Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Why is the Cross counter-imperial?

In the comments, my sparring partner, Eddie poses this question:

Could you perhaps flesh out why 'picking up the cross' would be understood as counter-imperial? Could it not equally be understood as resignation, acceptance of Roman power of them.

It seems to me that while this remains within the realms of the possible, given the context of Jesus' teaching and announcement, it remains unlikely. As I hope to demonstrate in the near future, Jesus saw his mission and message as one announcing the return and reign of YHWH over the regathered people of YHWH.

The evidence which we will survey suggests that Jesus' attitude to the Romans was much like that described in Josephus with the speech of Eleazar ben Yair, commander of the defendants of Masada, noted their determination:

Long since, my brave men, we determined neither to serve the Romans nor any other except YHWH, for he alone is humanity's true LORD; and now the time is come which bids us verify that resolution by our actions. (J.W. 7.8.6 §323)

This attitude presumably expresses a violent revolutionary tendency. Jesus however, would probably share the sentiment and conviction of YHWH being the only that there is "No King but YHWH" and that YHWH is the only rightful LORD, but would shy away from violent revolt (Matt 5:9; 39; 43-44).
However, the more important question beckons us, why did people go to the cross? What was the general reason for the Romans crucifying people? The usual tactic of the Romans was to crucify those who had "an invincible passion for liberty and take God for their only leader and lord" (Ant 18.1.6 §23). [It appears their willingness to die for their way of life was an integral part of their ideology, connected with a belief in recompense in the world to come (JW 1.33.1 §650; cf. Ant 17.6.1 §152; JW 1.16.2 §311).] Romans crucified those who defied Imperial Authority in either word or deed. They made it a habit to crucify the lestai [Bandits/Brigands]. More often, however, Josephus describes the rebels as plain criminals. The Barabbas released on the crowds request at the time of Jesus’ trial was, according to Mark, "among the rebels who had committed murder in the insurrection" (Mark 15:7; cf. Luke 23:19). However, John calls him a bandit (Gk lestes; John 18:40).

The connection seems clear then: those who incited revolt against the authority of Rome were crucified. Thus, Jesus' use of the image pick up your cross, suggests 'embrace' the revolution. Given Jesus' teachings on being peace-makers, loving enemies, turning the other cheek and the specific command not to antistenai [resist] evil [See discussion in JVG, pg. 291], it seems axiomatic that the revolution he was proposing was not one of military instigation or violence.

So to conclude, Tom Wright is possibly correct in his parody:

Jesus was more like a politician on the campaign trail than a schoolmaster; more like a composer/conductor than a violin teacher; more like a subversive playwrite than an actor. He was a herald, the bringer of an urgent message that could not wait, could not become the stuff of academic debate. He was issuing a public announcment, like someone driving through a town with a loudhailer. he was issuing a public warning, like a man with a red flag heading off an imminent railway disaster. he was issuing a public invitation, like someone setting up a new political party and summoning all and sundry to sign up and help create a new world. [Wright, JVG, pg. 172]

Jesus was setting up a KINGDOM/EMPIRE that was directly opposed to that of the Roman emperor. His was one of authentic peace via a renewed covenant with YHWH through himself. Jesus was the reality of which Caesar was merely the parody. If the earth is YHWH's and everything in it, (Ps 24:1) if the gospel is for all nations [Mk 13:10], then there can be no other KING but YHWH - and that is exactly what Jesus was claiming.

However, this argument must now be substantiated with arguments for the historicity of the key passages we have made mention of. But I think it can be done and it already arouses interest due to the criterion of historical plausibility [Jews regularly had something to say about Roman oppression] and the fact that Rome finally destroyed this alternative vision by doing what they did to all those who proposed a renascence of sovereignty to YHWH or to Messianic claimants. They crucified them and publicly humiliated that vision and agenda. That's what Pseudo-Quintillian, Declamations, 274 notes:

Whenever we crucify the condemned, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this terror. For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect.

Does that satisfy the objector?

1 comment:

eddie said...

“Jesus was setting up a KINGDOM/EMPIRE that was directly opposed to that of the Roman emperor. His was one of authentic peace via a renewed covenant with YHWH through himself. Jesus was the reality of which Caesar was merely the parody. If the earth is YHWH's and everything in it, (Ps 24:1) if the gospel is for all nations [Mk 13:10], then there can be no other KING but YHWH - and that is exactly what Jesus was claiming.”

Yes Jesus probably believed that there is "no king but YHWH", but the question is, what kind of king did he believe YHWH was, and how did he envision YHWH carrying out his reign? In other words, what shape was the kingdom of God to take in the present and in the future? I see no evidence within Jesus sayings that his followers had to bring Caesar down. What he did do was re-commission those within God’s people who accepted the call to drop their agenda’s for Israel and follow him as the Messiah fro God, to continue Israel’s purpose, but now heightened to discipling the nations. Through this, all humanity would come to serve the one king, YHWH.

Once again with crucifixion, it was not only revolutionaries who were crucified, but all manner of people who committed crimes. Yes these crimes were against Roman Imperial order, but not all were designed to overthrow or undermine it. It is likely, however, that in the context of Jesus ministry with the various symbols and stories he was evoking, that the saying would have been heard by those gathering around him, against the context of Roman power to suppress Jewish revolution.

If indeed, to pick up ones cross does suggest embrace the revolution (which I am not convinced of at the yet), then the reshaping that Jesus did to the means of that revolution, turns it more into social protest than active resistance or opposition (what ever form the latter takes).

I think the aim should be, not to find out whether Jesus had an opinion on Caesar and his reign (which he no doubt did), but whether this formed part of his mission to the Jews. It may be seen, against a thorough knowledge of his 1st Century context, that what he was saying and doing was indeed “revolutionary” (not literally) within his context and that it did have definite and dramatic implications for the future of Caesar’s Empire. But, it may not be (and I don’t think it was) that he encouraged or instructed active rebellion against it (as opposed to more passive protest or perhaps subversion which I think he did). Jesus focused not on Israel’s political situation (other than to discourage zealous nationalism, and perhaps nationalism altogether), but on her then current failure in fulfilling their purpose of being a light to the nations (Mt. 5-7).