We have no king but Caesar!
– Chief Priests, at the execution of Jesus
* This is the third installment of a blog-along through Brian Zahnd’s Beauty Will Save the World.
This was the most captivating chapter yet in Zahnd’s work as he brought us from the beauty of the crucifixion to the wonder of the incarnation to the political implications of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He compares the earthly nations and kingdoms (which he calls the “axis of power”) to the reign of God (which he calls the “axis of love”). His contrasting draws heavily on the nature of Jesus’ work in peacemaking and forgiveness, particularly during the passion narratives in the gospel accounts. Rather than using force to defend himself, Jesus dies at the hands of both the religious and the political leaders. Zahnd does not view this as acquiescence to their belief or consent to their practice, but rather a full unmasking of their ultimate powerlessness. He asserts that Roman crucifixion was designed to bring humiliation and shame, so the convicted were executed nude. Jesus, in going to the cross, allows the shame of crucifixion to be turned back onto the corrupt system that attempted to shame him. It was not a passive act; it was active defiance in a way of forgiveness and love. For Zahnd, clearly showing his Anabaptist stripes, this is the way the world changes and will be saved, not through violence but through forgiveness (the ultimate unmasking of violence).
I’ve had a strong interest in the Gospels and the kingdom of God since college when I was first exposed to the beauty of Jesus’ message by a great professor and friend. The Kingdom of God (or reign of God, or as I am preferring more these days, God’s commonwealth of shalom) is the vehicle through which God is bringing salvation into the world. The shalom-commonwealth of God breaks down all the barriers that divide, exposes the fallacies of our violence and fear, and offers a radical alternative to the ways of the principalities of the world. Caesar, as he was labeled in the Roman era, exists still in every nation. Perhaps the most earth-shattering revelation for me in college was that America itself is a form of Caesar, a kingdom of this world that sustains itself through violence and demands ultimate loyalty, and that it will pass away. In the face of such knowledge, what should be the Christian’s posture?
One of the things I look for when I enter a new worship space is whether there is an American flag in the building. Christians in America have far too often decided that their loyalties to God’s commonwealth of shalom and the nation-states of the world can be shared. Hierarchical language is used to distinguish priorities, such as “God first, America second.” Or, even more detrimental is the co-existence language, “We are citizens of two kingdoms.” And so many American Christians give no pause or question to the presence of the emblem of a contemporary Caesar in their worship space. (Imagine the early church hailing Caesar during worship!) The rhetoric of the nation’s founding that resonates into the current political environment of America being a city-on-a-hill, a beacon of hope to the world, is a co-opting of the very language Jesus used in the Gospel accounts to talk exclusively about God’s reign. Rob Hewell’s work Worship Beyond Nationalism addresses this topic in greater detail, and argues that such ambiguity is dangerous for faithful and truthful formation in the ways of Jesus.
As we consider Zahnd’s chapter on the politics of Jesus against the politics of the world, I think it is prudent to consider an important point he raises. It is not enough to believe in Jesus or to believe that Jesus is right; we must also believe what Jesus believes. The Gospel accounts give us a remarkably clear message about what Jesus believes. The reign of God is one of the major themes of the gospel accounts. Jesus believed that God’s reign was a commonwealth of shalom that existed not as a disembodied spiritual idea, or as an ally, supporter, or legitimizer of whatever nation-state happens to be ruling, but as a present reality that is breaking into this world and will, in the end of all things, be the one politic that remains. It isn’t the axis of power that will last, contrary to the “stars and stripes forever” anthems and declarations we too often herald in our theology of dual citizenship. Jesus did not and will not come as the propagation of any political entity other than God’s commonwealth. The reign of God as Jesus describes and embodies it is an ethos and community of forgiveness of enemies, generous provision even for the ungrateful, and lavish grace on the most undeserving. These are not the attributes of any Caesar. To invest our loyalty and allegiance into anything else is, quite frankly, a statement of denial to the life and ministry of Jesus.
So when I find an American flag in a worship space, it does not signal to me a community whose primary loyalty is to the reign of God that Jesus believed in, preached, and embodied. It tells me of a community of faith that is unsure whether Jesus’ reign is something that can and will last or affect real and substantive change in the world. It is a less pointed but equally ardent declaration of “we have no king but Caesar.” Because, as Jesus reminds us, we cannot serve two masters. One will always win out. For me and my family, I hope that we will have the courage to give our lives in the service of Jesus’ radical commonwealth of justice and peace that will outlast whatever new alluring guise Caesar takes.