Theology and Empire (Romans 1:1-17)

I am leading a study on Romans study during our adult Sunday school hour, reading the Paul’s epistle in light of the recent work by scholars Richard Horsley, Neil Elliott, Robert Jewett and others, who situate the work in its Roman imperial context. This Sunday we reviewed Romans 1:1-17, using it to reflect on our contemporary imperial context and the significance of today’s anniversary.

This Wednesday, March 20, is the ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Journalists around the nation have been reflecting on the veil that was cast over so many leading up to it, and why more of them didn’t stand up collectively to resist a pre-emptive invasion that went against international law—even as mass protests erupted around the globe. Instead, the major media outlets joined together to tirelessly broadcast the “shock and awe” campaign, enjoying the ratings boost in the name of “liberating” Iraq for “freedom and democracy.” Soon torture was regularly employed, violating the Geneva Conventions under the euphemism of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” To date, 4,488 Americans and approximately 130,000 Iraqi civilians have died in a war that cost more than three trillion dollars (and is projected to cost us up to six trillion), much of that money going to the defense industry.

The US has long been accused of imperialism and neo-imperialism, but always resisted these accusations as slander. This time, however, the US acted explicitly as an empire, and the American public and news media hardly batted an eye. Why? Struggling with this question is one of the reasons the Roman imperial context has been of such interest to scholars again. How did the “construction of consent” function in a society with such uneven distribution benefitting so few, that included so many conquered peoples, and that embarked on new wars with such regularity? The answer is surprising for Americans because it involves the intersection of religion and politics, which we tend to ignore given our separation between church and state. Once we get the way that politics were theological in Rome, however, we begin to understand how ours are as well. And it also sheds light on how Paul’s theological writing is simultaneously political, opening up new ways of living alternatively in resistance to the larger powers of death and destruction.

The first-century Judean people had a long history of living under foreign imperial powers—the most recent had been Babylon, Persia, and Greece before a brief period of independence under Hasmonean rule. But in 63 B.C.E. the Roman warlord Pompey marched into the Galilean and Judean countryside, annexed the land of Israel, and laid siege to the Temple. The fall of Jerusalem was devastating for the Judeans, and many were deported to Rome as prisoners while others were scattered around the empire. Rome now controlled the entire Mediterranean world. Shortly after, however, a civil war erupted amongst Roman warlords that engulfed the entire empire, creating fears of the end of civilization. Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, emerged victorious in 31 B.C.E., and, in an effort to bring stability amongst the people, the Senate moved quickly to proclaim the “good news” (euangelion) of the new pax Romana. Octavian was lifted up as the “Savior” (soter) who brought “peace” (eirene) and “salvation” (soteria) to the whole world as “Augustus” (“the Revered One”), initiating the “golden age” of Rome. Caesar had been divinized after his death, and so Octavian was called “son of God” (hyios tou theou), and was held forth as the supreme example of justice (dikaiosyne), faithfulness (pistis), and piety (eusebeia). With this, a Roman imperial theology emerged that was spread by Roman elites throughout the empire in an effective media campaign, from poems and inscriptions, to coins and images, to statues, altars, temples and festivals.

We only have to think back to the early 1980s to understand the emotional and religious appeal of the rhetoric at this time. After a turbulent ’70s (foreign policy defeats, oil crisis, Watergate, “stagflation”), the charismatic orator, Ronald Reagan, burst onto the scene appealing to America’s resurgent greatness—“America is back, standing tall,” he emphasized in the 1984 State of the Union. The old myths of America’s “manifest destiny,” a “chosen nation” that is called to be a “city on a hill” for the rest of the world, were reemployed with particular skill to wake American citizens out of their slumber. In his second inaugural address he proclaimed, “We are this last best hope of mankind on Earth…God is the author of our song [and we have been called] to pass that dream on to a waiting and hopeful world,” channeling the earlier sentiments of Andrew Jackson in 1824: “We are a country manifestly called by the Almighty to a destiny that Greece and Rome, in the days of their pride, might have envied… It is our Manifest Destiny to lead and rule all other nations.” This re-affirmation of the heart of American civil religion—our divinely ordained greatness and destiny to rule—were employed to push forward the American values of “peace,” “freedom,” and “democracy.” With this, Reagan became to the US what Octavian Augustus had been to Caesar’s Rome.

In reality, the Roman economy was built on the conquest and enslavement of subject peoples, securing tribute from around the empire that funneled resources to the imperial center, while those on the margins barely survived—a socio-economic breakdown not unlike our own today, with the US using 30% of the earth’s resources with 4% of the population, while the top 1% of the American population end up with 40% of the wealth. In this sort of domestic and global disparity, as Neil Elliott argues in The Arrogance of Nations, there is a constant need to “win the hearts and minds” of conquered peoples (25-30). Rhetoric with theological undertones therefore becomes central, as it appeals to the intuitive and emotional sense of what is most real and eternal. When there is a “crisis of legitimation,” as in the Roman civil war or during the turmoil of the seventies in the US, these core religio-mythical themes are emphasized with particular urgency to unify and secure the consent of the larger public. When that fails, then force is employed. The use of torture or assassination, whether crucifixion in Rome or the “enhanced interrogation techniques” and drone strikes of the US, is used when other means of persuasion has failed. This exposes the true nature of imperial pax—peace through violence.

Paul wrote Romans in the midst of another crisis of legitimation following the assassination of emperor Claudius in 54 C.E., which led to a renewed emphasis on the emperor cult worship to prop up the legitimacy of Nero. As a result, Paul attempts to peel away the many veils for his Roman readers by proclaiming a different vision of reality, calling them to live alternatively in resistance to these larger powers of death and destruction. Rather than Caesar, he writes as a “slave” (doulos) of Christ Jesus… [as one] set apart for the gospel (euangelion) of God” (Rom. 1:1). Instead of Nero, Jesus “was declared to be Son of God (hyiou theo) with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (kyriou), through whom we have received grace and apostleship to secure faithful obedience among the nations (ta ethne)” (1:4-5). Therefore, Paul is “not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation (soterian) to everyone who is faithful (pisteuonti). For in it the justice (dikaiosyne) of God is revealed through faithfulness, for faithfulness; as it is written, ‘The one who is just will live in faithfulness” (1:16-17).

What we encounter in the opening lines of Romans, in other words, is Paul introducing a “war of myths” (Ched Myers), decoding and countering the propaganda of Roman imperial theology with the proclamation of a resurrected Jewish peasant crucified by the empire as true Lord. Caesar’s time is up, thus God’s beloved are called to live into the justice of God through faithfulness, rather than being seduced by, or living in fear of, Rome.

Why did the US get away with pre-emptive invasion of Iraq 10 years ago? Because the Bush administration, most of them a part of the DC think-tank called The Project for a New American Century (PNAC) that aimed to establish the pax Americana across the globe through military might, were successful in renarrating the mythology of Reagan—a contemporary form of imperial theology. Following the tragic events of September 11, when the public was in a state of vulnerability and insecurity, they played to the public’s fears (links to al-Qaeda, presence of WMDs) while proclaiming the religio-political rhetoric of the divine call to spread “liberty” and “democracy” for all. The larger public and media were seduced, while many others lived in fear of resisting. A few got fabulously rich, a president settled a personal grudge, thousands died or were tortured, and the church was largely quiet.

What might it have looked like had God’s beloved in the US, slaves of Christ Jesus, instead loudly proclaimed and lived into the justice of God through the counter “good news” of the pax Christi? This is the question the opening of Paul’s letter poses to us today, calling us to repentance and a new awareness concerning the veils that lure us into continuing passivity and complicity.

Posted in Empire, Epistle to the Romans, Pax Romana, The Apostle Paul | Leave a comment

Minnesota and Our Choice

ISAIAH Prophetic VoicesPastor Jin S. Kim spoke at the launch of ISAIAH’s 40 Days of Prophetic Vigil on Feb. 12, 2013 at Christ Lutheran Church on Capitol Hill, addressing Speaker of the Minnesota House, Paul Thissen, Governor Dayton’s Chief of Staff, Tina Smith, and 600 clergy, faith leaders, and key legislators. 

I grew up in the deep South where people lived in largely segregated neighborhoods. This is after the formal end of Jim Crow laws, mind you. You see, where I’m from most of the public education dollars came from property taxes, and wherever white folks lived property value was higher and wherever non-whites lived it was always lower, regardless of merit. So white neighborhoods got public schools that sometimes looked like college campuses, while black neighborhoods got schools that were lucky to have enough textbooks for the children.

When I was growing up as a child of Korean immigrants in the 1970s I heard about a strange and wonderful place called Minnesota that did things differently. It was a place that was bitterly cold, was white in more ways than one, and had a scary blond-headed, blue-eyed barbarian as their pro football team mascot. But we were told that it was also a place where people worked hard, played fair, and where people looked out for each other. Throughout my years in the public school system, I remember that we and the rest of the nation were constantly compared to the stellar educational achievements of the state of Minnesota.

MinnesotaWhen our daughter Claire was just two months old, I accepted a call to serve a church here in the Twin Cities. We were thrilled to have the privilege of living in the magical land where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. And I was convinced that my family fit that bill to the tee (especially “the men are good looking” part). In Minnesota Norwegians, Swedes and Finns came to be called Scandinavians, and together with Germans and others came to take on a uniquely Minnesotan identity. Now to be Minnesotan must include all who actually live here from around the world. We Minnesotans take pride in our beautiful public parks, in our pristine lakes in the Boundary Waters, and in our many common spaces. We invest in public education, from preschool all the way to our outstanding state university and community colleges. Our home-grown corporations strive to be model citizens that expand opportunity and create prosperity. Our local and state governments care not only about attracting new business, but about humane policymaking that gives the poorest among us a chance to succeed.

But the more I proudly told the story of Minnesota, the more I realized I was speaking of a bygone era. It was in 1976 that this state passed what has come to be known as the “Minnesota Miracle” – sharing resources equitably across the state with Minnesota corporations paying more in income taxes to more fully fund all Minnesota schools. We ended up with one of the best education systems in the country. That does not mean that this state escaped the ugly effects of systemic racism, and we still need to acknowledge that clearly. But for decades Minnesota had the reputation of having a thriving, robust middle class, tops in health, wealth, income, etc. But a sober look at the state of our state today shows that poverty is rising into the double digits in counties all across Minnesota, and has been for the last 15 years. Our racial disparities – the disparities between whites and people of color in health, wealth and education – are the WORST in the nation today. And countless families continue to lose ground despite working harder and longer.

So how did we get here?

  • In terms of revenue and spending, the state government gave huge tax cuts to those who least needed it. There was dishonest budgeting by a recalcitrant Republican governor who for eight years claimed that he did not raise taxes while regular homeowners saw their property taxes skyrocket. We favored the wealthy and powerful corporations while slashing funds for education, for infrastructure, for children, for the most vulnerable, all in the name of the almighty ‘market.’
  • For years now we have shifted the responsibility and the blame for how to equitably, sustainably resource our public schools. Instead, we could give Minnesota another chance to choose the “miraculous” by pooling our education dollars raised through property taxes, ensuring that all our public schools offer the same opportunities to all our children, whether they be urban, suburban, rural, poor, or kids of color. All can thrive together if we fund and resource the schools together. We can choose the path of proven results, the path of the Minnesota Miracle, or we can go backwards to the kind of segregated system I came from in the deep South, and that we seem to have today.
  • Minnesota will need to implement the historic Affordable Health Care Act and build an Insurance Exchange where Minnesota families and small businesses can purchase health insurance. All of us deserve access to affordable health care, and this exchange is supposed to ensure that insurance products are safe, affordable, legal and fair. But the large HMOs believe that they can throw their obese weight around and have multiple seats on the governing board of this Insurance Exchange. Should we let the fox guard the hen house yet again?
  • Nearly 150,000 Minnesotans have lost their homes since the housing crisis began, and a third are in underwater mortgages. We cannot seriously rebuild the battered, tattered and shattered middle class without the large banks coming to the table and playing their part in helping to keep families in their homes. These multinational banks gambled recklessly with our loans in the global marketplace, ruined our entire economy, and then were bailed out of their own well-deserved bankruptcies with our tax money because they were “too big to fail.” Since we bailed them out, they need to be accountable to us the taxpayers and do the right thing. They broke it, they need to fix it, and we the people need to remain vigilant.

If Minnesota is to live into its own true potential, we need to decide NOW to make that happen. We need a workforce that is educated and skilled, and we need to face the fact that the majority of this future workforce will be made up of those who are children of color in our public schools today. We need the infrastructure to support a growing region, and we need the public transit systems to support it (and we don’t need the tragic loss of life and the national embarrassment of another bridge collapsing). We need a thriving working class and middle class that will drive our growth and invest in our state, and that means we need fair wages, and not obscene corporate profits and more jobs shipped overseas. We need Minnesota corporations to commit to being model corporate citizens if they want to be counted as a ‘person,’ and not resort endlessly to economic blackmail in threatening to leave so that they can live on some other state’s corporate welfare. We need our governor and legislature to stop talking about the ‘art of the possible’ and start taking the bold and politically costly steps necessary to bring transparency into our political process, to resist powerful corporate lobbyists, and to restore the fabric of our commonwealth.

We have the capacity, the resources, the people to do better than this pettiness. We are better than this! We Minnesotans made very different choices not too long ago that made our state the best place to live in the country. We’ve all reaped the rewards of previous generations who crossed ethnic, class and religious divides, who sacrificed some of their own comfort so that future generations would do better than they. Let’s not squander the good that has been passed on. Let’s not lose the opportunity to be a blessing to our children, all our beautifully diverse children. I pray that God will bless our great state, not because we deserve it, but because we seek to sincerely love God and love neighbor, all of our neighbors. Amen.

Posted in ISAIAH, Minnesota, Prophetic Voices, Social Justice | Leave a comment

“The Congregation and Public Witness” Conference Audio

We had a wonderfully challenging and eye-opening two days of teaching, conversation, and worship at our second annual CAN conference, “The Congregation and Public Witness: Prophetic Responses to American Salvation.” A number of folks requested audio from our time together. We weren’t able to record the workshops, but the audio of the plenary sessions and the Saturday morning worship service is posted below. Thanks again to our speakers, volunteers, and all who joined us for the fellowship and dialogue. If you couldn’t be with us, please feel free to listen and send us your thoughts. Peace!

Friday, Oct. 19, Plenary I – Pastor Jin S. Kim – Conference Introduction

Friday, Oct. 19, Plenary I – Dr. Charles Amjad-Ali – “Betrayed by a Kiss: The American Church and Empire”

Friday, Oct. 19, Plenary I – Dr. Charles Amjad-Ali – Question and Answer

Saturday, Oct. 20, Worship – Hikari Nakane – “Mary, the First of the Apostles”

Saturday, Oct. 20, Worship – Laura Newby – “Confessions of an American Christian”

Saturday, Oct. 20, Plenary II – Mark Van Steenwyk – “The unKingdom of God: Nurturing Radical Communities”

Saturday, Oct. 20, Plenary II – Mark Van Steenwyk – Question and Answer

Saturday, Oct. 20, Plenary III – Panel Discussion with Dr. Charles Amjad-Ali, Mark Van Steenwyk, Doran Schrantz, Marque Jensen & Jin S. Kim – “Prophetic Responses to American Neo-liberal Salvation”

Posted in Ecclesiology, Empire, Ministry of Reconciliation, Neo-liberalism, Radical Individualism, Social Justice | Leave a comment

On Reconciliation (CCDA plenary remarks)

To talk about what reconciliation is without defining what it is not is to invite confusion and distrust into the dialogue. Reconciling your checkbook or balance sheet is different than racial reconciliation. Some think reconciliation means downplaying the truth and softening the tone to make white people feel more comfortable. Some think reconciliation is various marginalized groups negotiating over the scraps of white privilege. Continue reading

Posted in Confession, Empire, Ministry of Reconciliation | Leave a comment

“The Congregation and Public Witness: Prophetic Responses to American Salvation,” October 19-20, 2012

Church of of All Nations will be hosting our 2nd annual conference on pastoral leadership from October 19-20 titled, “The Congregation and Public Witness: Prophetic Responses to American Salvation.”  The conference will begin 5:00pm Friday and conclude 5:00pm Saturday, with additional conversations and activities through Sunday for those who would like to stay and worship with us.  The conference description is below, while the speakersscheduletravel and lodgingregistration information, and additional resources will continue to be updated on this site. Please contact me at neljohwa@gmail.com if you have further questions or would like to register. Continue reading

Posted in Ecclesiology, Empire, Ministry of Reconciliation, Neo-liberalism, Radical Individualism, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Occupy Good Pasture (Ez. 34:11-24)

This sermon was delivered at Progressive Baptist Church on Feb. 12, 2012 at ISAIAH’s “Shaping the Future With Hope” event before Governor Dayton and members of his administration, Metropolitan Council members, and 800 faith-based leaders. 

We have a word from the Lord today.  The people of Judah had been exiled to Babylon, for they had been conquered by the most powerful nation of the day.  In fact, the Babylonian Empire was the greatest empire in history up to that time.

The interesting thing about human nature is that even among the oppressed, people will seek supremacy, a pecking order.  We human beings have great capacity for tenderness and compassion, and we’re also the meanest things in the world, aren’t we?  And even when we are oppressed together, we will try to find some advantage over others, some way of asserting our superiority at the expense of others. Continue reading

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On the Joy of Giving

Most of you know that I work part time at church in a volunteer staff position. I’m a Ministry Assistant at CAN, which basically means that I’m around a lot and that I get to jump in and help with whatever projects are most needed or catch my interest. But when I’m not working at church, I work for a nonprofit volunteer center whose mission is to bring people together to strengthen communities through meaningful volunteer action. Our work boils down to connecting people who want to volunteer with the needs of local nonprofit organizations. I’ve been working there for over five years, almost exactly the same length of time I’ve been at CAN. Continue reading

Posted in Body of Christ, Non-profit Work, Social Justice, Staff Reflections, Testimony | 2 Comments

“Divine Things or Human Things” – Commentary on Matthew 16:21-28

History is filled with examples of the church’s failure and lack of faith.  When the radical message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection becomes slowly compromised, a reform is needed to get back to the root.  It is this recognition of the church’s fallibility and sinfulness that lies at the heart of the Reformed tradition’s cry, “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda!”  Following the previous passage, which established the church on Peter’s confession (vv. 13-20), we now encounter the first moment of the church’s misunderstanding and are reminded in the process of what it means to follow Jesus as part of his body in the world. Continue reading

Posted in Church History, Discipleship, Ecclesiology, Invisible Church, Jesus' Crucifixion, The Reformation, Vulnerability of God | 1 Comment