I have a million things to do but I also know the time I am living in. An unjust war has been waged on both Ukraine and our trans community right here in Texas. The silence of faith leaders on what is happening to our transgender children and their families is noticed. We are dealing with totalitarianism on both fronts. White Christian Nationalism is a deadly heresy and I am just beginning my research on it, but I can say right now that the belief in a holy war and the exclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community are both part of it. People who believe these ideologies are going to be extremely hard to reach, if not impossible. I was listening to an expert on a podcast say that the belief in end-time prophecies is an addiction and needs to be treated as such. It is a form of trauma.
So what I want to do is give a snippet of education to anyone who is interested in why I said our war mentality is coming from the Roman empire and not scripture. Not when scripture is read in its full context–who is the audience, what was happening at that time, and who is God in each story. The Jewish scripture is a meditation. It does not give us exact details on what was right and wrong. The silence is intentional. Scripture is meant to be meditated on night and day and for the person to search what they believe and talk about it within their community. There will be arguing and tension, but ultimately it is supposed to lead us to a deeper truth and revelation about the character of God. I also wrote this in my notes my first semester of my first year in seminary: “Interpretation is always a dialogue between what the text means in the past and where we are now. It is a conversation with the author back and forth.”
I do not want to spend too much time on the Hebrew Scriptures because I want to highlight how Rome is the one who made war holy, but I want to give a quick word as to why it is misguided when I hear people call the Old Testament violent but the New Testament is not. As Christians, it makes no sense to say that when we believe Jesus revealed the character of God in the flesh. Jesus chose the path of nonviolence in the midst of a violent Roman empire. This is who God is, and always has been. If we believe Jesus reveals who the God of Israel is in the flesh, then that was always true about God even before Jesus came. We can look at the scripture without the example of Jesus and see instances where people were going around an empire that believed death was good news. Here are just a few examples:
- Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1:15-21) Egyptian midwives who saved the Hebrew babies by telling a ridiculous lie to Pharaoh. The scripture goes on to say that because these midwives feared God (this kind of fear meaning the beginning of wisdom) God gave them families. (This is clearly saying that God was on the side of life–and Egyptian women were faithful).
- Moses’ mom who is not named until Exodus 6:20 (Jochebed), refused to let Moses die as a baby, so she did what she could to save him. (Exodus 2) Without this moment, there would be no Exodus.
- Pharaoh’s daugher, also unnamed, who found Moses and knew he was one of the Hebrew babies and had pity on him. (Exodus 2)
- Moses’ sister, Miriam, who goes to the Pharaoh’s daughter and works it out with her to let Moses’ mom, Jochebed, nurse him (Exodus 2).
- What is not mentioned is why Pharaoh allowed his daughter to raise this Hebrew baby. This is another example of seeing how God is working between the lines where we do not normally look.
I want to highlight that in these scenarios it is the women who are going around the system and choosing life. Why are these stories not highlighted more in our studies? What about Proverbs 8 where wisdom is raising HER voice? And Wisdom’s part in creation (8:22-36). What I am saying is that it is really convenient for Christians who have not studied the Hebrew text in depth, where there is a lot of life to be found, to find only find the verses they need to justify war.
Yes, the Hebrew text does talk a lot about violence. Do we see a lot of violence in our lives too? Could this be history writing and Israel telling their story as they believe it to be true? It is remarkable work with many authors and stories, and stories that contradict–the redactors had no problem with that when putting the scripture together. I love the depth and the difference of perspectives, and sometimes changing the story because they people are living in a new era and are asking different questions. The way the kings are portrayed in 1 and 2 Kings is different than when we get to 1 and 2 Chronicles. There is too much to say, and I have already said more than I was going to. Now lets get to Rome.
Scripture from the outset is clearly anti-imperial work. There are few things I can say are clear about scripture, but this is one of them. Genesis 1 is a resistance poem of creation countering the Ancient Near East Babylonian creation story of warring gods. Where humans are the slaves to gods and Babylon is the ultimate city. Our scripture is resistance to Babylon. Empire-building is not the way of the one true God we serve or the answer to creation. This is why we cannot talk about the biblical stories without mentioning the empire that is ruling their lives.
The question was asked in my Baptist and Free Church Theology class if God was doing something different through the life of Jesus. Some of us came to the conclusion that Jesus revealed what was always true about God, but now we can see in the flesh what God is like. We can all have different ideas about atonement theology, there are so many ideas, but now that I am studying Romans and learning about Rome–and Jesus came during the Roman empire–I have some new thoughts running in my head.
I have learned through watching Mary Beard’s documentary Meet the Romans that Rome is the first global city, and it lived with all of the contradictions that comes with being global. Rome was not at odds with foreigners, they were at odds with resisters. It was a diverse place but not a tolerant place. Being Roman was not just an ethnicity but something you become. Because Rome grew so large it became a consumeristic society–this is how it started–needing poorer countries to provide them food to feed a huge population. The powers that be were not worried about the people’s welfare. They knew that a dissatisfied people were a dangerous people. There were benefits to becoming Roman–the ability to eat and move through the social classes more easily.
That background is really interesting when I read Romans now ,and when I think about the life of Christ in this context. Can we first give a shout out to Mother Mary? Without her there would be no Jesus. Mary is like the faithful women I mentioned earlier who said yes to life in a culture of death. The prophetic yes to answer the groaning of all creation. She got handled in saying yes too. She bore the shame, not Joseph, for her pregnancy. Got shamed by Jesus when she could not find him for three days when he stayed at the temple studying with the teachers, and she is left weeping at the cross because her son was being crucified by a society that did not like his resistance! I have no problem with any of this because I believe Jesus lived a human life and all that comes with it, and I believe he revealed who God is through his life that chose the path of nonviolence and spoke without apology encouraging enemy love. That came from his Jewish faith, not despite it. It was always true.
Rome was also creating their story through myth making. This is not unusual. Myths often reveal a deeper truth than facts ever can. History is a narrative. Everybody has a perspective but not all perspectives get told. What Rome did that is quite appalling, and we are still not over it, is create a mythology that led the people of Rome to believe they are descendants of the God of War. Read “The Aeneid of Virgil” (white supremacy beginnings?). Here is a quote by Virgil: Roman, remember by your strength to rule Earth’s peoples – for your arts are to be these: To pacify, to impose the rule of law, To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.” Manifest destiny was started by the Romans.
There is so much more to say, but I want to end with this. Caesar ruled Rome and was viewed as divine. His father Augustus was considered divine as well. The Roman coins had Caesar’s picture on it with the inscription “Son of God.” Jesus was being called Son of God is more than a spiritual statement; it was a political statement. The gospel of Mark picks right up on it at the beginning. Jesus, Son of God, is a counter-narrative to Caesar. Both were considered divine. One, who truly had power equal to God, emptied himself and died. But his life revealed that death did not get the final say. Jesus showed us the way to live in a massive empire that seeks to control and erase identities. The United States is the largest empire to date with the largest military presence worldwide. This needs reflection.
Here is a blog post I wrote in 2020 that talks more about “Son of God”: