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Responding to the Empire:
Becoming Signs of God’s Reign

by Dr. Wati Longchar

Dr. Wati Longchar is the consultant for the Joint CCA-WCC Ecumenical Theological Education. This biblical reflection was presented at the WSCF AP RCM 17th RCM in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 2006.

Dr. Wati Longchar presenting his biblical reflection on Empire at the WSCF RCM.
Dr. Wati Longchar presenting his biblical reflection
on Empire at the WSCF RCM.

In my key note presentation, we have already discussed the reality and challenges posed by the global empire in our times. The importance of discerning the reality of our times and prophetic voice and action is the need of the hour. I have chosen two texts Genesis 47:13-22 and Mark 8:27-9:50 for our reflection to see how the people of God contribute in construction and deconstruction, legitimization and de-legitimization of the empire. There is no historical relationship between the two texts, but both texts speak about the empire. The first passage shows that by choosing the power and mammon, one can become an agent for expansion (of) the empire, and the second text demonstrates that one can denounce and de-legitimize the empire by choosing the way of love and justice.

The Empire of Pharaoh: Genesis 47:13-22

Culture, religion and history are human's construct. In making history and building community, we tend to overlook the plight of the people. While trying to be faithful to one's master to gain higher status and protect one's position in his master's kingdom, the helpless condition of the people are always taken as an advantage to exploit and manipulate for their own advantage. The text speaks of that predicament. The famine came. Food grains finished. People were looking for food everywhere. People were hungry and dying because of the shortage of food grains. It was a time for Pharaoh and Joseph to support and give them food grains preserved and collected by the people. But they took “empty stomach” as an instrument to build empire.

“Now there was no food in all the land; for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished by reason of the famine. And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, for the grain which they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh's house. And when the money was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph, and said, “Give us food; why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.” And Joseph answered, “Give your cattle, and I will give you food in exchange for your cattle, if your money is gone.” So they brought their cattle to Joseph; and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the asses: and he supplied them with food in exchange for all their cattle that year. And when that year was ended, they came to him the following year, and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent; and the herds of cattle are my lord’s; there is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our lands. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be slaves of Pharaoh; and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.” So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe upon them. The land became Pharaoh’s and as for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.” (Gen 47:13-22)

We often read Joseph from the perspective of the elite. Joseph is considered as a man of God with great wisdom, a man who can see the future, a good planner, a person who has ability to mobilize people, a person with high morality, a God-fearing person, and an able administrator. But if we read from the people’s perspective, we see that he protected and contributed to an unjust system and relationship and supported and collaborated in building the empire.

Taking the advantage of famine, Joseph made the Pharaoh an unchallenged ‘capitalist’, a ‘dictator’ and a ‘landlord’, and finally an empire. For building Pharaoh's empire, Joseph did four things. In all these, people were the losers and became victims.

It was the time for Joseph to give and share the food... But...

First, he gathered all the money from the people in exchange of grains. He made people moneyless. Second, he gathered all the properties and livestock from the people in exchange for grains. He made people property-less.

Third, he gathered all the lands from people in exchange for grains. He made people landless.

Fourth, he bought all the bodies of people in exchange for grains. He made people slaves.

Do we also contribute in building an empire?

Resisting the Empire

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:42-50)

Context – Divide, Manipulate and Rule

A central message of the Gospel of Mark is that people should live in peace and prosperity. The Romans succeeded in colonizing Palestine and ruled over them. Division, instigation of civil wars, manipulation and exploitation of people kept the empire in power.

  1. The Roman Empire: Palestine became subjected to the rule of the Roman Empire in 63 B.C.E. The empire remained in firm control over matters of foreign policy and serious domestic dissent (e.g. capital punishment). Heavy imposition of tribute to a foreign power offended religious sensibilities, which ignited zealous feelings of revolt, and hopes for divine revolutionary intervention. For example, a war broke out between the Jews and the Greeks in coastal city of Caesarea. In 66 AD, Florus, under the order from Emperor Nero, attempted to expropriate funds from the temple treasury in Jerusalem. Mass demonstrations resulted in which Jewish civilians were ruthlessly crushed by Roman troops, who also tried to storm the temple. Religious sanctity was violated. Such resistance movement against Roman power was seen as a threat for people’s peaceful co-existence, especially by the empire.

  2. The empire collaborators: Many Jews joined hands with the Empire for want of power and mammon. The Jewish collaborators became a threat for peaceful existence of the people. The Zealots fought against the Jewish collaborators. The Jewish-Roman collaborators became the target of attack everywhere. Like suicide bombing or terrorist tactics in today’s context, a popular form of armed resistance applied by Zealots was political assassination which was called ‘sicarii’ (dagger man). The sicarii directed their attacks against fellow Jews, not against Roman soldiers or officials. It is said that they employed three tactics to fight the collaborators: (a) selective, symbolic assassinations; (b) more general assassinations along with plundering of the property of the wealthy and powerful; and (c) kidnapping for ransom. Likewise, a series of violent clashes and cycles of revenge took place between the Empire, its collaborators and resistance groups during the time of Mark.

  3. The exploited poor: Under the Empire, the poor were oppressed in various ways. They were made to pay multiple taxes to the Romans, to the local political leaders like Herod, to the temple and to the tax collector. Increase of debt was one of the key problems that contributed to tension and unrest. The aristocracy increased the capital through usury. The poor who took the loans were rarely able to meet the established terms. Peasants were reduced to selling off or forfeiting their farms and becoming part of a rural proletariat of growing size and volatile political ambitions. That was one of the reasons why the rebels led by Eleazer burnt the public archives where the records of debt were kept. Tension between urban and rural communities grew. The more Hellenistic urbanism penetrated in Palestine, the deeper the contradictions and imbalance grew between the different needs of city and village. While the urban elites, masters of the great states consume far more luxury goods and taxes, the living condition of the rural masses deteriorated due to various forms of exploitation which ignited hatred, injustice and violence.

At this time of Roman Empire that Mark is talking about God's reign. He called people to work together for realization of God's reign. The reign of God is characterized by freedom and fellowship, friendship, forgiveness, respect, reconciling, love and justice. It is an active action.

Mark's Model of Resistance

In an empirical where communities were driven with all sorts of political, economic, social and religious conflicts and manipulation, Mark opined that a salted way of life alone can bring a lasting shalomic community. It means invisible but active presence in a given context. That God's reign visualized by Jesus and sought to be realized by him is a community of shalom for all. It is life marked with abundance and ‘taste’, shared by the people in this world. It is shalom and tranquility of life, of abundant life. But this abundance, for Mark, does not necessarily mean material abundance alone, but also abundance of life, of freedom, of love, of relationship, of joy, of sharing, of mutual self-gift and service.

Mark challenged the violent way of resistance maintained by the empires, zealots, collaborators by comparing the follower of Jesus Christ with salt. Mark challenged to respond to enmity with love. It is a challenge to use moral force that is more powerful than physical force. Physical force can control and dominate. But it does not challenge the freedom of humanity of the other. It cannot change hearts and transform persons. It cannot build relationship. It cannot form community of shalom for all.

While speaking about resistance against evil forces and empire, though Mark recognized God's preferential option for the poor in his liberating act, he did not suggest that once the rich and the powerful are overthrown and the poor and the oppressed take over there will be shalom. Rather, Mark speaks of a radical transformation of society, based on a different set of values—the values of God's reign, namely justice and fellowship, freedom and humility, love and service. His goal was not to make the rich poor and the poor rich, but to create a society of equals. He stood for the transformation of the unjust and unequal structures of the existing social order of his time based on the values of God's reign.

To make the Gospel of Jesus relevant and contextual to his audience, Mark used the metaphorical expression of salt. In the ancient world, salt was valued as gold in today's usage. The Greeks called “salt” divine (theion). It is said that the Roman soldiers were given salt as salary because of its high value. Both the words ‘salary’ and ‘soldier’ came from ‘salt’. Jews used salt for purification (II Kings 2:19-23). When the salt was mixed with incense, the sacrificial elements became pure and holy (Ex. 30:35). At the time of Jesus, people associated salt with three special values:

  1. Preservation: There was no refrigerator at the time of Jesus. The climatic condition of Palestine was not suitable to keep food for a long time. Yet people need to preserve food during wars and famine. Salt solved that problem. It was used as a preservative to keep things, particularly food, from going rotten. The fishing community in Palestine heavily depended on salt to preserve fish from rotting.
  2. Healing: As mentioned earlier, both the Jews and the Romans were constantly engaged in war. Soldiers were wounded. There were no medical facilities like today. Salt was considered as one of the best medicines for healing wounds.
  3. Purification: The Romans held the view that salt was the purest of all things, because it came from the purest of all things, the sun and the seas. According to Jewish practice, every sacrifice must be salted with salt before it was offered to God on the alter (Lev. 2:13). Sacrificial salt was called the salt of the covenant (Num. 18:9; 2 Chro. 13:5). Salt made the sacrifice acceptable to God. It purified and made things acceptable to God. Salt had a strong religious significance.

Due to its purifying, sustaining and antiseptic qualities, salt became an emblem of fidelity and friendship/loyalty amongst the eastern nations (Ezra 4:14). To have “eaten of his salt” and thus partaken of one's hospitality, was and still is regarded by the Arabs as a token or pledge of eternal amity. Hence, in the Bible it is used as an emblem of the covenant, thus ‘a covenant of salt’ (Num 18:19 2 Ch 13:5). In this context, Mark might have understood the sayings of Jesus in the passage as a general exhortation to hospitality and covenant loyalty.

Therefore, presenting the reign of God by using the salt metaphor, Mark placed resistance for justice and peace as an imperative social responsibility. He put justice in action. Salt must be “in you” to discern divine wisdom. Mark redirected the fervor of his community so that their expectation of God’s imminent intervention would encourage a “Jesus” response of transformative service and sacrifice rather than a “Zealot” response of military engagement. Armed rebellion does not bring peace.

How do we fight against the empire? Reflection and sharing.

Conclusion

The value of God's reign is the power that de-legitimizes the empire. We live in a world of grave contradictions, poverty, disease, violence and injustice. We live in a world where religion legitimizes empire and in the name of religion, and religious identity, some of the most heinous acts of violence are committed. When we do not uphold the values of journeying together, cooperate, respect and reconcile with one another in the spirit of serving, healing, working and sharing together with love, forgiveness we lost saltiness.

 

 

The Reign of God – Justification for Resistance Against Empire

According to Mark, any power, system or practice that hinders the realization of the reign of God must be challenged, opposed and transformed. The empire is contrary to the teachings of Jesus. In Mark's understanding, the reign of God includes many dimensions of life.

To fight and resist any power, institution and person that hinder the realization of the Reign of God is morally justifiable. To remain a silent spectator is sin and immoral.