Why Jesus’ Followers Should Never Support an Empire Like America’s — Not Even in Ukraine

Readings: LK 19:28-40; IS 50: 4-7, PS 22: 8-9, 12-20, 23=24, PHIL 2:6-11, LK 22: 14-23:58.

Can a follower of Jesus ever be pro-empire? Can genuine Christians support an empire like the United States?

If you answer “yes,” you’re in good company. That’s because ever since the 4th century, mainstream Christians have given empire hearty endorsements that Jesus could never have tolerated.

I bring that up because today’s Palm Sunday readings pinpoint not only Jesus’ anti-imperialism, but the precise moment when Christians began their fatal departure from the stance against empire that the Master evidently adopted throughout his life. (After all, he was executed by Rome as an insurgent and terrorist.)

And that departure has made it possible for us who now live in the belly of the imperial beast to naively think that representatives of empire are actually capable of telling the truth when empire’s criminal interests are involved — for example in Ukraine.

From the viewpoint of the imperialized (like Jesus and his counterparts in today’s Global South) imperialists have no idea of truth.  

This whole question is related to the process of discernment in Ukraine as puzzled over recently on OpEdNews.

Let me explain by first looking at questions asked there about the war, truth and falsehood. Then I’ll compare those queries with Jesus’ attitude towards the Roman Empire as described and eventually distorted in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke. Finally, I’ll return to the Ukraine question with some practical conclusions about truth discernment in the light of the gospel.  

Truth & Ukraine

Last week, Meryl Ann Butler published a thoughtful and soberly reasoned article headlined under the title “Russia, Ukraine, and the Elusive Truth.” Towards helping readers uncover that furtive reality, she stated indisputably that “Each one of us can’t physically go all over the globe to find out for ourselves what is actually going on.”

Given that obstacle, she wondered what is a truth seeker to do?

I think Jesus’ example in today’s liturgy of the word suggests an answer. The readings imply that at least for Christians (and leftists and progressives in general) determination of truth relative to wars fought by imperialist powers can be reached much more easily than by on-site visitation or even intense study of each case of imperial involvement in far off corners of the world.

I mean, the case of the colonized Jesus indicates that imperial intervention can NEVER be justified – and certainly not in modern terms of protecting democracy or human rights. This is because (like all victims of imperialism) Jesus must have somehow realized that by definition, empires can NEVER be genuinely interested in realities that contradict their very essence.

I mean that whatever their pretensions, all empires are essentially rapacious systems of tyranny. Again, in terms foreign to Jesus (but relevant nonetheless) they’re all definitively anti-democratic violators of human rights. So, without the strongest evidence to the contrary, interventions by empires MUST BE understood as aggressive self-extension, larcenous enrichment, and anti-democratic control.

With all of that in mind, all that’s required for progressive critical thinkers to evaluate information and disinformation coming from Ukraine is acknowledgment of the above facts coupled with recognition of the presence in Ukraine’s case of established historical patterns followed elsewhere by U.S. empire.

Yes, you might say, but isn’t Russia imperial too?

Not really. The only empire involved in Ukraine is the United States which proudly owns the designation. Russia (whose economy is smaller than Italy’s) is economically incapable of imperialism. In fact, the war in Ukraine pits a David against a huge menacing Goliath – or, as Richard Wolff has expressed it, against at least 15 Goliaths (NATO has 30 members).

Instead of imperialist aggression (like it or not) Russia is simply following the long-established malpractice of the United States by protecting its own “backyard” from imperial aggression, but this time precisely by the U.S. and its NATO clients against a country 6000 miles from U.S. borders. In other words, Russia’s interest in defending itself from an enemy at the gates is on the face of it far more credible and legitimate than the more remote interests of NATO and especially of America.

Jesus Anti-Imperialism

If all of that is true, how did Jesus become a champion of empire? Why would adherents of the Judeo-Christian tradition support U.S.. policy in Ukraine?

Today’s Palm Sunday readings provide some clues. Luke’s so-called “Passion Narratives” reveal a first century Christian community already depoliticizing their leader in order to please Roman imperialists. The stories turn Jesus against his own people as though they were foreign enemies of God.

Think about the context of today’s Palm Sunday readings.

Note that Jesus and his audiences were first and foremost anti-imperialist Jews whose lives were shaped more than anything else by the Roman occupation of their homeland. As such, they were awaiting a Davidic messiah who would liberate them from empire.

So, on this Palm Sunday, what do you think was on the minds of the crowds who Luke tells us lined the streets of Jerusalem to acclaim Jesus, the messianic construction worker? Were they shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” (Save us! Save us!) because they thought Jesus’ sacrificial death was about to open the gates of heaven closed since Adam’s sin by a petulant God? Of course not. They were shouting for Jesus to save them from the Romans.

The palm branches in their hands were (since the time of the Maccabees) the symbols of resistance to empire. Those acclaiming Jesus looked to him to play a key role in the Great Rebellion everyone knew was about to take place against the hated Roman occupiers.

And what do you suppose was on Jesus’ mind? He was probably intending to take part in the rebellion just mentioned. It had been plotted by the Jews’ Zealot insurgency. Jesus words at the “Last Supper” show his anticipation that the events planned for Jerusalem might cause God’s Kingdom to dawn that very weekend (Luke 22:18).

Clearly Jesus had his differences with the Zealots. They were nationalists; he was an internationalist open to gentiles. The Zealots were violent; Jesus probably was not.

And yet the Zealots and Jesus came together on their abhorrence of Roman presence in the Holy Land. They found common ground on the issues of debt forgiveness, non-payment of taxes to the occupiers, and land reform. Within Jesus’ inner circle there was at least one Zealot (Simon) . Indications might also implicate Peter, Judas, James, and John. And Jesus’ friends were armed when he was arrested. Whoever cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant was used to wielding a sword – perhaps as a “sicarius” (the violent wing of the Zealots who specialized in knifing Jews collaborating with the Romans).

But we’re getting ahead of our story. . . Following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus soon found himself and his disciples inside the temple participating in what we’d call a “direct action” protest. They were demonstrating against the collaborative role the temple and its priesthood were fulfilling on behalf of the Romans.

As collaborators, the temple priests were serving a foreign god (the Roman emperor) within the temple precincts. For Jesus that delegitimized the entire system. So, as John Dominic Crossan puts it, Jesus’ direct action was not so much a “cleansing” of the temple as the symbolic destruction of an institution that had completely lost its way.

It was this demonstration that represented the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution described so poignantly in today’s long gospel reading.

Following the temple demonstration, Jesus and his disciples became “wanted” men (Lk. 19:47). At first Jesus’ popularity affords him protection from the authorities (19:47-48). The people constantly surround him eager to hear his words denouncing their treasonous “leaders” (20:9-19), about the issue of Roman taxation (20:20-25), the destruction of the temple (21:1-6), the coming war (21:20-24) and the imminence of God’s Kingdom (21:29-33).

Eventually however, Jesus has to go underground. On Passover eve he sends out Peter and John to arrange for a safe house to celebrate the feast I mentioned earlier. The two disciples are to locate the “upper room.” They do so by exchanging a set of secret signs and passwords with a local comrade (Matthew 21:2).

Then comes Jesus’ arrest. Judas has betrayed Jesus to collect the reward on Jesus’ head – 30 pieces of silver. The arrest is followed by a series of “trials” before the Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin), before Pilate and Herod. Eventually, Jesus is brought back to Pilate. There he’s tortured, condemned and executed along with other insurgents.

Note that Luke presents Pilate in way completely at odds with what we know of the procurator as described for example by the Jewish historian Josephus. After the presentation of clear-cut evidence that the Nazarene rabbi was “stirring up the people,” and despite Jesus’ own admission to crimes against the state (claiming to be a rival king), Pilate insists three times that the carpenter is innocent of capital crime.

Such tolerance of rebellion contradicts Crossan’s insistence that Pilate had standing orders to execute anyone associated with lower class rebellion during the extremely volatile Passover festivities. In other words, there would have been no drawn-out trial.

Conclusion

What’s going on here relative to our questions about empire and Ukraine? Two things.

First of all, like everyone else, Luke knew that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans. That was an inconvenient truth for his audience which around the year 85 CE (when Luke wrote) was desperately trying to reconcile with the Roman Empire which lumped the emerging Christian community with the Jews whom the Romans despised.

Luke’s account represents an attempt to create distance between Christians and Jews. So, he makes up an account that exonerates Pilate (and the Romans) from guilt for Jesus’ execution. Simultaneously, he lays the burden of blame for Jesus’ execution at the doorstep of Jewish authorities.

In this way, Luke made overtures of friendship towards Rome. He wasn’t worried about the Jews, since by the year 70 the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and its temple along with more than a million of its inhabitants. After 70 Jewish Christians no longer represented the important factor they once were. Their leadership had been decapitated with the destruction of Jerusalem.

Relatedly, Jesus’ crucifixion would have meant that Rome perceived him as a rebel against the Empire. Luke is anxious to make the case that such perception was false. Rome had nothing to fear from Christians.

I’m suggesting that such assurance was unfaithful to the Jesus of history. It domesticated the rebel who shines through even in Luke’s account when it is viewed contextually.

And so what?

Well, if you wonder why Christians can so easily succumb to empires (Roman, British, Nazi, U.S.) you’ve got your answer. It all starts here – in the gospels themselves – with the great cover-up of the insurgent Jesus.

And if you wonder where the West’s and Ukrainian Nazis’ comfort with xenophobia in general and anti-Semitism in particular come from, you have that answer as well.

The point here is that only by recovering the obscured rebel Jesus can Christians avoid the mistake Germans made 80 years ago and Ukrainian Nazis are making today. Then (and now in Ukraine) instead of singing “Hosanna” to Jesus, they shout(ed) “Heil Hitler!” to imperialist torturers, xenophobes, and hypocrites found so plenteously in “neo” form within the Ukraine government and military.

The readings for Palm Sunday present us with a cautionary tale about these sad realities.

As for the search for truth, my practical conclusion here is that the reason for imperial interest in a far distant country like Ukraine can be determined by what I call “historical pattern analysis,”

I mean, the well-established U.S. pattern of imperial aggression involving oil-rich nations strongly suggests that the operative reason for United States interest in Ukraine is not only connected with threatening and controlling NATO’s prime enemy (its very raison d’etre), but with capturing Russian oil and liquid natural gas markets – along with astronomical profits benefitting the military industrial complex – not to mention rehabilitating the status of a president with precipitously plunging poll numbers.

Statements by U.S. spokespersons contradicting the above are at best highly questionable and at worst outright lies.

They also contradict the experience and example of Jesus.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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