Tuesday, July 22, 2008

BIBL 5107 Lesson 2:
the alluring empire

First, a quote:
One of the most obvious but important points to be made in this course is that all of New Testament history transpired in the shadow of the Roman Empire. While many of the social and cultural elements of the New Testament period (e.g., language, religious traditions, literature) originated in the Hellenistic age, all of the New Testament personalities lived, worked, and died in a world that was under the political, military, and legal control of Rome.

This observation has been borne out in numerous ways, not least in the effects that consideration of the Roman political environment has had upon the interpretation of specific New Testament texts and traditions. (One of the first books I read in this vein was the very interesting Paul and Politics.) Throughout the pages of the NT, Rome and the power she wielded over the peoples of the Mediterranean basin provide the background — and, often enough, the foreground — for the events and ideas inscribed on the page. From Jesus' crucifixion to John's revelation and at all points in between, Rome was like the hovering chaperon whose watchful presence affected both the content and form of earliest Christian theology and history.

And Rome's presence isn't flattering. Even in Luke-Acts, which famously portrays the interaction between central Christian figures (esp. Paul) and the Roman authorities in surprisingly conciliatory hues (e.g., Acts 13, 18, 21–22, 25–28), the narrative doesn't seem to me to suggest Rome is the crown of human civilization so much as to argue that Rome isn't an impediment to the church's mission. It was, after all, Roman and Roman-sponsored power (Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas, respectively) that had Jesus crucified, even if the gospels stress the influence of the Jews and/or the Jewish authorities. I think Acts 4.23–31 captures this perspective in microcosm.

But my thoughts are less historical here and more theological. I wonder, given the pervasive and pervasively negative presence of Rome in and behind the pages of the New Testament, what are we to make of the United States of America? In many ways this country was founded with thoughts of the New Rome dancing in the Founders' heads (e.g., the Senate; the [bald] eagle as our national symbol; a republican system of government; etc.). And certainly Rome made positive (rather than simply negative) contributions to human history and civilization. I should also say that my questions about American power and the policies according to which it wields that power aren't motivated by any desire to be like some other country, whether European or two-thirds world or whatever. Without necessarily throwing America under the bus, is there room for confessing Christians to think critically about American power and how American expressions of Christianity relate to, perpetuate, and challenge that power?

Answers here are undoubtedly complex, variegated, and at times probably contradictory. Many of the books currently being marketed by publishers of biblical and religious scholarship are in some way engaged in pursuing this question, as are many of the [biblio]blogs listed here and elsewhere. But my first inklings are that, inasmuch as judgment against Rome and Roman power are evident in the pages of New Testament texts, we American Christians — and Western Christians in general — should engage ourselves in asking whether our own participation in the exercise of power will be similarly judged before God.

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