unsettling read

So to begin with “Paul and Empire” today — tricky stuff. The obvious place to start is with the challenge of contemporary empire. Here I cannot avoid speaking, as a “friendly foreigner,” about the defacto world empire which your country symbolizes and embodies to much of the rest of the world.

But let me begin with my own perspective. We British have some experience with “empire” — and of rebels within it. We had an empire on which the sun never set. For a hundred or more years British ruled the waves, proclaiming loudly our belief in British justice, in the Pax Britannica, in the freedom which we enjoyed and which was our duty, privilege and indeed burden to bring to other parts of the world. Of course, as we gave them these noble gifts, we took care that they payed for them. It doesn’t do to inquire too closely into the sources of the wealth which enabled the great flowering of the arts and architecture and culture in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Suffice it to say that once the slave trade was abolished, there was perhaps slightly less money flowing in that direction.

We have now spent a century counting the cost of empire. Kipling saw it coming: The arrogance which assumed the effortless superiority of our way of life was bound to lead, as hubris always does, to a terrifying fall — two world wars and then multiple aftermaths has left Britain a confused and puzzled ex-imperial power.

What then could I say to my friend and ally across the Atlantic? Simply this: That all the signs are that America as a whole, despite the wisdom and insight of so many of her people, is currently in much the same position vis a vis the rest of the world as Britain was 150 years ago and Rome was in the first century. Of course there are many differences, but the rhetoric of empire, the assumption of automatic moral superiority, of being the bringer of justice and freedom and peace to the world looks remarkably similar, and like those earlier claims is bound to appear to most of the world remarkably hollow.

The similarity is obvious to the historian not least when we reflect that the reason that Rome was so bothered about the Middle East was to protect the corn supply. And the reason the West — well, you can fill in the rest of it, can’t you.

The hollowness is apparent to anyone who studies the financial and economic institutions set up after the second war to regulate world trade, and now operated obviously and catastrophically so that they serve the interests of the very rich at the continuing expense of the very poor, while at the same time, the political institutions which were established at that moment which as the framework within which that economic activity could make sense — namely the United Nations and International Courts of Justice — have been emasculated by the refusal of the most powerful to support them, except on the rare occasion that it suits.

We must affirm that, yes, God has done great things through this nation, and let’s continue so to do. Let us be grown-up and nuanced with our critiques. While at the same time with Britain as with America, there is a huge danger in imagining that because we were and you are somehow “Christian nations,” this somehow legitimates all that we want to do and all that will be to our national advantage. The minute we go that route, I hear Paul saying what he said with tears of his own countrymen, “They are ignorant of God’s righteousness and seek to establish their own, and so have not submitted to God’s righteousness.”

And when I see a great and overtly Christian nation withdrawing unilaterally from treaties, insisting on the justice of its own cause in one part of the Middle East while continuing to support massive, flagrant, and barbaric wickedness in another part, I want to say with all my power that “Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t,” and “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow,” not least those who invoke him in support of convenient policies, but to ignore him as soon as economic or political interests make that inconvenient.

Further than this I cannot go today, but want to urge you to some joined-up theological and practical thinking at this critical time and to stand up for the Pauline gospel of the Lordship of Jesus over against all arrogant empires of whatever kind.

The Dean of Lichfield, one of England’s oldest cathedrals, N.T. Wright is a New Testament theologian who has taught New Testatment Studies at Oxford, Cambridge, and McGill Universities. His monographs on Jesus and Paul within their Jewish and pagan contexts include: The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (1991); The New Testament and the People of God (1992); and Jesus and the Victory of God (1996). Popular studies include: Who Was Jesus? (1993); The Crown and the Fire (1992); Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (1995); The Lord and His Prayer (1996); The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary (1996); and What St. Paul Really Said (1997).

An mp3 of Wright’s short speach can be heard by clicking here.

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3 responses to this post.

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unsettling read

So to begin with “Paul and Empire” today — tricky stuff. The obvious place to start is with the challenge of contemporary empire. Here I cannot avoid speaking, as a “friendly foreigner,” about the defacto world empire which your country symbolizes and embodies to much of the rest of the world.

But let me begin with my own perspective. We British have some experience with “empire” — and of rebels within it. We had an empire on which the sun never set. For a hundred or more years British ruled the waves, proclaiming loudly our belief in British justice, in the Pax Britannica, in the freedom which we enjoyed and which was our duty, privilege and indeed burden to bring to other parts of the world. Of course, as we gave them these noble gifts, we took care that they payed for them. It doesn’t do to inquire too closely into the sources of the wealth which enabled the great flowering of the arts and architecture and culture in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Suffice it to say that once the slave trade was abolished, there was perhaps slightly less money flowing in that direction.

We have now spent a century counting the cost of empire. Kipling saw it coming: The arrogance which assumed the effortless superiority of our way of life was bound to lead, as hubris always does, to a terrifying fall — two world wars and then multiple aftermaths has left Britain a confused and puzzled ex-imperial power.

What then could I say to my friend and ally across the Atlantic? Simply this: That all the signs are that America as a whole, despite the wisdom and insight of so many of her people, is currently in much the same position vis a vis the rest of the world as Britain was 150 years ago and Rome was in the first century. Of course there are many differences, but the rhetoric of empire, the assumption of automatic moral superiority, of being the bringer of justice and freedom and peace to the world looks remarkably similar, and like those earlier claims is bound to appear to most of the world remarkably hollow.

The similarity is obvious to the historian not least when we reflect that the reason that Rome was so bothered about the Middle East was to protect the corn supply. And the reason the West — well, you can fill in the rest of it, can’t you.

The hollowness is apparent to anyone who studies the financial and economic institutions set up after the second war to regulate world trade, and now operated obviously and catastrophically so that they serve the interests of the very rich at the continuing expense of the very poor, while at the same time, the political institutions which were established at that moment which as the framework within which that economic activity could make sense — namely the United Nations and International Courts of Justice — have been emasculated by the refusal of the most powerful to support them, except on the rare occasion that it suits.

We must affirm that, yes, God has done great things through this nation, and let’s continue so to do. Let us be grown-up and nuanced with our critiques. While at the same time with Britain as with America, there is a huge danger in imagining that because we were and you are somehow “Christian nations,” this somehow legitimates all that we want to do and all that will be to our national advantage. The minute we go that route, I hear Paul saying what he said with tears of his own countrymen, “They are ignorant of God’s righteousness and seek to establish their own, and so have not submitted to God’s righteousness.”

And when I see a great and overtly Christian nation withdrawing unilaterally from treaties, insisting on the justice of its own cause in one part of the Middle East while continuing to support massive, flagrant, and barbaric wickedness in another part, I want to say with all my power that “Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t,” and “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow,” not least those who invoke him in support of convenient policies, but to ignore him as soon as economic or political interests make that inconvenient.

Further than this I cannot go today, but want to urge you to some joined-up theological and practical thinking at this critical time and to stand up for the Pauline gospel of the Lordship of Jesus over against all arrogant empires of whatever kind.

The Dean of Lichfield, one of England’s oldest cathedrals, N.T. Wright is a New Testament theologian who has taught New Testatment Studies at Oxford, Cambridge, and McGill Universities. His monographs on Jesus and Paul within their Jewish and pagan contexts include: The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (1991); The New Testament and the People of God (1992); and Jesus and the Victory of God (1996). Popular studies include: Who Was Jesus? (1993); The Crown and the Fire (1992); Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (1995); The Lord and His Prayer (1996); The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary (1996); and What St. Paul Really Said (1997).

An mp3 of Wright’s short speach can be heard by clicking here.

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