Towards a Post-Civilizational Praxis

For Jim Flynn and Pat Geier

A Reflection on John Dominic Crossan God & Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now [2007]

In the past few awful, maleficent years of the Bush Administration, a spate of books has appeared in which the word “empire” is used as applicable to the United States itself. In his latest work, Scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan brings his research on the historical Jesus to bear on this timely, terrifying matter of empire.

Crossan’s book is a sustained meditation on three options available to us in the early 21st century: Civilization, Anti-Civilization, and Post-Civilization. According to Crossan, Civilization, contrary to its uncritical and zealous celebrants, is full of barbarism. For one recent example, think of 20th century Germany and its philosophical, intellectual, musical, and cultural wealth and its death camps. Empires of successive civilization have wielded military, economic, political, and ideological power to further their self-serving aims.

Anti-Civilization may be less pervasive historically, but it is certainly on the rise currently in the United States: in this apocalyptical camp, some people believe that the planetary collapse of this world is the necessary prelude to a better life for the righteous (themselves) in the next. Think of those fundamentalist Christians who seem to have never heard of the Sermon on the Mount but who are breathless readers and avid citers of the Book of Revelation.

What Crossan calls Post-Civilization is really the nonviolent alternative taught and embodied by the Jesus movement of the first century of the Common Era. Jesus and Paul and the first Christians countered the reigning Roman imperial theology, which Crossan sums up sequentially this way: “religion, war, victory, peace,” or more briefly, “peace through victory.” [23] What a familiar ring that has to it, to anyone paying attention to news coming out of Washington and Baghdad. What the Jesus Movement embodied sequentially, according to Crossan, is this: “religion, nonviolence, justice, peace”or more succinctly, “first justice, then peace,” or ˜peace through justice.” More particularly, Crossan states that the “logic of Jesus’ Kingdom program is a mutuality of healing (the basic spiritual power) and eating (the basic physical power) shared freely and openly. That program built a share-community from the bottom up as a positive alternative to Antipas’ Roman greed-community established from the top down.” [118]

At the end of his book, Crossan asks the following questions: (1) How is it possible to be a faithful Christian in the American Empire? (2) How is it possible to be a nonviolent Christian within a violent Christianity based on a violent Bible? (3) How is it possible to be a faithful Christian in an American Empire facilitated by a violent Christian Bible? [237] Of course, the answers are easy, it’s the practice and the incarnation that is demanding: Yes, it is possible to be a faithful Christian in the U.S. Empire as it was for Jesus and his students to be faithful during the Roman Empire by sharing food with the hungry, becoming humble instruments of healing, opposing the collaboration between religious leadership and the empire, and crossing borders and boundaries to recognize others as sister and brother.

The obvious fact is that many people in the churches (and their clerical leaders) are in thrall to the idol of Civilization, American-style, with all of its wealth, self-pride, injustice, and militarism. And yet there have been grass-roots Christian movements in recent decades that, while marginal to the mainstream with its sanctification of the greed-community, resist such idolatry of power and might and instead seek to live out the nonviolence of Jesus, from the Catholic Worker communities and Witness for Peace to Plowshares and Pax Christi.

And while it may not be obvious to the cheerleading-for-America church-goers, there are so many outside the churches who, while they may know or care little about Jesus, live out the essence of his counter-imperial program. One example that immediately comes to mind is Starhawk, who, in her fusion of spirituality and activism, dares to oppose U.S. empire and offer an alternative path into a future of equality. Another is the engaged Buddhism promoted and practiced by Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh and his students. Speaking to Christians in the conclusion of his book, Crossan offers the following mission: “we are called to cooperate in establishing the Kingdom of God on a transformed earth. In the challenge of human evolution, we are called to Post-Civilization, to imagine it, create it, and to enjoy it on a transfigured earth.” [242] Pondering Crossan’s words in the context of each day’s news from Iraq or the deterioration of our own cities ought to reveal the enormous, exhilarating, and costly task ahead of us. Latin Americans like to quote the Spanish poet: We make the path by walking it.

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