Jesus Against Empire

Solidarity, Liberation, and the Poor in the time of Jesus


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I recently attended an online course at Woodbrooke entitled “Jesus Against Empire: Solidarity, Liberation, and the Poor in the time of Jesus”, delivered by Dr C. Wess Daniels, the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center & Quaker Studies at Guilford College.

And you know lately, I’ve been thinking about how I love Jesus
Because Jesus was a dirty homeless, hippie peace activist
And he said, Drop out and find God to anybody who would listen
While turning water into space bags, turning water into space bags, turning water into space bags with lowlifes and anarchists

I recently attended an online course at Woodbrooke entitled Jesus Against Empire: Solidarity, Liberation, and the Poor in the time of Jesus, delivered by Dr C. Wess Daniels, the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center & Quaker Studies at Guilford College.


Why was I interested in attending this course? I think I’ll let my post in the introductions thread explain for me:

Hi all! I’m Ben, currently living in Lancaster (UK, not PA) where I’ve been intermittently attending the local Meeting as a guest for about a year. I come from an irreligious background, but I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the historic Jesus as an anti-establishment radical since I was a teenager, hearing my favourite musician warmly describe him as a homeless hippie peace activist. That interest led me to Tolstoy and Christian anarchism (and reading the Bible cover-to-cover), which in turn eventually led me to the English Dissenters and the Quakers. I’m excited to be able to devote some proper time to study this idea that has interested me for many years now, and to hear from all of your unique perspectives…

Session 1: Jesus and the Religion of Empire Then and Now

The reading for the first week was the introductory chapter of Wes Howard Brook’s Come Out My People!: God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, in which Brook delineates his concepts of the religion of creation and the religion of empire:

There are two religions we can see arise from within the biblical text. Although this risks oversimplification, let’s call them the religion of creation and the religion of empire. That is, we can understand one of the Bible‘s religions to be grounded in the experience of and ongoing relationship with the Creator God, leading to a covenantal bond between that God and God’s people for the blessing and abundance of all people and all creation. The other, while sometimes claiming to be grounded in that same God, is actually a human invention used to justify and legitimate attitudes and behaviors that provide blessing and abundance for some at the expense of others.

Wes Howard Brook, Come Out My People!
Features of the two religions
Source: C. Wess Daniels

In the live session, we read through John 1 a handful of times and identified within it lines that we felt aligned more with either the religion of creation or the religion of empire, whether in terms of language, metaphor or underlying theology. I responded as follows:

Given those two categories, I would say John 1 fits firmly within the religion of creation box, most clearly in the Genesis-esque opening lines (i.e., god within creation) and its story of Jesus gathering his future disciples from across the region (i.e., the relationship with strangers). The Pharisees sent to question John the Baptist are presented as representatives of the religion of empire (i.e., as members of the priestly elite coming from the royal city of Jerusalem).

That all said, whatever the original intent one can nonetheless see a seed or two planted in his passage that were ripe for later co-option by the religion of empire, most notably as Nathanael declaring Jesus King of Israel (John 1:49). I usually read the KJV, but I was curious to see whether the word was rendered as specifically king in other translations, and as far as I can tell it is consistent.

One thing I particularly like about the passage, though, which I think relates to the overall course idea of Jesus as a liberatory actor (and so, necessarily, a person) is John 1:50, which I read as Jesus playfully joking with Nathaneal: you’re impressed that I saw you under a fig tree? you ain’t seen nothing yet.

We also considered the following questions:

  • What is your own experience and understanding of the word empire. In your view, does empire intersect with religion, and if so, where?
  • What did empire look like in the time of Jesus?
  • What does empire look like today?

Session 2: Jesus and Those with Their Backs Against the Wall

The readings for the second week were one of Daniels’ newsletters providing some context for Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited and chapter 1 of his book Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation, which outlined four approaches to reading the Bible with liberation, imagination, and empathy: reading off-center; tapestry; remix; and re-enactment.

In the live session, we discussed Thurman’s book and the concept of Jesus as minster to the poor. We split into groups and each analysed a different set of Biblical verses: Luke 1:26–56; Luke 2:1–24; and Luke 4:14–30. We again looked to identify the languages of creation and empire, as well as noticing what each text told us about the individuals, communities and systems in the text.

We also considered the following questions:

  • What was Jesus’ relationship to empire? What was the relationship of his family, his community, and his tradition to empire? How would that shape his life?
  • Are there things about the time he was born, where he was born, and what he believed that shaped his thinking about empire?
  • What does Jesus think about God’s relationship to empire?

Session 3: Jesus as an Organizer of the Poor

The readings for the third week were chapters 4 & 6 of Rev Dr Liz Theoharis’ Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor, plus an article by her and another newsletter from Daniels, both dealing with the topic of Christian nationalism. A course participant also shared this article.

In the live session we again read Luke 4 and the inaugural address from Jesus. We looked at the perspectives of Black theologians described by Kelly Brown Douglas in The Black Christ as the views that: Jesus was ethnically Black; Jesus was existentially Black; or that Jesus identifies individually with all people.

We also considered the following questions:

  • Who did Jesus teach, spend time with, and organize together?
  • Who did Jesus advocate for?
  • What does Jesus’ presence say about what he believed about God? Say about his relationship to empire?

Session 4: Re-Setting the Broken Body of Christ as Resistance Today

The readings for the fourth and final week were another of Daniels’ newsletters on the 5 interlocking evils behind many contemporary problems in the US and beyond (systemic racism, poverty and inequality, war economy and militarisation, ecological devastation and the distorted moral narrative of Christian nationalism), an article of his analysing the text of Luke 14 and part of the twelfth chapter from Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe on the idea of scapegoating. A course participant also shared this sermon by Rev Dr Otis Moss III.

[Jesus] did not come to change God’s mind about us. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change our minds about God—and about ourselves—and about where goodness and evil really lie.

Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ

Another course participant also shared an article from the New York Times discussing the state of American Evangelicals.

In the live session we analysed the Lord’s prayer (including an interesting deep dive into the implications of various translations) and discussed how to put what we had discussed on the course into practice in our own lives, lest the course be merely a historical curiosity.