Jesus and Empire: Victory Over the Powers
Scriptures: Isaiah 9:2-7; Colossians 2: 8-15
Following World War II, European church leaders struggled with how their churches had been swept along in the war fever that engulfed the world. German Christians were especially mortified by the way their churches had enthusiastically supported the Nazis. A few German church leaders like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer had resisted but most had bought into Nazi propaganda. This was shaped by a long history of combining church and state. Furthermore, their fierce opposition to communism had blinded them to the evils of Nazism. Finally, Christian faith had become focused on personal salvation and ignored our entanglement in social evil.
Now they were being asked to take sides in the emerging Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two superpowers that had emerged from the devastation of World War II. Both adversaries quickly developed nuclear weapons with the potential of destroying the whole world.
At a church gathering in divided Germany, Dutch theologian Hendrik Berkhof, gave a talk where he related the New Testament language of “principalities and powers” (sometimes translated as “rulers and authorities”) to the ideologies and power structures in our world. He made the claim that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, had broken the stranglehold that these powers have on our lives. His lectures were later published in a short book Christ and the Powers.
The common way of understanding these Powers had been as ethereal, other-worldly entities such as demons. What this fails to recognize is the relationship between the Powers and this-worldly tangible manifestations of them. The Powers become visible as the Roman Empire and people like Caiaphas and Pilate who had Jesus executed for blasphemy and treason. As followers of Jesus, we need to connect the dots between these Powers and how they impact our lives.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink has done extensive work on this. Drawing on the Apostle Paul’s claim that our struggle “is against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12), Wink translates it into our time and situation,
as contending against the spirituality of institutions, against the ideologies and metaphors and legitimations that prop them up, against the greed and covetousness that give them life, against the individual egocentricities that the Powers so easily hook, against the ideology that pits short-term gain against the long-term good of the whole.1
It’s not that the Powers are intrinsically evil. Rather, they are at once both good and evil, though to varying degrees. They’re part of God’s good creation with the purpose of serving humanity and all creation. Every human structure and every theology or ideology that supports it is a Power. A Power becomes a force for evil when it usurps its God given role to serve God, all people, and the whole creation and, instead, becomes a self-serving system of Domination. People crave the certainty and security that such Powers promise. Listen to how Berkhof describes what happened in Germany:
When Hitler took the helm of Germany in 1933, the Powers of Volk, race, and state took a new grip on [people]. Thousands were grateful, after the confusion of the preceding years, to find their lives again protected from chaos, order and security restored. No one could withhold himself [or herself], without utmost effort, from the grasp these Powers had on [their] inner and outer lives.2
We now see a resurgence of these same Powers in our world. The Christian message is that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, exposed the Powers as imposters and thereby triumphed over them. The good news is that through the cross we are reconciled to God. This is more than redemption from our personal sin and guilt; it includes our liberation from slavery to the Powers.
In his letter to the Colossians Apostle Paul uses three verbs to explain what happened to the Powers, saying that Christ “disarmed” them, “made a public example” of them, and thereby “triumphed” over them. The cross reveals the Powers as imposters. They had previously been accepted as the most basic and ultimate realities—as the very ground of being in our world. But that ground belongs to God alone.
When God appeared on earth in Jesus the Messiah, these Powers did not welcome him but rather became his adversaries. Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, had Jesus condemned on the charges of blaspheming the law and profaning the Temple. Pilate, the Roman governor and representative of Roman justice, ordered his crucifixion on the charge of sedition. Berkhof explains how Jesus disarmed the Powers:
The weapon from which they heretofore derived their strength is struck out of their hands. This weapon was the power of illusion, their ability to convince [people] that they were the divine regents of the world, ultimate certainty and ultimate direction, ultimate happiness and ultimate duty for small dependent humanity. Since Christ, we know that this is illusion. We are called to a higher destiny; we have higher orders to follow and we stand under a greater Protector. No Powers can separate us from God’s love in Christ. Unmasked, revealed in their true nature, they have lost their mighty grip on [us]. The cross has disarmed them.3
The ultimate weapon of the Powers is their ability to take life. The resurrection of Jesus, is God’s stamp of approval on him and his life in service of the reign of God, thereby overcoming the power of death. Denny Weaver writes in The Nonviolent Atonement:
Resurrection is God’s testimony that in Jesus, the reign of God has entered into the world. The resurrection of Jesus is an advance sample of the reign of God that will become visible in its fullness when Jesus returns. To see the life and teaching of Jesus is to see how things are under the rule of God.4
God’s ultimate purpose is to transform the Powers. Remember, they’re part of God’s good creation with the task of serving humanity and all creation. Though fallen, they can be redeemed and transformed.5 I invite us to consider how the Powers that most affect our lives as Americans can be redeemed and transformed. Can we name these Powers? That’s our first step. They certainly include our national government, our military, our corporations and economic structures, and our religious institutions—including our churches.
One of the holds the Powers have on us is through our need for certainty and security in our ever-changing world. From its founding, our nation has aspired to be an empire (the new Rome). This has always been in tension with our more democratic aspirations of being a government of the people and for the people with basic freedoms such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech. At the end of World War II we became a global empire with military bases stretched around the world. We might consider how that has shaped us, our priorities, and how we see ourselves as a nation. We have become fixated on our military and military spending. We have become a consumer society. And it has our eroded trust in and commitment to our institutions including our churches.
This takes discernment because our eroded trust in institutions may be because we’re so wounded. Our wounds can make us reactionary. That’s generally counterproductive because all institutions are fallen but redeemable and transformable. They’re capable of great good. Unfortunately, our churches have become the chaplains of our American empire and need to be transformed.
A sad twist of history is that four centuries after Jesus’ death Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the very empire that had cruelly tortured and killed him on the charge of sedition. Ever since, Christianity as the religious legitimator of empire has been deeply rooted in our politics. God is calling our nation to repentance and humility. What might that look like? One aspect of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God, was God’s judgment on empires that oppress vulnerable people. Even so, the Powers are part of God’s creation and the good news is that they can be redeemed and transformed.
I’m deeply concerned by how hateful and dysfunctional our national politics have become. One small sign of hope is the bipartisan One Fairfax Resolution that our board of supervisors is adapting to promote the common good for all our residents. I posted the resolution on our church bulletin board by the entry. The other sign of hope is churches than model following Jesus. These communities practice servant leadership, support each other, demonstrate compassion and suffering love even for our enemies, engage in transforming initiatives, and welcome others to join us in this adventure. We’re living love, growing justice, and welcoming everyone.
1 Walter Wink, Naming the Powers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 140.
2 Hendrick Berkhof, Christ and the Powers (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977), 32.
3 Ibid., 39.
4 J. Denny Weaver, The nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 42.
5 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 31 ff.