Two thousand years ago, Jesus and his followers unleashed a strange new message into the world of the Roman Empire, which was nearing the apex of its power and authority. It was a world of large cosmopolitan cities and rural villages more-or-less untouched by the complications of ‘modern’ life. It was a world of unprecedented peace and security, but where justice was defined as stability and comfort for the privileged few. It was a world where political multilateralism had given way to the hegemony of the greatest military and economic power the known world had ever seen. It was a world deeply impacted by colonialism, by over-consumption, by huge and ever-increasing disparities between the wealthy and poor. And it was a world powered by cheap energy that brought with it amazing economic advances but also serious ethical problems.
In other words, it was a world surprisingly like our own.
As jarring as it may be to our democratic values and ideals, we are still living in the shadow of Empire. The Western European powers may have given up their political and military empires sixty years ago, but those empires reshaped the world over the course of five hundred years. That legacy cannot be undone in a generation. And, as these Empires receded, their prodigal child, the United States, in large part took over, casting an unprecedented economic, military, and cultural shadow over the world, for better and for worse.
In light of this, I thought it would be interesting to take a few posts to explore what the New Testament had to say about and to the Roman world, and what that might in turn say about and to our own.
To come at this another way, as Christians, we have inherited founding stories that challenge existing power structures: Moses demanding the Hebrews be released from slavery; the prophets railing against the injustices of their society; exiled Israel longing for home; and John, Jesus, and the Apostles coming into constant conflict with, and ultimately killed by, the religious and political establishment. It’s natural and proper for us to align ourselves with the heroes in these stories. But as much as this is the point of passing on these stories, it can also deeply skew our reading of them. For in actual fact, many of us in the West — especially if we check off a lot of those WEIRD or straight-white-male boxes — either have power or benefit from it. As much as it’s right to cast our lots with the Hebrew slaves, our actual status in the world could very well look a lot more like their Egyptian oppressors. We rightly side with Jesus in the Holy Week stories, but by our day-to-day actions could render us more like Pilate.
It’s important to read and embrace these stories with minds and hearts open to being challenged by them. Even beyond the big questions of our day, as a wise teacher once taught me, this is simply a solid interpretive principle: Always cast yourself as a Bible story’s antagonist before playing its hero. It’s a good way to avoid what a recent meme referred to as “Disney Princess Christianity,” the propensity for Christians to read themselves as the plucky underdog even when they are nothing of the sort.
And so, I think this will be an interesting project over the coming weeks. How did the New Testament address the Roman Empire? And what does that say to us in our own day?