"If the cross--willingly suffering at the hands of the powers--is such a central message to the Gospels, the church will need to reconsider its political worldview."--Shane Claiborne in Jesus for President.
Is this an original idea? No. I filched it from Mr. Claiborne. A silly idea? Perhaps, but the rhetorical point is clear to anyone who still has two brain cells left to rub together. Giving Homeland Security to the Amish? Aside from the fact that the Amish would wisely have no desire to be in charge of Homeland Security, they would start to monkey with it in odd, weird, and counter-intuitive ways: peace teams sent to the Middle East to seek forgiveness from families who have lost loved ones at the hands of US drone missiles and other attacks making restitution as they went along, diplomatic delegations to find the families of the 9/11 hijackers and offer them forgiveness, love, and help, and moth-balling the military by starting a program that would pay companies to convert military hardware into farm tractors.
You can see the foolishness of such a notion, right? Therein lies the point. The cross has become foolishness to we Christians. We are willing to confess that we must take up the cross and say no to personal sin in this world. We are willing to take up the cross and deny ourselves for the sake of our families and fellow church members. But we are not willing to take up the cross and say no to the empire in which we live, for the empire has provided us with bread and circuses--the American dream and way of life--and we cannot imagine a life without the empire's largess. Moreover, we link our economic well-being in the empire to notions of a Christian nation blessed by God because of historical faithfulness to the Gospel. Was that before or after our forbearers in the faith enslaved millions of Africans, or displaced and murdered whole tribes of indigenous peoples? In which of these notions lies the real foolishness?
The early Christian communities understood the implications of the cross as a political symbol. Crucifixion was the most ignominious form of execution, for the cross symbolized Rome's utter domination as an empire. Moreover, coming out of the various Judaisms in practice in the 1st century, the early Christian communities knew that the curse of being hanged on a tree was not just a curse rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, but as an instrument of Rome's oppression, the cross also symbolized the curse of worldly empire, a sort of double whammy if you please for our Christian ancestors. And yet, the early Christian communities willingly, and with joy, embraced this doubly-cursed symbol as the symbol of their redemption, a sign that set them apart from their surroundings, and marked them as a truly peculiar people. A sign for which they were willing to give their allegiance even at the risk of imperial death. No wonder the Greeks and Romans thought the cross foolish.
To embrace the cross is to renounce power. The early Christian communities understood this, because they knew that is exactly what Jesus did when confronted by the religious and political authorities at his trial, passion, and execution. Not many of us today get that. We focus instead upon gaining and controlling earthly power "to preserve moral principles." We have drunk so deeply at the well of Constantine that we just assume that the way to encourage righteousness is to enact laws favorable to our particular brand of Christian ethics (whether left, right, socialist, capitalist, etc.). If only Christians controlled the "power of the sword," to employ St. Paul's phrase regarding the function of earthly government, then things would be put to rights. Looking to the justly tattered remains of Christendom for pattern and principle, we turn from the cross and embrace empire.
Not so with the early Christian communities. They understood that empire, by its very nature, was a corrosive, corrupting, and violence-laden influence. They knew that to wield earthly power, even in the name of God, was to be subverted by that power. Rather, they rejected empire, and aligned themselves with those on the margins of empire, often the poor, outcasts, the invisible, and the oppressed. Even the Romans themselves could not fathom such a posture, opting instead to brand the early Christians as atheists. "Those godless Galileans feed our poor in addition to their own" as the Emperor Julian so astutely observed.
Now this does not mean that we must all become Amish, or that the Amish have the best of Christian alternatives to empire. But Mr. Claiborne's point is well made. There are always alternatives to empire, war, and economic domination and oppression inherent in the imperial paradigm. But such alternatives are difficult to imagine let alone enter into. And, it would do no good to insist that all must embrace these alternatives, since that too would be a subtle form of the exercise of power. Alternatives to the Constantinian imperative seem foolish, even to we Christians. But the fact that even Christians think it foolish may be an indication that the idea is not so far of the mark as one might imagine. Which is why the thought of putting the Amish in charge of Homeland Security causes we Christians to wince, and for reasons we would all rather not think about.
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