BY MARK Y.A. DAVIES
The Roman Empire perceived Jesus to be a threat to its power, and it killed him using its most public and humiliating form of execution. The crucifixion was not just the execution of Jesus; it was a public warning to his followers that Rome would not tolerate movements that tested its hegemony, and all who continued to live like Jesus lived did so at their own peril.
Rome was correct to see Jesus as a threat. A charismatic teacher and prophet crying out and acting out for justice and challenging systems and powers that oppressed the poor and most vulnerable was a direct rebuke of an imperial system that used vast and elaborate networks of hierarchical control, patronage, and terror to perpetuate an unjust order of domination of peoples and territory for imperial benefit. Jesus’ teachings and actions were a prophetic and insurgent “no!” to Roman oppression and injustice.
Past and present Imperial Christianity downplays the political nature of the crucifixion in favor of soteriological explanations that lay the death of Jesus on the sin of humanity for which Jesus’ death atones as opposed to seeing it as the result of an act of violence by the empire against a person who posed a political threat.
With the crucifixion of Jesus, Rome sent a message to his followers and friends: your teacher, your prophet, or whatever you called him, he is nothing. You want to fill crowds of people’s heads with ideas that things are going to be radically different than they are now? You want to bring good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed? You want to turn over tables? You want to create a scene? This is how it will end for you, too. You want to create a spectacle? There is your spectacle bleeding and suffocating to death on that cross. If you don’t want to be hanging there, too, then get it out of your heads that anything is going to change. We are Rome, and you are nothing.
Rome dealt with Jesus like he was an insurgent. Rome had a lot of experience dealing with insurgents – people who dared to question and resist imperial authority. Neither prison nor a simple and quick execution was seen as being enough to crush the spirit and torture the bodies of those who had the audacity to resist the most powerful empire the world had ever known.
The public, humiliating, excruciatingly painful, and slow death by crucifixion was Rome’s chosen way to make an example out of those who defied the god-like power of the empire personified in Caesar. Rome displayed the choice for Jesus’ followers: choose Jesus and you are choosing the cross, choose Caesar and you are choosing life, albeit a life under an occupying power. Public brutality was the Roman insurance against insurgency and resistance. It almost always worked. Rome counted on Jesus’ friends and followers not to choose the cross.
Rome was wrong.
While the representatives of Roman power in Jerusalem may have thought they had eliminated whatever threat to order that Jesus posed by executing him and making a humiliating example out of him as a deterrence to other dreamers of justice and liberation, there was no way for Rome to see that not only was the cross not the end of Jesus movement, it was a new beginning. Rome was too powerful for its leaders to think much of anything about Jesus’ death other than it being the death of one more nuisance, one more troublemaker, who was dead and gone like all the troublemakers of the past and those to come. Rome thought they had killed the Jesus movement and that Jesus’ followers would not risk the same fate as their teacher.
Rome was wrong.
Little did Rome know that the roads it built to maintain and expand its empire would soon be traveled by followers of the one whom Rome thought it had eliminated through torture, humiliation, and death on a cross, the one whom Rome thought it had sealed off permanently from any further influence in this world.
The sojourners who went from town to town sharing good news for the poor and release for the captives were, like their teacher, a threat to the hegemony of Rome. They might “submit to the governing authorities” and “render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s,” but Rome knew that the followers of Jesus would never render unto Caesar what Caesar demanded of all within his reach – unwavering devotion and obedience to him above all others. Caesar knew he was not above all others in the hearts of these followers of Jesus. Roman emperors knew that followers of this new way were lost to them as loyal followers of the way of empire.
Like Jesus before them, the followers of this dangerous way of Jesus, this way of justice for the poor and oppressed, this way of liberation, must be controlled and subdued. Their un-Roman and treasonous refusal to sacrifice to the cult of the emperor could not be tolerated. The imperial persecution of the early followers of Jesus, though not constant, was periodically brutal and deadly and at times widespread; yet the Jesus movement continued to grow even though it literally went underground at times.
For nearly three centuries after the Roman Empire’s public execution of Jesus, the Jesus movement continued to expand, especially among the poor, even in the midst of a hostile and violent environment. The followers of Jesus were warned not to continue in his subversive ways, they were given an explanation for why they had to sacrifice to the cult of the emperor, they were tortured and killed with methods just as brutal as the torture and death of Jesus. Yet, they persisted in the way of Jesus, not rendering to Caesar any more than they thought belonged to Caesar.
Caesar would never be their God. Caesar would never own their souls.
The Jesus movement would not die. It was not a movement without flaws or without infighting, but it was still a movement that brought good news to the poor and oppressed and the vulnerable as opposed to the imperial news of ongoing domination and exploitation, and the Romans simply could not kill it. Even when they thought they had killed it, it would not stay dead.
Given the centuries of persecution within the Roman Empire, followers of Jesus must have felt they had won a great victory when in 313 C.E. with the Edict of Milan, Emperors Constantine and Licinius declared the practice of the Christian religion to be legal within the empire. What an occasion to celebrate! Not only did Constantine and Licinius legalize Christianity, they gave back property to Christian communities, gave Christians imperial protections, and over time even offered the force of the empire to bring unity to the Church’s theology and practice. By 380 C.E., not only would Christianity be legal, it was the official religion of the empire. The religion that had been persecuted by the state was now the religion of the state, far removed from the humiliation and suffering of the cross.
In 313 C.E., the Edict of Milan made Christianity an acceptable, legitimate religion in the eyes of the Roman Empire; and following this Edict, the emperor Constantine proved himself to be quite favorably disposed to Christianity – giving it protected status, helping it organize more effectively, and assisting its fight against perceived heresy. After Constantine became the Emperor of the whole empire, he even helped oversee the Council of Nicaea where the Church laid out its official doctrines. After the Council of Nicaea, Constantine helped the Church enforce these official doctrines with the force of the state, and sometimes this included violent and even deadly force. Christianity would not become the official religion of Rome until 380 C.E. under the Emperor Theodosius I, but it was under Constantine’s rule that Christianity first had its taste of being the favored religion of the empire, and it was not a taste the Church wanted to get out of its mouth. It was a taste of legitimacy and power that the Church savored.
One can understand why the Church embraced the acceptance of the empire. It does seem much better to be supported by the empire rather than being persecuted by the empire. Restoration of properties and protection by the Emperor sure beats being eaten by lions or crucified. It is hard to blame the Christian Church for accepting this new legitimate status. It seems to be an easy choice; a choice between lions and legitimacy seems like a no-brainer. Christians had suffered greatly at the hands of the state for over two and a half centuries. What a relief it must have been to escape the waves of persecution that at times were horrific and deadly.
Though it is understandable that Christians of the time would see the Edict of Milan as a good thing – and though it really wasn’t a choice made by the Christians to make themselves an acceptable and legitimate religion in the empire – the practical result of Constantine legalizing Christianity and taking steps for the empire to be supportive of Christianity was that the interests of Christianity and interests of the empire became more closely intertwined. Christianity now had a patron in the Emperor, and as is the case in many relationships of patronage, the patron had expectations of some return on the investment.
The survival of the empire was now in the interest of the Church, and the empire had an interest in influencing the Church to take on forms and doctrines that would be most favorable to the order and stability of the empire. The empire was willing to give its authority and its ability to use force to create an empire friendly Church. This, in effect, resulted in the taming of Jesus and the Jesus movement, both of which had never been a friend to empire.
By giving Christianity legitimacy and imperial protection and support, the empire was able to co-opt Christianity more effectively for its own purposes and create an image of Jesus and an institutional Church that would be empire friendly. Once the empire co-opted the Jesus movement, it focused on the otherworldly aspects of Christianity in order to keep power and control over people in this world. The empire or state maintained control of the affairs of this world, while religion prepared the soul for the next. Obedience to the empire’s authority in this life became one of the prerequisites to enjoying the rewards and avoiding the punishments in the next. The empire made central the peripheral strands of eternal punishment and eternal reward in Christianity as a means to maintain and consolidate power and keep order among its subjects.
Empire-friendly Jesus and the empire-friendly Church were supportive of the empire handling the affairs of this world. Empire friendly Jesus was king of another world after this life, while the empire continued its role as king of this world. The empire-friendly Jesus and empire-friendly Church were fine with the empire waging war. Empire-friendly Jesus and empire-friendly Church were fine with the empire using violence and its powers of capital punishment to suppress heresy and maintain order to keep the Church safe from hostile powers.
Empire-friendly Jesus did not turn over tables. When it came to the affairs of this world, empire-friendly Jesus encouraged people to be meek and mild rather than angry and wild, to be satisfied with the temporal crumbs from the empire’s table in exchange for the promise of a seat at the table of the heavenly banquet. Finally, the empire had Jesus and the followers of Jesus right where it wanted them. The empire had finally accomplished what the cross and nearly three centuries of persecution had failed to do. The empire had finally tamed Jesus.
After legalizing Christianity in 313 C.E., the Emperor Constantine unified and codified the Church’s doctrine and practices at the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. A Church without major differences was beneficial to establishing order and stability within the empire. The empire became the enforcer of right doctrine and right practice in the Church. The leaders of the church could count on the temporal authority of the empire to maintain the spiritual authority of the Church. It was a reciprocal and mutually reinforcing relationship between empire and Church.
At the Council of Nicaea, the date for Easter was set as the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, no longer to be based on the actual date of the Jewish Passover as had been the practice. In 336 C.E., the year before Constantine’s death, the date for a new holiday, Christmas, was set around the Winter Solstice, a date that had nothing to do with Jesus’ actual birthday. The empire seemed more interested in substituting pagan holidays based around solar and lunar schedules with Christmas and Easter than it was with correlating the dates with the actual life of the Jewish Jesus.
When Christianity became the official religion of the empire in 380 under Emperor Theodosius I, the function of empire friendly paganism was replaced fully by empire-friendly Christianity. And the new Christianity of the Roman Empire had more to do with its function within the empire than with its connection to an anti-imperial Jewish prophet who was executed by the very empire that now had co-opted the Jesus movement for imperial purposes.
Christmas in the empire was a time of celebrating Jesus the child meek and mild, not the Jesus who was angry and wild. Easter in the empire was a time of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus after he gave himself up for the sin of all humanity, not the Jewish prophet who was tortured, humiliated, and executed by the empire like an insurgent.
As the official religion of the empire, Christianity celebrated Christmas as the coming of the empire-friendly Jesus into the world, and during Easter it celebrated the everlasting life and presence of the empire-friendly Jesus within the Church. In both cases, imperial Christianity was not celebrating the actual Jewish Jesus, but rather it was celebrating the imperial Jesus, who had very little in common with Jesus at all.
The western portion of the Roman Empire [the part including Rome itself] fell soon after its takeover of Christianity [a fact not easily explained by Christianity’s defenders such as Augustine of Hippo], but Christianity re-attached itself to numerous empires thereafter to maintain its hegemony in Europe and beyond. The Christianity of empire, as opposed to the Way of Jesus, was used to justify crusades, inquisitions, conquests, colonization, slavery, and genocide – often done in the name of Christian mission, but always done for sake of the empire.
Christianity in the United States continues in this long and tragic tradition of serving as the religion of the empire. The way of Jesus has been mistaken for the American way; including adherence to its social, political, and economic systems.
Through increasingly sophisticated and ever present forms of propaganda, a form of Christianity is used to bolster loyalty to and support for the empire.
Every cry that we are a Christian nation is an echo of the imperial voice that seeks to tame Jesus and use the power of the Jesus movement to consolidate power of the empire through the alienation of the “other,” by highlighting that their way is not our way, that “they” are not us.
As we celebrate Christmas in the American Empire, it is no wonder that we tend to focus on the meek and mild American Empire-friendly baby Jesus and that we use Christmas to foster a rabid and sometimes even violent [Black Friday is dangerous] consumerism that functions to bolster an unsustainable and unjust economic system.
In the midst of a world of extreme poverty and injustice; in which 85,000 children have starved to death in Yemen at the hands of an “ally;” in which journalists who cry out and act out for justice are being tortured, humiliated, and executed with impunity by the equivalent of Caesars; in which children are being tear gassed, separated from their parents, and detained at our borders; and in which our relentless use of fossil fuels is creating an unlivable climate on earth, one has to wonder what an angry and wild Jesus might do today.
One thing is for sure: the American Empire is not awaiting the birth of angry and wild Jesus this Christmas.
The American Empire is awaiting the birth of tame Jesus.
The angry and wild Jesus was killed nearly 2,000 years ago and the Jesus movement was co-opted by empire nearly over 1,700 years ago. Angry and wild Jesus is dead, at least that is what the American Empire is hoping for.
What the American Empire does not realize is that this Jesus whom we think was utterly crushed so long ago has a way of coming back.
Borrowing some words from Dylan Thomas, love and justice do not “go gentle into that good night.” They will continue to “rage against the dying of the light.”
Maybe this is the Jesus we can celebrate this Christmas; maybe this is the Jesus we should be waiting for; maybe the way of love, peace, and justice can make a comeback through us.
Maybe, just maybe, this Jesus isn’t really dead after all.
– Mark Y.A. Davies is the Wimberly Professor of Social and Ecological Ethics and director of the World House Institute for Social and Ecological Responsibility at Oklahoma City University. Click herefor more of his essays.