Commentary: The uneasy relationship between the early church and the empire

Author Rachel Held Evans recently tweeted a powerful rejoinder to many Christians concerning San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to remain seated during the national anthem at football games.

"The early church would be utterly baffled by the idea that future Christians would shame someone for not swearing allegiance to the empire," she said.

Regardless of what one thinks about Kaepernick's protest or Evans' tweet, this much is true: The early church had an incredibly uneasy relationship with the Roman Empire in which it was situated.

There were times of détente, when the church tried to get along and show respect to the powers that be. There were times of indifference, where the church lived apart from the Empire's concerns. The primary relationship between the early church and the Roman Empire, however, was antagonistic.

The early church's antagonism toward the empire is evident in the story of Jesus being put to death on a cross, which was a peculiarly Roman style of execution. It is evident when an elder named John writes the defiant book of Revelation while exiled on the island of Patmos.

It is evident when the Apostle Paul writes letters from prison before being executed in Rome. What is correct about Evans' tweet is that the New Testament consistently describes the movement that follows Jesus as an anti-imperial movement.

To be clear, the church was not anti-imperial in terms of plotting to overthrow the empire. It was anti-imperial by refusing to allow the dominant culture in which it was living to set the terms of how to determine right and wrong, what to call good and evil, or how to measure success and failure.

Within the Roman Empire, that meant that the church's anti-imperialism started with the radical step of decoupling power and violence. By relying on what the apostle Paul called "power made perfect in weakness," the church opposed Rome's message of the sword with the message of the cross.

It was an effective way of disempowering Rome — because when Christians were not afraid of dying, Rome's leverage was lost — and a way of preventing the church from trying to overcome the empire by imitating it.

The church's capitulation to the empire, however, came long before Christian people began criticizing Kaepernick. Throughout a long and often difficult history, the church lost its faith in the radical power of the cross.

No longer was the cross a way of life that one is to take up in order to follow Jesus' path. No longer was the cross symbolic of a resolute anti-violent trust that God will effect justice even against the most egregious abuses of power.

In its place was substituted an anemic personalizing of the cross, as a place where Jesus showed how much suffering he was willing to undergo just for me and my salvation. It's almost as if the message is, "Jesus took up his cross so that I don't have to." That's not what the words "Take up your cross and follow me" mean.

A political election season is a wonderful time for Christians to explore the radical call of the cross. If military theorist Carl von Clauzewitz was right to say that politics is "war by another means," then a Christian understanding of the cross calls "politics as usual" into question.

Perhaps there are ways to drill down and address the issues of justice that lie beneath the partisanized surface of political debates. Perhaps there are ways of recognizing the essential human-ness of persons whose race, ethnicity, wealth, sexuality and welfare have become political talking points.

Perhaps there are ways of serving those with whom we disagree, rather than conquering them as our only response. When we take it seriously, the cross represents a whole different way of looking at how we interact with one another, particularly over issues that usually devolve into power struggles.

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MARK DAVIS is pastor of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, where they are following a two-month theme entitled, "Being a Prophetic Community in a Politically Charged World."

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