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Oops – We Killed Jesus Again!

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?

Related Posts:

What if Christianity was Dangerous?

Do you take the Bible literally?

  • BicycleThief II

    An interesting article as usual. Would you like to say which particular ‘Christian’ institutions you are referring to?

    It is all too obvious in the UK … Anglicanism is the official state religion and has much wealth and significant political power. Everybody knows where they stand after St Paul’s collaborated with the City of London police to evict ‘Occupy London/The City’ and Westminster Abbey called the police when a group of disabled people occupied a small area of grass there to protest about cuts to their welfare and services … resulting in a fairly violent eviction … but that should come as no surprise; William the Conqueror was crowned there and they are not pacifists which I believe to be a fundamental Christian principle … they pay lip service to what they perceive as radicalism with their women priests, criticisms of pay-day lenders, acceptance of LGBT people and so on. This creates discord within Anglicanism anyway and actually feeds the less desirable fundamentalist denominations that seem to be growing exponentially both in wealth and size of congregation.

    The state is corrupt to its very core. Mutual fear, and suspicion dominate our lives.

    What we need is mutual repentance and mutual forgiveness which is easy to preach, as many do, but to live it is a daunting prospect ,,,

    The only ideas for effective resistance I can come up with at the moment is a mass, co-ordinated refusal to pay back the so-called debts that the banks say they are owed, to fight foreclosures and to use our empty church buildings as places for face to face socialising and maybe a bit of guerrilla gardening in the church grounds.

    Having said this, the new Pope has a lot of potential and his Christmas messages filled me with hope and a growing desire that God should find me ,,, at the moment it’s Jesus of Nazareth for me not Christ. Perhaps God is not to be found in solitude ,,, not that I’m particularly hermit like, it’s just that all my friends see religion per se as an instrument of oppression and object of ridicule.

    “In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another.

    And the Reason is this, Every single man, Male and Female, is a perfect Creature of
    himself; and the same Spirit that made the Globe, dwels in man to govern the Globe; so that the flesh of man being subject to Reason, his Maker, hath him to be his Teacher and Ruler within himself, therefore needs not run abroad after any Teacher and Ruler without him, for he needs not that any man should teach him, for the same Anoynting that ruled in the Son of man, teacheth him all things.”

    Gerrard Winstanley (1649)

    • Wow, Duncan, you’ve given me a lot to chew on! It sounds like you’re making some progress in your thinking and strategizing about the situation in the UK. Have you been able to connect with other folks who are interested in moving in this direction?

      • BicycleThief II

        The only people I know who would not ridicule me if I started talking about this kind of thing are academically inclined people nut others of that type have a Dawkinsesque view of religion which I think is very sad. I met one person at my local Occupy who is an activist and believes that Christianity’s problem is that it has never been truly Christian!

        I have believed in this strategy for many years having been disinterested and rather disillusioned with most political activism of the 1980s … I am not encouraged by my recent encounters with activists and was bitterly disappointed at how the whole Occupy thing panned out … all very predictable really.

        Online there is room for hope but I am not involved with http://thecatholicworkerfarm.org/ other than being a member of https://www.facebook.com/groups/818572251521222/ and https://www.facebook.com/groups/209465975752799/

        I hope you find the links interesting.

        Have you read ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ by Christopher Hill? I think you would learn a lot about your Quaker heritage if you did!

  • Philana Danceforth

    A very timely post. I’ve been in great turmoil, these past few years, beginning to feel like a heretic, because my spirit pushes back against playing Church. It’s been decades since I referred to myself as “Christian”, choosing instead “Christ-follower”, which to my way of thinking is entirely different. But I’m weary of being alone in my practice, and am so bombarded by the ways of the world that I’ve become something of a hermit. This is not a perfect solution, but my arsenal is exhausted, and my will is waning. Thank you for your thoughtful posts, Micah.

    • Thanks, Philana.

      It can be tough to find a community where we can live with integrity as followers of Jesus, but I do think it’s essential. I hope that we’re all able to connect with other Christ-followers in our area and participate in this true church.