Jesus and the Deception of ‘Empire’

Posted: March 21, 2022 in Uncategorized

‘Jesus and the Deception of ‘Empire’

‘Give me my inheritance now instead of when you drop dead. Because I can’t wait that long. I need to move on. I need to leave home, now’. Another way of saying this is about the purpose of Lent It is that: “We enter into the desert to discover life.”

We know that feeling do we not? It comes from a deep sense of knowing that something about this world is not right, an innate sense of being unsettled, incomplete and it seems to come as the primary desire. We need to move on, to find a better Way. This just might be what it is like to be a fear driven society and it just might come from ourselves.

An example of how subtle and complex this fear driven situation drives us is likened to the feelings of the Father waiting for his wayward son. We try to concentrate on saying what needs to be said in this present moment. There may not be another time we tell ourselves, so what is to be said must be said now. Like the We love you. We will miss you. The door will always be open. We will be waiting for you to come home. We will be praying, always praying. We try to imagine what the next few months will be like because we know we cannot say goodbye forever, since we know our heart will not let us do that. Whatever we tell ourselves about getting on with life, we know we will be waiting. Holding our breath every time the phone rings. Listening for the steps upon the porch.

The Jesus Seminar voted the Prodigal Son parable, ‘pink’: and pink means that Jesus may have said something like this. So, we can probably say that this story is an important story. The story of the so-called Prodigal Son… so-called because it really is a story about three characters: the father, the elder son, and the younger son, is one of the best known of all the biblical stories.

We have heard it… maybe a zillion times! But have we really heard it?  Really listened to it?

A younger son wants to leave home.  He insultingly asks his father for his share of what may become his inheritance. Knowing there was no point in trying to hold on,
the father agrees, and shares out his livelihood to both sons. The younger son leaves home and lives a life of extravagance. We know his story.

We also know how the father, always watching and waiting and loving, sees his son coming home. And. Ignoring the teachings of the Hebrew scriptures, he runs out to meet him and protect him, in case any member of the village should recognise him as someone who has dishonoured both his family and his village, and attempt to kill him. So, the father welcomes the son back with an extravagant homecoming party.

Likewise, we know the story around the elder son. When he arrives home, he notices a party is in progress, and is told it is for the younger son, who has also come home. In true sibling rivalry he takes offence, yells abuse about his father, and refuses to ‘go in’ to the party. We also know how the father, lovingly, goes out to meet him.

What’s the hermeneutic response for us now? How can we hear this story anew?  We go back to the story. First, this is a story about a father who had two sons.  Indeed, not only had two sons but loved two sons, went out to two sons, and was generous to two sons.

Second, the father does not reject either son, under any circumstance.  His love is given to both, not to one at the expense of the other.  Yet this same love does not resolve the conflict. It accepts conflicts as the arena in which the work of love is to be done.

Third, there is a missing third act in this parable (Scott 2001). The conflict between the brothers is left unresolved.  So, we are left with a real question: what happens next?

New Testament scholar Brandon Scott is helpful in shaping up this question with a suggestion: “Soon the father will die.  Then what? He asks. If the sons continue on with their established scripts, they are headed for a collision.  One will kill the other. Or they can follow the father’s script and surrender their male honour and keep on welcoming, accepting, and being with the other.  They have a choice between being lost or found, dead or alive” (Scott 2001:82-83). What is this alternative?

I suggest that it is an alternative to the Roman Empire and in fact an alternative to ‘Empire’ as a societal institution.

In this parable the storyteller has Jesus offering a simple suggestion: but in practice it doesn’t seem that simple. This new world is a re-imagined world, the hoped-for world Jesus continually talks about, and it pictures co-operation, not contest, as the basis for the realm of God. Loving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, collaboration not contest. The message is that one is loved not according to pre-set conditions, not by more rules and regulations, not by doing but by being.  Making love is less about what one does and more about who one is, living love perhaps, depending upon love not because of what it does but rather because it is a way of being. Maybe that’s the message and maybe it’s that simple. Be God like, be love, live it.  But do we have ears to hear that?

An Exercise to Balance Your Brain’s Two Hemispheres

Jesus told parables so that, as with any good story, they could weave their way into the fabric of our lives in different ways. In the light of last week’s discovery, stories seem to take us straight to the hippocampus. They seem to speak to the whole brain and not just to a hemisphere. They invite us to experience as well as engage cognitively with. They pull the poetics and the practical together. Stories invite us to listen, to hear, and to draw our own conclusions. But be careful.  Stories can also be dangerous. Especially stories told by a certain Jesus of Nazareth.

The following is an article written by David Galston of Westar Institute. For me it highlights the imbalanced brain and a fear driven approach to the world. Its claim in my view is that it is a Fear driven philosophy. An approach that avoids the right hemispheres insistence on meaning for one’s actions. And thus a disdain for communal nature of humanity.

It begins…. On Monday February 22, two days before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Kenyan Ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, addressed the Security Council. He reminded the Council of his country’s history with empire. The borders of his country, like the borders of other African countries, were not drawn by the people of Kenya today. Their borders were drawn up at the Berlin Conference in 1885 where no African representatives were present. Decisions about their fate were made in the far away metropoles of London, Paris, and Lisbon.

Despite this background of colonial violence, Ambassador Kimani stated that “at independence” had these new artificially created African nations “chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial, or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars.” He then added, “We chose to follow the rules of the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations Charter not because our borders satisfied us but because we wanted something greater forged in peace.”

Ambassador Kimani made the clear and powerful point that while we cannot change imperial history, we do not have to continue forward on the basis of imperial values. Instead, there can be a post-imperial future.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia is all about “’empire,” particularly, it seems, the ninth- to thirteenth-century Kievan Rus empire that encompassed Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Both modern day Russia and Ukraine root their history in the Kievan Rus empire once ruled by another Vladimir called the Great (980–1015). It was this Vladimir who led Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus into the Eastern confession of Christianity.

Putin knows his history, and it is not a coincidence that he fills his rhetoric with notions of Ukraine not being a real country but belonging spiritually to Russia. Indeed, he goes as far as denying that Ukraine ever existed.

Russia with Putin compares to Rome with its emperors, but the difference is that Rome never denied the existence of the nations it controlled. As an empire, though, and like any empire, Rome propagated some of the same rhetoric: the nations were not civilized, they were conquered to be liberated, they needed peace to prosper, and they should thank Rome for newfound blessings.

Ambassador Kimani called Russia out on its imperial mindset and its inability to consider that real liberation for humanity lies in a post-imperial world. The history of nations living under other nations’ self-mythology has to end.

Ambassador Kimani has been both praised and criticized, but the spirit of his words is significant. What does a post-imperial world look like both in the relationship of nations and the mindset of individuals? This question invokes the world of ideas that inspire but, unfortunately, do not yet describe reality. Three exemplars of a post-imperial world come from philosophy and religion, the two homes of human vision. The exemplars are inter-subjectivity, intrinsicality, and dialectic. These are all philosophical words that have expressions in religion.

Inter-subjectivity means that no one can be a “subject,” an individual, without a relationship to someone else. The condition of being human is inter-subjective. In other words, we are all in this together. To abuse inter-subjectivity is to place yourself in control of another subject (another person). This abuse backfires because it is a breaking apart of relationship. It means suffering for others and a loss of humanity for the self. A post-imperial world will be an inter-subjective world where becoming human happens with others, not against others. The parable of the Good Samaritan is an example from religion of this lesson. It is a lesson empires never learn.

Intrinsicality is a word from process philosophy. It means that all forms of life and all matter in the universe have value. Things are valuable because of their inside or intrinsic worth. When you think about this lesson, it relates to inter-subjectivity: nothing can become what it is without the other. The other is of great value because it is other. The other holds dignity. Sharing dignity with the other is the act of becoming who you are. Nature has dignity as much as people do, and so do inanimate objects. The parable of the women putting leaven in bread is an example of intrinsicality because she values what is normally considered unclean. Empires have a habit of ignoring intrinsicality, and they create sorrow accordingly.

Dialectic is a difficult but common word in philosophy. It refers to struggle. It is often coupled with the word “negative.” A famous book in philosophy is Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. In simple terms, it means that no one can stand out from a background without being distinct from the background.

The act of being distinct is to be negatively related to the background: I am not that. To be swallowed up in the background is to be lost, and this lostness is called “bad faith” or, sometimes, “the unhappy consciousness.” Being unhappy in philosophy means that there is no dialectical relationship to your background. No questions about how you think. No bother with your family history. No doubts about your culture. No concern about your political views, and so forth. To be unhappy is to be undialectical, which is the elaborate way philosophy defines being a fundamentalist. To struggle is to be dialectical, and this is the honesty of being human.

An example from religion of dialectical honesty is the poor woman who pesters the powerful judge. The judge can’t ignore her and finally gives in to her; she is the dialectical negative who stands out from the background to awaken an otherwise corrupt figure. Empires rely on undialectical thinking. Empires do not like to be questioned. It takes the courageous and the powerless to wake up empires.

The political leaders of Russia think that re-establishing their imperial status is good news. That has never been true for any empire. It is really bad news for the world and ultimately for the empire itself. It leads us away from a post-imperial world and from some of the greatest lessons in life found in philosophy and religion.

I want to finish this with a comment about what I suspect the fear is that the likes of Putin and many others are afraid of. It may be a hang over from the excesses of Communism that Putin could remember but is is also a result of a Left Hemisphere drive World. A fear of togetherness. A togetherness where there is a positive alternative to separateness in a world, aimlessly hurtling through space.

McKnight and Cormac wrote in their book due to come out this September that:  Our real health, wealth and power are found together, in local places; not in rugged individualism and the consumer society. That means we, in our role as neighbours, are the critical actors and our neighbourhoods are the bedrock on which an alternative future must be built.  They were careful to point out that institutions and technology play important roles in modern life. They don’t try to suggests that older, privileged, white guys shake their fists at the sky, bemoaning modernity. However, they do argue that communities have been dislocated from their central role in democracy and that getting back into the driving seat is essential to our shared planetary futures, and to better address the central issues of our time. To that end, we place institutions and technology in service of, and to, communities. I would suggest  that this is not in the in the interest of ‘Empire building’ but rather in the interest of extendin our community capacities; not to harm them or control them or somehow improve their efficiency or impact but rather to just do them. Institutions and technology make great servants, but woeful masters because they become empires of power and control and generate fear in order to do that. Amen.

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