Progressive Religion is Not an Oxymoron – December 2012: The Story of How Jesus Was in Opposition to the Empire—Just in Time for Christmas!

Progressive Religion is Not an Oxymoron – December 2012: The Story of How Jesus Was in Opposition to the Empire—Just in Time for Christmas!
David Roy
David Roy
David Roy

By David E. Roy

The season is upon us! Of course, this really is the season for merchants, this being the old, quaint name for the hyper-skilled marketers of today. I’ve suggested previously that we call this Merchantmas, but that did not catch on. Mostly, we will continue to call this the Christmas season, so named at a time when religion and religious practices held much more power and status in society.

But any semblance of what Jesus was really saying and doing has been long-relegated to the confines of the Sunday morning hour for worship—and even that often glosses over the heart of Jesus’ message.

The only visible Christian world figure who is consistently pointedly pointing to Jesus’ concerns about the treatment of those with the least is Pope Francis, and the vested interests have not been either kind or respectful of his statements.

I am grateful that the ancient document we call the Bible is intact and available. I can imagine some who would rather it be “toned down” a bit.

Six years ago, my first column was on this topic of Jesus and the Christian response to empire; and I want to share a few of the points in the context of this season as an offset to what dominates us today. It was during the G.W. Bush presidency that the neo-cons stopped denying the reality of our nation’s status as an empire—the one and only empire in reality. (See the Charlie Savage book Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency.)

It is painfully clear that President Barack Obama has continued down that same pathway to the point of facilitating the development of the Trans-Pacific Partnership which, if adopted, would enormously fortify the unilateral power of the huge transnational corporations, their financial allies (banks, etc.) and the few hundred individuals and families who control all of this.

So, allow me to bring back to life a few things I said six years ago:

Jesus vs. Empire

So, what has this got to do with Christianity? More than a century of biblical research by thousands of scholars has brought to light some important facts concerning this historical Jesus, the context for his ministry and the nature of the early Christian church.

These academic biblical scholars, at least the vast majority, for a long time have described Jesus of Nazareth as a Jewish rabbi who lived, preached and acted amid a people who were under the fierce control of the Roman Empire.

Virtually everything about his brief recorded ministry must be understood in that context. This perspective extends to the writings of the apostle Paul as well as to most of the other books of the Christian New Testament.

This means, for example, that when Jesus is quoted as speaking of the Kingdom or Reign of God, this needs to be understood (and would have in that day) as being in direct contrast to the oppressive Kingdom or Reign of Caesar. This was a subversive viewpoint. When his early followers called Jesus, “Lord,” this was in opposition to the requirement to call only Caesar, “Lord.” This was a subversive act.

Jesus’ concern for the poor and oppressed, which is considered central to his ministry by most Christians, also must be seen in this context. In fact, many progressive Christians, with the support of leading biblical and theological scholars, believe that Jesus’ outspoken opposition to the greed and power of the Roman Empire was what led to his gruesome execution at the hands of the ruling power of the day. The emperor and his advisors do not like to have their priorities challenged. (Today’s methods are mostly more subtle, but no less controlling and damaging. We don’t nail those who oppose Empire to a cross; we just cross them off the list of people to be listened to and taken seriously.)

A Christian Response to American Empire

Perhaps the best book on the topic of the Christian response to American Empire is American Empire and the Commonwealth of God by David Ray Griffin, John B. Cobb Jr., et al. (Cobb is considered by many to be one of the most important theologians of our time and is someone who has long been concerned about the impact of our current form of global economy in relationship to the human community and the environment. Griffin, a former student of Cobb, has written extensively in many areas of philosophy. Interestingly, he is one of the top 100 recommended scholars to read in China today.)

In this brief book (181 pages), the authors present a clear history of American Empire, particularly since the end of WWII. They argue persuasively that American Empire is neither accidental nor benign. They go below the surface and present information not readily available in the mainstream media. For example, in terms of military domination, they mention a little known fact about U.S. policy for space (the U.S. Space Command). One component of this is called Global Strike, which would permit us to destroy anything anywhere on the planet within 45 minutes. This is a potent form of world domination.

Whereas military imperialism tends to be largely obvious, economic imperialism is often neither obvious nor of great interest to most people. The chapters on our economic imperialism, however, make it painfully clear what far-reaching and disastrous effects our economic “way of life” has had on a vast number of impoverished nations around the world.

The authors assert that economic theory has become the de facto religion of our culture. In the economic current model, there is “no place for community, no place for justice, and no place for the natural world.” Instead of the economy being in the service of society and the environment, it is the other way around: Society and the natural world have become subordinate to economic theory. Current economic theory and practices do not benefit the common good; instead, they benefit transnational corporations, governments and the “elites” who have the power personally and through these institutions to make things happen—or not.

The authors call for the citizens of the world to make radical changes. These changes are ones that are in keeping with the deepest religious values reflected in the teachings and actions of Jesus to seek justice for all and to oppose economic systems that are inherently unjust, even when these systems are maintained and enforced by an empire—Roman or American. These deep religious values are quite similar to ones that can be found in Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. These ideals are a challenge to follow and promote within our culture, the culture of empire.

As Community Alliance readers know all too well, people who lift up these ideals are often ignored, marginalized or attacked. When social, political and religious progressives are able to join together, the result will be greater strength in the efforts to realize these ideals here in the real world.

Important Postscript

In early June of next year, John Cobb and hundreds of others are presenting an enormous conference that aims at no less than addressing the immediate crises we are facing from the environmental damage as well as setting in motion the long-range changes we need to make in order to become a fully ecological society, able to be at peace with ourselves as well as an integral part of the natural world.

I urge all thinking, dedicated progressives to explore the numerous topics and take part in and be a part of a world-changing event. The conference is titled Seizing an Alternative: Toward a Fully Ecological Society. It will be held on the Pomona College Campus in Claremont June 3–7, 2015. To register and for more info, visit


Ordained in the United Church of Christ, David Roy is a pastoral counselor and a California licensed marriage and family therapist who directs the Center for Creative Transformation. He has a Ph.D. in theology and personality from the Claremont (California) School of Theology.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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