Christianity and Empire
Jesus and the Empire
Monday, October 18, 2021
On his podcast “Another Name for Every Thing,” Fr. Richard discussed with co-hosts Paul Swanson and Brie Stoner what he sees as the “trajectory” of the Jesus movement and how Jesus lived a simple life of non-cooperation with the empire of his day.
Paul: Richard, can you help us understand how the original spirit of the Jesus movement kind of lost its momentum as it got institutionalized [and the church colluded with the empire]? How did we lose that ability to speak truth to power and to empire in such a way?
Richard: It’s possible to trace the movement of Christianity from its earliest days until now. In Israel, Jesus and the early “church” offered people an experience; it moved to Greece, and it became a philosophy. When it moved to Rome and Constantinople, it became organized religion. Then it spread to Europe, and it became a culture. Finally, it moved to North America and became a business. This isn’t much of an exaggeration, if it’s an exaggeration at all. The original desire or need for a “Jesus” experience was lost, and not even possible for most people. Experience, philosophy, organized religion, culture, business—in each of those permutations and iterations, Christianity was seen as above criticism. It simply was the religion, the philosophy, the culture.
Those are the big historical reasons that we look to different places for our authority. We gave it to emperors and kings and presidents instead of the Gospel, pretending Jesus was Lord but we didn’t really mean it. Now, I know it’s easy to be cynical, to look at the disastrous effects of Christianity’s complicity with empire and want to give up on the whole endeavor, but I also want to proclaim that the flow of grace is a truly wonderful thing. Even inside of each of those iterations, misguided as they were—and we still are today—humble, loving people emerged—in every one of them.
Brie: At the end of the day, I think we’re all longing to really live this out. And there’s a cost to wanting to live into this type of prophetic imagination that Jesus is showing us.
Richard: I think if we try to communicate what Jesus’ social justice teaching is, we won’t find a highly rarefied explanation of justice theories, and so forth. The way to do justice is to live simply, to not cooperate with consumerism, with militarism, with all the games that have us trapped. Jesus just does it differently, ignoring unjust systems and building up a better system by his teaching to his disciples. His name for the better system was the kingdom of God or the reign of God. The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. He’s showing us “We’re just going to do it better. Let’s not be anti-anything. Let’s be for something: for life, and for universal love.”
Adapted from Richard Rohr, with Brie Stoner and Paul Swanson, “Jesus and the Empire,” Another Name for Every Thing, season 3, episode 4, March 7, 2020 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), audio podcast.
Story from Our Community:
I give to the poor and apologize for not giving more. I am not a rich person, although I live on much more than a dollar a day. So, I serve God. My wife and I have worked to ease the lives of those less fortunate, but now we are older and so I pray. I pray for God to give me the strength to write to those in charge to look seriously at the condition of the poor. I am sickened by our leaders’ allowing multi-billion-dollar corporations to pay no taxes, which could well go to improve housing, education, and salaries of those oppressed in our world. —Russell C.
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