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Breaking from the Empire

by Berry Friesen (May 29, 2015)

In Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh describe the words of the Apostle Paul in Colossians 3:1-3 as an appeal to make a break with the Roman Empire.  “Secede from the unholy unions of power and money, genius and war, outer space and inner vacuity that distort your lives . . . Put to death the remaining vestiges of an imperial imagination and praxis that still have a grip on your lives.  Put all of this to death before it kills you” (page 160).

What would a break from the empire look like today?

Last week I participated in a discussion hosted by a church group that has been reading If Not Empire, What?  The meeting began with a round of responses to this question, “How do you resist the empire?”  Individuals spoke about using alternative energy sources, growing and preserving their own food, assisting the homeless recover a sense of dignity, remaining quiet while classmates in school said the pledge-of-allegiance, being part of a multi-ethnic congregation, engaging in multi-racial civic coalitions and resisting war taxes.

The responses were inspiring, thought-provoking and occasionally a bit faltering.  The faltering was due to uncertainty about whether these acts of witness reflected an anti-imperial stance or simply a positive, sustainable vision for living.

What do our acts of “resisting empire” communicate to our friends and neighbors?  Do they loosen even slightly the grip the empire has on us and on the world?

Those questions took me to Acts 15 and the pivotal decision early Jesus-followers made to include Gentiles in their assemblies without requiring full compliance with Jewish conversion rituals.  Their act of inclusion was conditioned on Gentile compliance with four prohibitions:  “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (Acts 15:28-29).

Citing the work of Wes Howard-Brook (especially Come Out, My People!), John Stoner and I explain on pages 255-261 of our book that the four prohibited items marked involvement in the public rituals and celebrations of imperial society.  Paul made this clear in a subsequent letter to the assembly in Corinth forbidding participation in civic festivals and banquets where imperial ceremonies were front and center.  “I do not want you to be partners with demons.  You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.  You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:20-21).

If early Jesus-followers had been asked how they resisted the empire, I expect they would have referred first to their absence from imperial celebrations.  Yes, they also would have spoken of their multi-ethnic assemblies, their practices of caring for one another and their solidarity with the poor.  But what made them notorious was a refusal to join the public gratitude for what everyone else described as the empire’s peace and security.

Today, Jesus-followers lack such a clear boundary marker.  We can assert Jesus is Lord without ever denying that the empire is our salvation, our peace and security.

I’m not sure what we should do about this.  Refusing to stand as the national anthem is played at a sports event strikes me as a bit churlish and lacking in clarity.

What do you think?  How should we let our friends and neighbors know that the empire is not worthy of praise and honor?  That it is instead “the power of darkness” (Col. 1:13), “doomed to perish” (1 Cor. 2:6), falsely proclaiming “peace and security” (1 Thess. 5:3), “a roaring lion . . . looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8)?