E is for Empire in the ABC’s of (modified) Theology.

Em·pire.      /ˈemˌpī(ə)r/


an extensive group of states or countries under a single supreme authority, formerly especially an emperor or empress.

Christian thought, belief, and practice, “suffers from an imperial condition” according to Catherine Keller in her chapter in PostColonial Theology. That is eye-opening news to many people who claim to be ‘Bible-believing’.

We live in an odd time in N. America where those who love, quote, and believe in the Bible most deeply happen to be the least aware of the Bible’s concern with and critique of Empire. What is fascinating to me is that those who are most unaware of the nature of the American Empire (imperial policies and practices) are also those who claim to take the Bible the most seriously.

Whenever this subject comes up, without exception someone will question, ‘how can this be so?”, and others will say, “what are you making such a big deal about?”

Here is how it works: The biblical narrative details many empires – all of whom have a devastating effect on the people of God.

The Exodus narrative, the Babylonian captivity, and the Roman occupation are all examples of Empire. The Bible is through-and-through saturated with imperialism and the disastrous effects that it has on the people of God. This includes enslavement, genocide, military occupation, oppressive taxation burdens, displacement, tyranny, and limitations on religion to name a few.

This is where it gets tough: Moses, Daniel, and Jesus all suffered (and subsequently overcame) imperial regimes. The Bible is saturated with themes of ‘empire’ and resistance. The problem is that those who are most embedded in the Empire are the most unaware of this theme and may have no idea that the Bible that they value so much has anything to say about the issue what so ever!

If you do not take into account the themes of ‘empire / imperialism’ then the Bible reads a certain way which allows you to be complicit in the current American imperial impulse and actually believe that you are serving the Kingdom of God by participating in those structures. The shocker is when you find out that Moses, Daniel, and Jesus were on the underbelly of the beast and were figures of resistance seeking to undermine the established order – the systems, structures, and institutions of repression and containment.

This information can be eye-opening!

There is not a single part of the New Testament that is not haunted by the shadow of empire and imperial domination. One might as well not even read the Gospels or the Book of Revelation outside of this lens! In fact, it is impossible to talk about the cross of Christ or Paul’s letter to the Romans without a thorough understanding of empire.

Take a minute and think about what a cross was – an instrument of intimidation and public terror reserved for those who threatened that stability of the empire (like sedition). It was tool of spectacle meant to scare the masses into compliance and submission. To paraphrase Philip Yancey in The Jesus I Never Knew : Jesus didn’t get crucified because he told people to be nice to each other.  No, he was a threat to the delicate balance of power that Rome and the Jewish viceroys were attempting to hold together by a thin thread.

I might go as far as to say that empire and imperial pressures dominate and dictate every facet of the Bible and especially the New Testament.

It is concerning then that those who claim to take the Bible the most seriously (or least read it the most) may know the least about this aspect of its original context … and this blind spot may lead those same people to be most complicit and supportive to the current role that their nationalistic government plays in the world.

Even a cursory glance at the history of empire reveals that empires have often been justified and supported by theological means. Already at the time of Jesus the Romans could rely on a well-organized theology of empire that was able to assimilate other theologies to varying degrees – even those that would appear rather incompatible, such as traditional Jewish theologies of places like Palestine. 

  • Joerg Rieger  in “Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Time”

Think about the difficulty you would have if you do not see the role that Egypt, Babylon, and Rome played in the Biblical narrative. By what lens would be able to see the role that post-Cold War foreign policy played in global affairs or that America plays in the global ‘War on Terror’?

It would be difficult if not impossible.

Let’s come at this a different way.

The people of God have frequently been oppressed and dominated.

Scripture tells us of their resistance and deliverance.

Empire is coercive, violent, controlling of nearly everything it its radius. Domination is actually the modus operandi of imperial regimes. The methods are predictable:

  • Road blocks
  • Security checks
  • Boarders
  • Prisons
  • War
  • Surveillance
  • Control

The Bible testifies to this and provides tools for resistance. Read the stories in the book of Daniel, the parables of Jesus, or the apocalyptic rhetoric in the book of Revelation and you have a manual to interrogate, undermine, and subvert the coercive and dominating powers of empire. 

The great irony of history is that so many Bible believing people both don’t know this and ,then, subsequently participate (even complicity) in the continuation of this oppressive system.

The Bible tells us that Moses, Daniel, and Jesus all suffered under imperial oppression. We need to make sure that we don’t use the Bible to defend or extend any Nationalistic/ Empire ambitions in the world that we live in via the systems that we participate in and support.

One possible starting point is found in our translation of ‘Basileia tou Theou’ (Βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ) into English. This phrase is almost always brought in as The Kingdom of God. This translation is problematic at many levels.

The primary problem is that it in no way carries the counter-imperial element of Jesus’ life and teaching. It would be more accurate to translate it as:

  • The Un-kingdom
  • The Counter-kingdom
  • The Anti-kingdom
  • The Upside-down government

Perhaps the most profound alternative in to speak of a Kin-dom. This kin-dom conveys that we are all god’s children and that we relate to each other as related-ones. We are connected in profound and meaningful ways. Kin-dom language also gets rid of the problematic masculine language of ‘king’ and the hierarchy embedded in kingdom imagery. It is much needed upgrade for the alternate translation of Greek word βασιλεία, (‘basileia’) instead of the classic (and

problematic) ‘kingdom’.

Some thinkers have toyed with the idea of leaving such certain rich and nuanced words/concepts untranslated into English like we do with agape in Greek or Selah in the Hebrew psalms. It provides a novel element and may loan it an air of mystery or exotic foreignness.

There is much work being done with translations such as:

  • Economy of God
  • Reign and rule
  • Commonwealth
  • Government, etc.

Some of these mayprovide a helpful way forward. Though it may be argued that some convey many of the same associations with the intrinsic hierarchy, coercion, and domination that it incongruent with the love of God revealed in Christ.

In the end, I have circled around again and again to the kin-dom of God. It signifies that we are all interrelated (kin) and that as family, we are relationally constituted. Our related-ness is our prominent characteristic. What defines us? Our connection to the divine/transcendent/reality “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

A helpful advocate is found in the work of Ada Maria Isasi­Diaz’s “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 21s t Century” in Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies

from the Underside. It resonates with so many scriptural themes, including Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6 when that talk about the inner witness of God’s spirit in our spirit that we have been adopted and are children of God. [1]

There are many reasons to be concerned/critical of ‘the kingdom’ translation. There are so many objectionable aspects to it, including when Americans seem to romanticize foreign monarchy and the imperial ideal of domination. What role or function is being accomplished in this romanticized obsession.

The past couple of years there has been an resurgent theme in Christian books and materials which are centered around King or Kingdom themes. Tim Keller, NT Wright, Scott McKnight,  and Rob Reimer have all produced bestseller that doubled down on this phenomenon.  While its appeal may be understandable at one level – a return the imagined or romanticized past – one has to be careful that Christianity’s future is not found in Europe’s past.

Jesus didn’t speak English, so there is nothing sacred about the translation ‘kingdom’. In fact, the more one examines the merit of the kin-dom translation, the clearer it communicates the virtue and the loving relational characteristic that Jesus modeled and taught. 

Regardless of how these words and concepts get translated into English, the greater concern is that people of faith are aware of how the systems and structures of power continue to employ mechanism of control and violence that oppress and dominate. As people of faith, and especially those who claim to follow Christ, it is important that utilize the resources provided us in the Bible to interrogate, undermine, and subvert the unjust systems of power in our world. We have been given this precedent and this permission by Jesus.

For further examination:

Beyond the Spirit of Empire – Rieger, Sung, Miguez

Colonialism, Han, and the Transformative Spirit – Grace Ji Sun Kim

Arrogance of Nations: Paul and Empire – Neil Elliott

God and Empire – John Dominic Crossan  

Jesus and Empire – Richard Horsley

New Testament and Empire – Warren Carter  

[1] David Harstkoetter tells us that: “She skillfully argued that the gracious, salvific work of God, through love of the neighbor, entails solidarity characterized by interconnectivity—namely commonality and mutuality. … Yet, rather than describe solidarity as God’s ‘kingdom,’ a term that Isasi­Díaz names as sexist and is in the contemporary context “hierarchical and elitist,” she instead uses the term “kin­dom” to emphasize that the eschatological community will be a family: “kin to each other.” p. 89 in Getting Back to Idolatry Critique: Kingdom, Kin­dom, and the Triune Economy.