Does Christian language make you uncomfortable? It probably should. In the early days, the Christian community used starkly imperial metaphors to talk about Jesus. They called him messiah, king, savior of the world, and a host of other names that were almost smirking in their irony. These were titles for the Emperor, not a man who was tortured and executed as an insurrectionist – the ultimate defeat!
Yet, the first Christians insisted that this shameful death was in fact God’s gospel – the victory announcement sent out after the king has conquered in battle. The Romans mocked Jesus as the king of the Jews, and the early community embraced that title. The disciples came to know Jesus as their loving ruler, whose power is grounded in humility and weakness.
In the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos describes Jesus as the lamb who was slain, a wounded and defenseless leader who guides us through the final battle between good and evil. In cooperation with him, the people of God triumph over Empire through our willingness to suffer and die for love.
And that’s how it happened. The message of Jesus’ love and transforming power spread throughout the ancient world, thanks to the suffering witness of the martyrs. Christians were persecuted, dispossessed, tortured, publicly humiliated, and killed in gruesome ways. Yet with every death in the Coliseum, the movement only grew. We discovered that the kingdom of God comes to fullness in our weakness. Human fear and violence is overcome by God’s love and healing.
In the centuries since Constantine, however, many in the church have lost sight of our prophetic mission. With the support and encouragement of Empire, much of Christianity has been transformed into a religion that upholds Empire rather than challenging it. Christian leaders have become chaplains to the imperial system, rather than prophetic witnesses against oppression.
This new relationship with power has profoundly warped our understanding of the Bible. When we were persecuted and on the margins, our imperial titles for Jesus were deeply subversive. To acknowledge Christ as our lord and savior represented an implicit rebuke to the imperial lords and saviors who claim to have dominion over us. The lamb who was slain came to redeem us out of the hands of the domination state. Jesus stands as prophetic challenge to the spirit of Pharaoh that lives and breathes in every human social order, ancient and contemporary.
In the face of overwhelming, violent opposition, our story announces: The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever.
This doesn’t sound like good news to those who benefit from the kingdoms of this world. As much as they may pay lip service to God’s power and sovereignty, our rulers aren’t terribly interested in having God take the wheel. We want to reign forever and ever, thank you very much. With the help of the official Christian authorities, the powers that be have cast themselves as regents of the Christ child. God is far off in his heaven, and he’ll return some day. But until then, have no doubt: We’re in charge.
To our shame, the church has not only accepted this wrongful claim, we have helped to perpetuate it. For countless generations, the institutional church structures have dutifully enabled the rulers of this world in their fantasy of divine mandate. Popes have crowned princes, and kings have wielded the sword under the supposed authority of Christ.
The mainstream church has become an adjunct to Empire, and in the process, so has our understanding of the Bible. Our traditional imagery for God has been subverted, turned on its head to justify human systems of power. Jesus has become a king just like any other, blessing the kings of this world from his high heaven.
Yet, in all times and places God has kept a remnant who do not bend the knee to the false gods of Empire. Even while mainstream Christianity weaves a comfortable narrative that upholds the status quo, the radical church continues to seek after the Lamb who was slain. We can be part of this movement. In the face of imperial religion, we can choose to venture out beyond the city gates and take our chances with the crucified messiah.
What does this look like for you? How do you make sense of the subversive imagery of the biblical tradition? What are ways that you might participate in the radical way of Jesus, who challenges injustice and finds strength in weakness?