Friday, May 18, 2007

Satan's Throne - Part 6

[This is the conclusion of a six-part series originally posted on the blog of St. Cuthbert's Episcopal Church, Oakland, California, in February 2006. I am posting it here on my own blog to share my thoughts with a new audience.]
My high school history and humanities teacher, Alan Amend, awakened in me a love of history. My interest in it has its crests and troughs, but it has endured. One of the peaks was toward the end of my (first) seminary years when I had visions of becoming a Church history professor. I began a graduate program in history at UCLA that did not last long. Although I concluded that such an intense academic focus was not for me, my gratitude for those extra years in history had endured. History gives us a sense of perspective that spans continents and millennia.

The awareness of prior generations with their various challenges, triumphs, and defeats can liberate us from assuming that we are the first or last or best to wrestle with anything. or that ours is the definitive frame of reference. So it has come to pass that I view the current parade of events both grateful to be living when I do and aware that we are but one of history's many chapters. Even in my teens and twenties I was drawn to the sobering reminders of poets.

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Percy Bysshe Shelley

We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation:
nothing like us ever was.
—Carl Sandburg, “Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind” (1922)

Taken out of context the quotations above suggest grandeur, but the poems in their entirety are sobering challenges to hubris, the pride that is the seed of downfall in the ancient Greek tragedies. Shelley’s Ozymandias speaks of the shattered remains of this great king’s statue and concludes as follows:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Sandburg, writing a century after Shelley’s death, speaks of crows and rats in deserted ruins, concluding thus:

And the wind shifts
and the dust on a door sill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the
greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.

What, then, endures if great civilizations fall to dust and ruin, or are swallowed up by vegetation and forgotten? What will our legacy be?

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume
and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in
heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in
and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20)

It would seem that Caesar’s standards are not those of Jesus. Enduring riches or fame are stored up “in heaven” or in God. In ordinary terms we think of grass withering but gold enduring, yet St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians reminds us that it is faith, hope, and love that endure.

I find it both amusing and deeply chilling to read the words of Gary Schmitt in a memorandum from January 2001: “…[T]he preservation of a decent world order depends chiefly on the exercise of American leadership.” This is part of a discussion about the International Criminal Court and its rejection by participants in the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). What troubles me about the sentence is the idea that American leadership, no matter how important in globally politics, would be a chief element in the preservation of a decent world order. It implies that without one particular nation there would be little hope of decent order in the world, as though one nation either controlled or guaranteed decency or order! “Nothing like us ever was,” I hear in the background, as rats and lizards listen (but they do not applaud and cheer).

Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts. (Zechariah 4:6)

That which gives value to our lives and is of lasting value is not the monuments we erect but the love we share, the justice we do, and the mercy we show.

In spite my own political biases, this is not a partisan rant. It does not matter which political party is ascendant, what the affiliation of any current President, which factions control Congress, what ideologies appeal to those whose wealth and influence shape the fate of millions. My concern here is with human choices, human actions, and their consequences for the average denizen of the earth. As an American, my concern is with the behavior of the United States as it embodies the dreams and the principles of our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. As a Christian, my concern is with how those of us who seek to follow Christ, or claim that we do, actually make decisions, take actions, cast votes, speak up, or remain passive when the collective reality of our government—a government designed to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people—shapes the lives and fates of our citizens and of the rest of the world’s inhabitants.

Do we choose Jesus or Caesar? The way of love or the way of power? The way of reconciliation or the way of vengeance? The way of justice or the way of personal aggrandizement? Grasping or sharing? Judging or understanding? Advantage or mutuality? Greed or generosity? Hospitality or hostility? Peace or war? Sustainability or exploitation? Liberation or oppression? Hope or fear? Hearts that are open or closed? Truth or deceit? Integrity or corruption?

To say “Jesus is Lord” is to relativize all other claims to our allegiance. Caesar cannot be Lord if Jesus is, and neither can anyone else, including corporate entities. Not a governmental figure nor a company. Those who have been “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever” cannot owe their soul to the “company store.” Those delivered from bondage in Egypt do not return to Pharaoh. Those set free by Christ do not belong to anyone less than God. Do we then act as God’s people?

Do we speak out? Do we stand up? Or do we sit back and wait for God to sort it all out, when God is waiting for us to join in God’s work and be the Body of Christ in our time? Do remember that Jesus does not call us that we may be comforted but that we may be transformed and become agents of God’s love, healing, and grace?

We remember Jesus’ sense of mission:
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:16-21)

Do we accept our own?
Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so
I send you." (John 20:21)

There is work to be done. The average American worker earns less in constant dollars than several years ago. A huge segment of our population has no health insurance. The gap between rich and poor is swelling. Huge breaks are given to industries making immense profits while budget cuts penalize the already marginalized. The laws of the land are being flouted by those charged specifically with enforcing them. Basic human rights are being treated as optional. There are ethical and spiritual principles at stake in how we behave as a society, and I am not speaking here of individual morality but of the demonstrable fate of the many. A vision of the commonweal, the collective good, is something that has been diminishing over the decades, and that is something that flies in the face of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8) is NOT to be doormats for Jesus. Note that we walk humbly with God, we do not let others ride over us roughshod. Those who do justice and love mercy are not wimps who watch in silence while injustice takes place.

I issue no call here to establish a theocracy in our land. That would be an abomination. But we have a responsibility to help shape the direction of our cities, our states, our nation.

My sisters and brothers, we decide every day of our lives. Which shall it be?


Or Jesus?

Previous installments:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Satan's Throne - Part 5

In the best tradition of Hebrew prophets, Jesus was a threat to the social order. His teachings defied accepted wisdom, he hung out with all manner of outcasts, his interactions with women were remarkable for that time, and his message carried an egalitarian flavor. He defied religious traditions and placed people above rules, above profits, above power. Religious leaders considered him a heretic and blasphemer, and Rome eyed him as a potential insurrectionist. Talk of an alternative reign to that of Caesar was not acceptable on any level. His rejection of every form of exploitation challenged the way things were. Jesus was a troublemaker.

The new society that he proclaimed was a threat to entrenched structures. Alliances of “church” and state that worked for mutual enrichment of the very few at the apex of the social structure and left all others at their mercy had no place for Jesus alternate vision.

By now, no matter how intriguing this background may be to some, the reader is wondering why I have spent so much time on it all. Well, here is where the rubber hits the road.

What do these competing visions have to do with our lives today? Where do we see the way of Jesus and the way of Caesar? How do they operate and how do we disentangle ourselves from the way of Caesar in order to follow Jesus?

An empire built on military force has been tried throughout the millennia, but no matter what divine blessings they invoke upon themselves, the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse all call empires to account before God. They must give an account of how they treat the least among them, for Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats is, if we trust what Matthew writes, a judgment not only of individuals but of nations.

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one
from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put
the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. (Matthew

Hillel the Elder, whose life overlapped that of Jesus, preceded Jesus in noting the criterion of pleasing God:
That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation. Go and study it. (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a)

Jesus spoke similarly:

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:34-40)

Empires are not run on love. The reign of God is. Since we cannot equate earthly nations and empires with the reign of God, I do not propose we evaluate them in terms of love. But I do believe we must hold them to the standard of justice, and that involves treatment of the “last and least.”

The friends and followers of Jesus should be working for liberation of the oppressed, care of the sick, feeding of the hungry, shelter for the homeless, equitable treatment of the marginalized. Jesus did not treat anyone as dispensable or irrelevant.
What does it say for our nation if laws are passed and budgets structured that favor insurers over the insured, pharmaceutical giants over the sick, energy conglomerates over those who cannot afford fuel to get to work or heat for their homes, banks and financial institutions over their customers? How can we brag of higher standards for our schools when we do not provide the means to meet those standards and the attention our children need to learn and thrive? How can we leave the people one of America’s great cities to languish while bragging about our efforts to rebuild New Orleans? How can we extend the service of our troops in battle and cut spending on the Veteran’s Administration that cares for them when they come home? How can we send young men and women to fight for the United States when do not provide them with adequate armor? How can we reduce society’s safety net for the poorest while the gap between rich and poor widens obscenely and the level of those living below the poverty line increases?

Where are our national priorities when we extend our military and economic presence without taking care of our own poor, sick, elderly, and young? Why are we reducing the burden on the very wealthy while increasing it for everyone else? What does it say about the value we place on our children and our children’s children when the nation goes deeper and deeper into debt?

What does the way of Jesus have to say about corruption, secrecy, and lies? Where are today’s prophets who will stand up and speak boldly on behalf of the dispossessed? Who will be our next Martin Luther King, Jr.? Our Mohandas Gandhi? Our Desmond Tutu? Our Oscar Romero? Our Harriet Tubman or Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Our Chief Joseph or Sealth? Our Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Hosea? Our Mary?

When the Soviet Union held nations under its thumb with ruthless brutality and suppressed all freedoms, Ronald Reagan named it an Evil Empire. The Soviet Union collapsed and for the moment there is one superpower on the planet, though China may be able to challenge that before long. Have we become an empire or aspire to do so? What does this say about our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and our Bill of Rights? What are our national ideals today, our goals? If it is our deeds that tell the truth and not our words, where do we stand?

I believe Jesus challenges us today to remake our society. That does not mean we can create the reign of God on our own and it certainly does not mean we should restructure our nation to conform to ours or any other belief system. It does mean we, as Christians, have a duty to help shape the structures of our society so they favor justice, freedom, and the common good. We must oppose injustice, oppression, and the greed and lust for power that ignores the wellbeing of all. Jesus or Caesar—whom do we serve?

Conclusion in Part 6

Satan's Throne - Part 4

[Crossposted from St. Cuthbert's, Oakland, blog. Part 4 of 6]

The Bible’s contrast between Christ and empire is stark. For all the imagery of the ideal deliverer and ruler that derives from the propaganda machine of the Davidic dynasty, the early Christians radically redefine the notion of God’s Anointed (Messiah/Christ). Their experience of Jesus did not fulfill messianic expectations. David delivered Israel from the threat of the Philistines and expanded Israel’s borders. Jesus did not deliver the people from Rome’s grip nor did he establish a worldly kingdom. From all appearances, his kingship was a joke and it was mocked. Many of the most vivid images of the Passion involve brutal jests related to his supposed sovereignty: the crown of thorns, the robe, the title Pilate had placed on the cross (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews), and the taunts of the onlookers.
"Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews"
Rome’s rule was brutal and it is difficult to envision any empire maintaining a hold on the nations without strong and savage force. Crucifixion was a method of execution intended not merely to kill the most heinous criminals and threats to Roman rule, it was meant to humiliate and to warn. It was a form of blatant terrorism. A person was stripped, nailed to a cross, and left not only to asphyxiate slowly and painfully (or perish from dehydration or shock) but also to hang there and rot, a reminder to all passersby that this is what happens to those who oppose Rome. Crucifixion was designed to instill fear and horror, to quench any flickering dreams of opposing the empire. Rome’s message was clear to all: This is what we think of your “king.”

Indeed, the evangelists themselves take great pains to establish contrasts. What sort of king is born and laid in a feeding trough? What sort of king’s birth is announced not in palaces but to shepherds, persons involved in a semi-unclean occupation? If Augustus can order the known world to participate in a census, what can this Jesus do? What does it mean to give Caesar what is Caesar’s and give God what belongs to God? What sort of messiah gathers no army? Indeed, what sort of fool heads straight to Jerusalem, where all his enemies await, and does nothing to evade capture and execution?

As far as Rome was concerned, one more potential troublemaker has been dealt with, one more wannabe threat eliminated. But what sort of threat to Rome did Jesus pose?
Tiberius and Jesus: Crown of Laurel, Crown of Thorns

Luke draws on the Song of Hannah and gives us a hint in the Song of Mary (Magnificat).

[God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)

This proclamation of God’s character expressed in action speaks clearly of social reversals. Had Mary been speaking in the 20th century, she may have begun with “come the revolution….” When Jesus said “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” he was not upholding the status quo. (Matthew 20:16)

It is one thing to hear a person read a passage from Isaiah in the synagogue—"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor," and another to hear the reader then assert, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:18-21)
The Coronation of Jesus from an early Christian sarcophagus

Good news for the poor almost always means bad news for those who live off the toil of the poor. Higher wages mean lower profits and those who are especially fond of high profits will resist raising a worker’s pay any more than necessary. When you are dealing with the economy of the ancient Mediterranean world where all but a few percent of the population were peasants living in or near poverty, the landowners and employers held all the cards. There was no union and no power that would uphold the lot of the poor. Except for one: God. The God of Israel had expressed a concern for the marginalized throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien—these were mentioned again and again as being dear to Yahweh. They were not to be forgotten, abused, or oppressed, and God was watching and judging. Job’s claim to innocence was based not on rules he had kept but on his care for exactly these people.

Jesus was following this tradition of promoting social justice in the name of God’s justice. One would think the religious authorities would have welcomed someone whose words and deeds were so in keeping with the Scriptures, so revealing of God’s character.

They, however, profited from the way things were and had an understanding with Rome. Jesus threatened their position and power just as he threatened the imperial power with words that, no matter how rooted in the Jewish tradition, sounded radical to their ears. He could only be a lawbreaker and a blasphemer. He needed to be dealt with.

Continued in Part 5

Earlier posts:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Satan's Throne - Part 3

Jesus came proclaiming a different kind of rule than that of any known empire. His opening message was that “[t]he time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) To those around him the known rulers were Herod, the half-Jewish and half-Idumaean kinglet whose power was entirely under Roman authority, and Tiberius Caesar. What could this “kingdom of God” be? Especially one that Jesus seems to consider more important than self-preservation.

We have come to understand that Jesus used the term not to suggest territories, bureaucracies, armies, and such—the usual trappings of a kingdom—but the “reign” of God, the realization of God’s will and rule on earth. It remains a strange concept to those who never talk about it, ponder it, and wrestle with what it means in our lives here and now.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)

Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31-33)

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs." (Matthew 19:14)
It is not a reign of coercion, though God might well make any and all claims on us creatures. Jesus does not impose; he proclaims and invites. Some respond with faith and follow him. Some respond with doubt or conflicting values and do not follow. Some respond with fear or anger and resist Jesus and what he announces. Jesus’ way is not the way of empire. As God spoke to King Zerubbabel through the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” (Zech. 4:6)

Jesus answered [Pilate], "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the [Jewish leaders]. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." (John 18:36)
It is not a reign based on getting and keeping but on giving. The point of riches is to use them for the common good, to share with those who have not. This is not the way of modern commerce or individual estate planning. Jesus proclaimed an “estate plan” that laid up treasures on another level altogether, where moth, rust, thieves, the stock market, and the IRS can do no harm. Caesar and his far-flung tax collectors would not understand.

"You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." (Mark 10:21)

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (Luke 14:12-14)

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)
It is not a reign of exploitation. The God of Israel is known first and foremost for setting slaves free. The Exodus is the foundational story for the people of Israel, telling of their origin as a people and the God who gave them an identity.

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (The first “commandment” of the Decalogue—Exodus 20:2)

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. (Psalm 146:5-9)

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)
It is not a reign of dominion or division. The path which Jesus calls us to follow is one that rejects the artificial distinctions that we use to define the “other” and create division. Without such distinctions it is difficult to justify one person lording it over another. This does not entail a rejection of all authority but clearly implies an end to the abuse of power. Arrogance and servility alike have no place in God’s reign. In this Jesus follows the best traditions of the Torah, the prophets, the psalmists, and the sages.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:11-18)

You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 24:22)

“I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15)

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
Continued in Part 4

Previous posts:
Part 1
Part 2

Satan's Throne - Part 2

The Pergamene martyr Antipas was among those persecuted, evidently for refusing to worship the emperor. To most Romans this was a formality similar to reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag, but to Christians it involved calling Caesar “Lord” and acknowledging the emperor’s divinity. The mere act of tossing a few grains of incense on the fire before the emperor’s statue was, to devout Christians whose religious roots were in Judaism, an act of apostasy and idolatry. Jews had been exempted from this civic ritual as the empire had realized their faith, unlike all the other known religions, would simply not allow it. But Christians, once they had been evicted from the synagogues as no longer being authentically Jewish, did not have this exemption.

The entire book of the Apocalypse is riddled with references to the question of whether Jesus is Lord or Caesar is Lord. Whose is the ultimate power? Who is truly divine? Who has the last word? Whose is the final victory? John’s pastoral answer is clear: Jesus is Lord and his is the victory. Those who remain faithful to Christ will share in his victory. The way of the empire is the way of death but the way of Christ is life.

What are these two contrasting paths?

The way of empire is always the way of power. Influence is extended through military and economic means, taking advantage of geography and natural and human resources. Cultural and ideological tendencies are yoked to political intent. Propaganda is nothing new, though sometimes it is subtle. The masterful Roman poet P. Vergilius Maro (Vergil or Virgil) managed, through no accident, to flatter the emperor Augustus through the epic Aeneid, a poem that traces Rome’s heritage back to the Trojans who survived the fall of Troy and many perils and temptations thereafter on their journey to Italy. The story of Aeneas and his travels provides a myth that shapes Roman values and legitimizes the Julian line currently in power, for Aeneas was the son of the Trojan Anchises and the goddess Venus, and his son Iulus gave his name, so the story goes, to the clan of Julius Caesar. The imperial line is divine and divinely favored and Rome’s glory under Augustus prophesied. The skeptics among us will note that the epic poem was written in the time of Augustus, thus making it one of those prophecies after the fact, or vaticinia ex eventu (to use the technical term). A mere quibble. Ignore the man behind the propaganda curtain.

The Roman colisseum in Nîmes, France, where I spent an afternoon in autumn 1967. Still functional after all these years.

Roman aqueduct over the Gard River in Provence (Pont du Gard)

The Roman temperament favored organization, discipline, and bureaucracy. A tension existed between a recognition of rule by law and the whim of some rulers, to be sure, but an empire-wide consistency could be achieved. The Roman army was well trained, Roman engineers were skilled. Roads, aqueducts, and buildings constructed two thousand years ago still stand. I got to watch a non-lethal bull fight in the city of Nîmes, sitting in a coliseum built by the Romans and still fully functioning. What especially amazed me was that thousands of people could exit in minutes, something I would never see in a modern structure.

Even with the temperate Roman climate and various societal traits, the Roman Empire was built with the toil of slaves, shrewd commerce, and military might. Slaves in the City of Rome itself are estimated to have been one third the total population.

Everything about Jesus challenged the society he lived in. Most Christians are aware of the challenges Jesus posed to Jewish religious authorities and the traditions that had grown up over the centuries and become dear to the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and priests. These conflicts and Jesus’ position with respect to them are widely taught and preached. The political conflicts are discussed less and this shortchanges the Gospel.

Satan's Throne - Part 1

[I am reposting this series from the blog of St. Cuthbert's Episcopal Church, Oakland, California, where I posted them in February 2006. Just wanted them on my own blog, especially since the daily choice between death and life is ever with us. The New Testament frequently illustrates that choice as the question of the imperial way of domination or Jesus' way of love and justice lived out in reciprocity.]

In a time and place where speakers and writers depict the world in harsh contrasts of black and white, of good and evil, of right and wrong, those of us who are fond of the myriad shades of gray—not to mention the countless hues of the rainbow—hesitate even to begin a discussion with mention of Satan. Immediately images arise and our most fevered fantasies and fears color anything that may follow.

For some it may be an almost comic devil, mocked in Hallowe’en costumes or as the pushover paramour of Saddam Hussein on South Park. [If you don’t catch this reference, better you should not ask.] Some others may conjure thoughts of humans caught up in satanic rituals with black masses and unspeakable sacrifices. The less fearful may envision a small bound figure, helpless at the feet of Christ harrowing hell, as depicted in Orthodox icons of the Resurrection. The operatic among us may hear tunes of Gounod’s Faust or Boito’s Mephistophele, each recounting the timeless tale of the evil compromises we make in pursuit of our goals. Still others may wish they could shake so primitive a figure in our collective mythology but hesitate before the genocidal horrors that are woven through the past century. A few may clutch their crucifix a little closer, cross themselves, of seek the nearest drop of holy water at mention of the name.

Those raised on movies from 1977 onward may picture the “dark force” of the Star Wars series or the powerfully malevolent Sauron in Lord of the Rings, for these provide a clear sense of a potent and evil will bent toward destruction and dominion, working through violence and fear to achieve its ends. In almost any case, some reptilian portion of the human brain knows that life is tenuous, dreams are fragile, and there are unnamed forces we cannot control. When night falls, or winter comes, we burn fires and huddle closer for more than physical protection or comfort. We need reassurance.

Relax, my friends. This is no dissertation on demonology, nor pondering on the metaphysics of evil. Satan is not really my theme.

“Satan’s throne,” however, is a striking phrase from the Apocalypse [Revelation] of Jesus Christ to John. The phrase has stuck with me through the years, and what I believe is the key to its meaning. It is the significance of this passage that I wish to share with you here.

In the third of the seven letters to the angels of the churches, the Alpha and Omega addresses these words:

Revelation 2:12-13, 17 "And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword: "I know where you are living, where Satan's throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives.

“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”

Scholars agree that during those dangerous years of persecution John’s coded message would make sense to its recipients. We who are far removed from that context puzzle over all the rich symbolism. The language of the Apocalypse is strong and vivid, for it spoke of a violent and perilous time in the life of the earliest Christians. Depending on our temperament and taste we are likely to find it fascinating or repugnant and, upon occasion, comforting. I believe strongly that the book was written to provide comfort and encouragement in difficult days, but it not easy to recapture that message when so much codswallop has been written about it.

What did John mean by “the throne of Satan?” We can begin with what we know of ancient Pergamum and the key point is summed neatly in a resource provided by Our Father Lutheran Church in Centennial, Colorado:

Pergamum was also a center for the worship of a pantheon of pagan deities (Egyptian, Greek, Roman) and, as the provincial capital, it was the official home of the emperor worship cult, a great honor for the city and its leaders. But, twice in his letter to the church in Pergamum, John mocks the city's status as a cult center for emperor worship with the use of the phrases: "where Satan has his throne" and "where Satan lives." To John, the emperor was not a god to be worshiped, but Satan incarnate….Pergamum, as the provincial capital, was one of the few cities granted the power by Rome to inflict capital punishment. This was known as "the right of the sword." By introducing Christ as the one "who wields the sharp sword with the double edge" and as one who will fight "with the sword of (his) mouth," John was telling the Pergamum church that Christ wielded greater power than either the provincial rulers or the Roman emperors! [emphasis mine]

Five more parts to follow