The Opportunities of Empire

by Berry Friesen (August 8, 2015)

The most common attitude toward the empire is opportunistic.  An empire collects such immense power and wealth in one network of influence.  The scraps off its table are more than enough to make a man rich. Think of how that can be turned to one’s advantage!

This attitude prevailed throughout the era known as Second Temple Judaism.  It began with the decree of Persian king, Cyrus, ordering the rebuilding of a temple in Jerusalem dedicated to YHWH.  It continued with King Darius’ resounding affirmation of Cyrus’ decree, with the extraordinary political authority King Artaxerxes granted Ezra to rule Jerusalem and its surrounding area, with the strategic collaboration between Artaxerxes and Nehemiah.

During the final decades of this era, when Jesus lived in Palestine, opportunism remained the conventional stance.  We see this in the Jerusalem elite who leveraged their relationships with Roman officials into control of temple operations and the purchase of lands, fishing rights and “tax farming” agreements that enabled them to collect taxes on behalf of the empire.

Second Temple Judaism was the era in which every First Testament text was finalized, when a firm Jewish identity emerged, when Judaism itself took shape as a monotheistic faith with a strong ethical base rooted in the Law of Moses.  It was the era of the Jewish miracle, when the exiled Hebrews overcame the humiliation of slavery and the overwhelming power of imperial assimilation and emerged stronger than ever culturally. A major challenge in reading the First Testament is recognizing how its texts were shaped by the imperial collaboration that prevailed throughout this era.

In our own time, a similar attitude prevails among Christians.  Think of the prominence acquired by Billy Graham, Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis because of their access to U.S. presidents.  Think of the prestige acquired by any project that has an office in Washington, D.C. or Manhattan borough of New York City.   Most people today believe the empire is an asset to be exploited. Why not?

With this context in view, the behavior of Jesus is striking in its difference.  He avoided Roman towns and apart from a visit to Jerusalem as a child stayed away from that city until the final week of his life.  His way—his kingdom—did not view the empire as an opportunity.

In fact, Jesus actively countered such thinking.  “Beware of the yeast of Herod,” he instructed his disciples.  When politically powerful Jews sought him out for conversation, Jesus often responded with confrontational rhetoric.  His reputation as a tax resistor followed him to his death and was apparently well-earned.  Even under threat of death, he refused to recognize Pilate’s vaunted authority.

What do we make of this?  It’s clear that Jesus deliberately rejected the collaboration and opportunism that conventional wisdom credited with preserving the Jewish people.  What did Jesus know about the empire that so many in his time and ours do not know?

The short answer is that he regarded the empire as the agent of death.  We see this in the story of the man who lived among the tombs of the Gadara, mutilating himself and driven to madness by demonic spirits named Legion.  "Legion" is a term with double meaning, referring both to a multitude (around 6,000) and to the Roman military occupation. After Jesus exorcised the evil spirits from the man, they made their home within a herd of pigs that immediately drowned themselves in the sea (Mark 5:1-20).

Jesus called Jerusalem’s scribes and Pharisees “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27) and predicted Jerusalem’s destruction (Matt. 24:1-28).

No, he never took up arms against the empire, nor did he encourage others to do so. Instead, his way—his kingdom—struck at the very core of the empire by treating it as a fraud and pretender. It had no legitimate authority to be exploited, no life-giving opportunities to be leveraged.

What would it look like today to follow Jesus in his attitude toward the empire?