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The Stories We Live By (2)

Berry Friesen  (January 17, 2015)

In my previous post on this topic, I noted how highly dubious First Testament stories propelled the Israelites down the road to disaster.  First and foremost was the story of David’s and Solomon’s great kingdom.  Though it never existed, it became a guiding star for the Israelites and put them on the road to rampant injustice, corruption and idolatry during the era of the kings.

In the Second Testament texts, we see a similar dynamic at work.  Jesus’ disciples had embraced a story about national deliverance that included a messiah mighty in battle, as King David had been portrayed to have been. So the old meme was still doing its powerful work, 600 years after Judah’s demise. Though Jesus accepted the messianic call, he repeatedly insisted his victory would entail suffering and death.

In Paul’s writings to audiences that included many Gentiles, he debunked their leading story, which focused on the wisdom and beneficence of the Roman Empire. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, we see this in Paul’s mocking reference to an imperial slogan, “peace and security” (5:3).  In his first letter to the Corinthians, we see it in his bold reframing of the crucified Jesus as “the wisdom of God” and in his characterization of the empire’s elite as “doomed” (1:24; 2:6).  In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he substituted “the power of darkness” (1:13) for the empire’s boast of being the light of the world and then went on to warn readers not to be “deceived with plausible arguments” or “taken captive” through “empty deceit” (2:4, 8).   In his letter to the Romans, he depicted emperor-worshippers as “fools” who had “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (1:22, 24).

This subversive work of debunking the empire must also be part of what we do as Jesus-followers in our time.

I suggest we start with the so-called “clash of civilizations” playing out in our world between the West and Muslim nations. It is the story that was on display in the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and in the astonishing gathering of world leaders last week for a photo op in support of provocative cartoons and against radical Islam.  In public life here in the USA, it is the leading narrative of our time.

It is a lie, an empty deceit (to use Paul’s words), and the cause of a great darkness in our lives.  Obviously, this is an assertion I must explain and support, and I will do that another day.

But for now, I simply want to introduce this critical work of debunking deceit.  We find it going on here and there throughout the Bible, and it is essential if we are to resist the imperial worldview in our time.   The stories the empire gives us lead inevitably to the empire as our savior.  So long as we believe those stories, the story the Second Testament tells us about Jesus simply will not make sense.