhibits in her almost 600 page tome, she  still reflects the old view of the Roman Empire seen from the lofty chair of an academic elite.)

The core of that previous article was to spell out what the structure of Rome’s empire was. Hence, I titled it Empire: Foreground of the New Testament.

In this article I want to deal with the different views that Carter says can be found the New Testament toward the Empire. So what follows is what he says were the different strategies the different New Testament writers proposed in dealing with the Empire. I’ll conclude with focussing on the role of the church as providing an alternative community to that posited by Empire. In the title I use empire in the plural. My conviction is that, whether they have been faithful to that call, a main mission of the Church has always been to provide a counter to Empire. This should be true today whether we are talking about the Dinner Church or any other current form of the church. This conviction comes not just from reading Carter’s book. In fact, for whatever reason, he seldom uses the word “kingdom”. (A word search showed fewer than 30 references to ‘kingdom’ and over 100 to ’empire’. This is not true of other authors in the section of my bibliography labelled “Kingdom versus the Empire”.

To pick just two examples: on the theological left- J. D. Crossan and J. L. Reed in their book on Paul. They spell it out in their subtitle to the book: In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. On the theological right- Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation, by Ed Setzer.

This blog has been a struggle for me to write. I have finally decided the reason for it is that Carter is not clear about drawing conclusions to help today’s church. But let me put this caveat in context. His view of the reality of Empire for the first century is first rate. Yet after laying out the different evaluations the New Testament writers, his assessment as to which of these can be applied to the contemporary situation and which can’t seems a bit vague. This is partly due to the structure of the book. What should I expect? He spends eight chapters incisively explicating the dark side of the Empire and only one chapter on the several ways the New Testament writers evaluate the Empire!

As I have time, I probably need to check out his other books to find the same meticulous scholarship in this issue as he has done on the nature of the Empire here. And he does, after all, show as he says that: “This 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.” That is a trenchant insight.

I will need to delve into more of the books on Empire and the New Testament to spell out the theme of “Kingdom: Alternative to Empires” more clearly. In re-reading Crossan’s “God and Empire” I have found he is more helpful here. His book will be the subject of my next blog post.

I The New Testament’s Evaluations of the Roman Empire

Let’s begin with with the church before it called itself church: the first two centuries.

After his first chapter in which he lays out the nature of the Roman world and its dominating and exploiting Empire (which was covered in the previous blog posting), Carter turns in the second chapter to what he call, “Evaluating Rome’s Empire”. This is not abstract and general. It is evaluating the Empire through the New Testament texts. He finds five different ways the scripture views the Empire. He begins with the most negative and proceeds through to the most benign. According to the different New Testament writers, the Empire is:

1.  Under the devil’s control; As one example, “Both accounts (Matthew and Luke)  identify the devil as controlling the world’s empires.” Both present the devil, in the Temptation passages, as having the power to allocate the world’s empires as the devil wishes.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms [or empires] of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matt. 4: 8-9)

 Hence, the power behind Rome’s throne is the devil. “Jesus asserts God’s claim of sovereignty over the world under Satan’s control and manifested in Rome’s rule.”

Other Gospel passages are similar. Mark identifies the Empire with the devil in his story of the man who is demon possessed by giving the demon a name, ‘legion’, the term used for a unit of the Empire’s military power. (Who says there is no humor in the New Testament?)

2. Under God’s judgment;  “Various New Testament texts assert that God will end Rome’s rule by judging and condemning Rome’s world. This declaration counters Rome’s propaganda claim that it is the “eternal city” with an “empire without end.”

The sense of the Empire being under God’s judgment is underscored when the writers employ the idea of two ages, one of which is under the Empire. But the age to come will be under God’s judgment.

In 1 Thessalonians 5, we find Paul writing: “1 Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”

3. In the meantime, the Empire is needing transformation; “A third evaluation refuses to accept Rome’s imperial order as the way that God intends the world to be structured and urges followers of Jesus to adopt practices of (limited) transformation shaped by God’s purposes. Luke presents Jesus’ public ministry as one of transformation”

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
 and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Lk. 4

4. In the meantime, shaping alternative communities with alternative practices; In the Empire the political life was closely controlled and those who lived in it. had no means to affect issues or make any significant changes. “There were no opportunities to intervene in the political process, to put amendments on ballots, to form political parties, to sign petitions, or to lead mass reform movements. And the elite was certainly not going to surrender its power and wealth voluntarily.”

Therefore, New Testament writers often urge readers to form alternative communities with practices that provide life-giving alternatives to the empire’s ways. Hal Taussig in his In the Beginning Was the Meal adds an additional dimension of what the alternative community could contribute to its participants. No where else in the closely controlled hierarchical empire could individuals receive personal affirmation. They were pretty much reduced to being cogs in a well oiled machine. In their community they were affirmed as children of a caring God.

5. To be submitted to and honored; “The so-called Pastoral Epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, and letters such as Colossians and Ephesians, generally take an accommodationist approach to society, imitating cultural practices like patriarchal-dominated households where women are required to submit to their husbands.” Crossan and Borg in their The First Paul distinguish the epistles of the original Paul from the later epistles. The earlier ‘Paul’ affirms the equal value of persons- in Christ Jews and gentiles, male and female, slave and free are all of worth. The later epistles, not written by Paul, reflect the empire’s hierarchical values which see persons having different worth.

“The hierarchical social interactions and exploitative structures of the Roman Empire fostered social resentment, anger, and hostility. There were no democratic processes of reform. Instead, New Testament writers offer, as we have seen, various ways of negotiating Rome’s empire.”

Parenthetically, I should note that Carter’s schema of the five approaches of New Testament writers reminds me of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, where Niebuhr, as a historian and sociologist of religion, finds five different ways that theology has evaluated culture.

II Relevance for today.

In what he calls a Postscript, Carter reflects on how this study of the Roman Empire and the New Testament might have relevance for our own time.

  1. The New Testament Is a Very Political Document “Our discussion of numerous New Testament texts shows how deeply intertwined are matters of religion and politics. We cannot dismiss the questions of how we live in a world of empire. We cannot ignore these questions by claiming that following Jesus concerns religion, not politics.”

With this affirmation, Carter joins just about every biblical scholar who has a book in my bibliography. The understanding of Jesus as a religious, spiritual leader does not find much support especially among contemporary scholars of Scripture that take seriously the role of the Empire in the life of the early church. In the Empire, crucifixion was only used on those who were guilty of crimes against the state, such as sedition.

2. Negotiating Empires Is Complicated

“If we want a single formula to fit all situations, we won’t find it in the New Testament… These writings from early Christians show how difficult it is to live in/ with/ under/ against empires. My choice of four prepositions in this last sentence alone hints at the diverse negotiation that is needed to be faithful. The difficulty with empire arises in part because empires often make totalizing claims. They claim to exert complete sovereignty.” Further: “They have the means to accomplish their will regardless of what anyone else thinks… They cannot tolerate dissent.”

3. Unquestioning Submission Is Not the Bible’s Only Way
4. 
Constant Opposition Is Not the Bible’s Only Way

In academic fashion, Carter contends that the Bible does not speak with a single voice nor does it opt always for the extremes.There is validity here, in that the Empire did not allow for the non-elite to have much voice in their lives. The top elite decided; the non-elite were expected to obey.

5. Active Nonviolence, Not Violence

“But the absence of violence does not mean the absence of dissent and opposition. The third way comprises active, nonviolent, calculated interventions that reverse the destructive impact of empire. These emphases raise huge questions about the use of military violence in our contemporary world as an instrument of empire.”

6. Alternative Worldviews and Communities

“Perhaps this element forms the most frequent recurring theme throughout this study of the New Testament texts. The New Testament writers offer followers of Jesus an alternative understanding of the world as belonging not to an empire or political party or system, but as belonging to God.”

“They challenge and invite and shape Christian communities to become places that embody God’s purposes and that embody an alternative way of being human in the midst of the empire. These strategies of reconceptualization and of alternative social experiences and relationships result, in part, from the early Christians not having any access to power and no opportunity to make systemic changes.”

I will be exploring the theme if Kingdom: Alternative to Empires further. I will be using the thought of John Dominic Crossan in his book God and Empire to do this.

*The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (at Amazon here)

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Bibliography: The Kingdom versus the Empire

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A BIBLIOGRAPHY ON BOOKS THAT LOOK OUTSIDE THE EARLIEST CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY: What was the nature of their social setting?

Books on EMPIRE AND THE NEW TESTAMENT Study by American Academy of Religion

I There are books that help us understand what living in the Roman Empire was like.

+The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide,  Warren Carter  2009

God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, then and now, John Dominic Crossan 2009

Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse, Averil Cameron 1991

II There are those that deal topically, and, generally cover Jesus or Paul in relation to the Empire.

Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, Marcus Borg 2000

Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder,  Richard Horsley 2002

Jesus and Spiral of Violence, Richard Horsley 1993

Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine, Richard Horsley  2013

Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor, Richard Horsley 2010

Jesus in Context: Power, People, and Performance, Richard Horsley  2008

The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel, Richard Horsley 2012

The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted, Obery Hendricks  2006

Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God, William Herzog II 1999

The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder 1972

Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers, Alan Storkey  2005

The Social Gospel of Jesus, Bruce Malina  2001

ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church, Frost and Hirsch, 2008

Prophet and Teacher: An Introduction to the Historical Jesus, William Herzog 2005

In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan, Jonathan Reed  2009

The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative  Icon, John Crossan and Marcus Borg  2009

Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, Richard Horsley 1997

Paul and the Roman Imperial Order, Richard Horsley 2004

Reading Paul in Context: Explorations in Identity Formation, Kathy Ehrensperger 2013

Apostle to the Conquered: Re-imagining Paul’s Mission (Paul in Critical Contexts), Davina Lopez 2008

Transient Apostle, Timothy Luckritz Marquis 2013

The Colonized Apostle: Paul Through Postcolonial Eyes (Paul in Critical Contexts), Christopher Stanley 2011

Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N T Wright 2013

Paul: In Fresh Perspective, N. T. Wright  2009

Liberating Paul, Neil Elliott 2006

The Politics of Heaven: Women, Gender, and Empire in the Study of Paul (Paul in Critical Contexts), Joseph Marchal  2008

John, Jesus, and the Renewal of Israel, Horsley and Thatcher 2013

Being the Church in the Midst of Empire, Karen L. Bloomquist 2005

III The third are those that show the effect of the Empire on the New Testament or on particular books of the New Testament.

Theology of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann 2012

A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, Bruce Birch Editor 2011

The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, Norman Gottwald 1979

The Bible and Liberation, Gottwald and Horsley 1993

+In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance, Richard Horsley editor 2008

+Empire in the New Testament,  Stanley Porter and Cynthia Westfall eds 2011

Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations, Warren Carter 2001

Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading,  Warren Carter 2013

Mark and Empire: Feminist Reflections, Laurel Cobb, 2013

Discourses of Empire: The Gospel of Mark from a Postcolonial Perspective, Han Leander, 2013

+Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Ched Myers 1987

Luke’s Jesus in the Roman Empire and the Emperor in the Gospel of Luke, Pyung Soo Seo, 2015

The Roman Empire in Luke’s Narrative (The Library of New Testament Studies), Kazuhiko Yamazaki-Ransom 2010

Luke-Acts and Empire: Essays in Honor of Robert L. Brawley,  David Rhoads and David Esterline 2011

World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age, Kavin Rowe 2009

Acts of Empire: The Acts of the Apostles and Imperial Ideology, (Sino-Christian Studies: Supplement) Christine Petterson 2012

John and Empire: Initial Explorations, Warren Carter  2008

Greater Than Caesar: Christology and Empire in the Fourth Gospel, Tom Thatcher 2009

The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire (Paul in Critical Contexts), Neil Elliot 2008

Paul and the Politics of Difference: A Contextual Study of the Jewish-Gentile Difference in Galatians and Romans, Jae Won Lee 2014

Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, household, and empire in 1 Corinthians 1-7., Ok-Pil Kim 2011

Picturing Paul in Empire: Imperial Image, Text and Persuasion in Colossians, Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles, Harry O Maier 2013

+Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading With the Eyes of the Vanquished, Brigitte Kahl 2010

Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, Walsh and Keesmaat 2004

Paul’s Macedonian Associations: The Social Context of Philippians & 1 Thessalonians, Richard S. Ascough 2003

Onesimus Our Brother: Reading Religion, Race and Culture in Philemon (Paul in Critical Contexts), Matthew Johnson 2009

Resisting Empire: Rethinking the Purpose of the Letter to “the Hebrews”, Jason Whitlark 2014

What Does Revelation Reveal? Unlocking the Mystery, Warren Carter  2011

Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins, Steven Friesen 2006

Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation, Michael Gorman 2011

Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now, by Howard-Brook and Gwyther  2013

No Longer at Ease: Seven Churches and the Empire: A Study of Revelation 1-3, Kent Ulery 2011

Still being Categorized

Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most, Marcus Borg 2014

The First Christmas, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, 2009

The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann  2012

Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann (revised) 2012

Sabbath as Resistance, Walter Brueggemann 2014

Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination, Walter Brueggemann, 1993

Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, Walter Brueggemann 2013

Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower, Christopher Bryan  2005

Seven Events That Shaped the New Testament World, Warren Carter  2013

The Reemergence of Liberation Theologies: Models for the Twenty-First Century, Thia Cooper, Ed

Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Revised), Hauerwas & Willimon 2014

Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, William R. Herzog, 1994

Hidden Transcripts And The Arts Of Resistance: Applying The Work Of James C. Scott To Jesus And Paul, Richard Horsley  2004

Message and the Kingdom  by Richard Horsley  2002

The Church Before Christianity, Wes Howard-Brook 2013

Come Out, My People! God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, Wes Howard-Brook 2012

+Empire Baptized, Wes Howard-Brook

Empire and the Christian Tradition: New Readings of Classical Theologians, Pui-lan Kwok and Don H. Compier 2007

Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies,  Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica 2012

The Underground Church: Reclaiming the subversive way of Jesus, Robin Meyers 2012

Subverting the Devil’s Kingdom 24/7 , Jared Moore 2012

+Christian Origins and Greco-Roman Culture, Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts 2012

Faith in the Face of Empire: the Bible Through Palestinian Eyes, Mitri Raheb  2014

Imperialism and resistance, Rees, John, 1957

Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times, Joerg Rieger, 2007.

Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, Joerg Rieger  2013

Religion, Theology, and Class, Joerg Rieger  2013

Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, James C Scott 1992

Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation, Ed Setzer 2012

Renegade Gospel: The Rebel Jesus, Mike Slaughter, 2014

Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century, R. Alan Streett 2013

To Caesar What Is Caesar’s: Tribute, Taxes, and Imperial Administration in Early Roman Palestine, Fabian Udoh  2005

Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals, Trevin Wax 2010

Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ, Klaus Wengst 1987

+ Books to be reviewed in the DCM blog

Empire: Foreground of the New Testament

 

Carter RE & NT

(This is the first part of my review of Warren Carter’s book: The Roman Empire and the New Testament.)

“The Bible was written by a minority group that had been conquered by one military superpower after another, so they’re highly suspicious of empires built on wealth and weapons because they’ve been on the receiving end of so much horrific violence,” said Rob Bell, recently an evangelical megachurch pastor and more recently at a lecture given in Atlanta. “So if you’re a citizen of the most powerful global military superpower civilization has ever created, there’s a chance you might miss some of its most central themes.” (From a CNN article July 28, 2017.)

The books written in the last couple decades on the New Testament and the Roman Empire are many. In my bibliography I list nearly a hundred books on the topic. They break down into three main categories. There are books that help us understand what living in the Roman Empire was like. There are those that deal topically, and, generally cover Jesus or Paul in relation to the Empire. The third are those that show the effect of the Empire on the New Testament or on particular books of the New Testament. I’ll be dealing with each of the three categories

In this blog I want to focus on the first issue- understanding the Roman Empire itself. It is impossible to understand Jesus or Paul, or, for that matter any Christian of the first two centuries, or the church of the time period, without understanding the Roman Empire.

Most of us have grown up with basically a benevolent feeling toward the Roman Empire. The English village I’m currently living in produces a publication of news monthly. As this month is August, they have an explanation for the month’s name. It is on the local parish church’s page, so it gives insight not only for the average English person’s view of the Empire; it also shows how the Empire was ‘helpful’ in early church history.

“August is named after Augustus Caesar…(who) brought peace and prosperity to the Roman Empire…The extensive network of Roman roads made travel much easier and thus [helped] the spread of Christianity.”

What the explanation leaves out, as Carter will show, is that this benevolent view of the Empire was held by the 2 or 3 percent of the elites who controlled the Empire, for whom was there ‘peace and prosperity’. The roads were built not for ordinary travel; that was incidental. The roads were built to insure that the Roman legions could travel anywhere there was civil unrest by the oppressed 90 to 98 percent and squelch it. All most all early Christians were non-elites. The peace of the Roman Empire was at the expense of oppression and exploitation of the 90-8 percent.

Other sources of the Empire I have read explain the reason for this benevolent view. Those who wrote the histories and understanding of biblical times in the 17th to 19th centuries were academics who were part of the elite of their day and in projecting themselves back, saw the Empire through the eyes of the elite. They were also academics in a time when their countries controlled empires, German, British, etc., and, of course, their empires were a ‘good thing’, bringing peace and prosperity to the benighted natives. It was because of view through their books and their successors that we miss what it was really like to live in the time of the Empire.

Even one of Rome’s own historians, Tacitus, was more perceptive: “They make a desolation and call it peace”

Interestingly, the epitome of comic cynicism of out time, Monty Python, buy into the benevolent view of Empire. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7tvauOJMHo “What have the Romans ever done for us?” With the sophistication of their humor coming to a great extent because of their first class education at Cambridge University, it is strange to see how they still simply reflect and re-enforce the popular view by perceiving Empire as ‘a good thing’.

For anyone alive in that time, including our religious forebears, the Empire was the ubiquitous, oppressive reality. From when they woke up and ate the meager rations that the Empire’s exploitative economics allowed them, to when they went to bed tired by the work the oppressive Empire required of them, the Empire determined the practicalities of their day-to-day living.

In his book “The Roman Empire and the New Testament”, Warren Carter writes:
This book is not about “Roman backgrounds” to the New Testament, because it understands Rome’s empire to be the foreground…. This 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.”

As the focus of this blog posting is Carter’s book, I should tell a bit about him. Warren Carter was born in New Zealand, did his theological training for the Methodist ministry in Australia, and then did his doctoral work in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. Following a period of teaching at St Paul School of Theology, a Methodist institution in Kansas City, he became professor at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, a Disciples of Christ seminary. As such, he is almost a neighbor to Dr Alan Streett, author of the important, nay, critical, book, “Subversive Meals’, who teaches in Dallas. Streett is about the only biblical scholar who sees the relevance of this understanding of empire in the context of Christian gathering and worship in the first two centuries.

If scholars are ranked by the number of books they have produced on the Empire and the New Testament topic, Carter would be exceeded only by the prolific Richard Horsley. The books Carter has authored include this book- The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide, 2009, and as well these books: John and Empire: Initial Explorations, 2008; Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations, 2001; Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, 2013; The New Testament: Methods and Meanings, 2013; Seven Events That Shaped the New Testament World, 2013; What Does Revelation Reveal? Unlocking the Mystery by Warren Carter. 2011.

In addition there are two major books with multiple authors covering a wide number of individual books of Old and New Testament, which I will be subsequently covering in a later blog (In the Shadow of the Empire and Empire in the New Testament). Carter is significant in being the only scholar who has contributed a chapter to each of the two books.

With those kinds of credentials, you might see why it is a book by him that I select for the best understanding of Empire among the number available.

Why is it that the crucial role of the Empire has escaped our recognizing it? Carter says two things contribute toward it.

First: has to do with the relation of religion and politics. Since the Enlightenment we have viewed the two as separate. That concept has values because of problems that had come from centuries of religion and state being fused into one entity. It is epitomized when kings have claimed that their authority came from God. But this fusion of religion and politics had (and has) the effect of kings and clergy enjoying the increase of power that came from it.

But the post-Enlightenment separation of the two has had the effect on Christianity of assigning the role of Jesus to the spiritual realm, safely out of the issues of politics. It turns Jesus into a ‘spiritual’ leader whose kingdom is safely kept separate and pure from the realm of politics. Jesus’ message has often been seen as other-worldly, and the purpose of Christianity is thus seen as removing the Christian from this world and primarily aiming him or her toward a post-death heaven.

Second: because we have not thought of the Roman Empire affecting the New Testament or early Christians, we haven’t bothered to become familiar with it. We know very little about its oppressive and exploitative role on the lives of those of the first couple centuries, especially.

“The texts don’t stop to explain it to us. They don’t spell it out for us. Instead we are expected to supply the relevant knowledge the texts assume, since these folk shared the same world as the authors. But it is difficult for us who read them some two millennia later and in a vastly different world. Without understanding the Roman imperial world, we will find it hard to understand the New Testament texts.”

With the exception of the second one, subsequent chapters of the book attempt to give us detailed knowledge of the Empire. That second chapter recognizes that there are different ways to deal with the Empire. It lays out those different ways and the discusses how the different writers negotiate the empire.

The Roman Imperial World

What then was the structure of the Roman imperial world?

“In the first century, Rome dominated the territory and people around the Mediterranean Sea. Its empire extended from Britain in the northwest, through (present-day) France and Spain to the west, across Europe to Turkey and Syria in the east, and along North Africa to the south. Rome ruled an estimated 60 to 65 million people of diverse ethnicities and cultures.”

Hierarchical
“The empire was very hierarchical, with vast disparities of power and wealth. For the small ruling elite, life was quite comfortable. For the majority non-elite, it was at best livable and at worst very miserable. There was no middle class, little opportunity to improve one’s lot, and few safety nets in adversity.”

Aristocratic
The Roman Empire was an aristocratic empire. This term means that a small elite of about 2 to 3 percent of the population ruled. They shaped the social experience of the empire’s inhabitants, determined the “quality” of life, exercised power, controlled wealth, and enjoyed high status”.

Agrarian
“The Roman Empire was also an agrarian empire. Its wealth and power were based in land. The elite did not rule by democratic elections. In part they ruled by hereditary control of the empire’s primary resources of land and labor. They owned its land and consumed some 65 percent of its production.”

Legionary
The Roman Empire was also a legionary empire. In addition to controlling resources, the elite ruled this agrarian empire by coercion. The dominant means of coercion was the much vaunted Roman army.” The presence of the legions throughout the empire and the threat of military action ensured submission and cooperation.

Divine Sanction
In addition to ownership of resources, military force, and working relationships with the elite, emperors secured their power by claiming the favor of the gods. Their imperial theology proclaimed that Rome was chosen by the gods, notably Jupiter, to rule an “empire without end” (Virgil, Aeneid 1.278-79). Rome was chosen to manifest the gods’ rule, presence, and favor throughout the world. Religious observances at civic occasions were an integral part of Rome’s civic, economic, and political life.”

The Non-elite
“This is the world that most of the population, the non-elite, negotiated every day. Since the non-elite comprised about 97 percent of the population, it is not surprising that most early Christians belonged to this group. An enormous gap separated the non-elite from  the elite’s power, wealth, and status. There was no middle class and little opportunity for improving one’s lot. More often it was a matter of survival. There was no “Roman dream” of pulling oneself up by one’s sandal straps. Degrees of poverty marked the non-elite. There was little safety net. Many knew regular periods of food shortages. Poor health was pervasive. Infant mortality was high, with perhaps up to 50 percent not reaching age ten. Most non-elite adults died by age thirty or forty. Elite life spans were longer. Urban life for non-elites was crowded, dirty, smelly, and subject to numerous dangers.”

Domination and Resistance
“Elites exercised material domination over non-elites, appropriating their agricultural production and labor. The hard manual work of non-elites and the coerced extractions of production sustained the elite’s extravagant and elegant way of life. There was a further, more personal, cost to non-elites. Domination deeply influences personal well-being and feelings. It deprives people of dignity. It is degrading and humiliating. It exacts not only agricultural production but an enormous personal toll of anger, resentment, and learned inferiority.”

I found this pyramid graph from Karl Allen Kuhn’s book, “The Kingdom According to Luke and Acts”, helpful in understanding the Empire.

Kuhn Pyramid

As mentioned earlier, Carter’s is not the only book covering the centrality of the Empire to understanding the New Testament and the early church

To give another example, John Dominic Crossan in Chapter 1 of his “God and Empire” delineated four characteristics:

Rome’s military power was based on the legions, each with six thousand fighting engineers at full complement. They were stationed along the Rhine, the Danube, the Euphrates, and the North African frontiers. The twenty-eight (and then only twenty-five) legions built well-paved all-weather roads (no mud) and high-arched all-weather bridges (no flood); with this infrastructure, they could move with all their baggage and equipment at a guaranteed fifteen miles a day to crush any rebellion anywhere. It was not nation-building but province-building, and the idea that such was not the military’s job would have seemed ludicrous to the legions.

Rome’s economic power grew along and upon that same infrastructure. Built for military use, it was thereafter available for travel and trade, contact and commerce. Furthermore, the cash payments to the legions along the frontiers helped to monetize the periphery. After military conquest, the imperial program was Romanization by urbanization for commercialization. And of course, those who oppose your globalization, then and now, come violently or nonviolently against you along the global arteries you have created.

Rome’s political power was established through a self-consciously Romanized aristocracy created across the entire empire that allowed some high local elites to be members of the Roman Senate. It was even eventually possible for a Romanized provincial to become emperor. “The Roman landholding elite,” concludes Michael Mann, “was about as ‘class-like’ as any group in any known society, past or present”. Local elites saw very clearly what they got in return for imperial loyalty.

Rome’s ideological power was created by Roman imperial theology, and it is not possible to overestimate its importance. Military power certainly secured the empire’s external frontiers, but ideological power sustained its internal relations. Do not think of it as propaganda enforced by believing elites upon unbelieving masses. Think of it as persuasive advertising accepted very swiftly by all sides. I return later to look at the content of that theology—in written text and on carved inscription—and at how it worked as the ideological glue that held the Roman world together.

Harvard’s Conference on “Finding Our Way Forward”

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“Finding Our Way Forward” is the name of a two day conference held by the Harvard Divinity School in December of 2007.

The initial reason for taking notes and turning them into a blog is that they have three speakers at their event, and all three are included in my list of Net Prophets. Harvard has, in effect, ordained them prophets by inviting them to share their ideas on the future of the Church. So this first set of four videos introduces you to three “major prophets” of our present day.

The second reason is my conviction that the topic is a central one today, given the decline of the church in the west: Europe, in North America, and in other English speaking countries.

The third reason is that it is easier to get the gist in a written summary of a series of videos than trying to find out about them from the videos. Videos, by their nature, are not subject to scanning them easily to see what they are about.

Harvard Conference on the Progressive Church Dec 6-7, 2007 4 parts

“Finding Our Way Forward”
Panel members: Marcus Borg, Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass

Part 1 Opening Panel  with all three 1:29:52
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nuXdl1-Wa8

Part 2  Brian McLaren and Diana Butler Bass  2:00:42
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSKO4DhTRc0

Part 3 Marcus Borg   56:07
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UsXavOeLbQ

Part 4  with all three 1:40:03
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIQsbnJeLFQ

Part 1

Brian McLaren, who led off, said the title “Finding Our Way Forward” implied that we are lost. He laid out eight reasons for being lost:

1 Religious right in retreat so new day for evangelicals.
2 Mainline churches have lost their privileged status.
3 Among Roman Catholics a widespread fear. Clergy abuse, hierarchy cover-up, and Vatican II aborted.
4. Secular world awakened by faith in Secular City to be a failure.
5 America aware of loss of being the only one on the block.
6 The West: despair over the shift in way we think.
7 Global South struggles in finding positive way after end of colonialism.
8 Global struggle with depletion of the planet.

Marcus Borg: A new form of Christianity is being born in North America.

1 It is more about centering in God than in believing.
2 More about this life than the after life.
3 More about a way or path of transformation than about sin, guilt, forgiveness.
4 More about religious meaning of language than a literal, factual meaning of language
5 Tends to be more political progressive than politically conservative or indifferent.

Diana Butler Bass: prepared to focus on congregations covered in her study of 50 vital mainline churches found in her “Christianity for the Rest of Us”. In preparation for this, she as a historian selected three time pictures of the state of the churches in the last 40-50 years.

1 1954: the time of the high water mark of the churches. It was the height of the power and privilege of the church.
2 1976: Evangelicalism comes to the fore, time of Liberation Theology, every denomination brought out new hymnals and prayer books, women ordained. Energizing time.
3. Present moment.

Part 2 Brian McLaren: Three world coexisting on the planet.

  1. Pre-modern or non-modern world.
  2. Modern world.
  3. Post modern or Emerging world.
    Between 1 and 2 Christianity (and Islam) is exploding.
    In 2 a steady modern world, Christianity is declining.
    Where people are entering 3 Christianity is practically non-existent. No one has translated the faith to their thought forms. Two responses to modern atheism.
    Changing the substance of our faith:

1 What is theology: timeless propositions mined from Text? Or an ongoing creative enterprise. C S Lewis poem “A footnote to all prayer.”
2 Nature of the church: Not saving individual souls for heaven, but making disciples for the Kingdom of God. Place for making change agents.
3 Eschatology: what would it look like to be a church that is not looking forward to the destruction of our space-time universe? Change from a religion that makes changes in the first 3 hard to deal with.
4. New reason for reading the Bible. Foundationalism vs post-foundationalism.

Diana Butler Bass Mainline problem is less theological, more structural/organizational. Our structures inhibit change. Four steps in looking at organizations not succeeding.

Example of managed change: video of Church of the Epiphany, Wash D C. The difference is not in programs but in practices.

Part 3 Marcus Borg: Major changes underway in emerging congregations, which are communities of transformation.

Shift from communities of convention to communities of intention. Before the 1960s it was expected that most Americans would be members of churches. Beginning in 1960 that cracked and people began to join the church intentionally.

Second meaning of convention to intention: in first phase the churches were accommodated to and comfortable with being part of the culture around them- from the time of the Empire until recent times. Now, increasingly, churches are uncomfortable with and challenge systems of domination- the dominating system they find themselves in. Examples  slavery: when culture supported slavery, the church supported slavery, segregation, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc.

Churches of the new paradigm are churches of transformation.

Needs
1 Churches are communities of Adult Christian Theological Re-education: About the most vital task for the revitalization of the church in our time.
Crucial need for two reasons:
A. For present members living out past realities. a form of Xty that was persuasive for generations is no longer so.Need re-education.
B. For new Christians coming into the church as adults. 20 somethings and 30 somethings have grown up outside the church. Don’t know Bible or tradition. 75 % of his students have had all but no connection with the church. Can’t assume everybody has grown up in Sunday School.

2. Needs to be about the big topics:
A Word God. Interventionist figure. Biblical understanding encompassing Spirit in whom we move and live and have our being.
B Bible content. Origin and authority. Interpreting. Single source of conflict in church.
We have been more clear about what we don’t believe. We have left the Bible to conservatives.

C Jesus,

D Prayer,     

E Christian life.

Way to go about education

Book reading groups

Video series LtQ as one.

Xn formation

Part 4 consisted of dialogue plus Q and As.

“NET PROPHETS”: Adult Christian Education on Youtube

Harvard Conference Future Church

Several years ago while looking on Youtube I found an interesting video. It was on a conference that had been held at Harvard Divinity School. They had brought together what they considered to be three significant contemporary Christian thinkers. They wanted these three to reflect on the Future of the Church. Under the video was an explanatory paragraph:

“On December 6-7, 2007, the Office of Ministry Studies, Harvard Divinity School, held a conference on the progressive church at the First Church in Cambridge, 11 Garden Street. The conference program included an evening opening panel, with three featured speakers, and a full day of presentations and discussions. Speakers included: Marcus Borg, Brian D. McLaren, Diana Butler Bass.”

The videos had only been put up on Youtube on May 27, 2014. I ran into it less than 2 months after it had been posted. It hadn’t drawn many viewers; I think I was about number 36. Even to date, three years later, only about 600 people have watched it since I had.

There were two things that came together that set me off in discovering what other good material might be found on Youtube. The first was my surprise that so few people had found and watched this video of an important issue even though in had been produced by such a prestigious institution. The second came when the three panelists were asked to say what they thought was the greatest need of the church for the future.

Marcus Borg responded saying that for him the greatest thing needed for the renewal of the church today was adult Christian nurture.

What came to me at that point was that there must be talks and lectures on Youtube which could serve that need. If one searched for them, would it not be possible to find material available to any church or church leader? Here were lectures available to anyone who had a computer!

A pastor could select several videos on a topic. No need to take class time to show a lecture, or part thereof, and then have just a few minutes left to discuss it. Church members could watch the videos whenever was convenient, say while sitting in their recliner. Then, having seen the material, they would be prepared to launch into an extended discussion when they gathered for a weekly class.

Someone needed to make an archive of a number of these lectures now available because of computers and Youtube. As far as I can tell, no one else had done it yet. I decided to do so and spent lots of hours searching, watching, and collating. At one point, as I am one who loves puns and acronyms, I first decided that, as these were lectures of contemporary prophets that were found on the internet, I would call the project “Net Prophets”. (That took care of the pun dimension.) Next, I thought of making a structure the videos that would be a program of Christian education and creating what might be called a “Youtube Ecumenical Seminary”, or “Y. E. S.” (That would take care of the acronym.)

The list of twenty persons would make an interesting theoretical faculty for YES.

Old Testament: Walter Brueggemann

New Testament: Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, John Selby Spong, N T Wright

World Religions: Karen Armstrong

Theology: John Cobb, Alister McGrath

Ethics: Stanley Hauerwas

Sociology of the Church: Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass

Parish Practics: Robin Meyers, Rowan Williams

Etc.

However, one of the lectures I watched was by Walter Brueggemann. In the Q and A at the end in response to someone’s question he mentioned two books he would recommend: “Subversive Meals” by Alan Streett, and “Galatians Reimagined” by Brigitte Kahl. I made the mistake of buying and reading the “Subversive Meals” book. Since then, my Net Prophet project had been terribly neglected, lying unused. I got into this Dinner Church thing and the Net Prophets have been ‘without honor’, in the words of the Bible.

So, before getting into blogs on Dinner Church, I want to resurrect my lists of videos of the Net Prophets to let you know about them. They are available for your use. Let me know if you find them helpful in your ministry. They can be found here.

Link to Net Prophet list: https://budtillinghast.wordpress.com/list-of-prophets/

Link to Borg’s lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UsXavOeLbQ

 

Resuming Posting

In the objectives for this Dinner Church Movement I state two. The first is presenting the sites of Dinner Churches that have sprung up in the last few years. We have archived many to date, as found on this page and in the map of Dinner Churches.

Now, perhaps, it is time to develop more fully the second objective, which is to show the First Century antecedents to this Twenty-first phenomenon. What I plan to do is repost the historical and biblical articles that I have written before on this page, and, at the same time, post new ones I am currently writing. This will begin on Monday.

They will be archived here on this blog I maintain at Word Press

CHARACTERISTICS OF THE EARLIEST CHURCH: PARTICIPATION

pulpit-wittenburg

(Pulpit Castle Church, Wittenberg Germany. Used by Martin Luther.)

When Oxford University Press decided to publish a research Encyclopedia of Religion on-line they began a search for a group of editors to oversee, and in some cases, write the articles on the topics of their expertise. I can imagine what took place when they looked for someone for the History of Christian Worship. As this was Oxford they didn’t want some ‘wild colonial boy’ to oversee the field. No, instead someone solid and respected by his peers.

Notre Dame University in South Bend Indiana was mostly colonial boys but a prestigious institution. A safe place to look; lots of folk in liturgy to choose from. One emeritus professor is Paul Bradshaw. He had taught the subject for years and had written numerous books in the field. He was up to date in his subject; and a safe choice. He knew that few actually liturgies existed before the 7th century. He wasn’t one of the gang of these wild members of the SBL workgroup on Greco-Roman Meals.

O K, he went along with some of their speculation they had drawn, which had to do with looking at early worship and gatherings through the idea that they used the pattern of the banquets that everyone else in their time used. Namely, that of the ubiquitous association dinners, small groups reclining for leisurely meals followed by a symposium of entertainment or conversation.

But as the wise old man of liturgy he felt it his responsibility to remind this gang that no new textual sources for the early liturgy had been unearthed, like at Nag Hammedi or the Dead Sea Caves which had added materials on the scriptures. They were teasing out more than the data available justified, he felt.

Countering that, Andrew Magowan has interwoven scripture sources looked at through the lens of the association meals with a result that seems not only convincing but provides valuable insight for the contemporary church. Magowan says “Paul’s attempt to coax the fractious Corinthians into better liturgical manners provides the earliest surviving account of a “ministry of the Word” in a Christian assembly: ‘When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.’”

Further, Magowan points out that the sharing of conversation of the Corinthian church is parallel to what took place in many of the symposium parts of those ancient banquets or dinners. The group would have chosen someone to be the ‘symposiarch’, the master of ceremonies for the evening. The symposiarch was responsible to keep order for the conversation. Not all meals had a conversation. Some were mainly entertainment of one sort or another, but when you add that the drinking of wine was done primarily in the symposium half, in many meetings, it took some effort to keep order.

This is all introduction to the discussion of the Church of the Pilgrims, our focus of attention these weeks.You may recall that the write-up of the Church’s worship by the folk from Duke Divinity School was headed by “D C Church changes worship from passive to participatory”.

That could have been Magowan’s title about the ‘worship’ of the Corinthian church. I put the word worship in quotes to be a warning about trying to equate their first century activity with what we point to as worship today. One difficulty we have in looking at an activity or idea in a different century is that of anachronism: believing there is a one to one correlation of what we do or think with what they do or think.

Should I remind us that the meeting of the Corinthians was not only before we had pulpits and altars, but before we had ministers or priests- or scripture, hymn books and the like. The person in charge was responsible for keeping order, not for saying all the words or doing all the liturgy. WHAT A REVOLUTIONARY IDEA FOR THE CONTEMPORARY CHURCH.
As well, I don’t know what your definition of ‘traditional worship’ is, but I think what occurred in the second half of the first century can’t be trumped.

The first characteristic of the early gathering was participation. How you do it well in today’s church is as hard as Paul discovered it was for the early church. Church of the Pilgrims has been trying it. We’ll need to find out how they do that.

McGowan, Andrew B. Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (p. 74). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.